Words by Greg Hamer and Chris Dalton. Photography by Andrew Walsh (@rideintothebokeh)
Twelve months or so of shit talk, messages and the usual drunken banter and we locked it down – let’s do it, let’s go to Japan. We notified the usual suspects and those that were serious booked their flights. There would be around 12 of us, from across the globe; USA, Australia, and of course, Japan – we were going to need someone to show us around.
We landed in Tokyo (flying in to Haneda Airport), the weather considerably warmer and more inviting than the bleak winter that was building in Sydney. Straight off the plane and on to the JR Line headed to Shinagawa; this is where we’d board the Shinkansen (Japan’s high speed rail) to Kyoto. After some confusion with tickets, platforms, exits and entries, then tracking down our pal, Ross from Los Angeles who’d flown in the day before, we made it on to the Shinkansen
(A side note for those playing at home: bikes need to be in their bags and if travelling in large groups it’s probably best to split the carriages you’re sitting in. We didn’t and getting eight bikes in to one carriage was a challenge, even for the most seasoned Tetris pros).
138 minutes later and we’d travelled the 514km from Tokyo to Kyoto. Do the math; they don’t call it the high speed rail for nothing. With a small amount of fuss we got everyone to the accommodation with bikes and luggage.
We arrived at our home for the next 4 nights: Yokai SOHO. The accomodation is in a newly renovated building that accommodates 3 floors of loft housing, an art gallery/event space, and a bar/cafe. Each loft is fully equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, wooden crafted tatami rooms, a large living room and a terrace. The owners of Yokai SOHO are cyclists themselves so there is a host of bikes and equipment floating around. We had all three levels of accommodation booked and with all floors connected by a central lift it was the perfect space for a group our size.
Waiting for us at Yokai SOHO were the boys from Stoemper; Dave and Todd. They'd flown in directly to Osaka, another good option if you’re able to do it, as it’s closer to Kyoto than Tokyo. Other than the Japanese connection, everyone was now here, ready for the week ahead.
We didn’t come all the way to Japan to sit around and drink tea so we unpacked and assembled the bikes, kitted up and made our way out on to the streets of Kyoto. Before we rode, however, we needed lunch though so the first of many bowls of ramen was consumed, then up into the hills of Kyoto we went.
We were staying in the north west of Kyoto, quite convenient for getting in amongst the hills quickly. In fact, within 4 kilometres we were in the woods and climbing, Japanese Hinoki (cypress) trees lining the road. This was just a quick spin to free up the legs after the 9 hour flight but the Kyoto terrain didn’t seem to want to let us off too easily.
The climb up Kyomi Pass was only around 5km but had an average gradient of 7% with a bitey 500m section of 11% at the top. Whilst the boys from the US complained of the humidity, we Aussies were struggling to draw the dry Japanese air in to our already parched lungs from spending the night on the air-conditioned flight. Around 1200m in vert over just 40km and we were calling for beers.
The next day we were all up bright and early in anticipation for what lay ahead. “Too fast to live, too young to die”. This would be the motto of our trip, burn the candle at both ends and see who’s still standing in a weeks time.
We found a coffee bar around the corner from the accommodation, Latte Art Junkies, that suited us all well for a caffeine hit and breakfast before a big day in the saddle. As we were seated on the pavement a group of school kids giddily made their way across the road, excited by the presence of 10 foreigners head to toe in matching kits. They wanted to test their English speaking skills asking us all our names and wishing us well.
We rolled out, Greg from @Wheelhaus downloaded the Japanese maps on to his Wahoo and we were "loosely" following a GPX file he’d downloaded. Back up and over Kyomi Pass, this time though, on the tight and narrow descent Nate decided on a particularly wet and gravely corner he’d kiss the pavement with his brand new kit. His kit torn, hip and elbow bruised, and his $100 GoPro knock-off called the Action Cam 3000 in pieces. Brushing him off and questioning his bike handling skills we kept rolling.
Navigating our way through Kyoto’s lush mountain ranges, looking up at the climbs we thought we had in front of us we were surprised to find that the pesky Japanese, in their infinite wisdom had built tunnels through many of them. Long, poorly lit tunnels that had Ross, with eyes apparently not equipped for low light scenarios, struggling to allow a bus to pass – our first (and last) encounter with any sort of hostility on the roads.
Temperatures were starting to climb, the average for the day was 31 celcius, and with a couple of wrong turns the Wahoo was struggling to get us to our desired location. We pulled over and being in an apparent GPS black spot we spotted a sign: "Miyama: 31kms". We decided to continue on to Miyama, have lunch and make our way back; we were learning that in Kyoto there were no bad roads or poor decisions so we had confidence we’d find something special. We continued along Route 162, a gradual incline for 15km, roads lined with rice fields and houses of traditional Japanese architecture. A pinchy 1km climb of around 12% and we hit the peak, we then had ourselves a straight 5km descent, swapping off at around 60km/h in to Miyama.
We spotted a local and asked where best for a group of 10 hungry cyclists to get lunch – he pointed us north-east to Miyamamachi; a rural village nestled in the mountains, brown thatched roof houses stood tall, totems of early Japan. We found ourselves a small restaurant serving donburi (rice bowls) equipped with not only delicious food but a first aid kit – the okaa-san (mother) spotted Nathan, still bloodied from his fall and hurried to him with gauze pads and antiseptic, making sure he was patched up before any food orders were taken.
As we ate lunch we checked the map to see how best to get home, we were now on Route 38 (mark that road in your notebooks, folks), it followed the Yura river to the east and then eventually made it’s way south, back to Kyoto City. With no idea of the topography of our chosen route, except for the fact we could see many a nasty switchback, we decided that was the plan. With the river to our right and the mountains to our left we rode with chins on the bars, gobsmacked at the scenery that surrounded us. There was a quiet anticipation in the group, we could see the mountains reaching in to the sky. We wondered whether there would there be another tunnel cutting us straight through, avoiding any painful climbs, or whether we'd we be going over them. It was to be the latter.
Up we went, towards the Kyotohirogawara Ski Area or the Sasari Pass. It's called Sansari Touge on Strava; 'Touge' being Japanese for ‘pass’. A 6km, category 2 climb that averaged 6% but ramped up towards the top including a 1km section at around 14%, the views of the dense forest to the south were amazing and made each painful pedal stroke worthwhile.
We descended the backside, stopping at the bottom at a conveniently located strip of vending machines – talk turned to how much further it was to go. I checked my map and swore there was only around 8km. Stoemper Dave, who has spent a lot more time in these parts tried to convince us it was closer to 30km, and we still had some climbing to do. We were stubborn though and told ourselves it was only 8.
Oh, how wrong we were. Off the 38 and left on to Route 477, not only did we actually have 40km (not 30km) to go before we returned to home, we had another cat. 2 climb in us. Up Hanase Pass (Hanase Touge on Strava), an 8.5km, 4% climb that would actually take us to our highest point for the day. Winding through the dense forest we were at least shielded from the heat that was building outside the canopy of pines. We made it to the top, slouched over our bars for a couple of minutes to catch our collective breath and then commenced the technical descent – 500m drop in elevation in just under 6km with around ten 180 degree hairpins thrown in to test our tiring reflexes.
We made it to the bottom and to our wonder there was a Lawson convenience store staring back at us, even though we only had another 5km until we made it home we stopped. We were like ravenous dogs consuming anything and everything we could get our hands on – soft breads, chicken katsu sushi triangles and Pocari Sweat, lots of Pocari Sweat.
We made it home and as beers were consumed on the level 3 terrace that afternoon there was no doubt that what we’d all experienced that day was something special very special. One of the great days on the bike. 115km and 3000m of climbing – we’d earned our beers and Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) that was to come.
We woke on Tuesday morning with sore legs and equally sore heads; a gift from Mt Fuji, namely a whisky called Fuji Sanroku that was around AU$15 a bottle. We had a ride penned out with help from some of the locals, it was to be a site seeing trip out to Nara.
Nara is located approximately 50km south of Kyoto and is a spectacularly picturesque city known for the richness and beauty of its temples, shrines and gardens. We again made our way to Latte Art Junkies for breakfast and brews and were met by our Japanese contingent, the guys from @effectnocchi, who’d come down from Tokyo to spend a couple of days with us.
This ride wasn’t exactly what we’d bargained for; we’d been told there’d be "some" bike path. We were now 20km in and not only had we only ridden bike path but a lot of it was unsealed/dirt track. Dave from Stoemper, who resides in Belgium, was revelling in these flat, dusty, rocky conditions. The rest of us, not so much. To add salt to the wound, much of this bike path was surrounded by long thick grass that was in the process of being cut, Chris in particular was not in a good place with his skin swelling and breaking out in hives. We stopped in the next town we came across and whilst the rest of us refilled our bottles, Chris and the Japanese connection went to find antihistamines.
Once we got to Nara our first stop was the Todai-ji Temple, home of the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha). Awe-inspiring and moving, the Daibutsu, a 16-meter-high Buddha really does seem to exude some form of spiritual energy. Outside the temple the deer roam freely, overfed by the crackers the thousands of tourists try to feed them daily.
After we’d been mesmerised by the size and beauty of Todai-ji we rolled back down the hill in search of lunch, finding places that could seat and serve 12 sweaty cyclists in a small town such as Nara was more difficult than it sounds. More and more hangry by the minute we found a place, shoes off and on to the floor for a more traditional style bento box meal.
As we made our back towards Kyoto from Nara, along the same bike path we came out on temperatures were increasing, without a skerrick of cover we were all feeling the heat. 39C and on the rise, our bidons weren’t staying full for long. We made it to a random roadside stop with its own strip of vending machines. Shells of men lining up to get some well needed fluids back in to them. That would be our last stop as we pushed on, determined to make it back to Kyoto and a few cold Asahi tallboys. Almost 120km and only 600m of the elevation, today’s ride was the opposite of the day before.
The next day we rolled to breakfast and met up with an Aussie who’d been living in Kyoto for the past 20 years, Vincent ‘Bon Scott’ Flanagan, whose Strava profile describes him perfectly; ‘A leading cyclist in Kyoto Japan, happily showing folks an alternative way around the hustle bustle, history and curiosity of Japan’.
Winding and weaving through parts of Kyoto we could never have found ourselves, Vincent was taking us towards Arashiyama along the Ōi River and in to the Bamboo Forest. Narrow pathways for which we rode up to temples in the midst of nowhere, Vincent was earning his keep! We climbed, descended, climbed, descended and climbed again. Following old, disused railway lines you could sense the history in the region. We hit another dense forest and could see the road head upwards, our biggest climb for the day being around 7.6km long and having an average gradient of 6%, it was rated a Category 2.
After the climb we regrouped and made our way down the windy, hotmix descent through closely tree-lined roads. Navigating the switchbacks it spat us out in to the Kasa Tunnel, 4.5km of chopping off through another poorly lit tunnel, saving us from another climb. On to route 31 we were close to home but Vincent had another surprise in store for us. "Hang a left here, boys", and then in front of us was Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), a Zen (temple) whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf – a must see for any trip to Kyoto. We parted ways, but before we did we all thanked Vincent for one of the greatest 60km loops of our lives, 57km and 1900m in elevation to be exact.
That afternoon, as planned we ventured in to Kyoto central to check out the 400 year old iconic Nishiki Market, rich with history and tradition, the market is renowned as the place to obtain many of Kyoto's famous foods and other goodies. Not long after we arrived we got side tracked – thoughts turning to where we could get our next beer. Making our way around Kyoto the struggle of getting 8 or so guys in to any single establishment is not easy, we eventually found a Yakiniku restaurant, meaning ‘grilled meat’ who were willing to seat (and feed) all of us.
We woke to rain, the first sign of poor weather since we arrived in Japan, luckily though there was no riding today and all we had to do was to get ourselves, and our bikes/luggage back to Kyoto station and on to the Shinkansen to Tokyo. We found our way on the JR Line to Shibuya, which is where we’d be spending the next 4 days. Out of the station and over the pedestrian bridge to the Granbell. For those not aware, Shibuya is home to the world's busiest intersection, the world's busiest railway station, and the world's busiest shopping district – in short, Shibuya is BUSY.
As we checked in to our accommodation, the lovely girl behind the reception desk saw our 10 bikes and put two and two together.
"Did you know that the keirin was on tonight?"
Just like that, we were on our way to Tokyo Oval Keiokaku for the keirin!
Keirin is Japan’s version of going to the greyhounds. Eight riders identified by their number and fluoro uniform only are paraded before the crowd prior to lining up and racing around the track. Their helmets are anything but aero and they wear shoulder pads in case they take a spill on the concrete surface, which they did. Stretchers line the track in readiness for any serious injuries.
The crowd sits silently, no one cheering on their chosen rider... until we showed up of course. Everyone seemingly happy to have us there, it wasn’t hard to make an impression; the riders shaking our hands, the stores giving us merchandise including signed uniforms, t-shirts, helmets, etc. One of the great nights made better by the typical Japanese hospitality.
After spending a rainy day exploring the streets of Tokyo, Stoemper were to be launching their new titanium frames at a small event in a karaoke bar in Setagaya. Todd, the frame builder at Stoemper impressed us with the ins and outs of building bicycle frames but impressed us more with his skills on the microphone, spitting out tune after tune on the karaoke machine.
It was with quiet anticipation that we kitted up early for our last ride of the trip. Post a big night on the karaoke microphone we were all wondering just how things would go. Through Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing and past the leftover revelers of the night before, we rode to meet Hibiya-san (@effectnocchi) and his Monokusa Racing crew at Effect Bike Shack in Setagaya. “120km and a climb” they said. The wry smiles and laughs led us to believe they had something special in store for us.
After around 45km of negotiating Tokyo’s urban sprawl and seemingly endless traffic lights, we reached Akirino on the edge of the metropolis. City soon gave way to nature as we rolled into the Hinohara region, a mountainous area covered almost entirely with dense forest. With the majestic valleys and climbs of Kyoto still fresh in our minds the excitement and pace in the bunch increased. The hammer was down. Surrounded again by Japanese Hinoki trees and with the Akigawa River still flowing strongly from the winter’s snowmelt on our left, we began to climb.
Up we went again, a 17km Category 1 climb (called Kazahari on Strava) up to 1150m above sea level with a mix of switchbacks, gravel and expansive green mountain vistas. With the steepest section peaking at an average gradient of 29% for 300m, we clearly weren’t in Tokyo anymore. We now realized why all the smiles earlier. Out of the saddle we wrestled our bikes like we were reeling in a marlin up the last unrelenting steep section before taking a short break to enjoy the view around 1km from the top. The final memorable section saw us rise into the clouds and a blanket of lush, moist greenery before jumping a fence and heading downhill. The descent was the payoff for all the climbing. On quiet, perfect roads that snaked their way down into the valley towns and river below, we descended fast and continued to swap turns all the way through the valley. This was pure cycling nirvana.
With smiles on our faces and coffee on our mind we headed back through Tokyo to our final stop, Dear All Coffee in Sasazuka. A fine place to rest, serving Single Origin Roasters coffee (from Sydney - a nice reminder of home) in minimalist yet warm surrounds. After a well-deserved brew, it was time to bid our new friends farewell. Omotenashi, translated simply is the Japanese way of treating a guest. Hospitality that is single hearted with warmth of spirit. Thank you Hibiya-san for your Japanese hospitality and for creating a day on the bike we won’t soon forget.
It was with that ride that we bid farewell to Japan – for anyone thinking of locations to visit for their next cycling holiday we cannot recommend Japan highly enough. Not only is the riding spectacular but also the Japanese people are some of the friendliest you are likely to meet, the food is delicious, the history and culture is amazing, and off the bike activities are endless.