The train to Nagano

•September 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today was a day off cycling. I took the train to avoid about 200 miles of riding along a flat, mostly crowded river valley to Nagano. 

I have a home-made bike cover for the trains (it’s required). It’s made from the lightest, though strongest material I could find. Cuben Fiber. It’s what America’s Cup sails use, only mine is an extremely lightweight version. Total bag: 2 oz. 

My connection in Takasaki was SIX MINUTES, and I had to go down into the main station and then go up to another track. Plus, I was in the last train car, so my trek was that much further. This while carrying my bike and bags. Once I stepped into the car bound for Nagano and put down my stuff, the bells rang and the doors quietly closed.

The Shinkansen has a max speed of 200mph, and the route from Niigata to Takasaki was mostly in tunnels. Sometimes for well over 10 minutes at a stretch. Even if they slow down to 100mph in tunnels, that makes for a succession of 15-20 mile long holes below the mountains, one after another.

The trains are always on time. In my 4 visits here, and dozens of train rides, I’ve never seen a late train. And they are spotlessly clean. While waiting for the Narita Express I watched the cleaning crew clean the train. Now this is a train that goes back and forth from the airport and Tokyo every hour. How dirty could it get? Well, not only did they empty the trash, but they mopped – yes wet mopped – the floors and vacuumed the carpet and wiped all the surfaces. It was like riding in a mobile operating room.

All the announcements are in Japanese, then English. The English is always the same British woman no matter which train I’m on, or which region I’m in. So, think about that for a second: hundreds of trains, countless permutations of the required announcement as each train makes its journey. How long did it take her to record all those thousands of announcements? And it’s definitely NOT a synthetic voice. I’d like to ask her how she did that.

Oh yes, the outsides of the trains are spotless, too.

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Has to be the widest crosswalk I’ve ever seen. Must be 150′ wide. 

Speaking of crosswalks. Here’s a scene I’ve seen hundreds of times. A very narrow single lane road coming to an intersection, and the little man is red and people wait. And wait. Five or six steps and you would be across the road and there isn’t a car in sight.  You can see several hundred feet down the road and there’s nothing coming.   

Downtown Nagano shop

 This is the road leading to a large temple in downtown Nagano. Unlike the Street prior to this with tasteful shops, here you have the pre-temple walk of commerce. Mostly ice cream and candy shops. 

2 days on the coast: Akita to Murakami

•September 29, 2014 • 3 Comments

My ride started in Akita with another amazing Japanese breakfast with every imaginable fish and fish-like thing you can think of. They even had a natto bar- natto is fermented soybeans in a slimy disgusting mucousy substance that makes it the most revolting thing you could possibly eat. The bar allowed people to customize their soybeans so possibly they would be less or more disgusting depending on your preference. It’s the one Japanese food I refuse to eat.

The restaurant at breakfast was filled with all middle-aged Japanese women, well over 100 of them, and me. I haven’t seen a Westerner since I started. 

 

My hotel in Sakata was on a busy road outside of town so walkable dinner options were limited. This place was across the street so I figured why not. Conveyor belt sushi. The food was very good but the ambience…well that was another matter. If the lights were any brighter they would have had to issue welding masks to protect your retinas from being seared. It was like eating in a Walmart. But damn it was good, and great value. I was so full walking out the door I was hoping for a pair of giant chopsticks to come from the sky and pick me up and set me in my bed.

I’m not a great fan of coastal rides. They are usually flat- and really, how much of the ocean can you look at- it’s the same thing over and over again, it never changes. I much prefer the twisty mountain roads, they are way more interesting plus the climbs are a lot more fun. And Seaside areas tend to be overcrowded and just plain overdeveloped. The first day was a bit Boring, flat, and straight.

Mountain slopes often had this really bizarre concrete cover over them- they didn’t really modify the shape of the mountain just poured concrete over it.

 

But the next day was different. It was a nice coastal route with small farms with row on row of greenhouses. There were steep hills that fell right into the sea…which meant lots of tunnels. Most of which had nice separated bike lanes. It was a small road that wound through seaside villages and fishing ports. It was a good day on the bike.

 

Nice bike lane in tunnel

 

Huge objects maybe 20 feet tall that will become a breakwall.

 

 

 

 

It took me quite a while to convince this woman to let me to take a photo as she was laying out her dried beans

 

 

 

 

 

There is salmon hanging all over this town

 

My hotel in Murakami is a small recently remodeled Ryokan. Murakami is a charming little town with quintessentially perfect Japanese specialty shops

I asked the woman who owns the ryokan for a soba place for dinner and she suggested a small restaurant a few hundred yards away. Nothing was an English: they didn’t speak it, the menu had no English and it didn’t even have pictures. I said in my horrible Japanese for them to make a recommendation. The women were very accommodating or trying to be accommodating, but the man behind the bar in the kitchen who was the chef was visibly annoyed because I couldn’t tell him what I wanted. Finally I got across I wanted soba noodles and tempura and that was it for now. I told him in Japanese how good it was: oishee! He started to warm up. Then I saw him with a bag of what looked like very small mussels. I asked him what they were and he told me. I never heard of them before but I had him make me some…oishee! A really great meal with Sakae for about $18. If…if…if you could find a meal like that in the US it would cost four times as much.

Gotta love the food, though fruit does not appear in a traditional Japanese breakfast. In a ryokan, like this morning, you don’t get a selection (no buffet like western hotels) so you eat what’s in front of you.  One item this morning was a bowl with squid, octopus, and fish roe in it… I hate it. And with all the salmon hanging all over town yes there was salmon on my plate, and it was fantastic. 

 

Why do a cycling tour in Japan?

•September 28, 2014 • 2 Comments

I figure there are 10 reasons why touring Japan by bicycle is a great idea, but the first reason is the roads. I know I can be a bit effusive about Japanese roads but… Just take a look!

 Mountain roads in Northern Honshu. I honestly didn’t know asphalt could be this smooth.  It was truly unbelievable. 

 

Yea, there’s no bike lane, but there weren’t very many cars either. 

OK, there are bike lanes and then there are blank lanes. Sure, this may be a bit over-the-top, however, city planners in America don’t have a clue. 

Some bike lane along the bridge, huh?  

Not all of the roads are this amazing, but enough of them are to make cycling here great. 

 

Getting ready to ride…kinda

•September 24, 2014 • 3 Comments

I arrived in Japan last night but unfortunately my bike did not, it decided to go to San Francisco. Supposedly it will be here this afternoon.  United Airlines cannot send my bike up to me in Aomori in time so I had to spend the night in Tokyo and I’ll get my bike today arriving up north one day later.  With luck I’ll be able to start the journey on time as planned. However that means spending the day here at a hotel near the airport that United paid for but,,,it’s not a terribly charming area. 

 

My first breakfast was a very typical Japanese experience. Fish, soy, pickles… feels a lot like lunch. 

The fish was excellent

The boiled fish paste was very good too.

 

 Dioscorea appears to be a mountain yam that’s turned into a soup. 

  Always lots of pickled things for breakfast. 

And this is a first: a vitamin bar, and I don’t mean the kind of bar you eat, but an actual vitamin stand to have a selection of vitamins with your breakfast. 

A Solo Journey: Cycling the Length of Japan

•September 21, 2014 • 5 Comments

candy shop

Last year I started my first solo Length of Japan cycle tour, but after 10 days and 540 miles I had to fly home unexpectedly. This year, I’m taking up where I left off.

Once again, I will be posting photos of my trip.  In this “Phase II Tour”, I will ride 21 days, rest a few, and cover about 1200 miles from the very north of the main island of Honshu to the south of Kyushu.

If you want to be notified when I make a post, simply click the button “Sign me up!” under my photo (right panel) and enter your email address (you can set notification parameters, and unsubscribe any time).

Here’s the route…
North Honshu:   MAP LINK     Aomori to Murakami, 250 miles, 11,000′, 4 cycling days

Central Honshu:   MAP LINK    Nagano to Mt Fuji, 180 miles, 20,000′, 4 cycling days

Kansai:   MAP LINK    Toba to Wakayama, 150 miles, 10,300′, 4 cycling days

Shikoku:   MAP LINK    Tokushima to Yawatahama, 240 miles, 14,200′, 4 cycling days

Kyushu:   MAP LINK    Beppu to Cape Sata and Ibusuki, 325 miles, 27,200′, 5 cycling days

The Paper Village of Echizen, Japan

•October 20, 2013 • 3 Comments

We visited Echizen for a few days, which is a center for Washi, or hand-made Japanese paper, made mostly from Kozo.  Alison took a workshop, and I spent the day riding around.

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Kyoto, Japan 2013

•October 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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