Japan. What can one say? Samurais and salary men. Sushi and tsunamis. This is one dirtbag’s take on the islands of Japan.
I actually arrived in Japan 8 months earlier. I left Austin, TX, after a solid South by Southwest on the pedicab and a fresh pocket full of cash, ready to begin a trip traveling around Asia. I was accompanied by my foxy girlfriend ready for some classic Asian adventure. Our first round of travel in Japan brought us to Japan’s north island Hokkaido (Sapporo beer for those who like some grain based geographical reference) for some snowboarding along with some classic Kyoto during cherry blossom fest when it seems like everyone and their kimono wants to be in Kyoto.
The bullet train (Shikansen, which is Japanese for fast and expensive) from Tokyo to Kyoto was my only option after lucking out and making every flight on my standby ticket with Delta. Our good friends from Colorado were finishing up their travels and heading home in 3 days so not meeting up wasn’t an option. The yen is taking a major shit at the moment which makes Japan slightly less unaffordable. 15600 yen for the ticket to Kyoto. 130USD. 2 hours on one of the fastest trains in the world. No slower train. No bus. No cheapie route. Shit!
After a few days kicking around Kyoto drinking on the steps of most of the temples there, it was time to head back to Tokyo, same story…no bus or slow train. Another $130 bullet train ride. It’s an amazing piece of engineering. Every 7 minutes one of these trains leaves Tokyo and blasts off for Osaka at 200mph. I arrived at the platform to see the train pulling out…damn…wait, 7 minutes and another one. Wow. No security, no arriving early, no booking, it really is better than flying but you pay for it.
After a very spendy little trip to Kyoto we promptly booked our tickets to Thailand where there are no bullet trains nor expensive bullet train tickets. We did get to make it up to Hokkaido for some snowboarding. Late season made it cheap. The scenery and terrain made me want to return for some real Japow snowboarding but hey, smoke it if you got it, and spring skiing in Japan is what we got.
So that rounds out my first visit to Japan which happened in March. Since then, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Bali occupied the 6 months in between. This trip to Japan the lady had moved on to New Zealand opting out of SSWC debauchery. I was determined to make this Japanese odyssey more on my dirtbaggy terms, and on a bike.
The cheapest flight from Hong Kong to Osaka, Japan was at 3 a.m. Go figure. I was in Hong Kong squaring away details on the new line of production Mone bikes. Stoked about these. More on that later.
I arrived at the Hong Kong airport 8 hours before my flight to get on wifi and make route plans. Normally I would just have a look at a map and get it done but this time I was kitted out with a very capable bikepacking rig which opens up all the skinniest lines on the map and I was determined to take advantage of that. And besides, bikpacking is so hot right now.
After a few hours of heartbreakingly slow internet at the airport I finally managed to load a GPX file of Google walking directions from the Osaka airport to Hakuba Japan, site of 2015 Single Speed World Championships. Not the absolute best possible bikepacking route but pretty damn good.
My flight was delayed a fair bit so I arrived in Kansai airport, which is a man-made island in the middle of the Bay of Osaka (made up name), as the sun came up. I took a lengthy nap on the floor of the terminal which was the best place to catch up on some sleep I had missed from that night. Immigration and customs were ghost towns as everyone from my flight opted not to sleep on the floor like a bum, so I got to chat to the officers all alone. The Customs guy pointed at the picture of marijuana and gave me a stern stare asking if I was bringing any contraband. That was as hardass as he could be under the rule of Japanese universal politeness. Plus, I was riding clean. No green here customs man. I was glad we didn’t have to take the bike out and go through that hassle. God bless Japanese politeness.
I had read some intrepid travelers had attempted to bike the bridge/expressway connecting the mainland only to be stopped by the 5-Oh. The train set me back only a few bucks so I was happily obliged to push my bike box on for the crossing to the mainland. Got off at the first stop across the bridge and there I was, just a lonely boy on a Japanese vision quest. Just a bike, some camping gear and an appetite for sushi and adventure.
It’s always exciting to put your bike together for the first time in a foreign land. It’s an absolute freedom type of excitement. Try it sometime. You will appear homeless and erratic. You are, after all, building a bike in a train station.
Ran a couple errands, feeding myself and grabbing supplies. I then took out my old Iphone, which apple continues to shit on with its calculated obsolesce updates, and pointed my bike towards the GPX line I had made in the Hong Kong airport.
I will now attempt to note the things that makes Japan unique in my eyes. The list is infinite, and Japan really has the corner on uniqueness but these are the things you may or may not find notable if you were landing in Osaka and riding your bike around. Most things are small. The houses are small, the cars are small, the motorbikes, the people (kinda, my size-ish), the food is bite size. I especially notice all the different models of car in Japan. They seem to love the tiny boxy models. Toyota Scion looking numbers, some really really small. They have names like, Cube and N-box. Bless them.
The Japanese also follow the rules, really really well. If you find yourself at a tiny intersection late at night and there is a stop light, it will be followed. By bikes, by pedestrians. It’s so crazy. Especially after being in places like Vietnam or Bali where traffic rules seem to be like lame suggestions that are best disregarded. It’s my theory, but I believe this rule-following translates into public works. The Japanese must follow the tax rules to a T as well, and as a result the country is filled with massive public works. I have never seen so many tunnels in my life. I should have counted, but in my 5 day 350 mile journey I must have traveled through over 100, no exaggeration.
Along the same lines the Japanese are very, very good at paving roads, all roads. In my search of bikepacking radicalness I was constantly finding roads that saw almost no people, were grown over and totally closed to cars, but underneath sticks, pine needles and leaves was almost always pavement. That being said, I did manage to get some paths, mud and dirt here and there but by and large the Japanese are pavers of roads. Industrious little fuckers.
I never really made it into Osaka proper. I immediately began an endless weave through neighborhood and countryside. The Google walking track brought me on the tiniest paths. Many times it was a lane no more than a few feet wide. Really really amazing.
The other thing that stuck me was the general reaction from the people there. Japan is very very Japanese. Especially outside of Tokyo. There are no Mexicans, or blacks, or gringos. The real freaks might be the odd kid who speaks English because he had done some traveling as a foreign exchange student. Rural Japan is by and large a mono-culture. Which makes their reaction to me, an obvious foreigner, that much more interesting. That reaction is pretty much without fail… no-fucks-given. I could be riding through the most remote little hamlet on a tiny lane, not even wide enough for a Honda N-box, and the lady walking her boutique designer dog won’t give me a second glance. I love it. After riding in Loas, or Vietnam where every kid is chasing you down the road to scream hello, the Japanese barely give a sideways glance. That’s not to say that they are unfriendly, because when engaged they are almost universally amazing and kind but just riding past seems to be no big thing.
At the end of my endless wandering and meandering along the Google walking line, it was time to sleep. I couldn’t tell you for sure, but from what I gather Japan’s accommodation is about on par with what it would be back home in the US. Spendy. This was the dirt-baggy part of my plan. Sleep, where you can. For night 1 I took a look at the GPS map and found a green area. I located a trail and walked my bike down it until there was a spot suitable for laying down in. Blew up the mattress, laid down and lost conciseness. Plan – executed.
I had done some reading beforehand and I can pretty much attest to the fact that Japan is an easy place to freedom camp/stealth camp/dirtbag whatever you’d like to call it. My theory is that Japan has done a decent job of eradicating vagrants and as such, people without a place to sleep at night are pretty much nil. That makes me the exception, and therefore not part of a larger problem. They are also so damn polite, so even if they weren’t jazzed on my lying down somewhere they might only come by in the morning to let me know I should move along. I heard some amazing and similar stories from some other yahoos at SSWC.
Day 2 brought me back into civilized suburban Japan. Gifu area. At this point my rear brake had faded and was now ineffective. I had diagnosed the problem to a faulty fitting, the line just past the lever. A little fluid detected on the line. Only takes a tiny bit, hydro brakes don’t usually have a bunch of fluid to spare, especially the closed system type. Before all the high and mighty mechanical brake advocates start masturbating to this isolated example it should be noted that the brake line was part of a cobbled together system that employs copper hardlines and a braded section from the lever to the hard-frame mounted line.
It was the mish-mash of banjo fitting parts that the system was comprised of. Here’s what you might take away from all this.. are copper hardlines on custom steel bikes badass? yes. Should you attempt to make magic happen when assembling hydraulic brake lines, no, play it safe. Should you run mechanicals?… meh.
So at this point, I had already bled the system once in Hanoi, Vietnam and I was a little frustrated that I was having to fuck with it again, but at some point before SSWC I wanted to have a working rear brake. So as I sat drinking my morning IPA in front of the 7-11, I looked up bike shops on their wifi connection. More on the beauty of the Japanese convenience stores later. It just so happened there was a seemingly solid shop not far from my current location and it had one Google review from another bike touring gringo.
Anywho, I rode over to Be-Hop bike shop in Gifu. They weren’t open so I was happy to sit out back and wait. Of course the owner was happy to invite me in when he realized I was waiting outside well before shop hours commenced.
I walked in to find that Be-Hop was not just any Japanese bike shop, it was a super slick shop that was filled with all the new-new. He had all sorts of 29+ stuff in stock. All sorts of new Niner stuff. Surly Krampus-es (Krampi?) Damn, this place had it going on.
Shimojo (spelling?) the shop owner dropped everything and started digging through hydro fitting, of which he had many, had we replaced the faulty fitting lickety split. At that point Shimojo did a quick bleed on the brake and I gave it a test ride. Hmmm, the brake felt squishy. It only firmed up after a pump or two. I bashfully asked Shimojo if we could give it another try and he said pointed at all the loops and funny business going on with the copper hardline.
Touché Shimojo. But rather than being American and insistent I decided to go the Japanese route and politely agree with him although I knew from previous experience that we could do better with a little more fiddling with the bleeding procedure. In the end, it was I that had the custom trick brakeline that wasn’t working and taking over his shop for which he could only asked to be compensated for a simple bleed. I have empathy for the bike shop owner, especially in these cases where experienced riders and self-styled bike mechanics want the world for free.
I was happy the brake was better than before but it was still shitty. I thanked Shimojo for the help and rode away. As I rode towards Hakuba I started thinking about my limited options once I left this shop. I wanted a brake and mine was shitty. Even if I had to buy an XT brake and zip tie the thing it would be better than this. I decided to ride back. I had the great idea to ask Shimojo to bring the bleed kit to Hakuba. That way I wouldn’t have to interrupt him shop flow any more than I already had and he wouldn’t have to deal with me any longer…plus he was headed up there anyway. And, I didn’t need a good brake for the rest of the ride anyway.
~~~~Fast forward to Hakuba. I found Shimojo at the event. Now that I wasn’t jamming up his shop he rolled out the red carpet. In the back of his shop van he had everything I could need to fix anything. He pulled out his bleed kit and proceeded to push and pull fluid through that silly hardline til it ran clear and nary a bubble be found. Brakes felt as solid as any. Even after a month in Nepal the brake feels super solid, better than the front now. I also changed my cog out for the race…I didn’t quite have enough chain to make it work and against my wishes, Shimojo took the chain on his own bike. New 10 speed XT. I wasn’t happy that he’d robbed his own bike of a chain but he insisted. He then refused payment for all of this claiming that I had already paid him. Extremely selfless human being.
In typical Japananese humility, only after being coaxed heavily, Shimojo shared a few stories from his travels in America touring on a bike. He said he’d received much grace on the road and was paying it forward. Of course you’ve toured everywhere and failed to mention that before. Never underestimate a Samurai. A deep and sincere thank you to Shimojo and Be-Hop bike shop.
“““`Rewind back to the ride… After leaving the bike shop in Gifu the rest of the tour was rural, mountainous and amazing. I rode through tea plantations, countless Japanese rice paddies, which are like regular rice paddies but meticulously looked after. The Japanese manicure and trim and organize with a staggering attention to detail.
At one point the track took a left off a larger road and began to climb a series of very formidable switchbacks. Pushing a 32-18 on a 29+ rolling diameter is pretty stiff for this little flyweight, especially loaded…the luggage kind of loaded and maybe only slightly buzzed from morning beers. But slowly I managed. At the top of the 2 hour or so climb I stepped off the bike to have a breather.
A tiny Japanese mini truck pulled up which was the first vehicle I had seen in hours. They said “konichiwa” and continued on. A second later they reversed back to me and began trying to communicate something. It became very obvious when the one pulled out a picture of a landslide, pointed down the road, and made an ‘X’ with his arms. Not too many ways to translate that…
I said ‘arrigato’ and they drove off. What to do, what to do. Descend down the pass to be stopped by the landslide, and then climb back up, or…… descend back the way I just had fought so hard to climb up. Hmmm.
Fuck it. Pressing on.
I descended the entire way down the pass and at the bottom the GPS track took a right down an even more obscure route. At this point, apart from that mini truck I was completely alone back there. Amazing coniferous forest in the mountains. Even if I had to turn back, it was still an amazing area to visit.
I climbed up another smaller pass and was hopeful that this route didn’t have a landslide although there was evidence all over. The tiny road was filled with fallen rocks but as far as I could tell, no landslide. I passed a few parked cars and then two old ladies walking. Many hours had gone by since I left a slightly busier roadm I was out there. Then a gate. Threw my bike over the gate. The old ladies didn’t seem to mind. No landlside yet. Descended a bit more and then I found myself in a tiny mountain village. I had seemingly gotten through. Pretty great series of events. No landslide, just some low level trespassing and I’m golden.
Dined at a mom and pop shop, ramen and Asahi. Slept in a temple. Namaste budda, or something.
More beautiful mountain country the next day. The track called for me to jump some gates at a few points which I was happy to do. Some of the best riding was behind those gates. Even some dirt!…probably the reason for the gates.
Slept outside a fenced in greenspace. The sign was pretty clear that there were bear there-within. Didn’t mind sleeping just outside as I couldn’t really tell the density at which the bears might be existing.
I was glad I had made that choice as halfway through the night I woke up to a shrill, very loud, screaming. I couldn’t quite make out what it was but it was screaming, and running around a tree. Small mammal size. Then, all at once, as if only for the sole purpose of scaring the mother living shit out of me, it jumped out of the tree and began shrieking just a few feet from my head. Like it didn’t want me there. I was shitting myself and at the same time thanking the baby Jesus I had decided to sleep outside the fence because whatever it was didn’t seem like it wanted to climb over and give me rabies.
I am now guessing it was a an animal called a ‘Tanuki‘ based on the guesses of a few Japanese. Tanuki translates to Racoon Dog which seems about right. Whatever it was, it was fucking insane and pist.
The next day brought me into Hakuba. I was stoked to see old friends again after 8 months in Asia with only the lady as company.
Koh Kitazowa had organized some group rides for those who had shown up early to Hakuba for the event. I was happy to ride along. I didn’t really understand why the Japanese dude we were riding with felt it so important to tell us all about the area and what we were looking at until the second time I went out on one of these rides…They were tour guides hired to lead the rides. Nothing wrong with that, that’s how the Japanese like to roll….Just a bit of a shift from the riding that I am used to. A little added value for the stiff entry fee that went along with the event. Not complaining, I’m just not a dentist, I am a dirt bag.
The Hakuba Valley was breathtaking. The views of the Japanese alps from the ride were spectacular. I was so happy that very soon I would get to experience this same thing with people from all over the world, including some familiar faces from home.
After the ride I headed back into town to figure out where the hell everyone was. Flicked on the FB feed and it was a long string of Tokyo pictures from all the homies. Guess no one was arriving till later. Wah wah.
It was now dark and really cold so I quickly located the center for all things SSWC 2015…Lucky Pete’s. A bar in the center of Hakuba. It was dead. I stopped in. Pete had a couple locals around the bar but quickly made me feel at home. As I sat drinking Pete’s finest draft Asahi some more single speeders filtered in. I asked some locals about camping and got a very good tip about a quite road over by the river. It really is not a problem in Japan. Praise Budda!
Woke up the next day and did some exploring. Hit the onsen (Japanese bath-house/hot spring) to get clean after a lengthy period of otherwise. Hit another guided group ride. I had made friends with a kid named Jin who was a real ripper. Had worked in BC for Cromag the previous 3 or 4 years which doesn’t necessarily make you a good rider, but being a good rider necessarily made Jin a good rider. I was happy to tag along with him for a few rides as well. Slept by the river again the next night. Loved the place.
The following day all the yahoos from Tokyo finally showed up but instead of coming out for the official digerydoo band event those mother fuckers were all having a bike derby at Lucky Pete’s. To each their own fucking rocking time I guess. Ended up rolling with some expat Tokyo gringos and finally ended up running into the DC family way later that night after bar close when they were all riding home. I am lucky Matt from the DC family rolled over to our bonfire so I could share in the reverie with Scandanavian Jesus (passed the fuck out with eyes open, shit you not) and Dirty.
Next day I went for a pre-ride with Chuey, Scandenavian Jesus and a few others. SJ broke himself hard.
My timeline is a bit fucked here but that night there was a big party that featured drunk…I mean drumming and sake.
The morning of the race I got a tattoo as I was pretty confident I wouldn’t be winning.
The event itself was pretty damn fun. Fucking hard course. Big climb followed by more biking and then more biking. Around 50km I think. Right after the big climb there was a series of roller table tops and I decided that I would send it for the boys. Ate shit hard, I mean hard. It was raining enough to make the course slick. Really slick which made a few sections with aspect pretty interesting.
The race ended up to be some real ass mountain biking. Tech, steep, slick…beginners, fuck you on this one. Just what a good SS course should be.
There was some plum eating alternate. That was tough because the plums are pickled, a very Japanese flavor, which makes it hard to spit a pit into a bucket. I missed had to pay price of a few hundred feet of extra vertical.
After the event everyone cleared out pretty quickly. I stuck around to ride a bit more Japanese Alps with some of the Back of the Pack Racing stragglers. Finally made my way to Tokyo, onto Kuala Lumpur for a few days and onto Nepal where Dirty and Endlessbike Fairy caught up, rallied and headed onto Nepal. More on Nepal after a bit…