Uluru was beautiful, but Kata Tjuta truly amazed me.
There’s something utterly fantastic about finishing up all your chores (‘adulting’…) on a Saturday and then going cycling on a Sunday. Today was just perfect to pick up cycling again after a short break, and I definitely felt the cycler’s high upon returning home. I’ve been keeping cycling on the exercise bike indoors. I was expecting myself to be weaker than I actually was today, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself actually overtaking some people on an uphill. Keeping in shape for the next trip. Still not sure when, but I’m already looking forward to it.
The very first touring trip I did in Japan was in 2007, and I’ve done many more since then. Over the years I’ve gathered a whole bunch of data as well as personal experiences that I thought would be useful to put into a blogpost. Hopefully someone will find this useful. I tried to categorize things a bit, so here goes.
First, to get the obvious thing out of the way, I speak Japanese and can read enough of it to be useful for a cycling trip. I think this is a huge help for me, but I have no evidence of the contrary because I don’t know anyone who’s cycling in Japan without knowing the language. Japanese people are extremely helpful and friendly and will do anything they can to help you find a camp site or point you in the right direction. I can’t even count the number of times random people have come up to me and given me food or drinks. They’re great people. That said, I don’t doubt that being able to speak Japanese will reduce the barrier to conversation and make it easier for people to connect with you. Quite frequently people ask me where I came from and where I’m going, how much kilometers I’m doing in a day, etc. I can imagine such a conversation is more difficult to start if it’s in English, since a lot of Japanese people are still shy about their level of English. I’d recommend learning at least a few words and phrases for basic conversation. Words like ‘camp site’, where’, ‘left’, ‘right’ are hugely useful. Still though, in this day and age, if you have offline maps and a bunch of placemarks on your phone then you can easily get away with not knowing any Japanese. I’d still recommend learning at least a bit of it though. Trips are more fun if you can talk to the locals.
First tip about trip planning: don’t . That is, don’t plan your every day schedule way in advance. I usually plan the starting point and destination and roughly the route/area I want to go through, but I don’t make detailed plans until one or two days before the actual cycle. That gives me the freedom to change course or even go somewhere completely different, or linger in a place that I like a bit longer. Touring is absolutely more fun this way.
Japan allows this kind of trip style because 1) hotels and camp sites are readily available wherever you are and rarely full, and 2) there’s always the option of sending your bicycle via Kuroneko delivery service to the airport (or anywhere) if you end up running out of time. Kuronekos are everywhere, and while your bike is in transit you can catch the Shinkansen back. One thing I will definitely advise against is to bag your bike and carry it with you in trains. I’m not even sure if the Shinkansen allows it, and besides, a touring bike is heavy, and so is your luggage. Cycle as much as you can, all the way to the airport if possible. Bagging the bike never takes me more than 2 hours even in the worst case scenario so if you arrive at the airport a little early that’s plenty of time.
Airports and flights
Take a direct flight! Direct flights mean less people handling your bicycle, and that’s absolutely worth the extra cost of a direct flight. You don’t want your bike to be broken on arrival. I took Turkish airlines to Japan once, with a stopover in Istanbul, and my bicycle frame got bent on the flight in and the flight out. Never again.
If you’re using a soft case, on the last day of cycling, try to carry around some spare bits of cardboard to pad your bike’s sensitive bits with. Always carry a roll of duct tape with you. I’ve actually hardly ever had to use it, but feel comforted just having it with me. Be sure to get the airport people to put a fragile tag on your bike, and preferably a ‘this side up’ tag as well. I also duct-tape a giant arrow on each side of my bag to make sure it’s obvious which side is the top.
Day to day cycling – what to expect
Japan does not have a lot of dedicated cycling paths, and in areas where there dedicated paths, they’re not always right for touring. Japanese cycling paths are made for mamachari bikes. They’re often narrow, bumpy, and cross a lot of roads with a little bump on entry and exit. Definitely not ideal for touring. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go on these, because sometimes you’ll end up on a beautiful stretch of coastal cycling road, devoid of cars and with a beautiful view that you couldn’t get from the road. But when it doesn’t work out it’s perfectly ok to head back onto the main road and make some speed. I’ve never seen a cycling path in a mountainous area so chances are that even on a touring bike you’ll be able to make better progress on the main road than on a cycling road. It’s a tradeoff though, just give it a try. Also, most useful things, such as conbinis (convenience stores), vending machines and restaurants tend to be on the main road, not the cycling path.
That leads to probably the most important tip I can give you: always stay on the road! You’re allowed to cycle on sidewalks in Japan, and occasionally, in the countryside, there’ll be a beautiful wide sidewalk with no one on it. But don’t go there! Because you’ll regret it. The sidewalk will get narrower and narrower until your wide touring bike won’t fit any more and you’ll have to carry it over some barriers to get back onto the main road. Sidewalks are also always bumpier and have drops whenever a road intersects with it. Lastly, it’s just more dangerous, because inevitably there’ll be a point where you’ll be rejoining the main road, and you need to make very sure that drivers see you when you’re going from sidewalk to main road.
The safest and most comfortable position for a touring cyclist is on the road. Close to the left-most bit, but not too close. On very narrow roads I tend to be well to the right of the white line to make sure that cars don’t attempt to pass me when I think it’s too dangerous for them to pass me. On wider roads I try to stick to the left of the white line if possible, leaving myself some space to maneuver around obstacles. There’s always grates, little bumps or other things that suddenly pop up that you’ll have to evade. If you leave yourself enough space to do that then that’s no problem.
Quite frequently a road’s asphalt is worn down by the countless trucks passing over it, and will have a little valley where each truck’s tires hit the asphalt, pushing it to the side and creating a narrow ridge right where bicycles usually feel at home. It’s flat-out dangerous to cycle on this ridge. Stay to the right of the it and just drive in the valley, even if that means taking a wider line. Cars and trucks will have to navigate around you and it will be harder for them to overtake, but in my opinion it’s their fault that the road ended up like that anyway, so that kinda balances out.
Day to day cycling – some numbers
Distance: I rarely do less than 60 kilometers per day, even on hilly days. The days that I do less than 60 km is because I am setting up for the next day, or because there’s an interesting thing I want to see on the way. If you don’t have any other plans or things blocking you, plan to do at least 60 a day. The most I’ve done was 160 km in one day but that was a fluke: just a very long coastal road with the wind in the right direction and not much interesting to see along the way. I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 100 kilometers a day. Probably around 80 km is my personal sweet spot. It largely depends on how hilly the terrain is as well. If you’re climbing all day then 60 kilometers is already quite an accomplishment.
Speaking of climbing: inclines! Most major coastal roads in Japan don’t have inclines over 6%, and 6% is definitely doable by even an unfit person in the lowest gear of his/her touring bike. But there’s a lot of qualifiers in that statement: most, major and coastal. You’ll definitely encounter inclines of around 10% if you go into the mountains or on smaller roads, or even some coastal roads in more rural areas of Japan. There’s something even worse though, something that you’re very likely to encounter on a touring trip: the slopes that lead up to a hotel or youth hostel. Those are the absolute worst, and can easily get up to 15-20%. If you can avoid it, don’t ever push your bike up a hill! You’ll be using different muscles, which may feel like it’s less of an effort, but only for a very short while. After that you’ll end up being even more exhausted. Just select the lowest gear you have and start cycling, even if it’s only at walking pace. If you feel like you can do more, just slowly work your way up the gears as you’re climbing. But more often than not you’ll find yourself being overly optimistic about what gear you can do. Just take it easy.
For that matter, try not to stand on the pedals. I know it looks cool and it’s a great way of powering over a small hill, but hills are seldom small in Japan, and when you’re touring you need that energy for the rest of the distance. Just keep a steady rhythm and a sustainable pace.
I hate tunnels so much. They’re the absolutely worst place to cycle, yet they’re completely unavoidable in Japan. Even if you’re sticking to the coast, some coastal areas are just so mountainous that the only way to get from A to B is a single road with at least one long tunnel on it. Expect tunnels of at least 500 meters, but tunnels of up to 2-3 kilometers long are also not uncommon. They tend to be quite narrow: cars coming up behind you will have difficulty passing you if there’s oncoming traffic. It’ll also be cold and very noisy, so you won’t be feeling comfortable in there. Dirt and debris tends to get left behind in tunnels so the side of the road tends to be more difficult to cycle on.
Before entering, always turn on your lights, preferably in super-annoying blink mode. You can’t afford to have a car not see you. The front light is important too because some idiots like to overtake in tunnels, and the last thing you want is an oncoming car hitting you full frontal. Most tunnels in Japan are somewhat lit, but a lot of drivers still don’t turn their lights on in tunnels, so it’s up to you to make them aware that you’re there. Take a fairly wide line, staying away from the debris on the side, and actively block drivers from overtaking you if you think there’s not enough space to overtake. Sometimes when I know a long tunnel is coming up I stop just before the tunnel to put on my wind-blocking coat, which makes tunnels a lot more comfortable.
Don’t worry about inclines. Tunnels are almost often at the top of a climb, or only have a very slight incline. If you do end up in a tunnel with a bit of a climb, don’t worry about cars too much, just take it easy going up the hill. It’s very easy to feel stressed out about exhausting yourself in a tunnel, but it’s worse to actually exhaust yourself and have to stop to catch your breath. Slow and steady.
Lastly, the best way to deal with tunnels is to not take them. Quite often there’s a side road that will go around the mountain or hill that the tunnel is crossing. These old roads are often closed down or converted to bicycle-use only. They might be a bit more of a climb, but they’re always worth it compared to the stress you get from cycling in tunnels. Alternatively, when you’re doing pre-cycling-day research, try to find a route that avoids the tunnels altogether. Even if it’s up to 10 kilometers detour I’d say it’s still likely to be worth it. Think about it: a lovely path that follows a river slowly upwards over 10 kilometers, with vending machines and beautiful nature along the way, or being cold and miserable in a tunnel for several kilometers? I know which one I prefer. Lastly, do watch out for mountain roads with crazy steep inclines.
Places to stay
Business hotels. Business hotels are awesome. They offer private rooms for affordable prices. They’re always clean and predictably always the same no matter where you go. If something says business hotel then you know exactly what you’re going to get. I know it’s not as glamorous as staying in a traditional ryokan or camping out in the wild, but it’s just so damn convenient. During all my trips the places I stayed at the most were business hotels. Use the booking.com app using the free wifi you get from 7-11 or Family mart to book a business hotel nearby. If you book on the day you arrive you sometimes get discounted rates too.
The booking.com app is not the cheapest though, since the cheaper business hotels tend to not do booking.com. It’s usually enough to just cycle to a town’s train station, where there will inevitably be all the business hotels. If you’re in a big town or city there’ll be loads and one of them will have a free room. If you’re in a small town there might only be one, but that will also have a free room since small towns seldom get a lot of visitors. Unless it’s golden week. Fuck golden week. Do not go to Japan during golden week, or pre-book your stays during golden week, preferably to be far away from any tourist spot. It just gets crazy busy.
I should talk about ryokans (Japanese inns). They’re… quirky. You never know what you get if you stay at a ryokan. The major plus for me is that, whenever I’m traveling in Japan and really can’t find anything else, there’s somehow always a ryokan nearby. The best way to find one is to ask the locals when you’re at your destination. They tend to be old, family-run, sometimes with onsen. The rooms are tatami and everything creaks and there’s usually no other guests around. Or perhaps that’s just my experience. It’s quite fun, but also… challenging, somehow. Still, would recommend.
Hostels: use Japan Youth Hostel. They’re great. Run by Japanese people, always in useful locations in interesting buildings, and you meet a lot of local people there with interesting stories to tell. Don’t go to any other international/youth hostel. They tend to be run by foreigners and attract the cheapest kind of tourist.
A trip wouldn’t be fun if it was just business hotels and hostels, though. Sometimes you’ll want to go camping! There’s a lot of camping sites in Japan. In earlier trips I used to ask around for ‘a place to set up my tent for one night’, avoiding the words ‘camp site’, because camp site in Japanese implies making a camp fire, doing a barbecue and generally being loud and annoying, which no local wants. But if they see that you’re a traveler who will be out of their way again the next morning you might get some interesting recommendations. I’ve camped (with permission) in front of a hotel, at a temple and at a private camp site on an island which was not officially open yet because it was “still too cold”. All fantastic experiences.
If you’re pre-planning your endpoint for the day then I recommend checking Google Maps for camp sites in the area and marking them on offline maps, then you don’t have to ask the locals. Or at the very least you’ll know that there’s options. During my last trip I marked all camping sites on the entire route I was thinking of taking, from beginning to end, so I knew I always had options. I was betrayed once by a camp site that did indeed exist and was available, but it was crazy expensive, so I had to go somewhere else. That’s way worse than a camp site that’s closed, cause you can always camp out at a closed camp site if you’re quiet and don’t cause trouble.
..which leads to the last option: camping out at places other than official camp sites. It’s a great way of saving money, but really, I wouldn’t do it. Your average ‘sanctioned’ camp site will cost about 1000-1500 yen, and a shitty business hotel (which is way more comfortable than any camping) will set you back around 5000 yen. Not crazy prices. But if you do find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no hotels, hostels or camp sites nearby, there’s always options. Rivers are your best bet. They snake through the landscape and often leave free areas around them that are great for setting up a tent. Under a bridge might seem like a good idea, but I’d recommend against that. The one time I tried that it was just damn noisy and I was worried that someone would show up and chase me away. Beaches are also a good option, but it’s tricky to find a remote one that also has a safe (eg. not-sea-level) area that you can put your tent on. In any case, a little prep work means you can avoid all this hassle.
Seriously though, there are loads of cheap hotels in Japan, even in the middle of nowhere, and they almost always have availability. I take my tent with me because I enjoy the flexibility and I enjoy camping every once in a while, but if you’re not into that you’ll have no trouble at all just sticking to hotels, youth hostels and ryokans.
Weight / Loadout
Short answer: don’t worry about carrying too much, and be sure to put a fair bit of it in your front panniers, so that your bike will feel nice and stable.
You’ll inevitably be carrying too much things with you. Tools you don’t need, too many spare tires, too many clothes, that one camera or lens you think you might use once but end up never using, and so on. Rather than forcing yourself to to go ultra-lightweight, just pack what you need, or whatever fits comfortably inside your panniers. In my case I’ve got:
Weight really does not matter as much as you think. You’re going to be on a heavy bike regardless of how many kilograms you manage to shave off, and you will be suffering when you go uphill, but that’s what gears are for. And muscles. Your muscles will adjust within a few days and then start getting stronger at your own pace, so all you really need as a minimum is a bit of muscle that will keep you comfortable in the lowest gear at the steepest incline. Losing maybe 10% of your luggage weight is not really going to help you a lot with that. It might make you a little bit slower, but then you’ve already committed to being on the bike all day. Doing an extra 30 minutes or doing 5 kilometers less per day is perfectly doable.
Even if you’ve decided to not carry a tent, sleeping bag and/or sleeping mat with you, I’d still recommend taking four panniers with you. The reason for this is that the balance of the bike will just be so much better with a bit of weight in front. If you’ve got two ultra-heavy rear panniers and a backpack on top of that you’ll end up with a dangerously light front wheel, which will trip you up at some point, most likely when you’re putting in some leg muscle at the start of a steep incline, but also at higher speeds after a nice downhill. My bike feels a million times better with two panniers at the front pushing the front tire to the road.
The weather.. is fantastic! Usually. That said, do not cycle on rain days. Seriously. If you can avoid it in any way, don’t cycle on rain days. It’s just not fun, at least not for me. I ride a bicycle to have fun, enjoy and see beautiful scenery and sights along the way. The rain ruins all of that. Better to wait a day and see things when they’re dry. That said, I have been foolish enough to cycle during the rain from time to time. From the last trip, 3 out of 30 days were rain cycle days, and 2 of those 3 were avoidable. (The unavoidable day was cycling to the airport, for which I still preferred rain cycling to bagging the bike and taking a train).
If the rain is only a little then you can probably get away with cycling. It’s very unpredictable though. I was frequently checking the weather report at convenience stores during my last trip, and even when the rain radar showed that the rain was over there were still some scattered showers, some strong enough to seriously soak me. But light rain dries very quickly thanks to the wind, so if you’re in a fairly built-up area you can risk cycling in light rain and stop at a convience store or restaurant or cafe when it gets heavier.
Rain coats don’t help in heavy rain. If you’re cycling on a touring bike you will sweat, and if you’re wearing a raincoat you’ll sweat more and faster. Wear it or don’t wear it, you’ll be uncomfortable either way. Seriously, just don’t cycle. Spend a day walking around town, catch up with blogging or go see a famous temple or shrine. You can even take a train to another town and sightsee there.
Your bike won’t like rain either. My panniers are fairly waterproof but still the bottom bit gets a little soaked. And everything gets dirty. Mud gets everywhere when it’s raining, all over the panniers, in the chain, in my shoes. It’s a good idea to clean the chain and re-grease it after a day of rain cycling.
Yup, I think that’s all I can think of right now. Most importantly:
Update 2016/06/12: fixed some wording, added Weight / Loadout section.
At the end of my first solo cycling trip I came back to the Netherlands unannounced. I had spread my blogposts a bit wider over time so they ended up being a few days out of date. I was planning to surprise my parents by cycling over when they didn’t expect me yet. It was quite fun to do. But just before reaching my parents’ house I had a little break moment on a bench in my home town. Then I suddenly realized: “If I go this way, my trip ends, I see my parents, I’m back in a familiar situation. But if I go the other way, a new trip begins and I will end somewhere random and unknown”.
Since then I’ve had several trips with such a moment at the end. Last October’s trip’s end was quite memorable, perhaps even painful. I was unfit and overweight, and suffered technical difficulties during that entire trip. I had finally gotten myself to a point where I was able to enjoy cycling again, and there it was: the long bridge to the airport. All I had to do was go straight instead of turning right and a whole new adventure would begin. It tempted me. Every time it tempts me. Every time I resist.
Although, at the end of the 2014 trip I didn’t quite resist. It was a trip without a ‘true’ ending, in that I hadn’t fixed how I planned to get back to Tokyo from Hokkaido, and I also didn’t have a hard time limit such as a flight to catch either. I changed my mind twice during that trip’s end: first I decided to cycle back instead of taking a ferry, and then, while cycling back, I decided it was a good time to stop, and quit halfway. I had nothing left to prove, and without a powerful goal left it’s hard to focus. At least I think that’s why I ended up doing that. In any case, it felt like the right decision at the time, and it still feels right.
This time I didn’t think I was going to be tempted. My mind was clear yesterday, my thoughts wrapped up, and I was and still am ready and looking forward to resuming my real life back in London. But still.. It happened on the last bridge before the airport. Again. I had stepped off my bike to take a photo and was hesitating to walk back a bit to buy a drink from a vending machine. It was then that I heard the voice in my head that told me that all I had to do was turn back, turn right and just keep on cycling, and a whole new cycling trip could begin right now.
I never intended to give in to that voice. Not this time. But I can’t help but try to imagine the consequences if I did. In this case two people very close to me would end up being very pissed off at me, and my bank account would be too. Not to mention the company I’m supposed to start working for again soon. There’s always consequences. But despite that there is always the temptation. Maybe one day I will give in to it.
Right. Time to get back to real life.
The weather is sometimes not on my side. Occasionally the wind propels me and I hardly have to do anything. On other days it rains and it’s grey and it’s difficult to cycle. It looks like tomorrow will be one of those days..
It can’t be helped (しかったない). It’s the last day before I go back, and I have to get to the airport somehow. The bus company told me off last time (every time, actually) for bringing a bicycle with me as luggage and (once again) threatened to not take me next time. That leaves me with two options: bag the bike in Atsugi and carry it onto the train with me, carrying also my backpack and three fully loaded panniers, or cycle to the airport and bag the bike there. The latter option is by far the more agreeable, even if I get a little wet while doing it. At least it’s warmer now since I’m in Kanagawa and it’s the middle of May. The really cold days are behind me.
Tonight I did what I usually do on the day before going home: I took a casual stroll around town and eventually ended up at the riverside where I sat down and had a break. During other times that I’ve been back here my thoughts often dwelled on the past, remembering the good times, etcetera. But this time all I could think about was the future. Not forcefully though: at times likes these I just let my mind wander and let it pick a topic by itself, and it chose the future.
I ended up making plans and goals for what I want my life to be like in the next couple of years, and evaluating how my current situation compares to that. When I think about the past I often forget how much possibilities and connections are available to me right here, right now. I know where I want to go, but I’m in no hurry. I will patiently await the right opportunities.
In the previous post I wrote a bit about my eternal fight against time, and the realization that the second time you do something is also the first time you do something for the second time. The thought that struck me today was: I only hold first times in such high value exactly because they are scarce, and can only happen once. If I could do something and get that same first-time kind of feeling out of it then I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it right now. It wouldn’t be special. The fact that first times never come again is exactly what makes them priceless.
Some final, random thoughts to share:
I’m not quite used to my new camera, and I think my editing skills have dropped as well. Still, practice makes perfect.
Once you get above a certain price range, usually 5000 yen in the countryside, maybe 6-7000 yen in the city, business hotels are all the same. They offer the exact same identical experience. A bed that always looks the same, always in the same position in the room, always with the same headboard controls. A little desk that’s filled with pamphlets and a tv, and a very shitty chair, either with or without a backrest. Japan does not want you to relax when you sit down.
But this perfectly predictable experience is exactly what’s great about it. You know exactly what you get when you end up at a business hotel. No shared dormitories or bathrooms, no unexpected low quality part of the experience, no forced conversations with the owner or random people. Admittedly, random conversations can also be a high point, but if you’re not in the mood for that you can simply opt out by going to a business hotel.
The beds are great. I don’t recall ever going to a business hotel where I didn’t get a great night’s sleep. Contrast that to my experience in the ryokan a few nights ago, where the futon was comfortable but the blanket so narrow that it kept falling off in the middle of the night. The room in that ryokan was freezing, so I had the choice of either accepting that or figuring out how to use an oil heater. Sometimes I just don’t want to think about that stuff.
Lastly, these days pretty much every business hotel has free wifi, and since it’s Japan, that wifi is fast. I’ve been to one or two hotels that did offer free wifi but had some technical trouble, but that’s a rare occurrence. I just feel at home when I have fast internet and a room that shields me from unwanted social interaction. Hotels that are more expensive actually detract from this experience, because they are less predictable and often require more interaction. And all you get for that is a slightly larger room with perhaps a better view, but even that’s not guaranteed. Business hotels are the pinnacle of modern society. Just like conbinis.
Sometimes (quite often actually) I arrive at my destination drenched in sweat, with salt stains on my cap and sometimes my clothes, wearing dirty, worn-out cycling gloves and sporting a massive sunburn all over my face. It is with this red-nosed face that I have to calmly walk up the reception of a hotel that’s inevitably fancier than I had thought it was when I booked it, and have to go through the check-in procedure (“Hello, I have a reservation. Where can I park my bicycle?”) while a bunch of extremely well-dressed hotel guests look on in utter shock.
It’s even worse when it’s raining, since I’ll be dripping all over the hotel floor with my wet clothes, even after trying to dry myself up a bit. The most embarassing encounter I’ve had during this trip was on the horrible rain day, where I decided to stop cycling early, but since I hadn’t prepared for that I had to walk into a random place to ask for nearby hotels. I was *completely* soaked, inside and out. I walked into what looked like a tourist information place that was in the same building as a train station, and asked if there were any cheap hotels nearby. I had expected the conversation to be very quick, with someone just saying “here, take that road and after a kilometer or so there’ll be a few hotels”. That would have been perfectly fine. Instead, what happened is that I walked into a local travel agency, and both ladies behind the counter started calling all the nearby hotels to ask if they had availability..
In the meantime I was still being very wet and leaking into a puddle on the floor. It took a really long time for them to finish calling all the hotels but I didn’t think it polite to just say thank you and walk away while they were doing it, so I waited for a long, long time, unable to sit anyhwere because I would drench the chairs, unable to lean on the counter because the counter would get wet. Eventually I told them it’s fine, please don’t bother any more, and they gave me a piece of paper with a map on it, which my wet hands immediately turned into something unusable. I went to get my phone but couldn’t unlock it because my wet hands just made the screen wet and unusable, so I had to ask the ladies for tissues to wipe my hands and screen on. Ugh. I was not happy. And since there weren’t any hotels nearby I had to cycle 8 more kilometers in the rain, through the hills, in a terrible downpour. But in the end I got to a business hotel, so I was happy. That’s what happens when it rains.
Or when it’s really hot and I continue aftersweating as I’m checking in and attempt to not look embarassed when the receptionist offers me a towel to wipe my sweat off. I get extremely embarassed when I sweat a lot, but the only way to deal with that is to own it. I tend to pretend it’s just not happening, which helps somehow. At least when I’m just coming off a heavy touring bike I’ve got an excuse for it.
I think I’m a pretty shy person, especially when it comes to interacting with strangers, but after being forced into situations like those I do find myself adapting to it, and becoming less bothered by it. I start out as “I’m so sorry for forcing you to deal with me while I am like this”, but then eventually turns into “Yeah, I’m like this, but it’s your job to deal with me, so deal with me”. Liberating, in a way. I even asked a supermarket worker where the beef jerky was the other day. Take that, society.
I can’t think of any other way to say it: the nostalgia has worn off. The memories are still there, but it’s been six years now since I lived here, and I’ve been back many times since as a tourist / cycling tripper / reminiscer. The first few times I came back here it greatly affected me to see the place I had made so many memories in, but nowadays it’s starting to feel the same as when I back to the Netherlands to visit my parents: an integral part of my life, sure, but unmistakably something in the not-recent past. The way I feel about this is… meh. I’ve moved on. Got more important present-day things to think about.
“The lighting in Japan is different” is my half-assed explanation for why I somehow end up feeling better about the photos I take in Japan compared to the photos I take anywhere else. I don’t really know if it is the actual lighting, or the environmental details, such as the way the roads are built, the kind of materials used, the signs, the ambiance. It might just be me projecting my mood at the time of taking the photo. The feeling of taking photos on a solo cycling trip is very different than that of taking photos on a holiday retreat with the girlfriend. Maybe suffering to get a good shot is what makes me feel this way? It’s either that or the lighting in Japan really is different.
There’s two parts to this. The first is that, when I’m confident, making decisions that I’m already fairly certain about, just happen. There’s no worry, no hesitation. I know what I want to do and I just do it. If I’m not confident I’ll probably still end up making the same decision, but I’ll mull it over for way too long and worry about it way too much. Totally no point in doing that if you end up with the same end result. When I’m not confident I also worry more about completely irrelevant decisions, such as which meal to choose at a restaurant.
The second thing about making decisions is that for some things deciding things way in advance just doesn’t work. Either you’re lacking the information you need until closer to the decision time (such as with the weather report, and rain), or sometimes you just don’t know how you’ll feel about it until a lot of other things have happened.
For this latest cycling trip I had sort of planned the first part, but I didn’t know for sure which way to go to get back to Tokyo, and whether to linger at certain places or get a move on. Before the trip started I was toying with the thought of spending some time at Lake Biwa and maybe cycling around it. I also though about following the coast line more closely, taking some of the more remote coastal routes in the Kyoto and Kanazawa area. That’s something I could have thought a lot about before the trip, and could even have made a decision on that, but I’m sure that once the trip started I would have just changed my decision depending on how I felt at the time. There’s no use planning some things, you just need to let them happen naturally.
Another example of this is that I had ‘decided’ and even looked forward to spending time in the cities of Kanazawa and Matsumoto. But I reached Kanazawa at a horribly busy time, and Matsumoto way too early in the day, so it didn’t fit in with the rest of the trip. Since I didn’t preplan any of it I felt great about just cycling on and focusing on the trip. In retrospect most of my city stays have not been nearly as fun as staying in random or remote places.
When I’m cycling and take a conbini break I tend to lean my bike against the side of the conbini building. I do have a kickstand for the bike but when it’s fully loaded the kickstand tends to not be enough to keep the bike up, especially when I start touching luggage. Inevitably there is an ashtray outside for icky smokers, and my bike often ends up quite close to it.
In the countryside I’ve noticed several times that, while I’m taking a break, a smoker gets out of his car and lights up, but stays nowhere near me. When he’s finished he puts out his cigarette in the ashtray quickly, while keeping as much distance between me and him (it’s always a him, not a her). The same goes for school children who roll up to the conbini on their bikes. Whenever they notice me they park as far away from me as possible.
But as I got closer to Tokyo my sphere of private conbini space kept decreasing. In the five lakes area people just don’t care any more and stand right next to my bicycle smoking a cigarette. As they do this they still completely ignore me, of course, because talking to strange foreigners on bicycles is not the way of 99.99% of the Japanese people.
If my bike is a bit away from the ashtray but they still stand close to me I make it a point of moving away from them, because I find smoking disgusting. It sucks when you’re not in a designated smoking area, got there first, and some stinky people move to stand next to you blowing their smoke towards you. Screw you, smokers. You are ruining nature and the outdoors.
When I cycled down the road that was my first climb during my first solo cycling trip, I couldn’t help but think about how ridiculously unprepared I was when I started that trip.
It had been a late start because I decided at the last minute to get my rear tire replaced. It was in utterly terrible condition and I should’ve done that a lot sooner. Despite that I still reached Miyagase lake at a reasonable time, so I decided to cycle on until later in the day, not knowing the conditions of the road ahead. I wouldn’t call that a mistake per se, but it’s definitely not something I would do again if I could avoid it.
This was pre-smartphone days, and I don’t remember if I even had a map with me at the time. All I knew is that there was a long road that would lead up to the five lakes, and I’d figure out the next step when I got there. I had no real experience with proper mountain passes, other than the road leading up to the lake. In my memories that road was desolate and remote, with not much civilization surrounding it. I likely felt this way because I grew up cycling in the greater Tokyo area, and that kind of warps your mind about how you imagine the rest of Japan looks like. Surprisingly there are areas of Japan where there aren’t 20 conbinis within a one-kilometer radius of yourself. That said, when I cycled back down I noticed quite a lot of conbinis, camp sites, houses.. On the first trip, on the first day, it was the most remote road I’d ever cycled. On the third trip, on the last day, it was a cozy, comfortable ride through a suburban area with loads of facilities.
My muscles were weak. I didn’t realize this at the time because I hardly ever took mountain roads. I assumed that mountain roads would be about as tough as the ride to Miyagase lake, except longer. I didn’t know if I could actually keep up the climb if the road was longer. Or steeper. It was both. I broke down during that second day on the first trip. What I had thought was a straight climb up had turned into an up-down road, and all the progress I’d made climbing up in the last 30 minutes would sometimes be completely wiped out by another downhill. My muscles just stopped working. I couldn’t power the bike any more. I tried pushing it up on foot, but that was even more difficult, and strained my arms to death. I remember going at it on the lowest possible gear, standing every few minutes at the roadside to catch my breath, and just sitting at the roadside for many minutes, trying to give my muscles time to recover.
It was probably also a lack of technique. I noticed this in the last few days: when I’m not thinking about it I tend to choose a way too high cadence for a climb instead of relying on my muscles. This makes me run out of breath and doesn’t actually strain my muscles much, and after three weeks of cycling they can absolutely take it, so doing a lower cadence makes much more sense. If I forget this bit of information and technique after a few days of break time, surely I would not have known this on the first day of the first trip. That would’ve made things unnecessarily tough. I did not have my rhythm yet.
I’ve cycled other difficult roads, but no road has ever pushed my physical limits as much as that road. Even now, at my current strength, it would be a damn difficult climb. But I doubt I will ever experience the same kind of cycling despair I felt during that first trip.It is my own personal most-difficult road.
During the middle part of the trip the loneliness got to me for a while, and I found a strange, yet highly entertaining, coping mechanism. I know that ‘lonely’ is a bit of a presumptuous word to describe my state, given that I was chatting with my girlfriend at least once a day and interacted with at least one human being very day (usually the hotel receptionist), but lack of human interaction did limit that kind of interactive input on my brain.
What my brain decided to do, in the evenings when I had planned to have an early sleep, was to have intriciate conversations in my head between the people I know. At first it kind of just happened at random, but as I started to see the fun in it I was able to put any two random people together and let them have a conversation about any random topic, in their own voices, simulating their personalities as best I could. Although that’s not something I did consciously: I would just think to myself “let’s have person A talk to person B” and my mind would automatically fill in the personalities of those people. It only works well on the people I know best, of course.
The way the mind works just fascinates me. During the cycling trip I was sometimes in the middle of nowhere, with no internet, no other people to talk to, and nothing really to do until the next morning when I would start cycling again. I’d be physically quite tired as well, so wouldn’t feel like doing physical things either.
The mind adapts to everything. A few months ago I wouldn’t know what to do in a situation like that. I’d be focused on productivity, working, doing things on the internet, browsing 9gag, checking email, being active. If you suddenly took that away from me my brain wouldn’t just accept that. It would still be in the frame of mind of trying to get back to being busy. My mind wouldn’t be able to be at rest.
Physical exhaustion goes a long way towards getting to that resting state. After a full day of cycling you’ll feel perfectly okay to just stare at the ocean for an hour or two. Your mind won’t feel like it will need to do something or get back to something, it will just be completely at rest. At peace. It’s a state of mind I have trouble inducing when I’m at home because I have so many distractions readily available to be enjoyed. For a person of low self-discipline like myself the only way to get to that state is to force myself to suffer physically; to exhaust myself until my mind no longer has the energy to think about anything.
I’m perfectly okay with that. It’s the best state of mind I’ve ever had. Well worth suffering for.
During this trip I’ve passed two places that were used as locations in two popular anime. I’ve seen both anime, even quite liked both anime, yet when I visited those places I just could not see the connection. I mean, I can see it after the fact, knowing both the source and the final product, but what I cannot see, no matter how hard I try, is how a particular place in real life could end up being such a fantastic location in fiction.
Kami/Kasumi town, the inspiration for the location in the anime Air (TV). I went there and it was grey and cloudy. I saw some of the locations that appeared in the anime and I felt no connection. All I saw was an average grey Japanese town in the middle of nowhere that trucks sometimes passed through, had its one or two cheesy things that are supposed to be its tourist highlight, and above all the main road that connects me to where I came from and where I am going. There was not a hint of anime fantasticness in the town itself, that part all came from the mind of the creator.
Kizaki lake was a bit different. It inspired the setting for Onegai Teacher and Onegai Twins, and I could sort of kind of see that, given that when I went to Kizaki lake it was extremely sunny and holiday-like. It had a bit of a fantastic air to it. But, in my mind, the fantastic air was a property of the real-life place that made it more real-life-fantastic, not anime-fantastic. It was still a real-life place with real-life people living there, with a road connecting A to B, trucks passing by, regular Japanese tourists that are visiting, the usual biker gang parade and a very typical Japanese camp site. There were no alien school teachers or dodgy love triangles going on as far as I could tell, nor would it ever come up in my mind, while seeing the lake, that such things would make a great story to tell for a place like this.
I don’t know how anime creators do it. How do they see a place in real life and imagine a world like in anime? I think I lack the imagination required to do something like that, but I have the deepest respect for the people that do. The world must be a wonderful place for people who can do that.
Not thinking about what you’re thinking is bad. Sometimes I’m on the bike and a truck driver cuts me off, and the first thing that comes to my mind is “All truck drivers are bad”. Usually I’m able to put that into perspective, but on some days, when it’s raining, windy and I’m cold, I lose that ability, and for the rest of the day I’ll feel like I’m on some kind of personal vendetta against truck drivers. It’s pretty dumb, and I realize that afterwards. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore though, especially when a malignant stereotype you’ve formed in your mind gets confirmed over and over again. The more it gets confirmed, the harder it is to keep an open mind.
So let’s talk about Chinese tourists in Japan. If there ever was a stereotype, it’s that of the Chinese tourbus pulling up at a tourist site with a stream of Chinese people exiting, loudly talking of course, and generally being in the way of everyone else while they are there, taking photos with their tablets and selfie sticks and generally altering the environment just so they can get the best shot, even if it’s bad for the environment.
I’ve seen exactly that. That is a thing that happens. To name one specific encounter where all the things I mentioned happened at the same time: Yamanakako, two days ago. I was cycling around the lake along the cycling path when I noticed a big tour bus parked at a parking space I was cycling towards. The tourists had already come out and were randomly dispersing to take photos of the lake, but mainly staying on the cycling path and blocking the way.
I didn’t have a bell, and ringing my bell is kind of rude anyway, so I just slowed down, made some click-click noises with my wheels and occasionally yelled ‘excuse me’ to get people to let me pass. The tourists were so focused on themselves that they didn’t notice me until the very last minute, and were suddenly so surprised by the sight of a big bicycle coming towards them (at a near-stalling 3 kph…) that they didn’t know what to do and nearly fell over themselves trying to get out of the way.
As I was sighing over their ignorance I suddenly heard a loud ‘AAH’ and saw a couple suddenly run towards their lake, oversized phones out and at the ready. And then I saw what they saw: a lone swan had walked up to the shore and was hanging out there. The woman immediately ran towards it and posed next to it, but before the man could take a photo the swan (naturally) got upset at the invasion of its personal space and started attacking the woman. This amused me greatly. The swan calmed down when the woman went a bit further away and I think they still got their shot in the end.
Now here’s the twist: the tourists from the tour bus were not Chinese, they were Dutch!
actually, no they weren’t. They were Chinese. It would have been a nice twist, but I distinctly heard Cantonese being spoken by the tourists, so that narrows it down a lot. I found the presence of the Chinese tourists annoying and I thought it detracted from the quality of the area.
I also found the presence of myself annoying and thought it detracted from the quality of the area.
Imagine if, instead of a tour bus full of Chinese tourists, there’d be 80 touring bicycles manned by sweaty hipster Dutch people like me. That would be so goddamn annoying! You’ve got this beautiful area, with great historical value, and fantastic sights to see, yet it’s value is being diluted by the presence of so many people who obviously don’t belong here. This is not the fault of any particular nationality, or group of people (other than that they’re all tourists), it’s just a natural consequence of scale. The Fuji five lakes are a day trip away from the biggest metropolitan area in the world, and a short holiday away from one of the most populous countries in the world; a country whose citizens have been getting richer and richer lately and are able to afford that kind of holiday. It’s only natural that the most awesome spots get visited the most, but I think we shouldn’t deny that the presence of tourists, regardless of nationality or race, detracts from the experience.
There’s no easy solution to this ‘problem’. You can limit the amount of tourists that are allowed to be in a particular area, and you probably should at some point, but that’s hardly the perfect scenario. Ideally you’d have so much area, so much sights to see, that there’s never any one particular area that gets saturated with tourists. This is extremely difficult though because tourists always either go for the close-by, low-hanging fruit, or the most popular, most famous place. Those places will always be at risk of being oversaturated.
Another example: motorcyclists. By themselves they’re not too annoying, but in the weekends they tend to go out in large groups riding their needlessly loud motorcycles through the lovely countryside, pretty much ruining the experience for anyone nearby who wants to enjoy the quiet nature. I don’t think it’s nice to create inconvenience for others by making a lot of noise. This does not scale.
It would be great if, like in online gaming, we could simply set up multiple servers that serve the same location, splitting up the players into different servers. I wonder if VR will ever reach the level of fidelity required to be able to reproduce exactly, in all senses, the sensation of a particular place. You’d also need to simulate the humans in that area so I guess that’s a silly argument. If we had that kind of technology then decreasing tourist spot saturation would be the lowest priority thing we’d use it on.
So I guess the only viable solution is indeed to limit the amount of tourists allowed to enter a place. But where do you draw the limit? I’ve been to some temples in Kyoto where you’re hardly able to walk before stepping over another person. I wouldn’t call that a great experience, but it’s definitely a way to maximize the amount of people able to see it. For the very best places though, I would not mind at all to pay a lot more in order to be able to share the place with less people.
One could claim that paying more to have less people around a popular spot is not fair to poorer people, since they might not be able to go to many such places that are rate-limited. But… this is a capitalist society, and your personal well-being does not depend on visiting a tourist spot, so I wouldn’t call it an essential life need. If charging a higher entrance fee means cutting you off from some cultural heritage, then so be it. Go read up on it on wikipedia or something. You’ll probably learn more from that than by actually being there. Or better yet: just have high-tariff days and low-tariff days, then you can choose if you want the crowds or not. Either way, it’s something humanity is going to have to deal with in the next century, as the ability to travel and visit tourist sights around the world becomes available to an ever increasing portion of the world population.
Before I begin I have to admit to some odd type of prejudice here: all the spandex cyclists I’ve talked to were extremely nice people. I’ve blogged before about how some of them encouraged me, helped me and even guided me to a brilliant camp site. That said, my main feeling about spandex cyclists as a group is: I can’t seem to get myself to respect them as a group.
I’m not sure why! And I think my now liking them is likely to be a personality flaw in myself, not in them. Still, I should write about it, because why not.
What amazes me about this is how little interaction I actually have with the people I ‘do not get along with’. All it takes for a road racer to pass me while I’m going up a hill without saying anything to me and I immediately conclude to myself that I don’t like him. It’s silly because I don’t feel that way towards scooters, cars or trucks. I mean, I often hate on trucks but for a lot more reason: they stink and if they pass me too close, I die.
I don’t want to hate on the sporting accomplishments of racing cyclists either: I think it’s damn inpressive that they can go so fast and so far on their bikes. I’m not competing with them in any way. Touring cycling is an entirely different thing.
Yet… perhaps it isn’t? Perhaps I feel that since we are both enjoying the same roads, the same mountains, the same nature, my way of enjoying it is better than theirs? After all, why be in such a hurry to get through this beautiful scenery? Why spend shitloads of money buying the super-very-best equipment if all it does is accelerate you from 30mph to 32mph? Will it affect your enjoyment that much to be only a little bit faster? What’s the point of spending so much money on a hobby if you can enjoy the exact same places for way less?
The beauty of a bicycle, to me, is that it can take you anywhere, away from populated spots into places that others normally can’t go. A lot of places are too far to walk to yet difficult to access by car, especially if you haven’t planned it in advance. On my bike I get to cycle around an area, spot an interesting road or landmark and just find my way towards it. It’s about exploration. Yet I’ve not seen many (perhaps even any) spandexy cyclists do that. I tend to encounter them on major roads, going from A to B. There doesn’t appear to be an element of exploration to them. I could be making all of this shit up. Like I said, I hardly interact with them, so I don’t know.
Is it fair to base my opinion on being passed, over the years, by hundreds of spandexy cyclists? Probably not. But lacking any other input, this appears to be my preliminary conclusion. I don’t feel drawn towards it. Looking at them I have never felt the desire to buy a racing bike and try one for myself. It appears to just.. not be my thing.
That said, I’m still very happy to interact with someone while I’m on my bike, and I’ve only ever had good experiences whenever someone talks to me while I’m cycling. Of all the users of the road I very much prefer the spandexy cyclist over anything else. Other than touring bikes, of course
Time bothers me. I’ve blogged about this before at least several times, but it’s still on my mind now. It bothers me that this is my third big solo cycling trip. It bothers me that I will never feel the same way again about a cycling trip in the way that I felt about the first cycling trip. Time passes and I cannot ever get back the exact same feeling I had in the past. No turning back. It just pushes forward. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it, nor any chance of being able to do anything about it in the future. Even if everyone becomes immortal time will still flow in only one direction, and your first X will always be your first X and will never ever come back.
It’s the way our brains work. It’s not a fundamental law of the universe. Yes, time flows only one way, but its our brains that interpret experiences, and the only reason that first times feel special is that our brains did not contain any prior experience. It seems that the less contents are in your brain, the stronger the new experience feels. It’s inevitable that, once your brain’s full, things will go numb. That scares me.
I believe there’s two fundamental elements about our mind: the memories bit, which is just data storage, and the personality bit, which is our active neural networks that is actually us. Even if we don’t remember a particular experience vividly, it has already contributed in shaping our neural network in a particular way. For example, I might not remember a particular time that I was at a beach and someone bought me ice cream, but my neural network will have increased the happiness level for experiences related to ‘beach’ and ‘ice cream’. Your experiences shape you, even if you don’t remember them after a while.
That also means that, eventually, as time passes, your real you will have diverged so much from your past you that you experience things completely differently. This might sometimes conflict with your memory storage, because your memory storage might be a very specific memory that tells you that you felt a certain way at a certain place or with a certain person, but your real you, your active neural network, has already changed to feel completely different about that place or person. Memories lie, but your personality is exactly what is you; it’s unable to lie. Unless you’re lying to yourself and pretending you live inside your memories.
Time only moves forward. You can’t ever have two first times. But that’s fine. You can have a first second time. And a first third time. And a first fourth.. By time’s very definition anything that hasn’t happened yet will be completely new. Your mind might be better able to predict what’s going to happen, based on all your previous experiences that you used to train your neural network with, but in the end the next thing will always be completely new, and you’ll never know with completely certainty what’s going to happen next.
That is an extremely exciting thought.