Author Archive | Natsuko

Behind the Scenes: The All-Road Bike Revolution

For me as an editor, seeing a new book come out is a very special moment, especially if it’s a new and challenging project. Before I joined Bicycle Quarterly and Rene Herse Cycles, I edited more than 180 books and magazines, but our latest project, The All-Road Bike Revolution, has been one of the most unique books I’ve worked on. It’s not just a technical book, but one that describes ideas that have been discovered only recently. There is no precedent for this book, no experience to draw from.

When an author has a great idea, it’s the editor’s job to turn this idea into an actual book. Continue Reading →

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Handlebar Width Matters

When I got my new C. S. Hirose, I was excited to have a bike with wide tires for the gravel roads of the Cascade Mountains. I love my other Hirose, and so I asked the builder to make the new one as similar as possible. Some parts we brought to Japan, like the cranks, fenders for 26″ wheels, and a generator hub, but most components the builder could just order. I wanted to use modern parts as much as possible. Continue Reading →

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Longing for the Mountains: Giovanni’s Covid-19 Experience (Italy)

In this series, we’re sharing the Covid-19 experiences of friends and contributors from around the world. Giovanni Calcagno won our photo contest two years ago with this photo, taken during his ride on the Via del Sale that criss-crosses the Italian-French border. Here is his experience during the Covid-19 lockdown in Italy.
– Natsuko

Tell us about yourself and where you live.

I’m 59 and live in Arenzano, a town of 12,500 people (rising to 40,000 during the summer months) near Genova on the northwestern coast of Italy. I work as a fisherman, catching swordfish with my brother. We come from a family that has been fishing for four generations. Continue Reading →

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Covid-19 Experiences: Donalrey in New York City

The first Covid-19 case in the United States was detected near us here in Seattle in mid-January. Back then, we didn’t imagine that this would turn into such a difficult situation. The entire world has been affected. As we’ve stayed in touch with our friends and Bicycle Quarterly contributors in some of the most affected regions, we’ve been encouraged by their resilience. In this series, I’ll share some of their experiences.

I caught up with Donalrey Nieva from New York City. He and his partner Karen Yung photographed and wrote the cover story in the current Bicycle Quarterly.
—Natsuko Continue Reading →

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Jikkoku Pass in Autumn: Day 2

In the last post, I talked about riding on the old road across Jikkoku Pass.

Where to go on the second day? We haven’t quite decided yet. The typhoon is getting closer, and we don’t know what the weather will be like. If it’s just raining, it’s OK, but this time, a huge typhoon is forecast, which may make riding in the mountains dangerous because of landslides. We will adjust our plans as the day develops. Continue Reading →

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Jikkoku Pass in Autumn

Usually, October in Japan is a month of good weather, with an occasional typhoon that needs to be considered when planning a cyclotouring trip. But when I visited Japan this autumn, October saw so many typhoons and rain. It’s very unusual.

We did not want to miss the short window of good weather as we planned a cyclotouring trip. Mr. Yo had time off and could join us. We decided to go on a two-day trip together. Where to go? Continue Reading →

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Natsuko’s Trip to Rishiri Island

Mount Rishiri-Dake (1721 m) is a popular hiking destination.

Bicycle Quarterly editor Natsuko Hirose takes you to Rishiri Island, off Hokkaido’s coast in northern Japan.

From the northernmost town in Hokkaido, Wakkanai, there is a ferry that goes to Rishiri and Rebun Islands. These small islands are the northernmost inhabited parts of Japan, and many cyclists dream of cycling there once in their lifetime. So did I!
Cycling around the islands is not difficult, but finding the right time is! During the brief summer season, the Rishiri Island is popular with hikers. It’s also famous for its great seafood, amd the few hotels are usually booked.
At the end of September, it starts snowing in the mountains, and storms often cancel the ferry. By October, most hotels and pensions close. It’s difficult to find a time when cycling is possible, but there are no crowds.

Leaving Wakkanai on the ferry to Rishiri Island

With the uncertain schedule of the ferry, my friends cannot join me on this trip, so I travel alone. It is a different kind of fun.

The ferry takes two hours to reach the island. The first thing I look forward to is seeing the sun set into the Sea of Japan. It is cold on the boat, but I am excited to head to the island.

There are bike paths on the island, and a road goes around the perimeter. The distance is 55 km (35 miles), and the map doesn’t show much up-and-down, so it seems quite doable in a day – unless it is very windy. I pray that the wind won’t be too strong.

This bike path was built specifically for cycling, rather than being a converted railway. It has some nice ups and downs, and there are great views. It is fun. I imagine that during summer, the flowers will be beautiful, too.

This bike path even has viewpoints. Cycling along the sea, you often travel only at low levels, so it feels special to get to such a great view.

The path is deserted. I feel a bit lonely, but it is nice to have the place to myself. It’s one of the advantages of visiting during the off-season.

The bike path ends, so I take the road. There aren’t many cars, and the wind isn’t very strong. It makes for nice cycling. Except it is very cold. The sun is shining, but it is too low in the sky to provide much warmth.

Tonight, I will stay on the island, so I don’t need to worry about ferry or bus schedules. When I see something interesting, I can just stop and enjoy it. It feels very special.

When I ride with my friends, I often focus on cycling. When I go alone, I try to visit local museums whenever possible. I want to feel the history of the places I visit. It adds another dimension to exploring the landscape on my bike.

The Rishiri Island Museum is housed in the old village hall that was built in 1913. It’s well-known in Japan that Rishiri Island does not have brown bears. That makes hiking here easier and safer. At the museum, I see an old newspaper article: Many years ago, a bear swam 20 km (13 miles) from the mainland to the island!

The sky is so big here, and the air so cold. It really feels like an island far, far in the north.

I stop at Lake Outatomari, which means “inlet with sand” in Ainu, the language of the native inhabitants of the north. I am glad to see Mount Rishiri free of clouds, so I take a photo.

When touring alone, I don’t cover much ground. There are so many places to visit, so many photos to take. This morning, 55 km didn’t seem like a lot, but now the sun is low, and I am nowhere near my destination.

I am back on the bike path when the sun sets. I wanted to return to the hotel before sunset… Even so, I stop, because the sunset is beautiful.

Soon dinner will be served. And it’s getting cold and windy. I shiver.
I really want to get to the hotel as quickly as possible. But I can’t resist to climb up to the viewpoint to enjoy the sunset. It is very beautiful… and cold.

When I get to the hotel, dinner is already served. Traditional Japanese hotels serve dinner and breakfast as part of the accommodation. It is nice not having to worry about finding a warm meal. The meal consists of local specialties: fish, scallops, vegetables, prawns. It tastes great!

My friends ask me whether I feel lonely when I go on solo bike trips. The answer is yes – it can get lonely. This creates an opportunity to talk with local people or others I meet. We talk about local things, the weather, where we come from. It’s fun. Meeting people is an essential part of cyclotouring for me.

All night, it rains hard. When I wake up, I worry that I may not want to go cyclotouring today.

Looking outside, I see the first snow of the year on top of Mount Rishiri. Now I know why it feels so cold here!

I was tempted to climb to the top of Mount Rishiri, but with the snow, it is impossible. I don’t have enough equipment.

Instead, I decide to hike up Mount Pon. It’s only 441 m (1446 ft) high, so there is no snow. In my handlebar bag, I carry my backpack, hiking map, rain gear, headlamp, emergency food, compass… everything I need to hike up the mountain.

The hiking trail is steep, and I get warm from the effort.

When I reach the top, it’s so windy that it almost blows me away. In the background is Mount Rishiri. Later, I meet a hiker who reached the top. He said that it was very cold, and that hail stones covered the ground.

Even here, it’s too cold to stay and eat lunch. I drink hot tea from my thermos, then hike back down.

When I return to the foot of the mountain, the blue sky and red autumn foilage look so different from up there. I’m only 400 m (1300 ft) lower, but it’s a different world. I also realize that I was lucky to see Mt. Rishiri yesterday.

Afterward, I decide to explore other roads on the island. I want to eat lunch at a Ramen shop recommended by a friend. The lady at the visitor center told me that the Ramen shop is only open until 2 o’clock now, so I have to hurry.

When I reach the Ramen shop, it starts raining. The forecast was for sunshine, but on the island, the weather is unpredictable. The Ramen, with its soy sauce base and strong flavor, warms me on this cold day.

After I eat, I wait for the rain to stop. I meet a German tourist who rented a bike and is riding around the island, too. He asks me how to find the entrance to the bike path.

Today, I have much time, so I decide to ride with him. I’m no longer a solo cyclotourist – it’s a nice change!

I wonder why he could not find the bike path. There are many signs! For me, it is clear – I read the Japanese Kanji symbols, but it should be fine for him, too: There is an English translation on each sign. Then I realize that the English text says ‘Jitenshado’ – the Japanese word for ‘cycling road’ has been transcribed into the Roman alphabet, but not translated into English. Now I understand why the German cyclist could not find the bike path!

I am happy I could help the German tourist.

He tells me that he likes Japan very much and describes the places he has visited. Unexpected encounters also are part of the fun of cyclotouring.

He will leave the island on the last ferry. I suggest that he visit the public bath before taking the ferry… With some time before dinner at my hotel, I decide to explore the island a little more. I enjoy the view of the harbor with Mt. Rishiri in the background.

The following day, I take the ferry to the next island. It’s alway been my dream to go from island to island by ferry. It seems very romantic to me.

Rishiri Island recedes in the distance. I’ll come back some day to climb Mt. Rishiri! But now I am heading to Rebun Island. Read Natsuko’s previous post, about her cyclotouring reunion in Hokkaido.

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Natsuko’s Cyclotouring Reunion in Hokkaido

I like bicycles and cyclotouring, but I especially like traveling. When I think about where I want to go next, my heart skips a beat with excitement. Passhunting, visiting Onsen hot springs, eating good meals… During my busy life, it’s easy to forget the small things that make this world so beautiful. When I go cyclotouring, I notice them all the more.

During the last few years, I’ve lived both in Seattle and Tokyo. As I spend more time away from Japan, I notice its beauty even more than I did in the past. This time, I visited the Soya area of Hokkaido, where Ms. K, a friend since college, now lives with her family. For a long time, I’ve wanted to visit her, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.

I use 1:50,000 scale topo maps and the ‘Mapple’ motorcycle atlas to plan my trips.

Last autumn, I went to lunch with my best friend, Mr. Y, and we talked about her. He immediately concurred: “Yes, let’s go!” We send a message to Ms. K, and she replied almost immediately: “Anytime! Please come and visit!” It felt like our university days – so easy to make plans.

Our plan quickly grew in scope. While we were in Hokkaido, we should go cyclotouring! So Mr. Y decided to bring his bike as well.

My bike travels in its lightweight Ostrich Rinko bag.

Our schedules didn’t allow traveling together, so we met in Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost town. I flew from Tokyo. Japan’s baggage handlers are reasonably careful, so I just packed my bike in its lightweight Rinko bag. Mr. Y came by overnight bus.

Our plan was simple: “Let’s meet at 8 a.m. at a small intersection in Wakkanai.” When we were in college, we often met at city parks or railway stations to start our trips. In the early morning, I received a message: “My bus is getting close to the intersection now.” So I left my hotel and cycled over to the meeting point.
Mr. Y was already there. Even though Wakkanai is almost 1000 km (640 miles) north of Tokyo, it was as easy as meeting somewhere in Tokyo. It was a giddy feeling to see him so far from home. I thought how much I appreciate cyclotouring and good friends.

Mr. Y already had put together his custom-built Toyo. Every time I see it, I marvel at the clearcoated frame that shows the brass of the fillet-brazing. It’s neat!

Mr. Y cycles along the Ororon Line road on the shore of the Sea of Japan. The clouds portend rain.

After saying “Hello,” we mount our bikes and cycle on the famous Ororon Line road along the Sea of Japan. Later, we’ll turn inland to Toyotomi town in the interior of the Soya region. Toyotomi is famous for its Onsen hot springs with black water that smells of petroleum. When I cycled around Hokkaido as a student, I just rode through the town. Now I am looking forward to staying here and enjoying the hot springs.

Minutes before a downpour… Mr. Y’s Toyo is on the left, with my Hirose on the right.

As we ride along, it suddenly starts raining incredibly hard. There is no time to put on my jacket, my rain pants, my saddle cover, nor even take a photo… Within seconds, I am completely soaked.

Fortunately, we reach Bakkai station just in time to escape from the rain. This train station is famous as the setting of the 1983 movie Nankyoku Monogatari. The story of the movie and its Disney remake Eight Below is famous in Japan, but too long to tell here.

Bakkai station is also famous among railroad enthusiasts, because it’s the northernmost wooden railway station in Japan. After waiting out the rain for two hours, we restart our ride. Fortunately, we are not in a rush today!

We haven’t planned our route in detail – just go south, then turn inland. We cycle on small, empty farm roads that meander through the fields.

The Sea of Japan is famous for its beautiful sunsets, so we decide to stay on the coast and watch the sunset. The Sarobetsu Wetlands form one of the largest meadows in Japan. The large scale of Hokkaido’s landscape really sinks in here – so different from the steep mountains and deep valleys that make up the rest of Japan. It’s Japan’s ‘Big Sky Country.’

When we arrive, the sun is already setting. There are no tourists at this late hour, and we enjoy the wooden walkways that lead across the meadows. The quiet magnificence makes our visit an almost spiritual experience.

We recall our college antics and jump in the air. When we look at the photos, we laugh: We don’t jump as high as we used to!

The sun vanishes into the Sea of Japan and illuminates Rishiri Island, a 1700 m (5600 ft) volcano that seems to float on the sea. I decide that, some day, I’ll climb Mt. Rishiri!

The sunset is beautiful, but it also reminds us that we must hurry to our hotel. There are no streetlights in rural Hokkaido! We enjoy half an hour of night riding before arriving at our hotel in complete darkness. (We have good lights.) We head to the Onsen hot bath with its pungent, black water. Even though the reputation of this Onsen is well known, we are surprised how strong the smell and how dark the water really is. Even though I love Onsen, I cannot stay in the water very long. But it is fun!

The next morning, we continue our inland ride until we have crossed over to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Once again, we don’t have a set route. We check the map and pick small roads toward Sarufutsu village, where our friend Ms. K lives. How about trying some gravel roads? We don’t know how rough the gravel will be… If it’s no fun, we can return to the main road. Today, we have time for exploring.

We find a wide farm road that is remarkably smooth, and we follow it for 17 km (10 miles).

Another detour takes us to the North Okhotsk cyclepath. In some parts, this paved path is bumpier than the gravel road we rode on earlier! As a former railroad grade, this path is very flat. My mind wanders, and I imagine old B&W photos of steam trains chugging along this route. Even on this sunny and bright day, I feel nostalgic.

Adding to our collection of roads is the Esanuka Line, which is famous among cyclists and motorbike riders because it spears in a straight line across a totally flat landscape, with not even a power line interrupting its ‘horizontalness.’ For Japanese, riding in a straight line beyond the horizon is very remarkable. For 30 minutes, it feels almost like the famous Route 66 across the American West.

Moving closer to the sea, we find a narrow road paved with white gravel. We can smell the ocean as the stones crunch under our tires. Suddenly, we realize that the road is not paved with stones at all – we are riding on crushed seashells!

Small paths lead to the water. We look over the sea on one side and the landscape of Soya on the other, and we talk about how this region’s great variety and unique feel make it a perfect destination for cyclotourists.

Our cycling trip ends as we pull up at Ms. K’s house. It’s fun to arrive by bike, as if we just had ridden across Tokyo to visit a friend. But nobody is home!

We call Ms. K, and learn that she is waiting on the main road, wanting to surprise us and take our photo as we arrive. But we took a backroad and reached her house from the other side. We laugh about this ‘mishap’ – again, it feels just like our college days.

Sarufutsu is famous for its ‘free-range’ scallops. For dinner, Ms. K teaches us the different ways to cook the fresh mollusks that have been harvested only this morning. We make sashimi, we fry them, and we sautée them with butter. Accompanied by lively conversation, we enjoy our private reunion.

For our last day on Hokkaido, we’ve planned to go sightseeing with Ms. K and her family, but the hard rain keeps us in the car. We talk about our school days, our present lives and our plans for the future – just like we’ve always done when we meet.

I am very happy. Visiting Ms. K together has made the trip even more special. In the past, Mr. Y or I have visited her alone and sent photos, which made the other all the more envious. Now we can all share the fun.

That afternoon, we say goodbye at Wakkanai Airport. Mr. Y has to return to Tokyo, while I will cycle around Hokkaido for another week. This trip has been filled with small adventures and exciting discoveries, and I look forward to more…

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Ride to the Tulips

by Natsuko Hirose, Bicycle Quarterly.

On a rainy Sunday, I visited a farmers’ market in Seattle, instead of going cyclotouring. I saw many tulips for sale. Often, I forget about the seasons, because I am so busy. I wondered why there were so many tulips. Jan explained: “It’s the season of tulips.”

Later that day, I researched places to go cyclotouring near Seattle. I asked Jan: “Where is the Skagit Valley?” – “Not too far from here.” Jan explained that it was a popular tourist attraction, so he had never seen the tulips, because cyclotourists often try to avoid the crowds. But I am a tourist, so I wanted to visit!

The next Sunday, we were greeted by sunny weather as we started our ride in Mount Vernon. I was surprised how much traffic there was, and tulip symbols were everywhere. I was excited – it was a clear sign that there would be many tulips to see. And we hoped to avoid the traffic by staying off the main highways.

We rode on back roads and even atop a levee, and we had the roads to ourselves. Cycling here was fun. And it was sunny! Finally, after all the rain in Seattle, it felt like spring had arrived.

We passed Jackpot Lane, and saw a classic car for sale. “Comes with spare engine” said the sign on the windshield. In Japan, cars usually are sold at dealers, so this was an interesting discovery.

The fields were colorful with yellow flowers: dandelions. Spring really had come. But where were the tulips?

We joined a road that was marked as part of the Tulip Route. But still no tulips!

Our hearts beat faster when we saw yellow blossoms in the distance, but they turned out to be daffodils. Beautiful, but no tulips!

Finally we saw a long line of parked cars in the distance. And to the side were colorful fields. We had found the tulips!

For me, it was an amazing sight. After the gray winter in Seattle, seeing so many vivid blossoms reminded me that life can be full of color and joy!

The tourists all gathered in one place where the tulips were in full bloom. We explored dirt paths and found the fields where workers were picking the tulips that we had seen at the farmers’ market. The blossoms had not yet opened. They looked so fresh and crisp. We realized that the other tulips were planted for the tourists, to show how beautiful tulips can be. These ones were going to bring joy to people’s lives all over.

We left the tulip fields behind and continued to the fishing town of La Conner, where we ate lunch on the bank of the Swinomish Channel.

The Skagit Flats are really flat and criss-crossed by the many arms of the Skagit River. Around Tokyo, the flat areas are densely populated and not so good for cycling. But here, we could find small roads that had no traffic. It reminded me of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. It was very romantic.

The sun was almost setting when we returned to Mount Vernon. It had been fun to meander through the fields, cross the rivers and channels on high bridges, and cycle on quiet backroads.

We had bought postcards from a local artist at a small store in the countryside, so the tulips continued to ride with us.

Now I remember the tulips we bought on that rainy Sunday, which led us to explore the Skagit Valley. It was a fun ride, and of course, we bought more tulips. They continue to brighten our dining room. Tulip season continues. Enjoy the spring!

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