I’ve wanted to share my thoughts about Canada, and the end of our tour, for the past few months. The hardest part about writing this post has been processing what “the end of our tour” even means. Although we stopped riding in late August, it took until at least October for me to feel that the trip was actually over, that I wasn’t about to pack up and ride away. Sorting through those feelings has been an ongoing project, but it finally feels like it’s time to put down those thoughts.

Our trip through Canada was like a geographically distributed, month-long, lovingly hosted dinner party. We usually only have the chance to visit Jim’s family in small increments – for a few days in the summer, or a week in the winter. This was our first chance in many years to connect with everyone in a more meaningful way, and to stay as long as we wished. In return, all of Jim’s family made us feel like loved and honored guests the whole time we were in Canada.

First, we rode to Ottawa, and spent two days with with Jim’s aunt, Karen. From Ottawa, we rode to Toronto, where we spent a week with Jim’s parents, and attended his cousin Hallie’s wedding. The wedding allowed us to see the entire paternal side of the family, as well as to meet Hallie’s fiancé and his family. After the wedding, our next stop was in Guelph, to stay with Jim’s grandparents, Pops and Blossom. Finally, we rode to Waterloo, staying with his uncle Mike and Mike’s partner Michelle, as well as my friend, Lexi. We also visited Jim’s grandmother, Judit, in Waterloo.

I thought the ride through Ontario would be easy for us. Unfortunately it turned out to be insufferably hot and humid, with a frequent headwind, and infrequent thunderstorms, which made riding frustrating and uncomfortable. Our route took us through rolling farmland and woods, with very little shade over the road. During the worst of it, we packed an insulated backpack with liters of water, soda and gatorade, and stopped to drink in every tiny shadow we found. We pushed ourselves harder than we should have, to spend less time on the road and more time with family.

Despite the weather, I did enjoy the chance to get to understand Canada a little better. It’s a huge country, but I was surprised that it felt linear – with America to our left and the Canadian shield to our right, we were biking through the only real populous strip of the country. Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto are major population centers, but development drops off rapidly once you leave the city. I had expected sprawling sub-developments and condominiums, but mostly I spent the week looking at wildflowers and lakes.

Whenever we passed through town, I also found that rural and suburban Ontario feel very different than rural and suburban America. I joked to everyone that “the American dream is alive and well in Canada” – there’s a particular sort of neighborhood with small, detached houses that seems to thrive in Ontario. It’s straight out of the white-picket-fence American subconscious.

At the end of our ride, we decided to return to the United States by turning back east and biking through Niagara. We planned our arrival to be on our first wedding anniversary. We booked a hotel looking over the Falls, and spent hours watching the water and talking about the last year. We used it as a chance to pause, and reflect on what this trip had been – certainly an incredible first year of marriage. The next day, we rode over the Rainbow Bridge into Buffalo, and the following morning took a sleeper train back to Boston.

After a year of indecision, we decided to move to Massachusetts at the end of our ride. We both missed Brooklyn, especially our friends there, but we had the feeling we needed to try something different. Eventually, we realized that the only way to choose between Boston and New York would be to try both – so we committed to a year in Boston. This decision was made simpler by the fact that many of our college friends, as well as my entire family, live in Massachusetts, which meant we had a surplus of spare rooms and couches to use while we resettled. We’re now renting a condo from two of our friends, who are away from Boston.

Being a stationary human has been an odd adjustment. There were so many silly things I was excited about when we stopped riding. I couldn’t wait to take my toothbrush out of its sticky travel case. I delighted in having a refrigerator – and a freezer! – with my own food in it. I wore all the warm, soft, bulky clothes I couldn’t carry on a bicycle – hoodies, and slippers, and sweatpants. I bought cut flowers and potted plants, just to own something green.

Not all of that transition has been fun – much of it has been very difficult. When I began this trip, touring quickly stopped feeling like a vacation, and more like a lifestyle choice. Ending that lifestyle, and transitioning back to being stationary, felt like a huge loss. With the trip over, where was I supposed to find purpose, goals, and novelty? Bike touring is neat and compact, like a microcosm of a fulfilling life. It has adventure, exercise, and obvious forward motion. None of these things are as simple to find when you’re not traveling, but they also seem more real, more in depth. I’m simultaneously skeptical of putting down roots, but trying hard to do so.

At her rehearsal dinner, Hallie pointed out to me that our trip was circular: “it started and ended with a wedding!” Since then, I’ve been seeing circles in everything. I ended up where I started – in Massachusetts, where I grew up. Jim has returned to his old job, we’ve retrieved some possessions from storage, and life has started to resume some kind of predictable rhythm. It’s hard to remember that the bike tour happened, that this time last year we were exploring the American south.

Even so, back where I began, I’m starting to understand that it’s me that’s changed. I keep discovering odd little differences in my experience and ways of thinking. It’s a little like coming back to a room and banging your shin into a coffee table that moved. I’ve found I’m far less frugal. I started cooking vegetarian food, by default, after I couldn’t handle a package of raw chicken at the grocery store. We donated suitcases of old clothes that I can’t remember why we kept. I suddenly crave the company of the public, in libraries, cafés, and on the subway. But I haven’t changed in some of the ways we like to imagine of travelers. I’ve rediscovered old habits, including some of the bad ones. I haven’t reached any kind of Instagram-worthy travel zen. I’m in better cardiovascular shape, but I certainly don’t look like an “after” photo.

What, then, now? I don’t think this was our last trip. I’m comforted by the knowledge that bike touring is something that’s always there – I could always throw some bags back on my bike, and leave for a day or an night or longer. That other life we experienced is still out there, and I can go back if I need to. I hope some day I will.

Until then, thank you to everyone for being a part of an amazing, unbelievable year.

Over the border

I’d like to interrupt our introspection to announce that we’re on the move again. We left Massachusetts via the Vermonter train, and infiltrated Canada by biking north from St. Albans, Vermont into Quebec. Our goal is to visit Jim’s family – all of them! – topped off by visiting his cousin Hallie’s wedding.

By “infiltrated” I mean we crossed the border legally, on bikes. The border guard was unimpressed.

French Canada is remote and civilized; wild and cultivated; familiar and foreign, all at once. We spent a day exploring Montreal, with its stacked balconies and restaurant patios, before turning west along the Ottowa (or Ouattouais) river.

The weather has been sweltering, but the scenery along route 334 is bucolic. It’s a mix of tourist cottages and gently rolling farmland. Every 20 kilometers there’s a village with a tidy church, a Casse-Croûte selling poutine and sandwiches, and a view of the river.

Our next destination is Ottowa, and then we’ll continue west along to Toronto. Allons-y!

The Journey Home

The morning after we reached Tokyo, I lay in my hostel bunk listening through an open window to the city street noises muffled by heavy rain. I began to regret the large quantity of celebratory sake that I had consumed the previous evening.

We had put together a laundry list of things to do in Tokyo, the last stop for us before leaving Japan, but for the next few days, most of our energy went into winding our bodies down from the ordeal of the journey.

We did manage to accomplish some tasks, however. We made a pilgrimage to Blue Lug, a famous bicycle shop, and shopped for souvenirs for our friends and family. We relaxed in our hostel and caught up on much-needed sleep.

A few days later, Amy’s cousin Jenn arrived from America on a work trip. A seasoned traveler, Jenn was a fantastic source of the touristic energy required to kick us out of our complacency.

The next day, Jenn, Amy and I began with a tour of the Japanese National Gallery.  I had been excited about looking at the famous katana collection housed in that museum – many of which are considered national treasures. However, I was dismayed to find I responded quite negatively to the cold, unmounted steel blades before me, kept sharp and polished despite their extreme age. Alien, almost identical, I wondered how many people had met their end at the hands of these well-designed obelisks of death. Far more interesting were the painted screens – beautiful arching landscapes of drooping wisterias and gilded waterfalls, and the wood block prints of the late Edo period. The museum was a restrained and focused tour through the history of Japan from the perspective of its art.

After a lunch detour to the famous Tsukiji fish market, we found ourselves walking through the tall cedar trees of Yoyogi park towards the famous Meiji Jingu shrine. The atmosphere here was almost rural; a seven foot long snake poked its head out from under a park bench before scurrying into the underbrush. The shrine was full of foreigners, but like most Shinto shrines, it functioned more as a park for one’s spritual and emotional well being than a mark of belonging, and we didn’t feel excluded as we purchased a wooden block to write a blessing on.

As we walked towards the center of the shrine after ritualistically washing ourselves, we heard the muffled silence of tourists as a traditionally dressed Japanese couple processed with their relatives into a private courtyard, surrounded by preists, on their wedding day.

I looked at Amy and was reminded of how we had grown closer to each other on this trip, which began with our own wedding almost a year ago. It was with a great sense of purpose that Amy, Jenn and I wrote three messages on the wooden block and hung it on shrine to be ritualistically burned the next morning.

We descended from the peace of the shrine to the busiest area of Tokyo, Shibuya.

The crush of people in Shibuya was overwhelming. We headed towards the famous Shibuya Scramble. The scramble  is a huge intersection that is shut down for people to cross in every which way between the multiple train and subway stations under the road.

We joined the crowd and crossed the street to admire the statue of the famous dog, Hachiko, who was kept company by two live, immobile cats perched between his paws. Suddenly, we encountered our friend Justin, who Amy had met in San Francisco, and who had given us many pointers on traveling to Japan. What a strange coincidence to run into a person you know in the midst of the busiest place in the densest city on earth!

The following day was our last before our flight.  This was the day that we had to take our bicycles, which were a method of transporting our worldly possessions, and convert them into two very large, ungainly boxes. Our possessions, and boxes, would then somehow have to get to Haneda airport, which was not reachable via bicycle. We said goodbye to Jenn, and began the all-day process of packing our things.

Our strategy was to pick a location that was walking distance from a cheap hotel, a bike shop (to obtain bike boxes), and an ‘express bus’ line to Haneda airport (which would have the under-cabin storage we needed to transport our ridiculously bulky and heavy bike boxes).  We succeeded in finding a lovely bike shop, who not only gave us boxes, but brought us cold tea, and successfully packed our bikes over several hours. What we didn’t consider was that walking a distance on foot, and walking that same distance while hauling four fifty-pound boxes with no wheels, are two different concepts. Perserverence, and a dolly from the hotel, saved the day, and the next morning we found ourselves at Haneda waiting for our flight.

Both of us felt that it was time to leave Japan. Japan had been amazing, beautiful, and wonderfully kind to us, but we had seen enough, experienced enough. It was time to go somewhere different.

The return back to America was a blur.  We spent a week getting over jet lag and slowly unpacking our bikes while residing on our friend George’s couch in Brooklyn. Next, we took the train to Boston, and spent another week with Joan and Wayne, Amy’s parents, in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Finally, on the weekend of June 10th, we took our bicycles out for a three day tour that we’ve done every year for the past three years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. The ride took two days, and we were joined by a dozen other people. We camped as a group just 
over the Bourne bridge in Shawne Cromwell state park, and again the next night at a campground in P-Town. Some of the riders were old friends, like George, that we’d known for a decade, and the rest were new friends that we were happy to meet and share a bit of scenic beauty, suffering and glory with.

One of the most memorable moments of the ride occurred during the middle of day one, when we had stopped for lunch as a group at a park overlooking a massive wetlands. We watched in horror as a huge snapping turtle (two to three feet long (no, at least five feet!)) emerged from the  swamp and began slowly crawling towards us. Between us and the swamp was a road with a fair amount of traffic. We feared for the turtle, but feared more for our fingers if we tried to move him. Suddenly, an unidentified hero in a baseball hat stopped his truck, grabbed the turtle by the base of its shell, and dragged it out of traffic, as its claws audibly scraped the asphalt.

We reached Provincetown the evening of the second day, and enjoyed a celebratory party with friends new and old.

Amy’s grandparents planned to retire on the Cape in Truro, and they built a small house there in ’70sthat’s still in the family. After a night in P-Town, we biked a few miles back up the Cape 
to the house and parked our bikes. We spent a month relaxing there. Amy painted and baked bread, while I volunteered and worked on projects in the basement. When it was time to leave, we rode much of our trip in reverse, and ended up back in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Osaka to Tokyo, the Nakasendo

Since the last blog post, we made it to Tokyo, and returned from our trip abroad. During the past month, we have been slowly adjusting to a stationary life.

Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. We’re both healthy and temporarily residing in Truro, Massachusetts. Amy is baking bread and making art, and I am working on carpentry projects and reading books from the nearby transfer station.

This will be part one of a three part series.  Today I’ll cover the mad dash to Tokyo in more detail. The next post will detail the journey from Tokyo to Cape Cod. Finally, the third part of the series will be a post of reflections about our journey so far, and the psychological mechanics of returning.

The last blog post ended with us deciding to forego a leisurely few weeks in Shikoku in favor of biking through the mountains at breakneck speed back to Tokyo. This route would take us inland from Osaka, via Kyoto to lake Biwa, through Gifu, and Ena/Natsugawa, through Kiso to lake Suwa, then South and North again around the vertical scar of Mount Yatsugatake to Saku, then east to Shimonita, where we would enter the Kanto plain. We’d cross a large part of the plain to Koga, and then turn south along the Edogawa river levee path to Tokyo. This roughly follows the ‘Nakasendo’, or inland mountain route, used by travelers in pre-industrial Japan to avoid the numerous dangerous river crossings that would be entailed in following the coast.

On day one of the traverse, we crossed Osaka and worked our way inland, via the Kyoto region, to lake Biwa. The first half of the day was a slow urban crawl, then a speed up the river path. The second half of the day was a traverse through endless small cities.  Just as we were approaching sunset, we arrived at lake Biwa, the largest body of freshwater in Japan. We crossed a bridge at a narrow neck of the lake, took a bath at a strategically placed onsen, and set up our tent behind some shrubbery at an abandoned golf course which had been turned into a city park on the shores of the lake.

The next morning, we could see lycra-clad road cyclists shooting past us, as the circumnavigation of Lake Biwa is a popular bicycling challenge.  We joined the parade, and biked north and inland to Gifu. Gifu is famous for its cormorant fishermen, but we avoided the tourist area and stayed at a businessman’s hotel near the train station. After a poor nights sleep in a tent we were happy to have a full nights rest, but for whatever reason we didn’t sleep well, and it was only going to get worse.

After Gifu, we continued our traverse to Ena. at Ena, the elevation really started to pick up. We kept climbing, and despite our already significant elevation, we could see that we were surrounded by great mountains, crowding around us in a great ring. We chose to take route 19, even though we thought it would be a boring and high-traffic ride, since the alternative would have involved climbing 3000 meters in a single day or taking a 15 km expressway tunnel where bikes were explicitly forbidden.

Thankfully we were wrong about route 19. Even though it was a busy thoroughfare, with plenty of ‘japanamax’ trucks, the prefectural authorities had ensured that there was always a sidewalk paralleling the road. Thanks, bureaucrats! I think this had to do with its status as the historical Nakasendo route. Long distance inter city walking is fairly common in Japan, and they decided to make this route available. Given the mountainous terrain, route nineteen followed a steep river valley, first upriver, through a two kilometer tunnel to cut off the summit, then down again.

We desperately wanted to make it to Okaya before the heavy rain that was predicted for the next day at noon, so we went as far as we could on the first day, from just after dawn until after dusk, slept in the corner of a large, dark parking lot, then woke up before dawn, and continued our journey along the same road. It was with a great sense of relief that we beat the rain, which didn’t arrive until later that evening. We were safely ensconced in our hotel room by the time that the huge droplets of water came smashing down against our window, driven by gusts of wind.

Okaya was gorgeous, a mountain lake and the small city co-exist in a sizeable mountain canyon, drawing a lazy cresent shaped shoreline between them. We finally got the rest we had so desperately wanted in Okaya, and woke the next morning feeling refreshed.

The next leg of the journey was around the landscape of mount Yatsugatake, three or four mountain peaks that form a fence between Okaya and Saku. To get to Saku, we had to go south, along yet another river valley, then north again. We spent a lovely evening at the home of Tatsuya, his wife Izumi, and their noble dog Baron. Tatsuya regaled us with stories of his time as a wanderer in south east Asia, where he traveled on a folding bicycle through China, Burma, Thailand, including several months as a Buddhist monk subsisting off of rice alms at a monastery. He undertook this journey in his fifties, which left me with hope that I could be so healthy in my old age. His stories were embellished with home-fermented plum wine, all three of us squatting comfortably on pillows around a portable kerosene fireplace to keep out the alpine chill.

The next morning we climbed up towards the mountain so that we could more easily traverse around it, and restocked at a mountain themed gift shop! There was a mountain bakery with amazing rye bread and curry sandwiches, bento, and a jam station where we picked up some rhubarb preserves. The peak of elevation for the day, and probably for the entire mountain route, took place at a stock farm that was also a tourist attraction. From the southern slopes of Yatsugatake-yama we could see the pastures extending out and down, populated by happy looking livestock in the Swiss fashion. In the distance were the mountains that we weren’t climbing, the Japan Alps, still tipped with snow in late May.

After our lunch, we were propelled by gravity down the river valley almost all the way to Saku, then climbed back through another river valley, filled with enormous blossoming wisteria trees, through a helical series of tunnels to lake Arafune.

The following day was an onslaught of riding across the Kanto plain, through suburban, flat rice fields, for at least thirteen hours, ten of which was probably on our bicycles. At one point in the middle of the day, so tired that we were in danger of falling off our bikes, we lay down on the sidewalk and closed our eyes for fifteen minutes, before continuing. If we hadn’t booked our hotel for that evening, and if rain hadn’t been predicted for the day after next, we would have called it quits at some point in the afternoon. We got to our hotel in Koga at 9:45 PM and collapsed.

In contrast, the next day was relatively easy riding down along a river path to Tokyo. It was such a strange sight to see the skytree rising up out of the rice fields, reminiscent of seeing Austin rising out of the ranchland of central Texas; the city as an occupying force, usurping yet intimately affected by the biome on which it is situated.

We returned to the ‘Space Hostel’, where we stayed at the start of our trip, and the receptionists recognized us! They were happy to see us again, and we were happy to see them. Their warm welcome made our victory over the Nakasendo all the better.


A mad dash

We made it back to Tokyo! We spent a week riding as hard as we’ve ever ridden and another week shopping and playing tourists. Now we’re in the final scramble to get ourselves, our bicycles and our luggage to Haneda airport tomorrow morning. We have so much more to say about Japan, but so little time to say it in before we leave – I just wanted  to make a quick update to say, we made it!

Shikoku, the inland sea, and a purpose

Leaving Hiroshima, we followed the coast to the Seto Inland Sea. The city dropped off to fishing villages, with misty views to islands across the bay. We toured through three major sites we had hoped to see. First was Ōkunashima, also known as rabbit island – a tiny landmass populated with thousands of eerily tame rabbits. Then was the Shimanami bicycle road, a 70 kilometer route from Honshu to Shikoku, spanning seven islands with winding roads and long bridges. Finally, we took a ferry and circled Naoshima, a small island full of modern art museums and installations, kind of like a water-bound Marfa.

This was the end of what we had planned: with these tourist attractions checked off, we both felt a curious sensation of … fullness. Not quite homesickness or boredom, but more an overwhelming sense of not needing or wanting anything. It culminated as I sat on the stoop of a hostel in Takamatsu, unable to bear the twenty-minute check-in process. I wasn’t tired or hungry, and the weather was fine, so I didn’t want to stay anywhere.

We had two diverging plans at this point, and we were waffling between them. There was a ferry a day or two away in eastern Shikoku that we could take back to Tokyo, but we had nothing planned in Shikoku to kill the extra week of time. This is no fault of Shikoku’s. It has everything we would want – whirlpools; mountains; onsen; and pilgrims circling the island in white robes and straw hats. But that feeling of fullness extended to tourism, too; we weren’t excited about any of it. Our other plan was to bike back to Tokyo, but our original planned route was simply impossible in the time we had left.

At this point, we did the responsible thing, and headed to a bar. We resolved to stay awake until we wanted to, or were forced, to make a decision. After a few oddly-named cocktails, 7-11 ice cream cones, and a few hours wandering the city, we decided what we needed was to move on: so we headed to an Internet cafe near the ferry terminal, and decided to take the 1 AM ferry to Kobe.

The Internet cafe in Japan is more like a place where you pay to loiter. We were ushered into separate booths, each with a padded floor, and offered pillows if we chose to sleep. The cafe provided unlimited soda, coffee, and soft-serve ice cream, as well as a large library of manga, a karaoke bar, impeccably clean showers, and the fastest internet connection we’ve had in Japan. I was delighted that our indecisiveness had led us to such a perfect place to malinger. At 12:30, we rode off to the ferry, where we slept on the floor and arrived in Kobe at 5 AM.

We cycled east for two hours, in an increasing amount of rain, to get closer to Osaka. We checked ourselves into a second Internet cafe. In this one, we shared a “PC Gaming Room,” with a huge monitor and a couch. We both immediately fell asleep. When we woke up, we decided to figure out, once and for all, if we could actually make it back to Tokyo in time. With the giant monitor and fast internet, we plotted an itinerary, and our path forward became more clear.

We’re biking north and east, and should have a satisfying week of hard riding to make it back to Tokyo.

I feel relieved to have a sense of purpose in this last segment of our trip. After two months of wandering, it feels good to trade that in for the simpler discomforts of biking hard.

We survived Golden Week!

Golden Week is the one week year many Japanese get off – which means almost every hotel is booked up at double its usual rates, and every tourist attraction is packed like Times Square.

We got to spend more time camping, including a memorable night down by a river and next to a 7-11. We ended Golden Week in Hiroshima at the Flower Festival, which was the biggest street festival I’ve ever seen – like Summer Streets in New York City, but many times larger. We had been worried about Golden Week, but we actually enjoyed how lively everything felt.

Our next stop is the Shimanami Bicycle Bridge and the island of Shikoku!

An aside: what do we eat in Japan, anyways?

Jason asked me: “which stereotypical Japanese foods have you tried?”  While reciting the list, I realized that I had tasted each of them in our first two weeks – and more surprisingly, that list was most of our diet. Eating is a large part of what we do as bike tourists, so I thought it might be interesting to post about our experience feeding ourselves in Japan.

What we eat here is more recognizably Japanese than American, and the overlap with our previous diet is actually quite small. In the US, our staples were lentils, quinoa, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and peanut butter. While all these are available in Japan, none (except maybe oatmeal) are common or available in bulk – which meant we needed to change almost everything we ate. This shift was difficult when we first arrived. I spent a few uncomfortable days when nothing, and especially not rice, looked appetizing anymore. Fortunately, this affliction was quickly cured by being very hungry, and I generally feel like we’ve been eating very well.

Our new staple for home-cooked food is brown rice, grown in Japan and sold in convenient 2-kg bags. Our mini rice cooker is small enough to fit in a pannier but is our cooking workhorse, often running two or three times a day. Typical toppings for our rice include eggs (raw or hard boiled), soy or soy-based sauces, canned fish (especially mackerel), and cooked vegetables. Most vegetables here are familiar, but the varietals and price points are all different. Japanese carrots, for example, are cartoonishly fat and round, while yams are smaller and creamy-yellow on the inside. Mushrooms are very affordable and available in great variety, as are cabbage and bean sprouts. While there is a lot of beautiful and expensive fruit (intended to be given as gifts), the more quotidian varieties, especially bananas, are affordable.

We also eat out very frequently, more so than in the US. Eating out in Japan is a great value, and even inexpensive food tastes fresh. Everything is presented thoughtfully and neatly. It’s typical for a meal, even a cheap one, to include half a dozen little dishes. Condiments and sides are served in separate bowls, instead of together on a plate.

We both expected portions here to be small, and they are – what we weren’t expecting was for them to also be quite filling. After most meals we look at each other and say, “well, I guess I am satisfied.” As bike tourists, we frequently still have room for seconds or dessert, but I’ve really grown to appreciate that eating out in Japan simply feels good – instead of making me feel like an anaconda digesting a pig.

Here’s a little bit about the food we eat when we’re away from our rice cooker:

Everything at the Konbini

The convenience store (aka konbini) is ubiquitous and our preferred source of clean bathrooms, ATMs and snacks. They also supply an alarming amount of our diet.

We buy onigiri almost every day: rice balls, typically stuffed with a filling and wrapped in nori. Everyone who visits Japan waxes poetic about these, and for good reason. They’re filling, delicious, and usually about ¥100 each. They come in a cellophane pull-tab wrapper that keeps the nori away from the rice, so it’s crispy when you eat it.

Konbini also sell full, pre-packaged meals, which we’ll grab for lunch or a lazy dinner. They sell bento boxes, which typically have rice, fish, and a variety of small vegetable dishes; microwaveable meals like curry, soup, noodles, or hamburger; a variety of sides in pouches; and tiny pre-packaged salads. All these meals are fairly tasty and seem reasonably healthy, although I’m sure it helps that we can’t read the ingredients. If you catch a konbini at the right time, you’ll see all the fresh items being restocked – nothing seems to last on the shelf for very long.

Of course, we also buy a lot of snacks – nuts, miscellaneous unidentifiable fried things, and every ice cream novelty product imaginable. Browsing the snack section at konbini is actually a relaxing mid-bike-ride break for us. There’s usually something interesting or on sale, and sometimes there’s even a section of local products with hand-drawn labels.

Chains/Family Restaurants

We pass a lot of chain restaurants in the suburbs, and we’ve started to become fond of a few of the more common ones: especially Sukiya, but we also tried Gusto, Joyfull, and Denny’s (yes, that Denny’s), and Hamburg Man. They’re all cheerful and brightly lit. Many of them have “drink bars” where you pay a flat rate for all the drinks and soup refills you like. You press a button to order food. They’re also all cheap – under ¥2000 for dinner for two, or as little as ¥1000 for breakfast.

Ice cream

Soft serve is everywhere in Japan, announced by a waist-high plastic cone outside the door. There’s always vanilla or milk flavor. If there’s a second flavor, it’s probably matcha, but it might also be unique to the area: blueberry, strawberry, and more memorably, tomato.

Street snacks

We are suckers for anything sold on a stick, at a street stall, or out a window. We spend a lot of time at tourist attractions, which often have all of the above. Common street foods include a variety of grilled meats and seafood; sweet and savory grilled mochi on sticks; oden; and the more iconic batter-based snacks like takoyaki and taiyaki.

Bakeries and Cafés

We find bakeries by smelling them before we see them.  Most baked goods here are based on a soft, fluffy white bread – it pulls apart almost like a dense cotton candy. This bread is formed into loaves; ham and egg-salad sandwiches; sweets in every shape, filled with cream, chocolate or red bean paste; savory buns, filled with meat or curry; or our favorite, covered in cookie topping and baked into melon pan. Japan also has excellent pastries in mostly a French tradition: perfect, tiny cakes, and viennoiserie.

When we find one, our preferred afternoon break is at a cafe selling a “cake set” – a slice of cake and a cup of coffee or tea.

Local Restaurants

There’s a great deal of variety in Japanese cooking, and it’s impossible to do it justice in a small paragraph. Food seems very regional here. We’ll often find a cluster of restaurants serving a cuisine particular to that area – like a dozen shops selling sea eel bowls, all in a few blocks. Very small restaurants, seating ten (or fewer!) are common. Eating at local places is more challenging for us – we usually can’t read the signs outside, or much of the menu – so we check out pictures online or peek in the window. We’ve always been rewarded with incredible food, and the servers are gracious with our fumbling. We’ve eaten skewered, charcoal grilled tofu; conveyer belt sushi; perfect fried oysters; a lot of okonomiyaki; and a set meal feast at an izakaya.


Japan has given us so many new and interesting ideas about food and eating – I hope I’ve been able to share some of that here.

Urban Diversions

We were feeling indecisive in Aso, but our bicycles and our bodies made up our minds for us. Jim’s shifter cable was frayed almost completely through, and I had a backache that I couldn’t shake. We realized we needed a bike shop and a substantial break, so we coasted downhill to the city of Kumamoto, on the western coast of Kyushu.

Once we arrived in Kumamoto, we deliberately scheduled a day of nothing. We ate about five separate meals and watched Japanese TV while drinking Asahi in our hotel pajamas.

The second day, we ran errands. On the third day, feeling much more human, we actually ventured out to see the local sites. First was Kumamoto castle, still being rebuilt after the 2016 earthquake. The scale of both the destruction and the reconstruction were impressive. Huge walls of stone had toppled throughout the park, uprooting any trees downhill. The castle itself, under construction, loomed over the park. The modern scaffolding made it look like it was floating, only tenuously attached to the ground.

We also visited the Kumamoto Contemporary Art Museum. I had assumed it would be showing entirely Asian art, but I was surprised that the current exhibition was a series of watercolors by Andrew Wyeth. I loved his vibrant brush strokes and quiet Maine scenery, but it was displacing to see a diagram (in Japanese) explaining exactly where Massachusetts and Maine are.

The next day we rode north out of Kumamoto. We wanted to stay at Sky Tea House, a tea farm and hostel up in the mountains near Yame, since the touring family we met had recommended it. After a late start, we cruised through the flat valleys north of Kumamoto and quickly went up some rolling foothills. But it was almost dusk when we reached the steep final climb to the tea fields. The main road took a fairly indirect route, so we let Google suggest us a “shortcut”. It sent us on an a few believable roads before turning onto an abandoned forest road thick with leaf litter, and up the impossibly steep access paths beside terraced fields. It ended up being more of an 8 kilometer hike instead of a ride. It was still beautiful to see the tea fields and rice paddies, normally a fluorescent sort of green, in the black-and-gray of overcast moonlight.

We arrived at the tea house very late, but were welcomed warmly. (I’ve never been so happy to have someone say “help yourself” to a rice cooker). We spent two days there, with our sleeping bags set up on the house’s second level, an open tatami-lined space accessible by ladder. The next day was pouring buckets, like only Kyushu can. So we sat indoors, napped, read, and socialized with the other guests. It turned out to be the eclectic mix I’ve always wanted to find in a hostel – perhaps it’s a self-selecting group who end up at a rural tea farm up a mountain. There was Jiro, who traveled the world for 6 years before owning the farm; temporary farm workers; a neighbor and her teenage son, who was going to live at the farm for a while in lieu of school; an artist; a photographer; a French woman and skillful string musician, there for a month; an ex-telecoms engineer, also there long term; and an assortment of other friendly tourists and expats. We ate our fill of Japanese home cooking, and enjoyed a memorable guitar and violin jam session around a kotatsu.

I felt happy to have found somewhere that felt so lively – it certainly made me think about different ways to build a community of people. We bid farewell to everyone at the tea house and went back downhill, this time to Kurume and onwards to Fukuoka. We felt like we had already had enough time in the city, so we spent only a single night and we skipped doing anything touristy. The next morning we continued up the coast back out of Fukuoka.

We’re now approaching the end of our time in Kyushu. It’s been so different from our ride between the urban corridor from Tokyo to Osaka. Kyushu felt magical in a way that few places have for us while touring. I was never bored by the scenery and I appreciated the intense physical challenge of it. I hope to come back some day, hopefully with more friends or family I can share it with.

Volcanic Asceticism

In a departure from our usual planning, we plotted our route through Kyushu by looking at its topography and riding towards the wildest geographic features we could find. Ever since Iga village, we’ve been joking about becoming mountain ascetics. Perhaps we were feeling a little too comfortable in our circuit of affordable suburban hotels, but we longed for something different and more difficult. Equipped with two kilos of brown rice we headed north, into the mountains.

First was Kirishima on the Ebino Plateau. A volcano pockmarked with several calderas, it happened to stand between us and our intended path north. We both thought it would be a shame to slink around its foothills when we could go straight over. Our hubris was rewarded with a long, steep climb, including some significant pushing. Sulphurous vents poured steam across the road. I contemplated how I would explain my case of volcano-lung if we had to seek medical attention. As we climbed to 1,200 meters the trees grew small and pale, before the naked peak loomed in front of us.

At the top of the Ebino Plateau, in true Japanese style, was a gift shop and a cafe. We’ve both started to anticipate a cone of vanilla/matcha soft serve at any sizable point of interest. It was just us and a half-empty tour bus. It turned out that most of the park was closed because the volcano was too just a little too active for tourism. The geological precariousness of Kyushu is striking to me. In the news that morning was a terrible mudslide, and we even passed a volcano eruption shelter on our way up. Recent significant earthquakes frequently come up in conversation.

The descent shaved a few millimeters off my brake pads. For good measure, we climbed a second, small mountain range that same day to reach Hitoyoshi. We followed a long, graded road that included several corkscrews that elevated the road bed hundreds of feet in the air.

We took a day off at a hostel in Hitoyoshi to rest, sightsee, and avoid torrential rain.

The next point that called to us was Mount Aso, another volcano sticking up out of an ancient sunken caldera. When we looked at possible waypoints, Jim found little Shiiba, an isolated village nestled improbably in a gorge.

What followed was one of the more beautiful and peaceful legs of our trip. A Japanese road given a number and a constant width on Google rarely reflects that in reality. Roads we followed petered out into single lanes. What they lacked in amenities they made up for with mountain streams, bamboo forests, and gigantic pines. We covered very little distance each day but large changes in elevation.

It turns out we’re not very good ascetics – when we reached Shiiba, we contacted the tourism office, which helped us book a stay at the Tsurutomi-Yashiki ryokan. We wanted to try the full-service ryokan experience, which comes with dinner and breakfast. We even upgraded to the more elaborate dinner, served in a private room in a neighboring historical building. The traditional kaiseki meal was like a surge assault on the senses. It consisted of at least 15 courses, some brought out in the beginning, others throughout the meal. Many of the ingredients were local to the region – mountain bamboo shoots; tempura-fried flowers; and small salmon called yamame. I spent most of dinner too stunned to process anything other than that it was delicious. That kind of dining experience that would have come with Michelin stars in New York.

We left Shiiba much better fed, but in an unfortunate downpour of cold rain. We didn’t make it very far. The best part of the ride was walking our bikes through a 2.5 km tunnel, which at least was warm and dry.

We stopped at the first ryokan we found, a family run place by the Gokase ski area. It was like the homespun counterpart to our first experience – friends arrived for dinner, one bearing fresh-caught yamame; the local English teacher was invited over to act as a translator. We were both overwhelmed by so much hospitality.

Finally, yesterday we arrived at Aso Geo Park. We entered the caldera through a series of tunnels on a screaming downhill. Suddenly Aso appeared in front of us, jagged and steaming. We’re staying with a Warmshowers host family near the base of neighboring Mt. Neko, on an organic farm, along with a cycling family and a pair of WWOOFers.

We ended yesterday in an onsen, watching Aso at sunset. It lives up to the drama promised by its topography.

We’re still plotting our next move, towards either the eastern or western coast of Kyushu. The surplus of beautiful mountain landscapes has desensitized us a bit – like spending too much time in a museum – so we’re actually longing to see a little suburbia again. But I hope we’re able to return to the mountains again in Japan.