I could see it in his face. That look of “I can’t believe what is happening right now” but too respectful, or shocked, to actually say something. Standing there, at the entrance to dinner, I slowly glanced down. The toilet slippers, meant only to be worn in the bathroom itself, were still firmly planted on my feet. I had just violated God knows how many of Japan’s rules of cleanliness.
The one thing I do know for sure is that it is virtually impossible for a foreigner to truly understand Japan. It’s too old, nuanced, and complex. As Anthony Bourdain would say, that is the joy of Japan, facing a learning curve impossibly steep. Even with this promise of everlasting ignorance, cycling is a powerful tool to bridge that cultural gap and bond with like-minded people around the world.
We came to Japan to ride the Cape to Cape tour run by local company Cycling Japan. Starting in Kanazawa, Japan’s 3rd largest city situated at the southwestern corner of the Noto Peninsula, the ride ends 1000 km and 8 days later at Shimoda, on the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula. The journey would take us along mile long beaches and endless coastlines, up across the highest paved roads in Japan, through the foothills and lakes of Mt. Fuji, until we finally ended up back at the ocean, this time on the Pacific side.
Run by experienced cyclist and all around nice guy Kenichi (Ken) Kawamura, Cycling Japan leads tours of different lengths and abilities all over the country. Cape to Cape is Ken’s way of offering cyclists a true challenge, something for people who want to not only push themselves, but also see some of the best landscapes that the country has to offer.
The moment we landed in Narita, my phone came alive with text messages and emails asking us, “What is the deal with the volcano? Are you guys ok?” Volcano? Earlier that morning while we were still in the air, Mt. Ontake violently and unexpectedly erupted, killing 57 people and spreading ash for miles–Japan’s worst disaster in over 90 years. We planned to ride right by said volcano later the following week. Add onto that the Dengue Fever warning across from our hotel in Tokyo and you can’t fault us for thinking the stars might have already aligned against us.
A few days later at our welcome dinner in Kanazawa, we watched as the news brought more bad tidings. Typhoon Phanphone sat just off the shore of Okinawa and was due to make landfall, right in our riding path, in a matter of days. It may be three strikes and you are out in the US, but four is the unlucky number in Japan–so we were still good, right?
The night we met, I was a bit nervous about the trip. In addition to our two guides, we had a young, food loving, Ironman triathlete from Thailand and a successful Japanese businessman, who now semi-retired, rode bikes pretty much every day. To put it bluntly, all these guys were animals.
I had spent more time on the trails than the road over the summer. To be honest, I had grown tired of the riding the same traffic choked routes near my house, often served up in a thick sauce of Strava PR chases, road rage, and bravado. To me, cycling means freedom, adventure, and exploration. This wasn’t it. I needed to shake up everything, immerse myself in a place completely foreign, in order to get back to the heart and soul of why I ride.
All long distance bike tours are blissfully composed of roughly the same ingredients: Ride. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Heading out on a bike tour in a different country, however, means that each of these ingredients is incredibly foreign. Although the day’s activities rarely changed, the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes were continually new, heightening the experience.
Cycling is a growing sport in Japan. More than 85% of Japanese own a bike–mostly of the mamachari variety, but both mountain biking, in places such as Nagano, and road cycling are growing. The annual race up Mt. Fuji sells out within minutes every year.
Even with the relatively low number of so-called hard-core cyclists, Japan is one of the most bike friendly countries in the world. According to Byron Kidd from Tokyo by Bike, this may have something to do with the general Japanese culture of being polite and knowing they regularly must share the road not only with cyclist, but pedestrians, farm workers, and the occasional stray animal. A welcome change from regularly being honked at, yelled at, and almost hit on my normal weekend rides. Add to that pristine paved roads, and Japan is a cycling nirvana.
As I learned to ride on clipless pedals in the UK, riding on the left side of the road felt like slipping into an old, comfortable pair of shoes. With a battle cry of “Ikimasho!” each morning, we set out on our quest to cover 80-100 miles and 4,000-9,000 feet of climbing before nightfall. Given a map and a gpx file of our route each day, the ride was broken up into rest stops, where coffee, tea, and snacks awaited our tired legs.
We rode along the second longest beach in Japan, across floating suspension bridges, and through tiny wooden fishing villages stopped in time–a completely different world from the high-rise and technology hungry city of Tokyo. The coastline reminded me of California and Big Sur, but on a much more dramatic scale that you can only get from a volcanic island.
Although I love the ocean, I had come to Japan for the mountains. Images of riders on empty roads bundled up against a backdrop of exploding fall colors continually beckoned me to come explore this vertical playground and it did not disappoint–even if the typhoon meant we never caught the faintest glimpse of Mt. Fuji and cut short our planned climb of the highest paved road in Japan. Don’t worry. What we did see was stunning and I will most surely be back.
The last 20 km of each day, as we watched the sun set behind a field of glowing rice fields, our minds turned to what awaited us that evening. “Onsen, beer! Onsen, beer!” became our battle cry to jump on the hammer train and get to town before dark.
Instead of staying in hotels each night, we parked our bikes at the local ryokan. Normally run by a family, these traditional Japanese inns feature tatami mat rooms, communal baths or onsen, and other public areas where you can relax in your yukata. Your bed for the night is a futon spread out on the tatami floor.
Japan is a country blessed with many hot springs–many of which are harnessed into public baths or onsen where the Japanese, who value cleanliness, flock to soak on weekends and holidays. The custom of taking baths originated in the 6th century when Buddhism was first introduced into Japan. The religion preached the virtue of bathing, and washing away dust and dirt was regarded as an important duty to be performed.
The communal nature of bathing in Japan can be hard to get used to as a Gaijin. But as the Japanese say, “Go ni itte wa go ni shitagae” or literally, “When in a village, do as the villagers do.” Just make sure you have your onsen etiquette down pat before heading in.
After riding from sunup to sundown, it was hard to be on the ball enough to remember which way to close your yukata (left over right), let alone which slippers to wear when (hence the toilet slipper faux pas). But we soon settled into a routine and actually looked forward to completely immersing ourselves in Japanese culture. What seemed foreign at the beginning became natural at the end. After a beer or two and perhaps some sake, singing karaoke with a large group of Japanese septuagenarians doesn’t seem so strange does it?
Japan is a nation of foodies–all Japanese are foodies. The country houses more Michelin Star restaurants than any other country in the world, even France. Ask any Japanese about food and you will immediately enter into a spirited and passionate debate.
Dinner at a ryokan is generally a multi-course affair of traditional Japanese food. Each dish is extravagantly prepared by master chefs, using fresh, seasonal ingredients, all beautifully presented. Every meal was completely different–I didn’t recognize much and had to watch as the Japanese members of our group ate, mimicking what they did. Steaming hot rice, miso soup, grilled fish, raw fish, tofu, egg dishes, nori (dried seaweed), fresh wagyu beef you cook yourself over a sterno grill, and pork hot pot regularly made an appearance.
In some respect, breakfast in a bit undistinguishable from dinner. The Japanese are also partial to nato beans in the morning–fermented soybeans that come in a little plastic tub. You mix them with soy sauce and mustard and the whole concoction turns into a sticky mess much like the inside of a roasted marshmallow. The beans are then eaten over rice. I can safely say the taste will never grow on me but my new Japanese friends swear they will power you through the day.
Occasionally we would head out for dinner or stop at a local restaurant for lunch to taste the delicacy of the region–tofu made from the clean waters of Mt. Fuji, udon noodles in the lakes region, or soba noodles up in the mountains.
Perhaps it was the bottomless stomach that comes from day after day of 100 miles on the bike or riding up Japan’s highest paved road in the middle of a typhoon, but once you have tasted fresh fried tofu dipped in soy sauce made at a random roadside stop, a protein bar will never be good enough again.
We had fun trolling the aisles of supermarkets and convenience stores to see what new food we could try. Even gas station food in Japan is delicious. You won’t find Doritos or Twinkies here. Dumplings, maki rolls, vegetable katsu, apple danishes as big as your head, and a group favorite–the pancakes, complete with cream and maple syrup, from 7-11 or Family Mart. No better bike portable in the world in my opinion. For those that like their energy in liquid form, you are never far from a bonk-saving Coke or sugared, iced double espresso, as vending machines line the roads almost everywhere. And ice cream. Green tea ice cream.
Japanese cyclists regularly snack on umeboshi–pickled ume fruit or salty pickled plums. They claim these treats are better at replacing your electrolytes than any sports drink. Supposedly samurai ate umeboshi to combat battle fatigue. Who can argue with a samurai? If you are prone to cramping on the bike, I urge you to head to Whole Foods or your local Japanese market to try these out.
The first night of the tour, after an “easy” 80 mile day with 4000 feet climbing, all punctuated by tropical levels of rain, Terry and I had the talk. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” But after a soak in the onsen, a refreshing Asahi beer or two, and a buffet of exotic and delicious dishes, our doubts faded away. What have we gotten ourselves into quickly turned into want me to ride 100+ miles for 7 more days? You bet! Need me to climb for 20 km and 7000 feet up the side of a mountain with miles of slippery 20% grade thrown in? No problem!
It may have taken a volcano, the threat of Dengue Fever, and a couple of typhoons, but I believe I have rekindled the spirit of why I ride.
Cycling Japan: If you want to ride in Japan like a local, look no further than Cycling Japan. Ken and his team of guides (we also love Issy, the second guide) ensure you come away with a cultural and not just scenic experience. They take great care of you and make sure you are happy at all times, even in the middle of a typhoon. We hope to head to Hokkaido with them next summer.
Bikes: I highly recommend bringing your own bike. Once you arrive at Narita or Osaka, ship your bikes to your starting location. Shipping in Japan is incredibly quick and cheap, with locations right inside the airport. This will save you from having to navigate rush hour subway and train traffic with your bike box. Do the same on your return.
Luggage: Although our luggage was transported in the van each day, you really don’t need much apart from cycling gear, as you spend the evening in your yukata. Almost all the ryokans feature a drying room (basically the boiler room) where you can dry wet clothes. Some even have washing machines for laundry.
Strava: If you want to view the ride profiles for Cape to Cape, you will find them on my Strava profile. Keep in mind that a couple of our days were cut short due to the typhoon.