Monthly Archives: October 2014

Japan is number one!!!

DSC03516We spent two months cycling through Japan, from Hokkaido to the western tip of Honshu and loved it. It is a fantastic country and great for cycle touring. It ranks as the number one country (so far) of the 21 countries we have toured on this trip. We started in Hokkaido at the end of August and the weather throughout the trip was good apart from having to shelter from two typhoons. It is a mountainous country and very beautiful, we watched the autumn colours appear as we headed south. We caught 2 ferries, from Hokkaido to Akita and from Kobe to Shikoka.

We Cycled 3,115km
climbing 41,135 metres

Why is it so good? There is no one reason but a combination of many;

1. The countryside, beautiful scenery, from neat rice fields to groves of Japanese cedar and bamboo. Good roads generally quiet. In most cases if there was a busy road you could find a quieter road that was heading the same way or follow a cycle track by the road. The north in particular was quieter.

3 generations ran this traditional Ryokan.

3 generations ran this traditional Ryokan.

2. The people, we found most people to be very friendly and helpful. More reserved than in some countries but if you asked for help they would go out of their way to try and aid you. We were given food in parks when people had barbecues and the stall holders in the country were keen for us to try their fruit and veg. Few people spoke much English until you reached any main tourist area. DSC03673As with every other country the Japanese were less amiable in busy tourist areas.

3. The Japanese eye for detail. Everything works from vending machines always being full and giving change to free public toilets everywhere that were always clean and had toilet paper. There was rarely any litter anywhere and recycling is an art form. The towns and cities were always neat and tidy and well cared for.

another free campsite

another free campsite

4.The camping, the Japanese like to camp so there are plenty of campsites around. Many are free and the average we paid was about 1000 yen a night about £6. The camp sites are all basic with rarely any showers or wi-fi. There are no caravans and not many motorhomes around. Apart from camp sites we camped in parks and roadside rest stops with no problem.DSC03333

5. The food, Japan has an a amazing range of food with thousands of regional specialties. It is generally fairly cheap to eat out. A bowl of ramen costs around 800 yen less than £5. Most of the places we ate didn’t have an English menu but many had pictures or plastic models of food in the window. The nicest meals we had were usually in small places in quiet towns. The fruit and veg are very fresh. The fruits are huge, with big apples and peaches which taste delicious. Usually from small producers who will have their name and often a picture of them, if the fruit comes in a bag.

View from our airbnb

View from our airbnb

6. Tokyo is an incredible city with no real centre but made up of 23 wards all with their own different characters. You can spend weeks exploring it and it is fun to cycle around. We liked all the modern architecture, and they are all built to a very high standard.

 

7. Convenience stores and vending machines. Most towns had a convenience store which sold all essentials including cakes and coffee and snacks. They also had toilets often the high-tec ones with mini showers. A great place for a break and refuel. If there weren’t any convenience stores around you could usually find a vending machine dispensing cans of cold coffee, sports drinks or juice. This is great as you rarely need to carry much food on your bike.

Matsumoto a nice city nestling in the Japanese alps.

Matsumoto a nice city nestling in the Japanese alps.

8. The cities and towns. Apart from Tokyo there were plenty of other beautiful cities with interesting buildings and architecture. There were a few areas with traditional wooden housing but most had been lost in the rush to modernise.

9.Kawaii (cute) The Japanese are into cute in a big way from cars to road signs, from clothes to furniture. Hello Kitty is just a fraction of what is on offer..

A bit too hot.

A bit too hot.

10.Onsens. Hot springs and public baths are everywhere and after a hot or cold day on the bike they are a great way to revive and freshen up. Again most regions have their own special water with “health giving properties”.

And then there is the snow in winter, the cherry blossoms of spring, the autumnal colours………

Western Honshu and Shikoku

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The Shimanami Kaido is a great 70km  cycling route between Imabari on Shikoku island and Onomichi on Honshu. Joining 6 islands by bridges with dedicated cycle routes either on or under the bridges. It is a relaxing way to ride with easy gradients and most of the way on dedicated cycle routes or quiet roads. We even managed a swim off one of the islands, the water was a really nice temperature.We enjoyed the contrast of island cycling after the busy roads through the  metropolis that covers most of flatter southern Japan. From Kyoto it had been a stream of seemingly endless traffic lights and heavy traffic.

We stayed a couple of days in Onomichi a small town surrounded by docks and shipbuilding. We discovered a newly opened high end bike hotel ,U2 which had opened in a converted warehouse. We had already booked in elsewhere and it looked great but pricey. All the rooms had a rack to hang your bike and there was a bike shop, coffee shop, restaurant and bakery all on site.

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The A Dome at Hiroshima. One of the few buildings to survive at the epicentre of the blast.

From Onomichi we were back into the mountains heading to Hiroshima and then on to Shimonoseki and a boat to Korea. The Peace Park at Hiroshima was very sad with a memorial with stories from children who had survived the first A bomb on the 6th August 1945 which killed 290,000 people. Hiroshima is a thriving modern city now set on a delta surrounded by mountains.

There was no easy way through the mountains which were cut through by rivers producing deep gorges. It was a question of zigzagging up and down valleys to work your way across. Once again the roads were quiet and on our last full day in Japan we cycled through a limestone area with grasses and rocks, not unlike  parts of  England.

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We managed to find an open campsite to celebrate our last night in Japan. Unsurprisingly we were the only people camping there. We sat and watched the millions stars on a beautiful clear night.

Leaving Shimonoseki

Leaving Shimonoseki

We took the Kampu ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan the next day. We managed to get 50% off the tickets as there is a cycling promotion encouraging cyclists to come to Korea. It was a lovely way to say sayonara to Japan and hello South Korea.

Central and Southern Honshu

From Nikko we headed up into the mountains, slogging up the Irohazaka Climb, the Japanese version of the Alp d’Huez but with only 20 hairpin bends. This got us up to lake Chuzenji a beautiful lake with autumn colours appearing on the hill sides and waterfalls tumbling down. Then another climb up to the Akechidaira plateau which is a stunning marshland. Then more waterfalls, more climbing, reds, orange and greens. We finally made it through a tunnel at the top of the col, dropping down to find a place to camp on a ski slope.

 

We loved the japanese mountains. The roads are good and mostly quiet and the scenery is jaw dropping. It was getting colder at night but the days were still warm. We cycled down to Matsumoto a beautiful city nestling amongst the Japanese alps and stayed for a few days sheltering from a Typhoon.

Then up through the Alps heading down towards Kyoto. We followed route 158 which unfortunately turned out to be a busy road with coachloads of tourists heading up to see the autumn colours through some long tunnels. You get to appreciate clean air when you share a tunnel over 1km long with some heavy traffic ! Rather than face the three and a half kilometre tunnel through the mountain top we took the old pass over the top. This was quiet, the only slight worry was to see one of the volcanoes smoking from the top. We were about 50km away from Mt Ontake.

 

We were lucky enough to see a total eclipse of the moon whilst staying in the old city of Takayama. It is one of the few Japanese cities which managed to avoid the relentless modernising of the 1970s.

From Takayama we followed the Hida river as it carved it’s way out of the alps towards the sea. Leaving behind quiet roads for a metropolis of  cities which stretch all the way across the plain. We managed to find cycle tracks along the river. We headed past Lake Biwa into Kyoto a day earlier than planned to take cover from another approaching Typhoon.


Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and has 17 world heritage sights 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines not to mention a fantastic modern station. A great place to shelter from a typhoon. It is popular for cycling. The only problem is where to park your bike. There are bicycle traffic wardens who will sticker your bike and remove it if you leave it in the wrong place. We did manage to find an underground bike park where you can safely leave your bike complete with a special conveyor belt to get it back up again.

We spent 3 days exploring Kyoto but were lightweights on the temple and shrine count only managing a few. The first we saw was the most impressive the Sanjusangendo Temple built in the 1200’s with statues of 1001 Kannon-Bosatsu each five and a half feet tall, carved out of wood and covered in gold leaf.1001 buddhas
It is a great place to wander around with lots of different neighbourhoods. We loved the ultramodern station complete with 15 floors of open spaces malls and hotels.