Biking Japan One Convenience Store At A Time
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I land in Tokyo and catch a bus to the city center. Pulling my bike box out from the bus, a station attendant gives me a look as if to say, “And now what?”
I’m going to set this thing up on the sidewalk.
It takes a while before the pieces, now all over the ground, resemble a bike. Everyone looks. Only the kids maintain eye contact. A couple of them wave.
When the bike’s ready I break down the box, surveying street corners for a trash can. I find none. If Japan is the future, the future is too clean.
Eventually I find a bin outside 7–11. This marks the beginning of my dependence on Japanese convenience stores.
My first few days disappear in a haze of ramen shops and grilled meats. I linger in a basement bar where salarymen stand around drinking and eating oily food before falling asleep on their train home. When the bar closes I get on the bike and start riding. Tokyo’s enormity is most apparent at night; each district has a hub that’s larger and more illuminated than the central hub in most US cities.
Eventually I turn onto a quieter road and pass beneath train tracks. Right alongside the tracks are two short alleys, crammed with miniature bars. Finding one bar that’s just loud enough, I push back the flags outside and slide open the frosted door. Then the entire bar, 6 people, turns to greet me. They let out a cheer and make room in the corner.
Several rounds of sake later I learn that the woman I’m sitting next to is a professional Keirin rider. She’s racing in two days in Utsunomiya. I have no idea where that is but agree to go.
I catch a train to Utsunomiya the next morning and camp outside Nikko. The days are short and I’m inside my tent by 6PM. Usually I spend a couple hours reading or wasting time on my phone before falling asleep. One way I like to waste time on my phone is searching Google for photos of the area where I’m staying, which is how I come across this:
I’m looking at the Irohazaka, a famous climb just a few miles away. In the morning I shake the ice off my tent, pack up, and give it a go. What’s particularly cool about the Irohazaka is that it’s actually two roads: one up (above), one down (below).
After the climb I turn around and make my way back to Utsunomiya for the race. As I’m buying my ticket an ancient Japanese man points at the pink rain cover on my backpack and starts talking shit. I don’t know Japanese but his tone makes it obvious. He points, says something to the ticket taker, and they both laugh before he starts in on me again. I like this place.
Keirin’s one of four sports you can legally gamble on in Japan, which means it’s just as fun to watch the race as it is to observe the guys — and it’s all guys — trying to pick a winner. Many of them sit inside and watch the race from what looks like a lecture hall, shuffling slips of paper on tiny desks as they stare at the screen then back down, checking their luck.
I walk over to the betting machine but can’t figure it out. I lean over to see what the guy next to me is doing though he quickly indicates that what I’m doing is not cool. I give up and loiter around the tea machines, waiting for the next race to start.
I leave for Hokkaido later that night. The entire trip will take over a day and involve substantial schlepping because, to take a bike on a Japanese train, it has to be partially disassembled and in a bike bag. 😑🔫
Breaking a bike down and attaching frame bags to a backpack takes practice. Finding a place on the train to stash it while avoiding a conductor temper tantrum is mostly luck. Lashing the bike to a pole in the train’s vestibule usually works.
Once in Hokkaido I catch a local train to Niseko, where I make camp in the woods. It snows overnight. I wake up to single digit temperatures. This was a dumb idea.
I pack up, go snowboarding for a few hours, and catch a train south. As much as I like arbitrary challenges, dragging my bike through snowfields feels like overkill. I look up a temperature map of Japan and pair it with my advanced research tactic: Google Images. Shikoku looks interesting. Done.
Shikoku is Japan’s smallest major island. It’s home to a 1,200 km coastal pilgrimage route but I want elevation and decide to cross it right up the middle. Inspired by Andrew Skurka, I’m hoping to create a sort of Shikoku High Route. Unfortunately, despite being warmer than Hokkaido, Shikoku also has “winter” and many of the roads I hope to take are closed. Instead, I’ll spend five days traversing north along river valleys and ridges.
Uwajima To A Park Under A Bridge
69.1 mi, 7,884 ft
I camp on a hill looking west over Uwajima. I wake up at 5:30, condensation dripping off my tent onto the down sleeping bag I bought off Craigslist in Tokyo. Staying dry will be a constant battle on this trip.
I follow a river out of the city to my first convenience store stop of the day. I didn’t know this before visiting Japan but their convenience stores are amazing. They have very edible prepared food and really good diner coffee. Apparently many Japanese salarymen don’t even cook at home anymore, they just eat from convenience stores. Another thing these guys no longer do at home is browse softcore porn magazines — watch out for that aisle.
I buy a coffee and sit outside, wasting time on my phone when something odd happens. A construction worker walks over to me and hands me what looks like a hotdog. Before I can compute what’s happened he’s in his truck and driving away. This will happen three more times on the trip. Some of my friends think it’s because I haven’t shaved in several months and look like a homeless bike person. I prefer to think Japanese people are just kind to travelers. We’re probably both right.
I eat the hotdog thing (weird) and start along a road that quickly narrows to one lane. The snow’s melting off the ground and forming a dense mist. I go hours without seeing a car.
About 40 miles in I start climbing and keep climbing, for 18 miles. Near the top I get a lesson in bike pushing, inching my way along several hundred meters of black ice. Once on the ridgeline, I follow it into a tiny town with a general store (closed) and public bathroom (open) where I stop to wring the cold sweat from my shirt and hat and gloves and arm warmers and jacket and socks.
Back on the bike I get ready to descend from the ridge, shifting onto the big ring. Then, trying to shift across the cassette, I hear the distinct sound of plastic cracking. A piece inside my right shifter has snapped. I pull over, laughing. The exact reason I shouldn’t have used STI shifters on this trip has come to pass. They’re full of tiny, proprietary parts. Good luck fixing one on the road.
Thankfully, the rear derailleur’s still holding tension so, even though I’m stuck with one gear, I can pick it. I pull the cable through the derailleur until the chain is in the middle of the cassette. Looks like I’m finishing the trip on a two speed.
I find a small park along a river to set up camp just before dark, hoping my stuff will be kind of dry in the morning.
A Park Under A Bridge To Ochi
43.2 mi, 3,563 ft
Nothing is dry. Some things are frozen. The sky is clearing and it looks like today might be sunny. I take longer than usual to pack up, making coffee and trying to shake the moisture off the tent. I climb out of the valley through an evergreen forest. A few miles up the climb there’s a “road closed” sign, which I casually pass. Unfortunately there’s a work crew ahead. One of the guys informs me that the road isn’t pretend closed and that the snow on it is above my head. I don’t completely believe him but take the message.
I drop back into the valley and follow another route north. Passing a lake, I cut up a ridge on a deserted road covered in loose pine needles and rockslide debris. After topping out I enter another river valley before reaching Ochi in the early afternoon. It’s been an easy day but the daylight hours are short and honestly, I’m totally content to just hang out on this trip.
Ochi To Motoyama
71.9 mi, 6,348 ft
20 easy miles take me to my convenience store stop of the day. With only two speeds on the bike, there’s no need to think about how to ride. I’m either spinning or standing.
After Ino I follow a single lane road through the hills. I take a wrong turn at a fork, assuming what looks like an old driveway can’t be a numbered road, and cruise down a hill. While climbing back up the ridge I stumble into the most impressive shrine (and staircase) of the trip.
At around 32 miles there’s a small town where I stop at a vending machine, trying out a hot canned coffee (not bad). Just before leaving I realize that my front brake’s been rubbing on the wheel all morning. The handlebar bag is pressing against the brake cable. Laughing at my bike’s sorry state, I sort of fix it and just keep going. Friction is character building, right?
The next ten miles form a steady climb to about 2,600 feet. I cross a small saddle before 20 miles of downhill, first through tight switchbacks then along a deep, clear river. The road slopes just enough to make my gearing useless so I just coast, hoping I don’t launch over a guardrail when not paying attention to the road.
I make camp along the river in Motoyama though Tosa has a better convenience store.
Motoyama To The Iya Valley
54.8 mi, 4,721 ft
I wake to ice all over my tent. I do my best to shake it off but only get about half of it before admitting defeat and packing up.
I see a few possible routes out of Motoyama, some more remote than others. Several of them might be closed so I stop by the police station to ask for directions. Once one guy figures out what I’m after, four dudes surround the table and produce paper topo maps to consult on the project. Without any language in common, we spend ten minutes pointing at roads, eventually concluding that two of the three options are closed, I think. As I’m walking out I hear, “be careful” and look back to see the dad-ish cop smiling. What an odd expression to know.
I ride north to Oboke, where I stop for an early lunch. I find what looks like a noodle shop but the owner points me across the street to a small grocery store. I assume that means they’re closed. I ask the woman running the grocery store if I can find ramen nearby. She points back across the street and says “Soba. Udon.” I’m completely lost as to what’s happening. She steps out from behind the register, walks over to a refrigerator and grabs two packages of noodles. Still not really sure what’s happening, I pick one and pay for it. She hands them to me with a piece of paper and points me back across the street. I walk over and show the shop owner the paper, then the noodles. She takes both, smiles, and points at a small table inside. I’ve cracked the code. I sit down with a dumb look of accomplishment on my face.
The meal is excellent but poorly timed. I leave town and am immediately standing on the pedals, climbing 1,000 ft before entering the Iya Valley. My main objective for the day is to visit the Iya Onsen, which I do and it’s great. I haven’t showered in almost a week so this is a welcome stop.
I hang out in the hot pool for a while then spend probably 30 minutes standing under a heater in the locker room wasting time on my phone as my clothes dry. Thankfully it’s a weekday and the locker room is empty so I don’t look like a total creep.
Leaving the onsen I backtrack a few miles then go north up the valley. Gradually clouds fill the sky. Just before it’s too dark to ride without lights I pass through a truly eery place.
I’m riding down a deserted road when I see what looks like a scarecrow in a field. Then I see another outside a house. Then two sitting outside a store. It’s an entire village without people, just life-size dolls. I don’t stop to take pictures.
Postscript: Turns out there’s at least one person in the village––the woman who makes the dolls. She makes them in the image of locals that have moved away… or died. Here’s a video about it.
I ride another ten miles to what’s marked as a campsite on my map. Unfortunately it’s across a river and the bridge is closed. It’s nearly dark so I climb up a hill and pitch my tent in the woods. From my sleeping bag I stare at the tent wall, unable to shake the village off.
Iya Valley to Tokushima
50.6 mi, 3,307 ft
Within one mile of leaving camp I might be screwed. A crane is taking up the entire road. There’s been a landslide and crew is working to rebuild the road’s edge. I decide to try my luck and slip the bike under one of the support legs, hoping the route north isn’t totally destroyed. The work crew notices me but doesn’t freak out so I just wave, hop on my bike, and start riding.
As I continue the road turns icier and icier. First it’s just in the shaded corners, then it’s across the entire surface. Eventually I make it to the top where I pass through a small tunnel. Immediately there’s a shift in road surface–now it’s ice plus rockslide debris. I’m ecstatic though. There’s no one up here.
I’m flying down empty switchbacks until I take a tight corner and nearly flatten some Japanese wildlife. Just hanging out in the middle of the road are a macaque and a serow. I barely avoid them and slide to a stop. Having never seen a serow before, I try to take a photo but it gets away. I determine that it must have been a tuna.
Once I reach the valley floor it’s an easy ride into Tokushima. I find a ramen shop and order a bowl, then another. Eventually I have to admit that I’m full and have run out of ways to procrastinate. Time to take the bike apart, the next train leaves in 30 minutes.
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