Knobby-tired Touring in the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan is a place sponsored riders Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlyn Boyle would love to further explore and learn about, but for now, they are immensely thankful for having had the opportunity to spend a few days.

This past spring, Kaitlyn and I both managed to do well in a pair of races that gave the winners plane tickets to the 2015 Singlespeed World Championships in Japan. With our teaching schedules, even getting away for a week in October is challenging, but we managed to carve out eight days for a quick trip to the Far East. Our plan was to fly to Tokyo (two days travel time), pedal to the race venue in Hakuba (three days of touring to the Japanese Alps), hang out with the huge singlespeed crew and race (one day), then blast home (two more days of travel).

While the entire trip was rushed, the race and everything else in Hakuba was spectacular. Undoubtedly the most memorable part of the trip, though, was our three days of touring. We had been apprehensive about the ride, hearing that dirt roads were nonexistent, traffic is frightening, camping is hard to come by, and we’d be pedaling knobby tires on a lot of asphalt. But, oh, how misinformed we’d been! By the time all was said and done, we wished that we had had far more time to explore the islands, and I’d love to go back and do a road tour from Hokkaido all the way south to Kyushu.

Here’s what we found were keys to an exciting knobby-tired tour across Honshu, from Tokyo to the western edge of the Nagano Prefecture:

1. Seek out the smallest roads you can find. Ideally they’ll be closed to through-traffic because of downed trees or bridges in need of repair. On Google Maps, these roads appear as little white lines winding through the mountains if you zoom way, way in. I wouldn’t have even been able to easily drive my little pick-up truck through some of the switchbacks on these roads! And some sections were, in fact, dirt. They also tested our legs, even with the 32x22 gearing we were running.

2. Stick to the mountains as much as possible. And expect to climb a lot. The valleys along our route tended to be busy, filled with towns, main highways, and, if it’s not windy, smoke from burning rice straw after harvest. Camping was easy to come by in the mountains, and we were treated to viewing a couple of Japanese serows, a kind of “goat-antelope.”

Rice straw before harvest ...

3. If you need to ride through cities, find recreational paths. After arriving in Tokyo, we slept in the airport before unboxing our bikes and getting them set to go. We pedaled down the sidewalk away from the terminal, crossed a single intersection, and promptly turned right onto a recreational path that followed the Tama River nearly 40 miles through the suburbs to the edge of the mountains.

Kaitlyn on an urban recreational path ...

4. Make frequent use of the abundant beverage vending machines and 7-11 stores along the way. I have not been anywhere with such ubiquitous vending machines. In places, four or five machines lined up side by side along the road, waiting in all their colorful glory for thirsty (or groggy) cyclists. And these machines could even spit out a warm coffee followed by a cold juice, perfect for any time of day. These 7-11 stores offer gourmet cyclist food—premade hot rice dishes, rice snacks in a dozen flavors, yogurt, fruit, and veggies. Don’t expect much of a selection of candy bars, though.

Vending machine nirvana ...

5. Stop to enjoy the roadside attractions, even if you’re on an unfortunately tight timeframe. Relaxing geothermal baths and beautiful temples can be found in most valleys. We found enormous interpretive maps in many smaller towns from which we could glean at least a bit about the region. Tiny roadside boxes also offered vegetables to passersby, coming from the large gardens that surrounded nearly every house in the country—just drop your money in the cardboard box, and continue onward. And juicy persimmons grew on trees along many of the roads we followed. The geologist in me was reticent to pass by caves, rock shops, and a dinosaur museum along the way, but we unfortunately didn’t have the time to stop.

Snack time, courtesy of 7-11 ...

The animated characters on signs of all types also constantly amused us. This “cute culture” was at times a bit confusing, though, leaving us wondering if the angry elephant on a sign was warning us not to throw litter on the ground or if there really would be an angry elephant around the next turn. And after seeing numerous cute bear warning signs, the sign with a very graphic, frightening bear posted on a barricade along the road was a bit concerning.

Cute bear or angry bear? You be the judge ...

Luckily, we did not see any angry elephants or bears. We had an amazing time riding through a different part of the world and scratching the surface of Japanese culture. It’s a place we’d love to further explore and learn about, but for now, we’re immensely thankful for having had the opportunity to spend a few days in Japan.

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