“Do you want to go to a metal show? I have an extra ticket” my friend Joe Cruz asked. It was February 2017, years since my last metal show, a genre that had influenced my life since middle school. I said yes. What’s memorable about the show wasn’t the band itself – it took me 15 minutes to reverse engineer who I saw and when – but the necessary pre-show beers that were consumed and plans that were hatched.
Joe and I sat in the candle lit basement of the late, great East Village staple Jimmy’s No. 43 chatting about everything from music to relationships to bikes. Both of us had met years before through a local cycle club where we both helped lead weekend rides for experienced and inexperienced riders alike. Only later did we discover our mutual musical interests. By beer two (or three or four), I did what I usually do when I get to having beers and passionately talking about my interests, I asked Joe if I could join his next bike packing epic. I was going into my fourth season of road racing and coming off a full season of ‘cross – also agreed to over beers - and was looking to do something different on the bike.
“Sure!” he replied. “Where do you want to go? What’s on your list?”
Joe has done it all over the last three decades. From a six-month ride from the north of South America to the south to Tibet to Nepal to Egypt to Syria to Kyrgyzstan. If you’ve never seen it, check out his spectacular bike packing blog to get an idea of types of the trips he takes. I can be very particular about who ride with and the list is relatively small outside of my team, To Be Determined, and Joe sits on the top of that list. Given the staggering number of places he’s been, I thought it would be difficult for me to come up with a place that I wanted to visit by bike and that he’s never been to. It was very simple.
I blurted out “Japan?” after a total of 30 seconds of thought. “Never been, it’s on the top of my list, let’s do it” he replied.
The next day we had agreed to an outline, and I had an email off to our mutual friend Shuntaro Takeuchi a Tokyo native and old riding buddy of ours.
Japan has had a large impact on my life. From Nintendo to my first Walkman (and then Discman) to my family’s two cars growing up, we have been mass consumers of Japanese entertainment, innovation, and goods for decades. Even some of my favorite shows on Nickelodeon as a child in the 1980s and early 90s were Japanese shows dubbed into English. This ever-present interest led me to study Japanese while attending university, ultimately exposing me to the language, medieval and modern Japanese literature and poetry, and her fascinating history. One of Japan’s rich literary traditions is the haibun or the marriage of poetry and prose most often taking the form of a travel journal. One of the most famous works of haibun is Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi, which chronicles the haiku master’s arduous journey late in life to the north of the Japan. It’s partially with Bashō in mind, why seeing Japan using the power of my two legs accompanied by close friends was so appealing.
Logistics are Hard
The easy part is picking the destination. The hard part is everything else. I offered a spot in our small party to my friend Bryan Banducci who is always down for an adventure, and he came back with an unequivocal yes about as fast as it took me to send the inquiry. He invited his friend Parker Feierbach, also a photographer, and our little band of four was set. Joe undertook the route, a painstaking kilometer by kilometer review of the least grueling path from Tokyo to a yet-to-be-determined destination. He regularly reached out for input – do we end in Fukuoka, Hiroshima, or somewhere else? Do we ride out of Tokyo or take an early morning train to Mt. Fuji and start from there? Do we spend a day resting and playing tourist in Kyoto and lose a day in Tokyo? Do we skip Osaka in order to do a more fun variation of the route? Which days do we camp and which days do we look for traditional onsens (hot spring inns) or ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) to stay in? Are multiple 80-100 mile days with insane amounts of climbing back to back to back too much?
The result was a 900-mile route from Mt. Fuji to Hiroshima via a day in Kyoto including several ferry rides to cut down on mileage, and as many dirt and gravel forest roads we could handle across the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. The answer to our last question was yes. We ended up setting an average daily workload of 60 miles with around 6,000 feet of climbing spread across 14 days (13 riding days and one day of rest) six of which would be indoors with the remaining eight being under the stars. It’s important to note that roughly 80% of Japan consists of mountainous terrain so finding a day with no fewer than one to two mountain summits is near impossible. In short, this route is nothing to sneeze at on fully loaded touring bikes.
Preparing gear and packing was the last hurdle. This was particularly hard for me as I hadn’t done a trip of this magnitude before. Throughout our journey, I kept detailed notes on what I should have brought, what I should not have brought, and more practical options for certain items I took (ex: synthetic materials do not smell or work well when being worn multiple days in a row without a wash – bring merino wool based socks, t-shirts, underwear, tights, etc.). In the end I brought:
• Cyclocross bike set up with 700x40c Kenda Happy Medium Tires
• Revelate Designs Sweetroll, waterproof handle bar bag for camping gear
• Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag for bike kit, clothing and miscellaneous items
• Revelate Designs Tangle frame bag for tools, spares, and food
• 1x Garneau Course Helmet
• 1x Garneau Granite II MTB shoes
• 1x sunglasses
• 3x socks
• 2x cycling kit
• 1x arm warmers
• 1x knee warmers
• 1x wind vest
• 1x rain jacket
• 1x gloves
• 1x packable down jacket
• 1x waterproof camping pants
• 2x t-shirts
• 2x underwear
• 1x cheap, light, and packable, shoes
• 4x tubes
• 1x tire lever
• 1x hand pump
• 1x chain breaker
• 2x sets of brake pads
• 1x ultralight tent w/ rainfly
• 1x inflatable pad
• 1x inflatable pillow
• 1x sleeping bag liner
• 1x camping quilt
• 1x Garmin 520
• 1x Amazon Kindle
• 1x charging brick
• 1x plug w/ 2 USB ports
• 2x charging cables (USB and iPhone)
• 1x passport
• 2x notebooks
• 1x pen
• 1x dry bag for electronic and critical items
• 1x musette bag
• 1x toiletry bag
All of this gear went into their respective bike bags, and then into my Pika Packworks soft bike bag along with my disassembled bike. Everything was tucked in together for the 20 hour journey to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport via Beijing.
36 hours in Tokyo
Tokyo is very big and very quiet. Imagine if you took New York, doubled the square mileage, added five million to the population all while making it cleaner and taking away the noise pollution. That’s Tokyo. I’m oversimplifying, but it was interesting to see how much of a contrast it struck to New York.
The trip to Haneda was long, but uneventful, and our first evening was filled with a surreal waking tired feeling, which followed us through the bike assembly process and search for our first meal in Japan. Luckily, aside from Parker who had a seemingly few minor issues with his drivetrain and front wheel, both tasks went off without a hitch. Bed was early as Joe and I theoretically hadn’t slept in 36 hours.
My eyes opened to soft street noise and light coming through the window of the second tatami mat bedroom in the Airbnb we were renting in Shibuya. Our alarms were set for 5:30 and hadn’t gone off. Why? Surely it must be past 5:30. It wasn’t. I learned that the sun rises around 4:30 am. The soft light indicated it was actually 4am. I’m a light sleeper so between the light and the jet lag, I was up whether I liked it or not. This became a recurring theme for me during the trip.
Shuntaro happened to be in Tokyo for work, and agreed to give us a personal bike tour of the city hitting many of the “must see” sites. The weather was beautiful, and it felt good to stretch the legs and make sure the bikes actually worked - I was very pleased mine did not collapse into a pile of parts after the 7,000 mile journey from New York. We pedaled around the city, passing through busy, but quiet streets while being ushered through crossings and construction zones by uniformed, white gloved Japanese men. Shibuya crossing, Tokyo Imperial Palace, National Diet (that’s dee-et) Building, were among the locations we were able to take in in rapid succession. However, the real highlight was an amazing bakery called No. 4 located in the politically important Chiyoda neighborhood. It stood a stark contrast to political operatives in dark suits. Children played around tables outside while the friendly staff served freshly baked bread, pastries, and western breakfast plates such as avocado toast to the overflowing patronage. This was the second of two good meals we had in our mere 24 stay in Japan. We were eager for more.
We parted ways and proceeded with making preparations for our first day of riding, a 70 mile, 8,000 foot day starting with the three hour summit of Mt. Fuji (a/k/a Fujisan). Last minute bike shop runs, a trip to 7-Eleven for on the bike nutrition consisting mostly of cakes, pastries, and onigiri - this would become a recurring theme - and a camping supply run kept us busy for the rest of the day.
Now we legitimately had a 4:30 wake up if we were going to make the first commuter train to Fujisan Station.
Day 1 - Fujisan to Minami-Alps
Fujisan, which is how the Japanese refer to Mt. Fuji, is located on the main island of Honshu, and stands as the tallest mountain in Japan and 7th-highest peak of an island in the world. It’s the most famous of the Three Holy Mountains and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Based on these facts, Fujisan made the perfect starting point for our 900 mile journey.
As the small, wood interiored passenger train trundled towards Fujisan Station, it’s snowcapped namesake loomed ever larger in front of us. Tourists from countries such as Norway and the Philippines crowded aboard, maps and pamphlets in hand, eager for the bus ride to the auto access summit or for the epic multi-station hike to the actual peak. The four of us sat there filled with excitement and apprehension. This was the first time I thought “what an interesting trip for someone who hates climbing and only races crits.” I thought this maybe a hundred more times before we arrived in Hiroshima
Into the station the train pulled. The whistle blew, and only a few disembarked including our small party struggling with rinko bagged bikes. With bikes re-assembled for what seemed like the tenth time in two days, we rolled to another 7-Eleven for more supplies - canned Suntory Boss coffee, the newly discovered packaged pancakes complete with maple syrup and butter filling, custard buns, onigiri, Pocari Sweat, and Snickers. We passed on the hot dog buns filled with noodles. Once fed and re-caffeinated, we proceeded out of the parking lot and began climbing. First we climbed on leafy tree lined streets with standard town car traffic, then we climbed onto a more thinly canopied access road, then the access road narrowed and the cars slowly disappeared. We climbed through tree cover, to more barren landscapes, to a gate. We climbed over the gate despite the warnings of hikers. The only path was up. We continued on for what seemed like an eternity until we hit the end of the developed road and proceeded on to an unpaved construction road covered with dirt and volcanic ash. Up the road we went. The trees were gone now, unbelievable vistas exposed. We could see small towns dotting the valley and thick forest below. It was something out of a dream as the sky was clear and the air perfect. Three hours we climbed from the 7-Eleven to the vehicle summit of Fujisan. It was around 4,500 feet in total over a pleasant sloping gradient, and other than a steeper pitch about two miles from the summit, it was one of the most lovely climbs I’d ever done. We had taken one of the roads less traveled up to the visitor’s center as there is a main paved road with heavy bus and car traffic that most cyclists typically take. We planned this trip with the unordinary in mind, and this was a practical first step.
It was now afternoon, and over 60 more miles of pedaling lay before us. We quickly crushed our newest discovery, Peach Coke, and headed back down the way we came. It was now a race against daylight, which we promptly lost. Nearly seven hours, and one episode of getting lost in the woods later, we came upon our first camp location in the city of Minami-Alps, aptly named and nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant where we spent hours getting drunk off Asahi and Shōchū with our new found friends at the table next to us kept pouring, but I do remember riding to Midaiminami Park where we pitched camp around midnight in a remote corner hoping for a peaceful night without being asked to leave.
Day 2 - Minami-Alps to Wakahara Falls
I was awoken by what I would define as the Morning Dove, or lawn mower bird of Japan. The sound was grating. Wherever we camped, this bird was there. following us like a spectre making sure we were always up by 5 am so we could start the day’s journey. Once awake, I was surprised to see that the local Midaiminami Park exercise enthusiasts cared not that we had set up tents in their park. Joggers, hikers, and dog walkers passed by with a smile and a friendly greeting of “Ohayou Gozaimasu!” We were told before and even during the trip that wild camping and park camping wasn’t a thing in Japan, but these people seemed to disagree. Maybe there was hope yet for peaceful nights under the stars.
Day 2 held for us some beautiful gravel climbs through the Southern Alps. Unfortunately to start these climbs we had to ride on a narrow shouldered highway where traffic was ever present. The reward though was a climb even more beautiful than that of Fujisan. The forest was thick as if untouched by civilization and the sounds of nature everywhere. We were greeted about a half mile up by a shimmering waterfall with a large Japanese sign, which I could only imagine said “Welcome! You will enjoy a beautiful hour long climb after this point!” What goes up must come down and we white knuckled the gravel bomb down the other side coming to rest in front of a Swiss themed Southern Alps visitor’s center and restaurant.
It is here where we met one of the most memorable people of our trip. Her name was Humi, a young woman of about college age who worked the counter of the restaurant. She took an immediate fascination to us, four westerners riding camping gear-laden bikes through her tiny corner of the universe. She went to great lengths to make sure we understood what was on the menu. What she couldn’t say in English, she drew on a pad of paper. Mushrooms, beef, chicken, she so skillfully drew these items that we immediately understood - art as a universal communication tool. While we waited for our food, Humi told us that she grew up in Kobe, but moved out of the city and into this small mountain town so she could see the stars. She made a good choice as the sky in the Southern Alps shone beautifully.
With our bellies full, packs resupplied, and a bit tipsy from yet more Asahi beer, we prepared to set off. Saying sayonara to someone like Humi was difficult. She was genuinely sad to see us leave, and even jumped up and down and squealed when Bryan said we’d be back. Her final act was running after us to give me my phone, which I had left on the table. I write about Humi as she is one of those people you meet that you will never forget. Joe, Bryan, Parker, and I were made better by meeting her.
Onwards we went up more climbs and down beautiful European style switchback descents. Afternoon turned to dusk and dusk to night. We pulled the plug around seven miles from Wakahara Falls where we planned to camp as the road became nearly too dark to ride, and the air too damp and cold. We picked a patch of gravel and grass next to the road, pitched camp, and made a fire to warm our wet and shivering bodies. The moon shone bright on the side of the mountain as we spoke of Humi, the amazing climbs and descents, and what lay ahead.
Day 3 - Wakahara Falls to Fukinomori
We awoke to yet more lawn mower birds. Joe and I quickly broke camp and set off while Bryan and Parker made coffee and noodles. They were the fast riders of the trip so Joe and I preferred to get a head start at our mutually agreed on slower pace. We searched and searched and searched, but never did find Wakahara Falls. More short forest road climbs and descents until we rolled down into Iida City and to a local grocery store. This was our breakfast and supply for the day, and we were an instant curiosity to the Fresh Market staff. This curiosity turned to friendship, which culminated with the gift of a bag of Asian oranges meant to ward off illness, and a picture we took with the employees, complete with the iconic Japanese peace sign because that’s a picture “in the Japanese way” they said.
While at the market the gray sky we had been riding with gave way to drizzle and then to light rain. We hurried on to our first and only real climb of the day - a long, scenic forest road winding us along a mountain ridge and to the onsen. Throughout the trip my companions and I discussed which climbs were our favorite. I fondly remember four of them including this one, which probably stands as the most zen for me. No cars, gentle rain, cool temperatures, beautiful rainforest, and the promise of a hot bath, our first in days, sealed it for me. It was also comparatively short, which for a non-climber such as myself, was welcomed after the previous days’ voluminous elevation profiles.
We descended a little ways onto a main road and saw a wood shop and showroom across the street. It was 2 pm, we were done with the day’s riding, and our check-in time for the onsen wasn’t until 3 so we went in. Kiijiya Yamato Rokuro Woodworks makes high end custom bowls, plates, and other household items, and the showroom is run by the most lovely woman named Toshiko. Toshiko wasted no time in ushering us into a side room where she sat us by a wood stove and served us Japanese green tea and snacks. Her English was good, and we told her of our journey and she gave us a tour of the showroom and house. With our bodies warmed and our check-in time fast approaching, we bid Toshiko a fond farewell.
Fukinomori or Forest Hotel Fuki is something out of a picture book. It sits in a valley nestled among trees with outdoor and indoor pools. The rooms are of the traditional ryoken style as is the restaurant. We stayed in a large room with just closet space, tatami mats, and a sink. This is all we needed after three days on the road. We laid out our gear to dry, and dressed ourselves in yukatas (a type of kimono), and made our way to take onsen. All of this after we found and heavily used an Asahi tall boy vending machine. Yes, Japan has beer vending machines including on the streets of larger cities. We never saw any stigma around public drinking.
Japan’s natural hot springs are said to contain minerals with healing properties, and between my increasingly severe sunburn, budding knee pain, and aching back, I was in need of all the healing minerals I could get. We left the yukatas in the changing room and showered at a wood-stooled seated shower station located next to the indoor pool. The combination of soap, shampoo, and hot spring water was magic. We moved from the indoor pool to the outdoor pool where we sat among the trees while a cold gentle rain fell. It was the personification of peace. I never wanted to leave.
A traditional bento dinner followed with sushi, noodles, and other Japanese fare along with sake and more beer. Sleep soon followed after an aborted attempt at taking another onsen - our bodies needed rest.
Day 4 - Fukinomori to Gifu
The ride to Gifu, our first major city since Tokyo, was marked by rolling hills among fjords painted in the colors of Norway. We pedaled until our route took us to large gate next to a hydroelectric plant. The road was closed and our efforts to translate signs failed. After speaking with a nearby maintenance crew we still had no clarity as to what lay after the gate and what to do. Do we proceed on per our planned route? Do we backtrack and climb up and around? If we pass the gate do we ride one mile? 10 miles? Is the road washed out at some point? Is there a military base? Will the Japanese Defense Forces arrest us? We had many questions, but only one clear answer - press on. We teamed up and managed to lift the bikes over the gate, which was no small feet considering Parker and I had to hoist Bryan’s 70 pound beast up and over. Thankfully we weren’t crushed in the process.
It was soon clear this perceived damn maintenance road hadn’t been used or maintained in at least a year. We rode along the river as the rock covered pavement turned to leaf and rock covered pavement and then to mud and leaf and rock covered trail. It was now clear that this route hadn’t been used in excess of a decade, and we were likely the first humans to pass through in as many years. Aged warnings and street signs provided an erie glimpse into what post-apocalyptic Japan might look like. A wild boar ran alongside me and a giant snake crossed in front. We pedaled for miles crossing back and forth over the river using small bridges, hoping that this was the right way and that the road continued to exist up until our connection to Gifu. After a brief delay for a flat Parker suffered (little did we know this was the beginning of a host of wheel and flat issues) we made our way out. The road ended up being at least 10 miles long, and had well turned into a forest trail around mile three.
The ride into Gifu was forgettable. A highway congested by rush hour took us past endless strip malls, and eventually to the outskirts where we had a decent meal at a somewhat seedy local establishment. We needed a place to camp. We came upon a soccer field next to a major road. Why not camp there? We did.
Day 5 - Gifu to Kyoto
I awoke to a fairly wet tent and blanket. The dew was so thick on the soccer field it was as if it rained overnight.
Leaving Gifu reminded me of riding out of Phoenix. Main roads lined with strip malls and stores lasted for miles as we moved closer to the next mountain range. The haze was heavy as we made our way forward. Parker’s wheel and flat issues worsened upon the realization that his front rim was dented on both sides in two different areas - he needed a bike shop. We stumbled upon a tiny shop near the Gifu outskirts, and the owner helped us sort out some of the minor bike issues we had and gifted Parker a spoke wrench. A beautiful Keirin frame sat on display in the shop and the owner told us it was his friend’s, a major Keirin racer out of Gifu.
Our ride to Kyoto was long, but comparatively flat. Before reaching the southern edge of Lake Biwa, which we would follow until our last climb before Kyoto, we rode through the small town of Sekigahara. “Do you guys know where we are?!” I exclaimed. We were in the town where 418 years prior, the Battle of Sekigahara was fought. The Battle of Sekigahara is widely viewed as the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last to control Japan before modernization. During the battle Tokugawa Ieyasu led an army against a numerically superior force helmed by Ishida Mitsunari and emerged victorious.
If you’re ever in Hikone, stop by Void a Part, a small coffee house geared towards the artistic community and located next to Lake Biwa. Part eclectic used bookstore, part camera museum, part coffee house we sat in comfortable chairs and drank single origin cold brew. A welcome oasis after riding for hours in the beating sun once we left Sekigahara.
Soon Lake Biwa was behind us and we were in Otsu coming up to the last ridge crossing before dropping down into the valley where Kyoto sleeps. After a short punchy climb up Mt. Hiei, our only real climb on the day, we screamed straight down the other side and right into Kyoto.
By now our gear was ripe. We had another airing out session in the ryoken. Riding gear was hand washed in the sink, and camping gear was laid out over the bamboo fences in the courtyard. After a dinner of brothless noodles we were asleep. Ready for our first and only rest day in Kyoto
Day 6 - Rest Day in Kyoto
We toured the former imperial capital of Japan with Joshua, an American expat and architect turned bike tour owner. If you’re ever in the area, and want to see Kyoto and the surrounding area by bike, check out his company Noru Kyoto. Joshua was gracious enough to spend his day off showing us some of the more traditional attractions in Kyoto as well as others that were off the beaten path.
The tour done, we were eager to not be riding bikes. Parker needed his front wheel replaced, which he took care of, and I was convinced to seek out the nearest Bic Camera to buy a Ricoh GR II (newsflash, they aren’t cheaper in Japan and I did not impulse buy one). We bought some beer at a nearby vending machine, and watched the sunset on the banks of the Kamo River. A dinner of Japanese curry at what seemed like a small one room apartment followed with the now customary second dinner at Family Mart.
Day 7 - Kyoto to Gojo
We met Joshua and a few of his expat riding buddies at the entrance to Fushimi Inari-taisha. Fushimi Inari, famous for the orange gates that extend two and a half miles up the mountain, is devoted to the kami, Inari, the patron of rice and business in Shintoism.
After a quick tour, breakfast, and re-supply at 7-Eleven we were on our way. We made a short visit to Nara, and stopped by the famous wild deer park where we observed Japanese deer behaving in the opposite fashion to that of their North American cousins. They were aggressive, unphased by people, and eager to eat the biscuits you could buy for several yen at a stand out of your hand. After Nara we parted ways with our new found riding friends, and we were back to a foursome climbing solitary mountain roads.
I probably fared the best out of the group as things seemed to go wrong for everyone. Bryan had flats, Parker’s disc brake holder was mangled during the new front wheel install and was creating all sorts of friction and rubbing issues, Joe’s seasonal allergies turned into a full blown sinus infection (he never complained once even though it plagued him the whole trip), and then Bryan suffered an allergic reaction that left his face puffy and red and hives all over his body. To add insult to injury, we ended up having to climb our steepest pitch yet in a park that winded up towards an orchard. It was a brutal double digit gradient that seemed to last forever. On heavily weighted bikes our legs screamed as we weaved from side to side, the only option being up. The sun was scorching and the path devoid of shade. We soon descended into a little tea shop where we stopped for tea, water, and snacks. It was a nice boost to morale on a day where we were all suffering in our own small ways.
We rode up and down countless more mountains until we were close to our wild camp end point. The sun had set and we were alone on the side of a mountain searching for a clearing and/or flat ground, headlamps alight. Ever the personification of Lewis & Clark, Parker found a flat spot up a stupid steep gravel climb. The climb was so steep we had to push our bikes up it. The top did not disappoint. A nearly full moon cast light over an abandoned house in the midst of a bamboo grove. This was perfect. As we set up camp and made noodles, a lone monkey screamed at us from the grove. We wondered if it was a mating call, if he was angered at the intrusion of humans, or if he was just being a jerk. The cry grew more and more distant as we ate our noodles and rested our heads until there was only silence.
Day 8 - Abandoned House Camp to Tokushima
I classify Day 8 as one of the hardest for me as well as the day with perhaps one of the best endings.
We didn’t know when our next resupply was, which comes with the territory. I had just enough food for a small breakfast and small snack before we hopefully hit a convenient store. Part way on we had to bushwack through an unknown forest hoping the hike to the road wasn’t for miles. Up the side of a cliff so steep I could barely climb up it with my bike, through an orchard, and back onto the road, I was suffering. Bryan crashed hard on a descent shortly thereafter, and I forgot about the hunger and felt only thankfulness that he was okay. For perspective, if he had hit the guardrail a few feet to the left he would have plunged of the side of a mountain to his likely death. A woman took pity on us after she drove past on one of our endless ascents. As we descended back down getting ready to go back up again, she flagged us down in front of her house holding a bag of cold Pocari Sweat. We gladly accepted the offering.
Twenty eight miles and 5,000 feet later I was approaching a dire bonk situation. One of those bonks that you never forget. Unlike a friend and teammate of mine who once laid down on a bench in the middle of a training ride and waited for the bus to take him back to the city, I had no such option. We were in remote mountains. Then, like magic, we were in Koyasan and surrounded by American tourists. We picked the first restaurant we saw, and came in hot. We looked and smelled terrible, but we didn’t care. We ordered one of everything on the menu then went to Lawson’s (or was it Family Mart?) for second lunch and our first and only resupply before our destination, the Wakayama Ferry Station. Parker crashed heavily on the descent coming out of Koyasan. His hand was opened up and he had respectable road rash down one side of his body. There was nothing he could do until Wakayama other than grit his teeth and pedal on.
Wakayama welcomed us at dusk. We changed in the ferry terminal and ordered beers and ramen in the adjoining restaurant. Truck drivers sat around us puffing on cigarettes. The two hour ferry ride was pleasant and we drank more beer, ate ice cream, and then eventually passed out. After disembarking we rode for 20 or 30 minutes, including up yet another climb until we came to the Pacific Ocean. We set up camp and fell asleep with only the sound of gently crashing waves in our ears.
Day 9 - Tokushima to Shikibidani
“Chris, we gotta go” Joe said through my tent. It was 4 am and the sun was just rising over the Pacific. A security officer had come down and asked us to leave shortly before. Parker tried to plead our case, but we technically shouldn’t have been there. “I suppose some people do care about wild camping in Japan” I thought.
Another day, another singular job of pedaling our bikes from point A to point B. We were approaching a leg of the journey we had been joking would be our grave since before we set off. Tsurugi Super Forest Road is legendary. The route called for 70 miles, 12 thousand feet up, and 15 thousand feet down, all on the gnarliest of gravel. This day was unique, we would be making a supply run that would need to last us three days as we had no known re-supply spots from Tokushima to Tsurugi and then after. Luckily there was our mecca nearby, Lawsons or Family Mart or 7-Eleven. It didn’t matter. We lived off of convenient store food for most of the trip. Every available nook and cranny in my bags had food crammed in, all of my jersey pockets were full, and I still felt like I wouldn’t have enough food to survive 24 hours of on the bike pedaling before our next conceivable store. Thankfully I was only sort of wrong.
We made our way to the Super Forest Road “base camp” and found a small store. I bought more food. Up we went. The climb was unreal. I said I’d never forget four climbs on the trip, and this was number three on that list. We climbed above the clouds into freezing temperatures, strong wind, rain, and fog so thick you couldn’t see more than a foot in front of you. Needless to say, descending was utterly terrifying. This trend continued - up above the clouds, down below them, and up again. Eventually the pavement ended and the forest road began. It was more jagged rocks than gravel. Every inch that passed I prayed the small gray knives wouldn’t slice my tire. Parker flatted, then Bryan flatted, then Parker flatted, and then I flatted. Within a span of two miles our remaining tube supply had been exhausted. Priority one was making it to the onsen. Once there we could figure out what to do about our tube situation and the rest of Tsurugi whose jaws we were staring into.
We limped our way to Shikibidani Spa onsen praying for no more flats, and the bike gods answered our prayers. Beer, whisky, baths, and a dinner where every dish was deer-based followed. I won’t go into the details, but after much spirited debate, Google Translate, and a bike mechanic’s late night car ride from Tokushima to the onsen, we had tubes.
Day 10 - Shikibidani to Tsurugisan
The floor was shaking. The building was shaking. No lawn mower birds, but a small earthquake awakened us. Rain fell heavily outside of our room’s window. We had tubes, but how the heck were we supposed to do the Super Mountain Forest Road in this weather? Would it even be passable? More spirited debate. As much as we wanted to make our graves the Super Mountain Forest Road, it wasn’t to be.
Parker borrowed the hotel’s computer and re-routed us around the road and towards our next destination. Make no mistake, the re-route was not easy. It was short, only 32 miles, but you had to go straight up. We were heading towards the base of Tsurugisan, another revered mountain. Skip the forest road and climb straight to the mountain in the pouring rain. So we did, and it boy was it climb-ey. More gnarly fog and ascending and descending. It was getting dark and we were at the top of the Tsurugisan base. It took us 7,000 feet of climbing just to get to the base, and luckily we were going straight down rather than continuing up. Towards the top we stopped in an unused car tunnel to hide from the rain and joked about a restaurant and bar being just around the corner. Let it be known that Japan does not disappoint. There was a flipping restaurant exactly around the corner. It was open, it had beer, it had noodles, it had a wood stove fire going, it was perfect. Before getting drinking too much, Bryan and I reconned the area. It was clearly a tourist and hiker destination, but seemed to be the off season given the rainy months were partially upon us. There were small houses and huts everywhere, each one shuttered. We climbed our way up 100 steps to large twin Buddhist and Shinto shrines built to honor Tsurugisan. To the right of the Shinto shrine lay a guest house most likely for hikers. Bryan and I looked at each other and needn't have said a word. We were sleeping there.
Once we knew we didn’t need to do the death descent that awaited us in the dark, we got imbibed. Once it was fully dark, we quietly headed up the steps, lugging our bikes up all 100. At the top there was now a house with a light on. Out of respect we inquired about the guest house. The response was $50 per person for the night. After some wrangling, the man who owned the house let us sleep in the shrine’s adjoining tatami room. He, after all, was the head priest and caretaker so he took pity on the pathetic picture we painted for him.
Day 11 - Tsurugisan to Takamatsu
We awoke to a gong and the sound of chanting and prayer. That was our cue to leave. It was still raining as we made our way down from Tsurugisan, a long 25 mile descent towards the port city of Takamatsu. Best we did that one while sober and in daylight. About 10 miles down Bryan was accosted by wild dogs. The dogs sent him tumbling into the gutter and then into a retention wall. He was scraped and bruised, and his front rack was mangled, but we managed to field dress both him and the rack, and were on our way again.
We ate curry for lunch and waited out two periods of torrential rain, only moving on when it let up. We made good time and reached Takamatsu by late afternoon. The plan was take the ferry to Naoshima in the morning. Armed with the prospect of camping on Naoshima, the world famous modern art island, we inquired about taking the last ferry over. Having missed it, we had no choice but to take photos of the gorgeous sunset over the Harima-nada Sea. Takamatsu is a port city home to almost half a million, and reminded me very much of San Francisco. We picked a good place to find dinner, and went the the sushi route as we - more like I - was growing tired of noodles and convenience store food.
We ate and then discovered there was an actual campground in the city. Conveniently omitted was the fact that the campground was miles away and at the top of a two and a half mile climb in the middle of Takamatsu Mineyama Park. I was not pleased. Exhausted from the climb I opted to skip a visit to the overlook, crowded with amorous teenagers, and went straight to bed.
Day 12 - Takamatsu to Onomichi
There were a few highlights as we made our way to Onomichi, but the riding was not one of them. It was flat, industrial, heavily trafficked, and one of the more utilitarian days. We hammered our way over 63 miles of slightly rolling terrain making it easily our fastest day on the bike. However, I do have much to say about the beginning and end points of our trip - Naoshima, an island full of modern art museums and outdoor installations, and Onomichi, a seemingly up and coming city that is going through what appears to be a revitalization with young people coming back after years in larger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
We started the day with a beautiful 45 minute ferry ride to the small island of Naoshima located in the Seto Inland Sea. Formerly just a small fishing community, it’s now a bustling mecca of modern art. We spent the better part of the morning wandering the private and public beaches of the island, taking in the outdoor sculpture installations including the famous pumpkin statue by Yayoi Kusama. We visited the Lee Ufan museum known for it’s beautiful architecture designed by Tadao Ando (who designed many of the museums on the island). I definitely recommend making a side trip to Naoshima if visiting Japan. You can learn more about it here.
Sadly, we could only make a brief visit to the island as we had a full day on the bike, and morning was melting into afternoon. We took a short ferry journey north and landed in Uno. Our destination was Onomichi known for being the starting point as one of the most beautiful cycle routes in the world, the Shimanami Kaido, which we’d be tackling the next day. I fell in love with Onomichi. If Tokushima reminded me of San Francisco then Onomichi reminded me of Portland, Oregon. Dense city rose on either side of the narrow portion of the inland sea with temples dotting some of the highest peaks. Our lodging for the night was a non-profit restored and run guest house called Miharashi-Tei Guest House. Joe found this gem of a place after trying to book a room at the cycling themed hotel, onomichi u2, which was full. In hindsight I’d much prefer our inn if given the choice.
Miharashi-Tei sits atop 360 steps and next to Senkoji Park home to several Buddhist and Shinto shrines. The cafe of the guest house, which has all of the beer, artisanal coffee, and pastries one could ask for, overlooks the entirety of Onomichi. The view is absolutely stunning. In order to enjoy this view, we had to carry 50 pound bikes up 360 stairs. Ten minutes and 15 breaks later, we were at the top. Our first order of business was introducing our poor roommates to our smelly kit (the four of us stayed in a nine person guest room). The second was showering and finding food. Through happenstance we ended up at the only restaurant in the area that was still open.
We sat on a stoop across the street from Ramen Matatabi waiting for the revelers to depart so we could get a seat in the small nine person shop. A little girl was running around, beaming smile on her face, playing with what could have been the reincarnation of John Lennon. A drunk man lay on the steps of a house adjacent to the little shop, moaning and vomiting off the side. The little girl took great joy in pulling at his clothes and hair, much to everyone else’s amusement. Merriment poured from all corners of the street. As we sat taking it all in, a woman came out and asked in English if we wanted to eat and drink. Of course we did, and next thing we knew we had giant bottles of beer and endless Japanese snacks coming to us. We slowly were inducted into this party crowd. They were a group of friends enjoying the evening in each other’s company. Some had worked together - at a vegan chocolatier and print screening company, respectively - some had grown up here and had moved away and were back visiting and all were friends with the couple who owned the shop. The women was married to the chef and the little girl was their daughter. The drunk man passed out across the street was their good friend and allegedly the most famous rapper in Onomichi. This last fact went uncomfirmed.
Once inside, the owners cooked up vegetarian ramen and endlessly poured us Shōchū, beer, and anything else they had on the shelf. They even created a new mixed drink for us. Another bittersweet parting was upon us as we realized it was getting late, we were quite tipsy, and we had an early wake up and long day on the other side of night. They gifted us a large bottle of beer to make the trip up the 360 steps less painful. It did.
Day 13 - Onomichi to unknown forest location camp southwest of Imabari
We started the day with a buffet breakfast and coffee in the onomichi u2. The dining area was filled with cyclists from all corners of the world. We sat at a table next to a group of Japanese cyclists each one with a caricature of themselves complete with nickname on the backs of their matching pink jerseys. I wanted to be a part of their club.
More wheel and brake issues for Parker including the discovery of a torn sidewall, but once he was patched and sorted we found ourselves on a quite short ferry ride to the Shimanami Kaido’s starting point just opposite the narrow channel of the inland sea. The Shimanami Kaido is absolutely stunning. The route is marked in blue along the side of the road, taking you over short and long architecturally gorgeous bridges, criss crossing small islands as well as back and forth between the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku. Rest stops including snacks and gelato seemed to be at every mile marker, grinning cyclists packed in every one. There were even coffee shops sprinkled along the path specifically open during peak riding hours. The route is relatively flat with the only real climbing being the gently sloping lead ups to the bridges. The sky was bright blue with a cool breeze providing a nice balance to the beating sun. Eventually we had to turn off the route, and found ourselves back on narrow country roads, climbing up into the final mountain range we needed to pass over before Hiroshima. Dinner was purchased at, you guessed it, 7-Eleven. With ramen strapped to my bike and potato chip canisters in my pockets, we were ready to find our last campsite.
We pulled the riding pin right before our final climbs of the trip as we spotted a flat canopied spot on the gravel forest road we were riding. It was 6 pm and we had an hour of daylight to get camp set up, a fire built, and dinner in our bellies before turning in. We passed around convenient store Suntory whiskey while talking about all we had seen over the last 13 days. Just a “small” climb awaited us the next day before a long descent to an onsen and then on to Hiroshima.
Day 14 - Hiroshima
We were up early and on our way. I had a somewhat restless sleep as it was hot, humid, buggy, and I kept having a waking dream that my tent was tumbling off the stream bank I was pitched on.
We prepared a quick breakfast and were back on the hiking trail. We needed to make up ground as we never tackled the remaining two climbs the day before. The hiking trail gave way to a short paved climb and then we were on the final “short” climb. We started climbing and I noticed a sign in Japanese saying something was 14 kilometers away. Surely that was not the summit. Up and up on the fourth most memorable climb we went. Everyone was riding at their own speed as climbing was finally starting to take a heavy toll. My back aching I rode past signs saying 10 kilometers then 5 kilometers. Maybe the signs were indeed for the top? They were. The ‘small” climb was actually a 14k, nearly 3,000 foot ascent on a breathtaking logging road. We were at the top and done. All that was left was to descend to the onsen and Hiroshima.
The Dōgo Onsen located in Matsuyama is one of the oldest in Japan, dating back nearly 1,000 years. We made a quick stop there after an odd faux-French style breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Joe and I paid for the basement level baths, which was inexpensive, and again found ourselves lingering between the showers and baths in our birthday suits.
We departed and embarked on our final ferry trip. Once back on land in Hiroshima, we made our way immediately to the Peace Memorial Park. It was a somber experience. The A-Bomb Dome rises in the background amidst memorials commemorating that fateful summer day in August where the city suffered one of the most horrific bombing in modern history. Unfortunately the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had to wait for the morning as it had just closed when we arrived.
We sought out pizza. Traditional or a Japanese take, we didn’t care. After weeks of living off of 7-Elevens we wanted a taste of home. We ended up at a legitimate neapolitan pizzeria for dinner, which did not disappoint. The second dinner at Family Mart also did not disappoint.
We awoke and visited the museum. Rarely have I been in a setting more overwhelmingly powerful especially being an American standing amongst a predominantly elderly Japanese crowd. If you visit Hiroshima, do not miss the museum as it is a tear jerking, but necessary reminder of the horrors of nuclear weapons.
The Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Tokyo did in four hours what it took us the better part of two weeks to do. Once back in Tokyo it hit home that I was a mere 12 hours from being back on a plane bound for New York. I wasn’t ready to leave. The country had been so wonderful to us. Rarely have I been to a more welcoming country. From Humi to the woman with the Pocari Sweat to the cute couple who owned the Onomichi ramen spot, we had met so many incredible people during our journey. Adjusting to New York and office life after only having one job - riding for eight to ten hours a day - would be difficult.
It was, but the memories helped make it easy. The adventurous spirit of Bashō lives in the four of us and in these words, and I cannot wait to return and see all of the places we weren’t able to visit.