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West Meets East: Cycling Japan

01 March 2013

by Patrick Morgan

Wet, hungry, and far from home. Soggy clothes, soaked shoes and grumbling tummies. After riding all morning through the tail of a typhoon, we didn't want to slosh into a Japanese restaurant in that state. I tried drying out by standing under the vent outside the kitchen. I wrung out my shirt and socks. I got no drier, but now I smelled of noodles.

We need not have worried. The smiling staff didn't even blink as we puddled across the floor and found a table. Paper towels from the bathroom mopped up the worst of it, and soon we were sipping green tea, slurping on hot noodles and munching on gyoza - tasty pork and ginger dumplings.

It was day two of a tour from east to west across the backbone of Honshu, the largest Japanese island. Our mission was to follow an ancient trading route to the former capital, Kyoto. A shinkansen (bullet train) shot us from Tokyo to our starting point at Gifu City, in just 2 hours for 367 km. The customer service ethic is well- established at Japan Rail: after checking our tickets, the uniformed guard bowed to the whole carriage before moving on. Packed bikes were no problem. There was space at the end of each carriage to stash the bikes, each bagged in a Tardis.

Gifu's main attraction is cormorant fishing on the Nagara River, a 1300-year-old tradition where fishing masters use trained cormorants to catch fish. From Gifu we shadowed the highway, riding along secondary roads across the plain. The 32 degree heat had us sweating, but refreshments are never far away. Japan is well- served by konbini, 24-hour convenience stores, stocked with every kind of chilled drink and snack. Our favourite cheap eat was onigiri. These are rice balls, formed into triangles or ovals and wrapped in nori (seaweed), and filled with pickled ume (similar to plums), salted salmon, or other salty ingredients.

Coming to the end of the plain, our route climbed and funnelled through a gap in the hills. Railway tracks, the Meishin expressway and our road lay close together like a bundle of cables. Traffic was steady but respectful, and we had a shoulder toride on. We passed through Sekigahara, which signals a division between the culture of east side (Nagoya and Tokyo) and west (Fukuoka and Osaka). Even the food tastes different. For example, misosoup. Miso flavour in west Japan is light and the colour is cream. In the east the flavour is stronger and is coloured brown.

Sekigahara was the largest battlefield in Japanese history. In 1600 Tokugawa Shogun ended the Age of Civil wars related to the Samurai period. The peaceful Edo Era continued for 300 years. At this point our map-reading skills let us down, and we missed our campground. Asking giggling teens for directions to the nearest hotel or inn proved fruitless. It was rainy and getting dark. So we retraced our route to a hotel by the highway. We couldn't locate the reception or any hotel staff, but the rooms were open and the posted prices looked ok. Once inside, the door locked us in. The penny dropped. We were at a love hotel, designed for anonymity. We were told these are not just for illicit trysts. Many Japanese couples live with their in-laws, so when a bit a privacy is desired...

The next morning we arrived at Hikone, by Biwa-ko, Japan's largest lake. Visiting the hilltop 400- year old Hikone castle with its fortifications and moats gave us an insight that Japan was not always the peaceful place it is today. Biwa-ko is the same size as Lake Taupo and also hosts an annual ride around its shores. We followed a smooth path south, passing through villages where they still use hand-made wooden buckets, and where every house has onions stored under its eaves. The charm of cycling through Japan is that you see the contrasts. Once you leave the flash hightech cities it's not hard to discover ancient shrines, rice being harvested by hand, and slow-paced country living.

The Japanese aversion to sun means that we didn't see outdoor furniture or barbecues like you would in New Zealand. Apparently tanning is avoided as it is the mark of a farm worker. Leaving Biwa-ko at Ohashi Bridge, we climbed for an hour and puffed through an unlit tunnel before coasting down through forest to our destination. Kyoto is the former capital, and exploring its temples and museums is a highlight of any visit to Japan. Meeting my sister in Kyoto, we stayed at a ryokan, or family inn. Leaving our shoes by the door, we were offered hot cups of green Japanese tea on arrival. The rooms don't have beds, but are covered with tatami matting on which you place a futon mattress.

Here we got a chance to bathe the Japanese way. The typical Japanese bathroom consists of two rooms. There's an entrance room where you undress, and the actual bathroom has a shower or washbowl, and a deep bath tub. When bathing Japanese style, you first rinse your body outside the bath tub with a washbowl. Then you enter the tub, which is used for soaking only. After soaking, leave the tub and clean your body with soap, making sure that no soap gets into the tub. When you have finished scrubbing and rinsing, hop back in the tub for a final soak. The clean hot water is left for the next member of the house.

After Kyoto we had a few sunny days poking around the north end of Biwa-ko. We took a mountain road from Ibigawa through bear country, although the only wildlife we saw were monkeys and a mukade, or giant centipede.

At Lake Yogo, we waited until dark before throwing up the tent at a picnic area. Even in Japan, with a population of 127 million, you can find a quiet spot to camp and feast on a bag of konbini treats. After a swim I was wet again, but at least I no longer smelled of noodles.

Nitty Gritty

  • Japan has a temperate maritime climate. The west is wetter than the east. Sound familiar to kiwis? We rode in September in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid extremes of heat and typhoons. 
  • English is spoken in cities and tourist centres, but much less in rural areas. Japanese are polite and helpful and now that renegade samurai have been tamed, crime is almost non-existent.
  • There are plenty of bike shops. Most bikes are 1 or 3-speed Mamachari designed for shopping, commuting or carrying the kids. You can buy a Mamachari for NZ$200, or a 24-speed tourer for NZ$650. Folding bikes are also popular. 
  • A yummy meal at a noodle restaurant will set you back NZ$10-15. Discreet free-camping is possible. A room in a hotel or homestay is $100-$150 for a double. Hotels and homestay info atwww.jalan.net
  • The bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo is NZ$200 for 513km in 2.5 hours. Check outwww.seat61.com/Japan.htm andwww.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae to learn more.
  • Info and maps at Japan Cycling Navigatorwww.japancycling.org
  • Roy Sinclair from Christchurch has a guide awww.japancycling.org/v2/inter/reader/roy/