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!

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.

Getting our Mountain Legs

After we left the Fuji lakes area, we followed the southern coast through Shizuoka. Continuing along the oceanside, we took the ferry across Ise bay, then turned inland and went through some small mountains to Nara and then Osaka. Kyoto was completely booked up – literally, the entire city except for a few love hotels – so we made the decision to divert to Osaka and visit Kyoto by train, instead.

Iwago port, from the ferry terminal.

The mountains and climbing have actually really grown on me. Everything in Japan is uphill both ways, which has given me a lot of practice. Suddenly grades that used to be sweaty, cardiovascular-redlining ordeals are more of an enjoyable, scenic workout.

Climbing through tea fields.

We detoured for an extra hour of climbing just to see the tanuki/ceramics village at Shigaraki, which would have been unthinkable a few months ago. That route was only plausibly a road because it was in Japan – it felt like an exceptionally switchbacked bike lane that we happened to share with the occasional Japan-sized van.

Artist’s interpretation of that bike ride.

I’m also adapting to the culture shock. This isn’t to say that Japan isn’t still constantly surprising me, but it’s less likely to do so while I’m taking care of the daily necessities – we’re starting to develop routines for shopping, navigating and finding lodging. We finally found fuel for our camp stove (which we couldn’t bring on the plane) and the world’s cutest tiny rice cooker, so we’re now able to cook for ourselves, too. Of course, the grocery store is also its own adventure; its odd to see that our touring staples of beans and oatmeal are actually quite expensive here. Brown rice has become a new favorite, especially たまご かけ ごはん (tamago kake gohan), stirring an egg  and soy sauce into hot rice.

After a few days up in the mountains, I’m a little surprised to see other European/North American/Australian  tourists – blonde hair or a snatch of English. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of being a tourist here. Japan is small and well-traveled enough such that we’re not discovering anything for anyone other than ourselves. But Japan has a special way of making you feel like you are – maybe it’s the cultural differences, or the effects of being illiterate, but its easy to fall into an adventurous daydream, with yourself as the protagonist. Every corner or side street is hiding a shrine, a garden, someone dressed traditionally or ultra-fashionably modern… As we’ve moved back into the more popular areas of Ise shrine, Nara, Osaka and then Kyoto, it’s reminded me that I’m no more or less of an “explorer” than the next person with a Lonely Planet guide.

Japan is actually a really great place to be a tourist. Domestic tourism here is clearly very popular: we’ve yet to find a tourist attraction that wasn’t lively, even during weekdays.

The infrastructure is also very kind to tourists. The omnipresent convenience stores mean we’re rarely far away from a sparkling clean bathroom or a snack, which is the opposite of our long months in the American Southwest.

Now that we’ve reached Osaka, we’re researching where we might like to go next! We don’t have a specific goal in mind, but that seems like a good way to continue experiencing Japan.

Mountains of Note

Our first week riding has been an introduction to all the facets of Japan we had hoped for: mountains, hot springs, wonderfully hospitable people, and new kinds of cultural immersion.

We left Tokyo via 413 and rode the Doushi Road up through Yamabushi tunnel, at an elevation of 1150 meters (3700 feet). The ride was just at the edge of my ability – I never had to push, but I definitely spent some very long minutes considering it. It was also a lot of fun, with twisty little roads and foggy green mountain vistas. It was remote and empty enough to be good cycling, but interspersed with villages and an occasional pullout full of vending machines.

We decided to stop for the night in the village of Doushi, two thirds of the way up. But we were a little too early for camping – despite balmy daytime temperatures there was still snow on the ground – so all the campgrounds were closed. We stopped at a convenience store to buy noodles, and we asked the owners for advice. Thus ensued some of the best travel-magic of this trip to date. After a lot of gesturing, Google translate, and a phone call to an English-speaking daughter, we explained our predicament. They made a few calls, found a place nearby that had space for us, and kindly stuffed our gigantic bikes in their tiny Suzuki truck and gave us a lift a little back down the mountain to a ryokan at an onsen.

Onsen are one of the things we’ve been looking forward to in Japan: public hot springs, with an attached bathhouse and other amenities. It took about half an hour to get from swampy bike shorts to soaking outdoors while watching the moon. I’ve never felt so clean while touring, and it was restorative to all my mountain-climbing muscles.

I was so nervous about messing up somehow that I found my first onsen experience more thrilling than relaxing. This was also our first stay in a ryokan, with tatami mat floors, sliding paper doors and futons. It meant a lot of fumbling (and googling) on our part to do everything correctly. It’s not that any of the etiquette rules are complex or hard to understand – largely “keep clean things away from dirty things” – but without a shared cultural background, I’m always double-checking that my mental model of “dirty” lines up with that of our hosts. The dance between shoes-slippers-toilet slippers-shoes already seems more natural, but I think it would take much longer to become automatic.

Once we went over the pass, we were treated with a very long downhill ride and stunning views of Mt. Fuji. Fuji dominates the landscape on topographical maps, and it didn’t disappoint in person. It’s a huge, looming presence, and it kept peeking behind trees, train stations and power lines. As we rounded its forested foothills and coasted down towards the sea, we finally got a beautiful full view of Fuji over the countryside.

Today we reached the coastline. Our second stay in a traditional inn was easier (and well-lubricated with free sake) and we’re starting to get into more of a rhythm for riding. The density and terrain means we’re not moving as fast as we were in the US, but it helps that Japan is much more compact. Our next major destination will be Kyoto.