Closing thoughts

(Written on the 13th, scheduled with time delay.)

Right after I gave my bike to Kuroneko for airport delivery I was in shock. After one busy event after another, I had some free time to think. I sat down at a random ‘park’ (that is, a free bit of concrete) and after a while finally calmed down. I had anticipated this moment, because I thought that moment would clearly show how I felt about the impulsive decisions I had been making recently. Instead, what came was only a mild rationalization with no clear sway towards thinking it was a good or bad decision to go back early. My mind was still full of worry about the day’s hotel and if I would be able to cancel all the next hotels without financial damage. The rest moment wasn’t quite there yet.

I know very well that what I’m doing is a pretty weird thing, even for my doing. Impulsive booking a cycling trip, and then impulsively cancelling it and returning early for no tangible/external reason, not many people would do that. Of the small group of people that does touring cycling, an even smaller group does touring cycling alone, and even smaller group would plan (and unplan) a trip the same way I do. This does not bother me in one bit, but I can see that other people may have trouble understanding my motivations. Hell, I have trouble understanding my motivations. That’s why I write blogposts like these.

Yesterday I awoke from the love hotel quite early. I never managed to turn the lights off and I left the outside door ajar just to cool the damn place down. It’s an utterly terrible place to sleep. I’d even prefer a capsule hotel over a love hotel, but that’s only because capsule hotels tend to be way cheaper. Anyway, I went for a short stroll through early morning Kochi (yes, I can say where I am now!) and walked towards the station. Not many people were awake yet on this Sunday morning. I considered taking a train back to Tokushima, which is where I came from when I took the ferry with my bike. But the connection between train stations and ferry ports seemed tedious so I got a train ticket instead. The Limited Express from Kochi to Okayama went along much of the same route that I had cycled the day before. It felt like rewinding the trip. Somehow, in retrospect, I still hadn’t quite found my rest moment yet at this time.

Then I hopped on the Shinkansen to Osaka and did some shopping. Yodobashi is fantastic as always. I wanted new noise cancelling earphones since I lost some bits of my old ones on the flight in. Yodobashi provides. When it came to lunch I was deeply appalled though. Osaka station area is shockingly, disgustingly busy on a Sunday. Every restaurant had a queue of people waiting in front of it. I absolutely hate this. Queueing for food is just not my thing. I’m definitely not a city person. I also thought about finding a quiet cafe after lunch but that was clearly impossible as well. Yet somehow on my way back towards the station I found one place inside the station building that wasn’t very busy, and I managed to have quite a decent curry there.

My final hotel is near the airport, and only a short train ride away from Osaka. And a bit of a walk, it turns out. Unfortunately my Google Pixel GPS chose exactly this moment to stop working, so I had to navigate the old-fashioned way. It wasn’t much of an issue though. But at the end of the day (again, in retrospect), still no ‘closure’ moment about the trip.

The closure moment finally came today. I have a day free to do whatever I want since my flight is not until tomorrow, so I took a local train to Wakayama. I went on the train, put my new earphones in, put some music on and just sat back and enjoyed the scenery. That’s when I realized: this moment is all I really wanted from this trip. One quiet, peaceful moment, to experience Japan the way I remember it, without any stress, or worries, or hurries. All I needed was one day.

That’s when I knew I was comfortable with my decision. I knew what the way forward was. The way forward for me is not Japan, because I have been there before. You can never go back. There is only forward. You can never derive the same enjoyment from the same thing twice. It diminishes every time. That is why you must do new things. It may seem like common sense, or a thing you can make yourself realize just by thinking about it, but you can’t. You really can’t. You need to confront yourself with this reality somehow, otherwise it just doesn’t hit home. For me, making an impulsive decision was the way to make me truly realize this. A lesson I learn in this way is a lesson I will never forget.

As an interlude and totally secondary reason, one very practical reason for feeling great about my decision is this: it’s raining. It’s a gray and miserable day today, and the area I’d be cycling in is even worse according to the weather report. Wind and rain are pointless hardships. At least when you’re climbing a mountain you’re suffering for a payoff, but there is no payoff for cycling in the wind and the rain for the whole day. All it does is make you feel more miserable.

That’s the lesson of this for me: you can never go back, and repeating past experiences diminishes the value over time. You can compare it a bit to playing games: after you’ve leveled up sufficiently, you don’t go back to the first level to hang around and repeat the same quests over and over again, right? There’s always a next level, but the levels you’ve completed, they’re done. They’re fun to revisit after you’ve done them, but you’ll never again feel the same challenge that you felt the first time you did it.

I imagine people will read the previous paragraph and think of it as something negative. I don’t see it that way though. I’m quite stoically inclined, with a (healthy?) pince of nihilism added to the mix. It’s just an unchangeable part of reality for me. I have tested my words on myself and by experimentation have confirmed that they are true, in so far as a statement about a state of mind can be true. So, not ‘True’ truth, but ‘true for me’. I’m very happy about this, because I know it is something I can rely on. It helps me define meaning, so I no longer have to seek for it, or at least not as much as I used to when I first started doing cycling trips.

Tomorrow morning I fly back to the UK. I hope my bike will be at the airport, but now that I’ve rationalized my trip and my feelings about cycling I know I won’t consider this trip a failure even if the bike doesn’t make it or is damaged. It would be a minor setback compared to the mental clarity I found. That said, fingers crossed though. The trip’s not over yet. But I’m on my way home.

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Impulsiveness

(Written on the morning of the 12th, set to autopublish on the 15th)

The truth is, after the cold but refreshing downhill from the last post, either before or after I went to the temple, I forget, I got a strange idea in my head and I couldn’t let it go. It just kept sitting there and wouldn’t move, and forced me to think about it. In my mind I imagined the steps I would need to take and the consequences it would have if it went either right or wrong. In the end, I figured it was worth doing a little investigating in real life to see if it was possible. After all, I still had plenty of time left in the day.

I decided to see if I could change my flight and go home early.

Why? Mainly because I wasn’t really enjoying myself any more. I’ve got the “cycling in Japan” theme nailed. I can look at a map now and know exactly what kind of road I’ll encounter. When I enter a new town I’ll know exactly where the station is, where the hotels are, where the conbinis are, without even looking at a map. Everything is just hugely predictable, and, finally, unchallenging. I just am no longer getting out of these cycling trips what I was getting all those years ago when I first started.

Besides that main reason, two additional reasons that caused me to feel this way are that 1. this trip was pre-planned, and 2. it is genuinely cold and unpleasant outside if you’re sweating like mad, which makes the random wandering-around kind of a non-thing for me. If your clothes are wet with sweat and there’s a cold wind chilling you down then you don’t feel like casually cycling around to see what’s out there, you just want to get to a warm place as soon as possible. The pre-planned bit meant that I already knew exactly where I was going, and I knew that yesterday was both the most difficult and the most beautiful route of the trip, so the challenge kind of disappeared after that.

So, at Sukiya I put the first part of my plan into action: check if I can actually change the date on my return flight. I managed to check on my mobile phone on the wifi from the conbini next door. I could indeed change my flight! I didn’t change it just yet, though.

I am 200 kilometers away from the airport. I needed to check how I would get back there if I’m not cycling back. The train would take me back there in a day, but as I expected and confirmed after checking, it would take quite a few transfers, and either a very long time or a little trip on the Shinkansen. I’ve learned from experience that the last thing I want to do is haul an ultra-heavy bike bag around from train to train, walking from platform to platform, going up and down stairs, passing through heavily populated stations.. That is something that would make for a very miserable day for me, so I preferred to avoid that option.

My preferred option, which I’ve used once before on a previous trip, is to bag the bike and send it via the Yamato Kuroneko delivery service straight to the airport. Kuroneko, for me at least, is not a sure bet. I do not have absolute confidence that they’ll accept my bike as bagged, that they’ll deliver it to the airport on time, and that they’ll deliver it at a reasonable price. Everything changes when it comes to bikes. No one knows how to deal with it. To be fair, I’ve never had negative experiences with Kuroneko, but if I mess this up I’ll lose my bicycle, so I needed to be absolutely sure that it was possible.

So I held off on changing my flight and first cycled onwards to Kochi, where I found a Kuroneko facility. A clueless guy tried to help me but gave up almost immediately and passed me on to a very helpful lady, who provided me with all the details I needed. It was indeed possible, could be delivered within 3 days if I gave the bike bag to them today, and although she didn’t say directly I inferred that she wouldn’t charge me an insane amount of money.

This was around 16:00/16:30, and I still hadn’t changed my flight. So I excused myself from the Kuroneko and immediately went to the nearby conbini to get wifi so I could change my flight. I had to present my bike them before closing time at 18:30 so I was suddenly very rushed. But of all the luck in the world, in a giant city, this conbini did not have wifi! So I cycled onwards towards the station and the center in the hopes of finding a conbini, warcycling to find wifi. Not too far away I managed to find a Joyfull family restaurant which had an open wifi, so I hopped onto my phone to change the reservation. I could still make it.

But then the website broke! The Cathay Pacific site was very mobile-friendly, very easy to use and walked me right to the final step of changing the dates on my return flight, but then it errored saying I didn’t put dates for my departure flight. Well, no shit, I already took that flight, can’t change it now. I hoped it was perhaps a mobile site issue, so I grabbed my laptop and, in the parking lot of a family restaurant, tried to change my booking on my laptop. Again, no luck.

This was a good point to give up. I could simply cycle back to my hotel, never see Kuroneko again and continue on with the rest of the trip. But I felt annoyed that the Cathay site wouldn’t let me change my booking even though it clearly allowed it, so I called them up. Still from the family restaurant parking lot. With my laptop resting on my bike. I connected immediately and the guy I spoke to helped me in record time to change my booking with no issues whatsoever. Excellent customer service. I’m flying back on the 14th.

Then I cycled, quite hurriedly, back to the Kuroneko building, where I started to take my bicycle apart. I’m getting better at this every time, but the rushed-ness of the situation caused me to dirty myself quite a lot. I sprayed a *lot* of chainspray on that chain in the morning, and it was making marks everywhere. I didn’t do nearly as good of a job bagging it as on the way in, but hey, whatever. I’m going home. The friendly lady was still there and accepted my bike without issue, and only charged me 4400 yen. I’m pretty sure that the last time I used them the price was at least double. She also didn’t check the weight. Perhaps they changed their policy, or I was overcharged last time, or it’s just that the distance is less this time. In any case, I’m not complaining.

The sense of relief I got when my bike was finally accepted was amazing. I had a very good walk along various canals on the way back to my hotel, finally realizing what I had done. This trip started out as an impulsive thought made reality in only a day, and now I had undone the entire trip, also on an impulsive thought, also in only a day. That’s probably not a good thing. Then again, the best way to learn is by making mistakes. At least, that’s how I rationalized it as I was walking the many kilometers to the incredibly sleazy love hotel I wrote about last time.

I wasn’t done yet though. I still had to cancel all my reservations and book a hotel for the next two nights. I managed to change my existing booking for the airport hotel and even ended up a little bit cheaper. All other hotels had free cancellation except one, and that one was kind enough to waive the fee. I’ve mentioned before how booking.com is fantastic, but it really is worth saying again. Everything can be done through the website and I was done with the whole process in only a few minutes. Way better than calling up hotel after hotel to get it done.

As of the moment of writing I am still in the love hotel. The door made a noise at midnight which scared the crap out of me because I thought it was going to unlock the room and let some random couple come in, but everything was quiet throughout the night. I never did manage to find out how to turn the lights off, though. What an inconvenient place.

I’m about to check out and head over to the station, where I’ll take all those trains back to the airport. My plan is to stop over at Osaka on the way and buy some new noise-cancelling earphones, because I lost the rubbery bit on one of the earphones on my old ones, and I think it’s time for something better anyway. No plans for tomorrow yet, but I think I’ll go on walkabout somewhere and take some random photos.

I think I’m done with cycling trips for a while. At least until I find adequate motivation to do another one.

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The love hotel

As I mentioned before, all of my current cycling trip was pre-booked in advance, except one night. It’s the only time I’m staying in a big-ish city, so I assumed that there would be loads of hotels available to choose from. But it was also a Saturday night and by the time I started booking my trip everything was sold out. I kept checking back on booking.com and Google maps but nothing became available, until a few days ago. One hotel, just added to booking.com, had some rooms available. It actually had rooms available before, but at insane prices. Now prices were reasonable. Still way higher than regular business hotels, but reasonable. The only catch: it’s a love hotel.

I pondered a lot about whether or not I should reserve it. On the one hand I felt it wasn’t in the spirit of my cycling trip to pre-book any accommodation that was above the bare-minimum business hotel level of service. The only available cheap business hotel was 30 miles away though. I considered booking that and going there by train and then back again to my parked bicycle in the morning, but that definitely wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the cycling trip. In the end my fear of the rain and the cold won out, so I booked the love hotel.

I actually considered just winging it and maybe sitting at the steps of the train station looking like a poor lost foreigner wanting help and waiting for a good samaritan to show up and offer me to stay at their place. Given the kindness of Japanese people I actually suspect this would have worked, but that’s also kind of the reason I didn’t want to do it, since I’d be taking advantage of their kindness. I’m not a lost foreigner any more; I have the technological, linguistic and financial means to book a hotel on the fly no matter where I am. So, better to save that kindness for someone who really needs it. The other reason I ended up pre-booking is that I was still worried that it would rain. Not having an overnight plan sucks a lot more if you’re drenched with rain and icy cold.

My only previous experience with a love hotel was indirectly via a story told by a (non-Japanese) friend, who actually got thrown out of a love hotel because he couldn’t figure out how it worked and couldn’t communicate what he wanted. I quite dreaded that this would happen to me. After almost 90 kilometers of cycling and some unintended extra exercise (more on that later) I really needed some uninterrupted sleep. So when I showed up at the reception desk I was mildly anxious. Fortunately the man at the reception was quite helpful and quickly helped me get set up. He even fixed the wifi for me, although it broke again soon after he left. But hey, I managed to get into my room and was left alone, so I was happy.

Except for the fact that the door wouldn’t stop talking and wouldn’t let me out. There’s a little something I could have known had I investigated a bit first: once you’re in the room, you have to pay to get out. Since I had booked the hotel on booking.com and was expecting to pay by card I was reluctant to use the machine at the door, since I kind of suspected that any overpayment on my part would end up not getting refunded. So I stayed in my room, which wasn’t too bad, since the hotel provided a free welcome beverage (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and a dinner menu to order from, delivered to the room. The door finally shut up as well so all was good.

The room itself was fairly decent. It was a bit as if a karaoke room and a regular hotel room had sex and squirted dildos and condoms everywhere. It was soundproof, had a PS2, karaoke machine, dildo vending machine and even the mini-fridge was vending-machine-style. You have to pay for everything. The view was excellent. You can tell the owners wanted to go for the premium kind of feel to make it feel nicer than a business hotel, but they went about in a really sleazy way so the end result somehow felt worse than a business hotel. If I wanted to impress a girl I’d never ever take her to a love hotel, unless my goal was to show her how messed up Japan is.

There were two major issues with the room, both of which I had to leave unsolved. The first was that the bloody lights didn’t turn off. I looked all throughout the room, pressed every switch I could find, but the lights would not turn off. I guess that must have been on purpose. The other thing that annoyed me hugely was that the heating was set way too high and there was no way to turn it down. Again, I suspect that was on purpose. Helps to get people to take their clothes off, I guess. After dinner I was just so tired that none of these things even bothered me, and I fell asleep just like that, with the lights on in a room that was way too hot.

I was sound asleep in my bed when the door machine started talking to me again at 23:30. I didn’t wake up fast enough to hear what it actually said but I was worried that it had unlocked the door. The last thing I want is for some horny couple to show up expecting the room to be available. I stayed awake in my now insanely hot room for a few minutes to see if anything would happen, but everything seemed fine. I assume the owner reserved the room for the whole night since I booked online. I solved my overheating problem the only way I could think of: I opened the balcony door just wide enough to get a pleasant temperature. The heating didn’t seem to care anyway and was full open all the time. Still couldn’t get the lights to turn off, though..

All in all it was a really strange experience. Japan is absolutely fantastic in being convenient. Everything you can imagine is convenient, and the way of thinking of making things convenient is embedded in everything they do. You could clearly tell that the love hotel was made with the concept of convenience in mind, yet somehow it executed that concept incredibly poorly. I really don’t know how much of that is on purpose because of the cultural concept of what a love hotel is, or how much of it is just because of lack of thinking things through. I also don’t know which of those options is worse. This is a country that has a ‘play soothing sound’ button on toilet seats so that other people don’t hear you take a shit, so anything’s possible really.

I could have done a late start on the following day and even could have gotten a free breakfast at the hotel, but I just felt like leaving early and getting on with the trip. Love hotels are definitely not for me. It’ll do in an emergency, but it’s pretty low on my list of places I would stay at.

Right, back to travelling. I’m still going through my backlog so I’ve got some fun blogposts coming up. Stay tuned.

Posted in Cycling, Japan | Leave a comment

No wind means a great day

I’m still catching up on blogging because of lack of internet at my previous hotel and laziness on my part in sorting photos. Oh well, it’s a short trip, I can afford to have a bit of backlog.

After my exhaustion on the first ‘real’ day of cycling I was mildly worried about the second, but the weather was on my side for the whole day, and it even got nice and warm during the afternoon. I woke up earlier than I intended to, I guess jet lag is catching up with me. I had planned to leave later so that the sun could warm things up a bit before departing, but I was deep inside a valley anyway so it wouldn’t have made much difference. That said, it was about 3 degrees C when I set off and I could see my breath with every exhale. This time I was wearing the appropriate attire, and the wind was gone, so it actually felt way more comfortable than the day before.

Before setting off I had to do some maintenance. I used the bandage tape to wrap around my handlebars to make them a bit softer to the touch, since my hands had been receiving some damage already, even with padded cycle gloves. I suspect this is more of an issue on touring bikes with front panniers since there’s more mass to turn with the handlebars, but honestly, that’s the way I prefer it. The bike just feels horribly unbalanced with all the mass on the back. After the handlebar was dealt with I pumped up the tires, which had lost a lot of pressure after the first day – way more than I expected. I probably have slow punctures on both tires since they lost about half their pressure over the course of the day. That very likely contributed to me having a miserable time at the end of the day before. After pumping the tires I used the disposable toothbrush each hotel in Japan kindly provides to clean my chain and then gave it a little lubricant spray. I’m not sure how much this helped but when I set off I felt a lot more positive and excited than I did at the end of the day before.

My route took me along a road which, during the planning of the trip, I thought was a mountain pass, but as it turns out it was more of a valley between mountain ranges, and it followed a river almost all the way until the end. It was an extremely gentle incline, going up to about 400 meters over the course of 30-40 kilometers. There were some ups and downs but nothing major, and all in all the cycling part of today was way easier than the worst case scenario I had prepared myself for. And there was hardly any wind! I hate cycling in the cold if there’s wind but without wind it was downright pleasant, and maybe even preferable over cycling in hot weather. Provided you have the right clothes, at least.

The scenery was amazing. Since it was a Saturday I was expecting tourist traffic, but there was hardly anyone anywhere. I guess it’s still too cold for Japanese sensibilities. All the better for me, since it meant I had the valley road all to myself for most of the time. It was a pretty good road, too. It’s likely part of a popular pilgrimage path, or at least I think that must have been the reason that the road nearly always had a wide pedestrian/cycle lane next to the main road, with hardly any bumps or ramps on it. Contrary to my usual stance on not cycling on the main road, this time I took advantage of the side path so I could stop frequently to take photos. Have I mentioned the scenery was amazing? The scenery was amazing.

The barometer in my cyclocomp was somewhat erratic today, which caused the elevation measurement to jump around a bit. It might actually because of varying air pressures in the valley, but I’m not sure. The only other times I’ve seen the altitude measurement go weird was during climbs in mountain passes, so it seems related.

After reaching the ‘top’ of the route after a very gentle climb spread out over dozens of kilometers, the way down was only several kilometers, and quite steep. After the first 200 meters or so I immediately stopped and had to reclothe myself because it was way too cold. More layers, better gloves, winter hat. Still no traffic. Awesome downhill. It’s the ultimate payoff that rewards you for putting in all the effort to climb those heights. I went down so fast that my ears popped.

Back at sea level, now at the other side of the mountain range, it was a bit more windy, but very warm. I stopped at a conbini to take off some layers again and had a look at the map. I wasn’t quite at my destination yet, and to be honest I wasn’t much in a hurry to get there. The destination for the day was a city (bad) I had been to once before (bad), and that I couldn’t find a decent hotel in in advance so I had to book a rather sleazy place because that was literally the only option available to me (bad). Instead, I wandered around a bit. Apparently the Japanese call this ‘pottering‘. It’s yet another bastardization of an English word that is so ridiculous that only the Japanese could think of it.

I found a rather famous temple on my map only a few kilometers from where I was, so I took some random zig-zag roads to get there and had a look. There were a few tourists there, but only a handful. It’s just ridiculously quiet everywhere and I’m not sure why. 

After the temple I wandered my way down towards a major road and managed to find a Sukiya for lunch. If the temple is the goal of the pilgrim then the Sukiya is the goal of the touring cyclist. .. to be honest I prefer Cocoichi over Sukiya lately. Sukiya’s curry seems to have gotten a bit too bland for my taste.

Feeling refreshed after the food I had a casual cycle into the city, which was still quite a way away. I cycled on a main road, which was main enough to have a large wide foot-and-cycle-path next to it. Quite flat, and quite appropriate for ‘pottering’. Nope, I still hate that word. Can’t get myself to like it. I had some time to waste before the hotel would allow me to check in so I wandered around the town a bit. Lots of nice canals, and the usual family restaurants, conbinis, post offices, delivery services, etcetera. Good old Japan.

I wonder if by now you can guess where I’m cycling. I’ve given some fairly major hints in this post. I’ll do the reveal after the trip is over. This post has gotten quite long so I’ll save the bit about the love hotel for the next post. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t great.

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Enter Title Here

So, I’m in Japan again for a little cycling trip. I arrived two days ago, had a somewhat casual day yesterday and the first real day of cycling today. It’s the earliest I’ve ever done a cycling trip. It’s cold..

No matter how much I improve, every time I go on a cycling trip something goes wrong. I’m getting better and better at managing it though. I use wheel spacers so my frame doesn’t bend. I pack everything nicely so my gears don’t get messed up. I remember how my derailleur works so I don’t get confused trying to untangle my chain when it doesn’t need untangling.. Ok, some of these things are pretty stupid. Somehow it only ever occurs to me after it goes wrong that it could go wrong, though. Anyway, the hardest lessons are the best, and none of these things are likely to occur again. Instead, I get new and exciting problems that I don’t know about yet.

First problem: two days ago I built the bike without any issues whatsoever. Since my plane arrived early and I couldn’t check in to my hotel yet I had plenty of time to build the bike to my liking. I spent some extra time fine-tuning the brakes to make sure they’re as tight as can be without hitting the wheels. Then, yesterday, I set off on my fully loaded bike and suddenly noticed that the ‘handrest’ bit on my handlebar, the bit that houses the lower brakes, was bent inwards. It’s happened before after transport, and it’s gotten so loose that I can easily bend it back, which I’ve done during past cycling trips without issue. I only noticed it while I was cycling, so I bent it while continuing to cycle. As soon as I bent it I came to a sudden stop. Turns out I had tuned the brakes so tightly that bending the bit that houses the brakes caused it to overtighten. I made the brakes a bit looser to compensate, but now every time I brake the handrest bit bends inwards..

For as long as I can remember I wear either two or three layers on my upper body when cycling: an underlayer to keep me warm and a layer over that to not look like an idiot. Sometimes in really hot weather I get the stupid idea of not using my underlayer, and every time I don’t wear it, I regret it. I suspect it’s a consequence of my ever-present belly fat that my belly gets really really cold when exercising. As such it seems that I need more layers than most people to feel comfortable. So when other people are wearing their one spandexy cycling layer I’m wearing two layers and a thin coat on top. I’ve had a really crappy Nike anti-rain/wind coat for ages. It’s not meant for cycling at all but it’s exactly the right combination of airy plus warm that I need. I finally decided to buy a proper wind-stopping cycling layer for cold weather, with super magical properties that let it wick the sweat away, let air through while still stopping air etc. etc. It’s terrible. I’m still cold when I wear it as a second layer, and it’s way too hot to wear in combination with my crappy Nike coat. I’ve tried it for two days now and it’s just not as good as my usual 2-3 layers. At least not for me. Experiment failed.

Another mishap happened to me today. I was cycling along as usual when I suddenly noticed my front left pannier hanging on only one hinge. This happens every once in a while if I hit a pothole or ramp too hard, so I stopped to re-hang it. But that’s when I noticed that the little hook that normally connects the pannier to the rack had just completely snapped off. I’m not entirely surprised by this: the hooks normally connect with two pins to the pannier and one had already broken off. I’ve had those panniers for 10 years. I guess it’s time for some new ones when I get back. In any case, I did some McGyvering with tie wraps to tie it to the rack, and it seems to be holding on for now.

 Every time I start cycling again after not having been on a proper ride in months, I simply forget how to cycle right. I just don’t naturally know how to pick the right pace. I always pick a gear or a cadence that’s too high and then I tire myself out. I have to make that mistake a few times at the beginning of every time until I eventually find my rhythm back. Today was the day where that kicked me in the ass in the worst possible way. Tomorrow is the designated ‘tough’ day, with a route that’ll go through the mountains and is longer than today. Today was supposed to be a relatively easy ride, but I managed to tire myself out long before lunch time, to the point where my muscles were pretty much useless and I could only go at really slow speeds. There’s probably several things that contributed to this, mainly me underestimating the nasty headwind I had all day and picking the wrong pace, but there are some issues with my bike as well. I noticed after about an hour in that the front brakes were hitting the front wheel again, so I had to loosen them up a little more. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to stop the wheel almost immediately when lifting up in the air and giving it a whirl. Another thing that may or may not have contributed to my crap performance today is that the chain is full of gunk and needs some fresh lube. I shrugged it off yesterday because the bike seemed fine then, but that was a much shorter ride. Today I passed a single bike shop, selling old lady bicycles. When I asked if I could borrow or buy some chain spray the guy told me he didn’t have any. I think my jaw literally dropped in real life. How in the bloody hell can a bicycle shop not have chain spray? I asked him again to make sure he heard me correctly, but he insisted he didn’t have any. Now, given that this was in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, and I interrupted the guy while he was talking to some other guy, combined with the fact that my appearance is very foreign and his appearance was very cantankerous, I suspect he simply didn’t want to help me. So he either sucks at operating a bike shop or else he’s an asshole. Meh.

The morning cycle had tired me out so much that I took two really long breaks to give my muscles a chance to recover. The first didn’t do too much but after the second break I felt a little bit better. Before that I really felt as if my legs were just going to shake and give up. The only time they’ve ever done that was when cycling to the Fuji five lakes area on the first day of my first solo cycling trip. I thought I was more prepared now, but I guess not. After the second break it was no longer freezing cold, the wind had died down a bit and I had switched from the crappy cycling overlayer to my good old windcoat, which made me feel a lot better. Cold, wind and bad gear is not a good combination.

When I finally arrived at my destination, a lovely little town right at the end of a valley where the two mountain ranges meet, I did not expect to find a giant shopping mall with a 100-yen shop. It took away from the quaintness but also gave me an opportunity to buy chain spray and fake handlebar tape (roll of bandage tape).

Tomorrow it’s off into the mountains. It doesn’t actually seem too bad in terms of height or inclines based on Google Earth, but it is a long ride. I did finally manage to get a hotel for tomorrow, but it wasn’t easy. Might be an interesting story tomorrow.

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Still going

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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.

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Just do it

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I never feel like going out for a cycle but I always feel better when I do.

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Tips for touring cycling in Japan

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.

The language

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.

Trip planning

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.

Tunnels

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:

  • One front pannier for tent and sleeping bag – full.
  • One front pannier for only clothes – full.
  • One rear pannier with sleeping mat and bike stuff (spare tires, pump, rain wear, duct tape etc.) – maybe 80% full.
  • One rear pannier with day stuff: wind coat, food, bike lock, sometimes a DSLR for easy access – maybe 70% full.
  • A backpack with electronics and documents and things, bound down on top of the rear rack.
  • The soft travel bag that the disassembled bike goes into is quite huge and goes under the saddle. I used to have a smaller bike bag and a bigger sleeping mat, but they swapped places.

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.

Weather

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:

  • Always stay on the road. Don’t take the sidewalk. Don’t go out of the way for cars. They need to go out of the way for you.
  • Never cycle in the rain. Because wet.
  • Don’t plan ahead. At least not too much. Randomness is part of the challenge

Have fun!

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Update 2016/06/12: fixed some wording, added Weight / Loadout section.

 

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