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It was still dark in the Chūō-ku ward in Osaka when I went across the street to a Lawson convenience store to find myself some breakfast. Roughly two hours later, I checked out of my hotel and then attempted to find a way through a stream of people, uniformly dressed in business attire, dutifully making their way to work at eight o’clock in the morning. Cyclists, likewise in suits, were weaving calmly through foot and motorized traffic.
I couldn’t help but think of Neo in The Matrix, lost in a crowd in a virtual world controlled by machines. Despite the amounts of people around, the morning commute ballet went about in a very orderly fashion. No honking. No shouting. No commotions of any sort. This, after all, was Japan.
In my quest to escape the tentacles of the greater Osaka Metro Area with its 20 million people, I tried to keep up with a fellow cyclist on a folding bike with drop bars, casually outpacing me in jeans and Converse sneakers. We were both headed southwest on one of the main city thoroughfares, sharing the multilane road with plenty of other cars and trucks. He unknowingly helped guide me away from the busy city and towards the Port of Wakayama, where I would catch a ferry to the island of Shikoku. This was where I was hoping to find serene and quiet country roads and, if I was lucky, one or the other forest road the Japanese call “rindo” (林道).
My preconceived notion of Japan was that of an advanced, educated society. While this might be true in a lot of areas, it certainly felt less so when it came to multi-language skills. What I failed to realize, but soon enough had to contend with, was the fact that especially outside bigger cities, knowledge of English seemed almost non-existent. This is why I cherished those encounters even more when I happened upon a local willing to converse in a language we could both understand.
Mitsuo tries to walk up the stairs to the ruins of Tokushima Castle, located on a hilltop in Tokushima Central Park, three to five times per day. He is retired, worked for the Yokohama Rubber Company for 33 years. Having his mom in a nursing home with dementia, he is trying to work against that by “keeping mind and body engaged,” as he put it. He spoke English reasonably well and told me that he takes lessons with a tutor from Australia twice a week. “Oh, I love Vienna,” he said to me as I mentioned to him that I was from Austria. He had traveled there in his twenties with a friend. “I love classical music. We listened to it a lot while we were there.”
In the eastern mountain range of the island, roughly a day’s ride away from Tokushima, I found what I had been looking for. Shikibidani Onsen, a hotel with a traditional Japanese spa, nestled in a narrow valley, would be my base for two nights. From there, I wanted to explore Tsurugisan Super Forest Road, a gravel road stretching for 80km, chiseled into the flanks of the mountains southeast of Mt. Tsurugi.
Leaving my luggage behind for a day, I ventured west on a paved road that would soon turn to gravel. It took me higher and higher up the mountains, rising up left and right, past several smaller waterfalls. An empty parking lot with a hut, housing a cafe, was waiting for me at the first high point at 1,500 meters. Surprisingly the cabin was unlocked. But given this was Japan, maybe it wasn’t surprising at all. The friendliness, the lack of aggression, and the non-existence of petty theft speak to the level of safety a traveler can experience in Japan. I refilled on water and sat outside the hut for a while, reveling in feelings of peace and quiet, listening to the sounds of nature. More undulating gravel terrain then took me on a loop along the hillsides of the surrounding mountains, all with hardly a soul in sight, and eventually on a 20km downhill back to the hotel. I had definitely earned myself a trip to the spa that day.
What goes into a valley must come out eventually. From the onsen, I made my way north the following day, laboring up two mountain passes before reaching the broad Yoshino River Valley and one of the precious flat areas on Shikoku. I wished myself back to the remoteness of the mountains as I rode through a continuous stream of settlements on a busy road heading west. After the city of Miyoshi, I turned left, crossed a bridge, and followed Road 32, built into the eastern hillside of Iya Valley, a narrow gorge, covered in lush and dense vegetation with stunning vistas.
After spending a night in Kochi and admiring the local castle the next morning, I continued my journey south. The Skyline Road on the Yokonami Peninsula surprised me with elevated views of green seaside cliffs, dropping dramatically into the Pacific Ocean. “Looks a bit like Hawaii,” I thought to myself. In Susaki, I found the most adorable cat-themed hostel to stay the night. Mayuyu, the owner and veterinary nurse, runs the hostel in her spare time, together with her cat and hostel mascot, Comugi.
“Can I order…this?” I said to the waitress while pointing to a photo I had brought up on my iPhone. I had been looking for a place to have dinner in Uwajima, the first bigger city I came through on the west coast of Shikoku. The restaurant I had entered a few minutes earlier came highly recommended on Google. What precisely the patrons loved about the eatery eluded me, with all reviews posted in Japanese. It turned out to be a family run business, with mom and dad working their magic in the kitchen, while the daughters were waiting tables. Upon entering, I was guided past a handful of dining booths close to the entrance, all the way to a tiny bar area, providing space for maybe five people. An older couple at the tail end of their dinner shared the other end of the bar. With smoking still being commonplace in Japan, the man lit up a cigarette while sipping on an Asahi. All signs and the menu in Japanese, I was definitely in for a food adventure. I reverted to the only strategy I could think of, namely, to order by bringing up images of dishes users had been busy adding to their online reviews. And it worked. By the end of the evening, I was stuffed and had even earned myself two extra dishes from the chef for free.
“Where are you from? Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” the cashier behind the counter at a Lawson convenience store in Seiyo asked me, catching me off-guard. “How come he is talking to me in German?” I thought. His name, I learned, was Sugi, originally from Bali, and with quite an engaging curriculum vitae. He used to live in Switzerland for five years before moving to Japan, where he has been for ten years. He runs the store together with his wife, who is Japanese. “Japan, I think, is a lot like Switzerland,” he explained. “Everything is very orderly and organized. There are a lot of rules”. As a foreigner and despite him speaking Japanese fluently, social contacts with locals still remained mostly elusive for him. He noticeably enjoyed our chat and even threw in an iced coffee for free. Before we parted ways, he did not hesitate to invite me to visit him at his house in his hometown in Bali someday.
On my way to Matsuyama, a city of over 500,000 in the northwestern corner of Shikoku, I got to experience the slightly uglier side of the weather on the island. Rain and heavy wind gusts, almost knocking me off my bike three times, accompanied me on my ride along the coast and led me to take a rest day in town. Still reeling from the expansive views of the city and the surrounding mountains from the towers of Matsuyama Castle, I reached Imabari and the beginning of the infamous Shimanami Kaido the next day.
Dubbed by CNN Travel as “One of the world’s most incredible bike routes” it seems to be on the bucket list of nearly every Japanese cyclist. The Kaido is, ostensibly, an expressway for cars, but in actuality, a marvelous piece of cycling infrastructure. From Shikoku, it connects to the main island of Honshu, traversing six islands along the way on impressively architected bridges. The direct route runs for 70 kilometers, but with detours exploring the islands, the course can reach a length of 140km. The “explorer routes” on each isle usually trace along the coast, through small towns and settlements and the occasional incline. I settled for a camping spot on Innoshima from where it was only a short hop back onto the main island.
What followed was, unfortunately, the consequence of a slight planning mistake I made when putting the route together. Continuing west on the southern coastal road seemed like an excellent choice when I had looked at it on a map. What I couldn’t see was that National Route 185 was a major roadway with a significant amount of truck traffic, transporting cargo to and from shipyards and shipbuilding facilities all along the coast. Pleasant riding, it was definitely not.
It all changed when I crossed yet another bridge and found a guesthouse on Kami-kamagari Island. Quiet, small, and with only a handful of settlements, it provided such a stark contrast to the busy area along Honshu. “Relax,” the quirky and energetic, but amiable owner of the guesthouse almost demanded as he let me in. The building had a big open area on the ground floor, with low tables and floor to ceiling windows, providing views of the bay. Traditional tatami guest rooms were located on the upper level. The island was tranquil, there were little to no street lights, dropping the area into pitch-black darkness after the sun had vanished behind the horizon. I used half of the following day for exploring the rest of the island, stopping for lunch at a farmers market. It came highly recommended by a young backpacking Dutch couple that stayed at the same guesthouse as me.
I finished my loop of the island and returned to Honshu before crossing yet another series of bridges to approach Hiroshima, my destination, via ferry from the island of Etajima. The 45 minutes spent on the water took the hassle out of yet another ride on busy roadways. From the port, I navigated towards Memorial Peace Park, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the nuclear attack in August 1945. Constructed in an area that once was a busy commercial and residential center, it is now an expansive green space with several memorials, monuments, and museums, drawing over a million visitors every year. Approaching the park mostly on cycle paths, my bike packing trip through Japan reached its conclusion at the Memorial Cenotaph. Covered by a saddle-shaped memorial, it holds the names of all people killed by the atomic bomb.
The rest of my time in Japan was split between Hiroshima, from where I then traveled back east to Kyoto via Shinkansen before cycling back to Osaka.
The country of Japan was probably the most interesting one so far that I had attempted to undertake a cycling journey in. Natural beauty aside, it was more the cultural and historical richness that was most impressive. The high level of detail that is placed into nearly everything, from simple objects to preparing meals to the architecture of shrines and temples, provide a source of endless fascination and curiosity. The friendliness and respectful demeanor of the Japanese make any travel experience delightful. Yet, at the same time, one has to contend with societal and hierarchical rules that occasionally seem strange when not accustomed to. A small example is a strict requirement that bicycles can only be transported on trains when fully covered in a so-called “rinko” bag. Overall my trip provided me with a glimpse into Japanese history, culture, and natural beauty with lots more to explore whenever I might return.
After reading about Mt. Tsurugi Forest Road online, I wanted to incorporate it into a bigger tour through an area of Japan that would, for as much as possible, enable me to explore less populated areas of the country. Leaving from Osaka meant flying into a major and well-connected city and Hiroshima I picked as destination because of its historical significance.
Osaka is a major transport hub, with its Kansai International Airport frequented by several international airlines. To return back to Osaka from Hiroshima, I rode the Shinkansen, the infamous Japanese bullet train.
The distribution density of convenience stores makes bikepacking and cycle touring fairly easy, given that one doesn’t have to worry about food and water supply as much. The most common chain stores one will encounter are Seven-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart.
The only major gravel sections I encountered were on the rindo, and even those were easily handled by the WTB Riddler 700x45c.
Other resources I found useful:
- Japan Cycling Navigator
- Touring Japan on Bicycle and by foot
- Bicycle touring, hiking and friends in Japan
- XPDTN3: SUPER FOREST ROAD, JAPAN
- Shikoku Circuit Cycling. Extensive info on the coastal route around the island
- Folding Tales: Cycling Shikoku. Report on a cycling tour of Shikoku
- Map of forest roads on Shikoku (with services info)
- CNN Travel: Japan’s Shimanami Kaido: One of the world’s most incredible bike routes
- Shimanami Kaido info plus map
- Hotels, Yado & Ryokans along the Shimanami Kaido
- Focused on cycling in the Kansai region, but with route info for all of Japan
- Bike rental as well as route info (Kyoto/Osaka region)
- Cycling as well as general tourist/sightseeing info on Kyoto
- Info on Tobishima Kaido
- Info on other Kaido cycling routes in Hiroshima prefecture
- Montbell rinko bag
- Wakayama 800. Network of 800km of routes in Wakayama prefecture
- Hokkaido Wilds. Excellent resources for cycling (as well as other outdoor activities) on the island of Hokkaido
- The Summer of No Expectations. Story of one Alaska couple and their first long bike trip: a month-long tour of Hokkaido