To the South

During the Tokugawa era, there were two rulers of Japan. The Shogun was in control of the army and the executive branch, while the Emperor was the spiritual ruler and nominal head of state. Both titles were hereditary. The shogunate was based in Tokyo, and the imperial household resided in Kyoto. The noblemen and their retinues had to make the journey between these two capitals, along one of several highways. Tokaido was the most famous of these roads. Traveling along it involved fording various rivers, crossing mountains, perhaps being carried in a Kago.

We found a published bicycle route inspired by this ancient route, and followed it all the way to Osaka. There is another road, Nakasendo, that we are planning on taking back from Osaka/Kyoto to Tokyo, at the conclusion of our trip. However, Amy and I still have much we want to see to the west of Osaka; the inland sea area, the Shikoku bicycle bridge, and the Hiroshima peace monument to name a few specific locations. Unfortunately Japan is arranged quite linearly at this point; If we bicycled straight west we would have to bicycle back on a very similar route.

Some of the hardest parts of bicycling occur at inflection points like these. It’s easy to keep going when you have a goal, however lofty, and you can tell you are making measurable progress towards that goal. 

 Without such a goal, however, I begin to doubt why we bothered to leave our home.. just to sit in a youth hostel in Osaka and eat okonomoyaki?

During my research, I noticed a dashed line leaving Osaka across the ocean on google maps. There is a daily ferry from Osaka to Shibushi in the south of Kyushu. A plan began to emerge: we would take the ferry to the southernmost tip of Japan and then spend the next six weeks bicycling back to Tokyo.

The next day, we biked from our hostel over countless bridges through Osaka harbor, a maze of industrial islands, to our ferry terminal. Later that evening we were on a large ferry, with our bikes lashed below decks next to the cars. The ferry was scheduled to take fifteen hours, but there were excellent amenities, including an arcade, buffet restaurant and free public baths; a real miniature cruise. We didn’t see the need to spend extra money for a private cabin, so we were assigned a futon in a large artificial tatami room full of other travelers and went to sleep with the sound of fifty other people gently snoring.

After disembarking the next morning we biked from Shibushi north to Miyakonojo. We were struck by how much more tropical, verdant and less densely-populated the land was. We could smell the smoke emanating from Mount Sakurajima (one of the decade volcanoes).

I’m grateful that we’re back on the road again, with a new goal and general route. In order to make it back to Tokyo along the route we envisioned, we will have to cover more ground per day and take fewer rest days, but I think the mountains and onsen will help us with that.

I’m looking forward to biking through this new mossy volcanic landscape!

That’s all for now,

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.


New in Japan

Like many nerdy people of my generation, when I was a teenager I was exposed to quite a significant amount of Japanese culture, mostly through anime and video games. Even though those hobbies have been supplanted by other interests, for years it has still been a dream of mine to come tour Japan. And now we have arrived here with our bicycles!

Getting our bikes here wasn’t easy, either – it took a lot of airport rental carts.
Our relatively comfortable flight on ANA.

It is in many ways like I was expecting, but in others, more different. There are many things I recognize that have been exported to the West, but so much more that hasn’t been.

Japan is very orderly, and you are expected to behave in a certain way in order to maintain that level of order. I figured Japan might be like Germany, but the desire for order and cleanliness goes beyond that. This means that there are a lot of rules for us to follow – such as never bringing a bicycle indoors 🙂 I thought I was going to give the hotel attendant a heart attack when we wheeled our bicycles out through the airport hotel lobby after very carefully assembling them in our room.

Having seen pictures on Google Street View around here, I was very concerned about the bicycling conditions. I had thought, “the roads are so narrow and hilly, it will be dangerous to bicycle through them.” I was envisioning something like the traffic conditions in Massachusetts, but way worse. So far that has not been the case. The roads are indeed narrow, many of them hilly, but the drivers are considerate, and are used to a much slower traffic speed. As a bicycle you have the option to be a pedestrian at any moment, and all of the streets have sidewalks. It is in many ways like the difference between Egypt and the United States. My guess is that the sidewalks are owned and maintained by the city or municipality here, unlike in America, where it is the property owner’s responsibility to build and maintain them. With the exception of making sure that we follow the rules, the whole feeling of traveling here is quite carefree. The police are helpful and not corrupt, no one is trying to overcharge or take advantage of us, and the streets, even in Tokyo, seem safe for bicycles, which everyone seems to use.

We picked the perfect time to come to Japan as well – there hasn’t been a drop of serious rain except for the evening after when we landed in Narita. The cherry blossoms are blooming, and it seems to be neither too warm to ride comfortably nor too cold to camp. 

The food is inexpensive and delicious (about 50% of what I would expect to pay in America for a similar item), and the lodging is not quite as difficult to obtain as a I had thought.

A fairly large part of our diet has been from the ready-to-eat section at 7-11. They have boxed lunches, hardboiled eggs, and the ubiquitous onigiri, which have a special wrapper to keep the seaweed wrapper crispy.

We have spent the last few days seeing some of the tourist attractions in the greater Tokyo area. The blossoms (cherry or otherwise) are blooming – and all of the streets are lined with otherwise bare trees bearing puffy pink-white clouds of flowers. It is a pretty big deal here; Ueno park was packed with throngs of people taking pictures and setting up picnics on tarps and blankets. Ordinary people are walking the streets, taking pictures of particularly great trees. Supposedly the blossoms in Kyoto are more notable because the trees are older, but the ones we saw in Tokyo were still fantastic.

I’m glad I spent some time studying Kanji and Japanese vocabulary during he past few months, as it’s been invaluable for resolving new situations, but the communication situation is still very difficult. Asking where we can park our bicycle is an evening ritual in pantomiming. (Unlike in America, there are dedicated bicycle parking lots and spaces – and sometimes signs threatening to impound inappropriately-placed bikes.) Sometimes we get deadlocked where we want to communicate with someone but we don’t know what to say! Understanding responses is the most difficult part; our communication is largely one directional.

It took a lot of back-and-forth with the kindly attendant to figure out that we had to pay when we picked up our bikes, not when we dropped them off. But it only cost ¥100 for 24 hours!

Japan seems like has a very 80s aesthetic. Much of the interior spaces have gently natural wood veneer trim. There are rounded edges everywhere. The predominant colors are brick and beige and light-grey and light-blue. There is soothing instrumental music being played everywhere, and a variety of street level buildings and tiny gardens or potted plants. The scale of many of the areas reminds of me of parts of the neighborhood in Cairo I spent my childhood in.

To borrow a phrase from Amy, we’re both “charmed as hell” with Japan so far. More to come later after we bike up our first mountain.


We spent the last several weeks on a Grand Pacific Coast Adventure: traveling from San Diego to Seattle by bike, train, and plane. This is post 4 of 4 about that trip.

Our final stop on the west coast was Seattle. We booked our plane tickets from Seattle to Tokyo, which gave us an excellent excuse to visit more of our friends in the Pacific Northwest. We spent a fun weekend with our friends Nic, Leah, Santiago and Krista, alternating between brunch, bars, and board games. It was a great break from preparing for our next trip!

We stayed in Leah’s apartment, which has an incredible view of the Seattle skyline. What struck me more than the Space Needle were all the cranes – which are lit up in a variety of neon colors at night.
Pike’s Place Market. We bought (and ate) a strip of very delicious smoked salmon.
Nic said, “I knew you were going to draw this. Why couldn’t you draw us doing something exciting, like BASE jumping off of the Space Needle?” Sorry, Nic!

San Francisco and Silicon Valley

We spent the last several weeks on a Grand Pacific Coast Adventure: traveling from San Diego to Seattle by bike, train, and plane. This is post 3 of 4 about that trip.

Feeling recuperated, we took the train from San Luis Obispo to San Jose. We thought it would be appropriate, given our backgrounds, to ride through Silicon Valley on our way up to San Francisco. I found the valley simultaneously under- and overwhelming: all these companies and power in one place, but that place just happens to be a cluster of suburban office parks!

The train ride was beautiful – we always had a view of either mountains or the coastline.
Jim, double bicycle stevedore.

In San Francisco, we stayed with our college friend Katherine and her two roommates, Maggie and Buro. We spent that weekend catching up with Katherine, including taking a long, scenic ride through the city, and visiting many of our other friends who live in the area. Seeing so many people we knew, and staying put for a whole week, made me feel at home in San Francisco.

Artist’s rendition after Burmese food and possibly a few too many glasses of wine.
I couldn’t stop shouting about how San Francisco is unbearably pretty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about baking lately – a side effect of neglected hobbies and burning a whole lot of carbohydrates – so I signed up for a course at the San Francisco Baking Insitute. I spent the rest of the week on bakers’ hours, waking up early to make it to “bread school” by 7 AM. Every afternoon, I came home with an armload of bread to share with everyone. I had a blast scratching my baking itch, and using my mind and body in a completely different ways than usual.

The SFBI is also a working bakery. This meant we got to play with a lot of very fun “toys”, like two gigantic commercial deck ovens.
Being covered in flour is my happy place.
Five baguettes from day 1. Our bread production only escalated from there – I brought home more than a dozen loaves on day 4.



San Luis Obispo

We spent the last several weeks on a Grand Pacific Coast Adventure: traveling from San Diego to Seattle by bike, train, and plane. This is post 2 of 4 about that trip.

From Los Angeles, we took Amtrak to San Luis Obispo. We heard it was a relaxed college town and close to the beach, so we thought it would be a good place to spend a quiet week. We ended up spending most of our time there watching Netflix, instead of doing much beach-bumming or shopping, but it was just what we needed.

Our cozy AirBNB. I alternated between cooking, baking bread, napping, and watching British gardening shows on Netflix.
Jim took the opportunity to do our taxes.
San Luis Obispo was very cute, walkable, and green. This is the view from the pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks – you can see how the city is nestled in a valley.
It was full of steep little hills and palm trees.


Los Angeles

We spent the last several weeks on a Grand Pacific Coast Adventure: traveling from San Diego to Seattle by bike, train, and plane. This is post 1 of 4 about that trip.

We spent the first week of our Pacific Coast trip riding from San Diego to Los Angeles, along the scenic coastline of Southern California. That weekend, we visited my friend Meg, her husband Josh, and their preternaturally large cats in Santa Monica. We said we wanted to eat, drink and explore the city a little bit, and they delivered in spades: hitting a few major city highlights, stuffing our faces, and whiling away a few evenings with cocktails and music.

Typical California coastline – dramatic views from dramatic cliffs.
We took it fairly easy on this ride. Lots of time to malinger on the beach.
I loved watching the surfers – every little beach seemed to have a few.
Unfortunately the coast also had a lot of traffic to contend with, along with some rather mediocre bike infrastructure.
Entering LA at dusk.
The record-player corner in Meg and Josh’s living room.
I was surprised to learn that the La Brea tar pits are actually in the middle of the city. It was an oddly delightful tourist attraction, despite the gross asphalt smell.
The view from the Griffith Observatory. LA itself is mind-boggling huge – this is only one part of the city.
The Hollywood sign!

End of a Road

On Thursday, February 22nd, we reached the end of the Southern Tier in San Diego!

California kept us challenged all the way to the end. We spent two days crossing the Jacumba Mountains, with over 7,000′ of elevation gain, freezing temperatures, and even a little (admittedly mild) hail. In our final approach to San Diego, a stiff wind and cold rain tried to push us backwards, away from the ocean.

The end of our route led us down the Ocean Beach bike path. As we approached, the weather cleared, and suddenly the Pacific opened up in front of us. There was a magnificent sunset behind dark clouds and even a bit of rainbow. It struck me with a lot of finality – this was the end of the road. The ocean provided sufficiently dramatic bookends for such a trip. Seeing water, after all our time in the desert, definitely stirred some emotions: elation, and surprise.

We’re both still processing what this means to us. It was strange to feel directionless after so long: we’ve been simply going “south” or “west” for months. We were very fortunate to have a soft landing in San Diego with Kathleen, the mother of our friend JP.  She took us around the city and her old neighborhood of La Jolla, and spent a lot of time talking with us about our ideas and plans. Through those long conversations, she helped provide the insight that allowed us to move forward past our indecisive haze.

We’ve booked plane tickets to Japan, from Seattle to Tokyo, in late March. This gives us an excuse to travel north and explore the West Coast. We’re planning on stringing together a combination of Amtrak travel and bike touring. Today we’re leaving San Diego and riding a few days north to LA. I’m really looking forward to planning our trip to Japan, as well as seeing everyone we know on this side of the country!


Up Ahead in the Distance

We joked at the beginning of this trip that, like the ship of Theseus, we’d slowly repair our bikes with cheap Walmart parts and ride into San Diego on a pair of Huffys. While that hasn’t quite come to pass, a series of unfortunate mechanical issues have forced us to take several breaks. Jim’s rear tire wore down to the pink inner rubber.  My rear tire developed a large visible hole, which we booted with a dollar bill. We ran out of patches right before my rim tape, old and brittle, began sawing through tubes. Several trips to Walmart later, we now have two weirdly supple replacement rear tires; a wheel lined with ACE bandage tape; and a pile of slightly ill-fitting spare tubes.

Since we left Phoenix, I’ve been daydreaming how exactly we’d celebrate in San Diego. The first few mechanical issues left me frustrated – each was an obstacle delaying me from my victory burrito on Ocean Beach. But by the third flat, I just started laughing. I realized that anticipation was the wrong state of mind. When you’re trying to get somewhere, every delay is something to be angry about. But if you look at it sideways, it’s still the same trip. How can I be mad that I’m stuck in beautiful Southern California, and I get to dawdle here even more?

The terrain has been varied, which is a delight to me after a month of repetitive desert. We crossed the Colorado river, passed through farmland, climbed the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains, rode up and down the Algodones dunes, and descended into the Imperial Valley. The first thing I noticed was the smells. A few hundred feet below sea level, the air here is humid, and smells thickly like plants or, less pleasantly, like the cattle feedlots dotting the area.

Rural California reminds me more of the rest of rural America than it does of coastal California. I’ve always enjoyed agricultural areas, for the produce, green terrain, and friendly people. We enjoyed a rollicking stay in Blythe at the B&B Bait Shop, sharing beers and gigantic chili dogs with the regulars and two eastbound cyclists just beginning their ride.

These women had just completed what we’re facing: the big climbs between the Imperial Valley and San Diego. Meeting them made me reflect on how we must have changed over the course of this trip. I feel more relaxed – certainly I’m less upset by our bike issues than I might have been five months ago. I wonder if we’ll be changed at all by reaching San Diego, which has been a distant goal for so long.