Riding to the Sea of Japan

Riding to the Sea of Japan

Oceans have a strong appeal to me. The Raid Pyrénéen, a ride across the length of the Pyrenees mountains, starts at the Atlantic and ends at the Mediterranean. On our Flèche 24-hour rides, we often visit the Pacific Ocean. Oceans seem like limitless expanses of water from the shore, yet you know that way, way, way over there, on the other side, there are exciting foreign lands.
In Japan, we had cycled for many kilometers along the Pacific Ocean, yet it wasn’t so exciting. On the other side of the vast water is… Seattle! Riding along the Sea of Okhotsk during our tour of Hokkaido had more romance, since it freezes over during the winter, and Siberia is on the other side. But I really wanted to see the Sea of Japan… which links Japan to Asia, and really provides the context for our experiences there.
Kyoto is located where the main island of Honshu is narrowest, so the distance “from shining sea to shining sea” is less than 100 km “as the crow flies”. I already was in the mountains north of Kyoto, so the Sea of Japan really wasn’t that far, and my friends from I’s Bicycle suggested a bike ride to Obama on the promised shore. They’d drive across the first pass, while I’d ride, together with their employee Choco, an avid randonneur who would ride all the way from Kyoto.
It was a frigid morning when I set out from the guesthouse where I was staying. Almost immediately, the road started climbing, gentle at first, then steeper as I approached the mountain pass. The cherry trees were in full bloom, but the temperature at the bottom of the pass was a frigid 39°F. I could not read the Kanji on the sign, so I didn’t know whether to expect snow on the pass. So I forged ahead…
On the other side of the mountains, I found the small town where I was to meet Harumi and Ikuo. That is where I finally encountered Choco, too (above). We had planned for me to catch up to him shortly after leaving my guesthouse, so we could ride together. Somehow, I had passed him on the single highway across the mountains without either of us noticing. One of the mysteries of long-distance riding…
Then we met up with Ikuo and Harumi Tsuchiya, the owners of I’s Bicycle. Together, we cycled up another mountain pass, which we traversed via a tunnel near the top. (There is no shortage of mountain passes in Japan!)
Choco and I briefly explored the old road across the pass, which was great fun, but we decided that it would take too long, so we, too, went through the tunnel.
We rode past cherry trees in full bloom (photo at the top of the post), along scenic backroads, and then, suddenly, there was…
… the Sea of Japan! Obama is located on a large bay, so you don’t get the experience of a “limitless expanse of water”, but it was still moving to realize that out in the distance (actually, to the right in this photo), there is the vast continent of Asia.
The bay may not give you a feeling of “limitless expanse of water”, but it makes the ride along the water much more interesting and varied. After lunch on the seaside and a short stretch on a busy highway…
…we joined a cyclepath that went high on the cliffs above the water.
The views of the water and shorelines were spectacular, but I was almost as interested in the slope stabilization projects on the other side. Faced with a very young and active landscape, the Japanese spend huge amounts to maintain their infrastructure and prevent damages before they occur. These concrete latticeworks span the mountains in Japan and stabilize slopes that otherwise might crumble into landslides.
After a snack at a beautiful antique store-cum-bakery in a small seaside town, it was time to head back.
Did I already mention that the cherry trees were in full bloom? I’ve always loved the “sakura”, but in Japan, they are incredible.
Choco and I split up from Harumi and Ikuo, who took a more direct route back. We cycled back into the mountains, had a snack at a small store (above)…
… and then it was just one more mountain pass for me. For Choco, getting back to Kyoto involved 70 km (44 miles) and four big passes. It didn’t faze him… but I have to admit that I was getting tired.
Not so tired that I didn’t admire the “yama sakura” (mountain cherries) high in the valleys. I am deeply grateful to our friends who took me here and showed me these beautiful places. It was a great outing, and one that I will remember!

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Comments (25)

  • teamdarb

    That first picture sets the tone. You mention the trees, but no animals. Did you spot any?

    May 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm
  • Mark Fisher

    Thanks for sharing. If I can’t do the ride, this is the next best thing.

    May 25, 2015 at 4:46 pm
  • David Pearce

    Obama is a place? A little map would be nice.

    May 25, 2015 at 5:06 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Obama is a place. I was surprised when I first saw the road signs. You can Google it…

      May 25, 2015 at 5:11 pm
      • David Pearce

        So I see. Now I know! Also, maybe I haven’t read your travelog carefully enough, but it seems odd to me to have cherry blossoms and cold weather. Here in D.C., freezing temperatures are mostly gone by the time our cherry blossoms come out in early April.

        May 25, 2015 at 5:22 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I think it was a cold spell… I only arrived in Japan only a few days earlier. The cherry blossoms really were beautiful.

          May 25, 2015 at 5:25 pm
  • Jeff Potter

    Wonderful blossoms! Cycling amid flowers seems just as good as cycling near water, which I also like. But if I spend a day riding near water I start dreaming about water travel and then I like to take a day off of riding and rent a boat. I often daydream of ways to combine boating and biking via trailers. I dream of folding bikes and ultralight kevlar aerodynamic trailer-boats. Or maybe a faired recumbent that is actually a boat with a pedal-prop (and paddle, too). Sailing never leaves me alone, either. If I’m paddling I always start dreaming of a mast and sail… Bike, boat, paddle, sail … and blossoms! …and mountain passes! Wonderful to read of you eating it up over there, Jan! …And with such interesting fellow adventurers!

    May 25, 2015 at 5:12 pm
  • David Pearce

    The slope stabilization concrete lattice is interesting. Could they have used a thing like that at Oso, Washington? Is it even safe to walk on the landslide face at Oso now, or is it too unstable? Or maybe it is stable now because of the slide. But would a lattice-infra prevent future slides from calving off at Oso now?

    May 25, 2015 at 5:30 pm
  • Greg

    Sakuranbo! (Cherry blossoms). The best time to be in Japan! Nice report – thanks!
    Domo arigatou gozaimashita. Omoshirokatta desu ka?

    May 25, 2015 at 5:57 pm
  • Joe Wein

    A coast to coast ride is also on my ride list for this year, though it will mean over 300 km when starting from Tokyo.
    With regards to infrastructure work in rural areas of Japan, there’s also a political element as pouring concrete supports local construction companies that donate to political parties… So it’s not always money spent wisely.
    By the way, is there a distributor for Compass tires in Japan? Grand Bois in Kyoto of course stocks their own products (such as the Hetres) as well as the Loup Loup Pass, but they don’t list the Babyshoe Pass on their website yet.

    May 26, 2015 at 3:34 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Unfortunately, we don’t have a distributor in Japan yet, but we do ship orders directly to Japan…

      May 26, 2015 at 6:13 am
      • Steve Palincsar

        Aren’t the tires made in Japan in the first place?

        May 26, 2015 at 2:30 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          They are made in Japan, but exclusively for Compass Bicycles. We own the molds, etc., so the entire production is shipped to Compass in Seattle…

          May 26, 2015 at 5:04 pm
  • Janet

    Reblogged this on Janet’s thread and commented:
    This blog makes me want to pump up my bike tires and head for Japan. Anyone want to come with me? James? Susan?

    May 26, 2015 at 6:43 am
  • GP Cox

    Wish I had the energy!

    May 26, 2015 at 10:43 am
  • Johan

    All I can think about it climbing up that concrete lattice.

    May 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm
  • David Pearce

    I envy Japan and their attention to infrastructure and the “public good”. I think Adam Gopnik’s piece in The New Yorker, The Plot Against Trains, and his mention of Michael Tomasky’s piece in the Daily Beast, The Next Amtrak Catastrophe, especially telling. Who is proud that the trains run SLOWER now than they did 50 years ago between New York City and Washington, D.C.? In 1964, The Beatles traveled between NYC and DC in 2 hours, 15 minutes, and now the fastest train takes at least 2 hours, 50 minutes. Not good, people. Interest in the “public good” does not make one a bad person, or a Communist, for that matter. “Rugged Individualism” takes you only so far, and only to a certain place.

    May 26, 2015 at 9:00 pm
    • Jeff Potter

      Sorry for the OT digression, but isn’t CA trying to buy $68 billion in new right-of-way to install high-speed rail from SF > LA. My old cowboy uncle remarked that the existing rail and locomotives, if well maintained, could deliver nearly high-speed results as-is. Reliably over 80mph. No need for either high-speed or expense. He didn’t go out much, but seemed to know the locomotive model number and the existing route, with its various bends, and the known performance capabilities of both. Many are knowledgeable about trains and routes, and are fond of them, and perhaps know more than most in the public discourse. But, who knows, maybe that’s just kibbitzing and it’s somehow more sensible to line up $68B than to buff up existing facilities.

      May 27, 2015 at 4:50 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The SHINKANSEN, TGV and ICE trains travel at 200 mph all the time, not just for a few miles here and there. For that, you need totally different tracks…

        May 28, 2015 at 5:02 am
  • Michael

    No helmets. I like that.
    My wife is from China. When I see so many people riding without helmets, I feel I am the uptight American (Disclaimer: not saying Americans are uptight, also not quoting any Chinese folks. Just makes me feel self conscious and like I’m stuck on western cycling zeitgeists when there is a whole world of riders out there who don’t see things the same way.)
    Is Choco the one with the helmet?
    PS- flashback to the other blog post; just read an account of 1990’s PBP Randos blowing thru stop signs.

    May 26, 2015 at 11:47 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Choco is the one wearing a helmet. Generally, commuters and cyclotourists in Japan don’t seem to wear helmets, while randonneurs do.

      May 27, 2015 at 5:21 am
    • Joe

      Michael, I can understand that you would not want to impose your values on others, but why would you “like” it that they ride without helmet? That makes it sound like their choice of not wearing one is somehow preferable, which I think is hard to make a case for. We don’t want to discourage people from cycling by making it illegal to ride a bicycle without wearing a helmet, but if you do have an accident, a helmet provides at least some degree of protection (though we should of course not rely on that).

      May 27, 2015 at 8:12 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        What I found refreshing among my friends in Japan was that the focus was on skills and accident prevention rather than just “wear a helmet, because crashes are unavoidable”. However, I don’t want this to turn into a helmet discussion, so please read our post on the subject. (In other words, no more “helmet” comments will be approved. Sorry.)

        May 27, 2015 at 8:24 pm
      • Michael

        Hi Joe.
        I enjoy riding without a helmet sometimes so I just thought it was neat seeing a pic of people riding without them. Kinda like if you own a certain brand of bike one does not see often in their locale, and then one day you see someone riding one, you may think “Alright! They ride one, too!”.

        May 27, 2015 at 11:49 pm

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