Words and Photos by Frederick Fourie
It all started a couple of years ago when we were traveling by bus through the backcountry of Japan. Gazing at the mist rolling through the mountains in fall foliage and recalling the numerous quiet pathways leading off into the woods, it didn’t take long before one of us piped up: “Wish I had my bike here…”.
It took some planning, but two years later we arrived back on the southern island on Kyushu with bicycles neatly packed into the rinko bags locals use for transporting their semi-assembled bicycles by train. A bit of black magic and much head scratching was required to fit our western-sized frames into bags designed for smaller local frames, and the lightweight bag I first used was quickly retired with split zippers and seams.
To get the hang of bagging our bikes and transporting them with us on the local and bullet trains, we first explored the Miura peninsula south of Tokyo, discovering meandering coastal roads, fishing villages, and friendly coffee shops. Imagine our surprise at discovering a dedicated bike assembly area at Yokosuka station, testament to the fact that may two-wheeled adventurers had paved the way before us. We also discovered during this first ride how pristine the tarmac is in Japan (compared to our local roads here in Washington) and how important it is to adapt quickly to local road rules.
The second week of our trip started our Kyushu bike tour in earnest as we cycled from Nagasaki into the heart of the island where volcanoes and hot springs abound. It’s a land of misty mountains, high passes, forests and quiet roads full of history. And since cherry trees bloom from south to north across Japan, we were greeted by spring colors in full bloom. We did a lot of climbing from one volcano to the next, but also enjoyed some exhilarating descents on excellent roads. After long days in the saddle, we retired to local inns where local cuisine and hot spring baths (called onsen) awaited us.
I have no doubt that many European cycling destinations allow for fantastic experiences. What draws me to Japan is how easy it is to find quietly stunning roads to cycle, how friendly and accommodating the locals are, and how every mile of the road is steeped in history which – while unassuming – is deep and rooted in the land and its people. While Kyushu is a counterpoint to the bustling mania of Tokyo, efficient and reliable train services allow you access to the countryside within an hour or two even from that sprawling metropolis.
Cycling is also ubiquitous as a mode of transportation throughout Japan, which shaped the relationship between drivers and cyclists. Although lanes are narrower (and often single lanes in the countryside), cars are smaller and drivers will patiently wait until it’s safe to pass, making cycling much less stressful. However, fast road cyclists are not a common sight, and we found that many pedestrians and drivers were surprised as we kept pace with traffic – especially through intersections.
The custom Seven was great and really stood out among the stock bikes provided by the touring company. Among the international group of riders, none had seen a randonneuring setup before and a few were skeptical that it could keep up. The Belgian guide, however, just smiled and took a good, long look. By the end of the first day, there was no more doubt, as the Seven proved a competent climber and a phenomenal downhill machine – often leaving the touring bikes very far behind. The eTap shifting proved reliable and I completed the entire eight day tour on a single battery charge. Fenders, generator hub and light and disc brakes also proved their worth on the varied roads, dark tunnels and steep descents, and the supple 42mm tires made for stable, plush riding.
In Kyoto, we had the pleasure of meeting custom builder Ikuo Tsuchiya of I’s Bicycles and had a really wonderful time chatting with him and his staff about the Seven and randonneuring bikes in general. At the time, SRAM eTap was not yet available in Japan, so they were very curious to see how Hotaru was built and get my impressions of its ride quality. While there, I also discovered that they manufacture rinko bags specifically for frames with S&S couplers. This really made my day, since with it, I can now pack my Seven for train travel without dismantling the rear split fender.
Thanks again for helping build a great bicycle for exploring a beautiful country. Although Japan has a fantastic high-speed train network, bicycle travel unlocked the beauty of the countryside and allowed us to make connections with people far off the beaten track. That, and meeting fellow cyclists pedaling up the passes, was an incredible experience.