Traveling light, staying in temples, and taking your bicycle on a train…
Recently I went on a five day bike touring trip near Mount Fuji and around the Izu Peninsula of Japan. On the way I learned some key things that make long road trips easier in Japan and can even lengthen the distance a cyclist is able to cover without using a car. I stayed in various types of hotels and found that many of them offer hotel clothes for your use after bathing in the complementary hot springs. I also found that putting a bicycle in a bag as is required for transport on a train is not as daunting as I feared. All in all my conclusion is the one I expected to come to at the beginning of the trip; there is no mode of transportation that quite equals cycling. Particularly I find that the exploration of a new place is more rewarding, the sights more beautiful, and the meals more delicious when experienced through physical exertion. Needless to say this will not be my last time bike touring in Japan.
The best discovery of the trip involves clothes, and how many changes to carry. The trouble with riding long distances for multiple days in a hot country is keeping your casual clothes fresh. This is particularly troublesome if your choice is to carry them on your back while cycling. However even if you carry panniers and don’t just shove the spare shirt and shorts in the back of your jersey it is almost impossible to avoid sweating in said clothes when you put them on after riding. This is where your hotel comes in. Any hotel that has an onsen (hot springs) also provides its guests with yukata or light robes to wear after bathing. It is considered completely normal to wear these robes around the hotel at all times, not only to and from the hot baths (just remember to wrap your robe with the left side over the right; the other way around is reserved for the deceased). Typically in these types of establishments shoes are removed upon first entering the building and not put back on until one goes back outside, so a light pair of sandals was more than sufficient for the times I needed to use shoes off the bike. The even better news is that hotels with onsens are everywhere. Even the modest pension I stayed in had a small onsen, and of course yukata as well. Although I made sure to have a couple days’ casual clothes and several changes of bike shorts and jerseys I barely used half of what I brought. Really the only time non-cycling gear was necessary was when I went out to eat for dinner, making reusing the same clothes for long trips easier (and more comfortable) than usual.
Most of these accommodations also included washing machines (although no dryers, this being Japan where for many families the dryer is the clothes line outside). Jerseys and shorts could be washed in the washing machine and dry by the next morning even without a dryer. A word to the wise though here; I did not find detergent at any of the hotels we stayed in, so although for my purposes that turned out fine (no soap for five days is not the end of the world), I will probably bring my own next time. The spin cycle on these machines also extracts most of the water from clothing, especially synthetic materials.
Large hotels are common and easy to find all over Japan. They range in room type from those typically used by businessmen (composed mainly of community areas with one floor devoted to cubicles containing single beds) to more family style rooms. For a more authentic feel of old Japan however some temples allow travelers to stay overnight in accommodations on their grounds. This type of lodging is called shukubo and, complete with breakfast and many times dinner, is a great way to experience Japan. Prices vary greatly. On this trip I stayed at Daizen-ji Temple in Yamanashi Prefecture (north of Mt. Fuji) which offered free breakfast but did not include dinner. For one person the price per night was about $85 USD which, I am told, is very much on the inexpensive end. On the other hand I have seen lodging prices for more all-inclusive accommodations (dinner, breakfast, and onsen) for upwards of $200 per person per night. Bed types vary; Daizen-ji Temple offers western style beds, but many times the only option is futons (think cushions, not convertible couch/mattresses) on tatami mats on the floor.
Accommodations in Japan in general differ from their western counterparts in at least one major way; the beds in hotels – from traditional Japanese inns to more western style resorts – are mainly twin sized. This means that if you are traveling with a significant other you will probably not be sleeping in the same bed. From this standpoint then, sometimes Japanese style rooms are the better option for couples not wanting to spend the night on opposite sides of the room as futons can easily be moved. In addition futons are actually sometimes more cushioned than the beds. The American idea of soft and springy beds being the most comfortable is clearly not universal.
Another great aspect about riding in Japan is that for almost anywhere you want to go there is a train that goes there too. That means that on nasty weather days or when you’d like to travel further than you’ve got time to ride you can typically hop on a train. The only catch is that Japan does not want to see your dirty bike (or your clean bike for that matter) on its trains so you have to put it in a bag. Bags range from $50 – $150 depending on bag weight, and some allow you to keep the rear wheel on while others require you to take both wheels off. I went with a bag that allowed me to keep the rear wheel on, fit in my bottle cage, and was on the cheaper end. The thing I’ve noticed about most light-weight things here is that the weight difference between “heavy” at $50 and “light” at $150 is too small for me to be able to really appreciate. After a couple of times using the bags it becomes much easier to fit the bike in the bag, although the first time I did wonder what kind of shape my bike would come out in. The bag never leaves your side so although I worried about objects impacting my rear derailleur hanger or collapsing my seat stays, this is really a pretty low risk situation. If I had been better prepared I could have purchased spacers to protect the forks but in retrospect I really didn’t need them. Bags are also useful for passenger ferries, as these will also not allow bikes unless they are covered.
As for the ride itself, Japan is a beautiful country and the more I explore it the more convinced of this I am. I rode through vineyards full of the most amazing grapes you’ve ever tasted in Yamanashi Prefecture, then on to the Fuji River Valley where rice was being harvested by hand and put out to dry. Finally I cycled around Izu Peninsula where the ocean is blue and crystal clear and if you are lucky you can spot monkeys in the trees just off the road. It is also entirely possible that there are no flat stretches of road on this peninsula and because of this it boasts some spectacular descents, as well as the corresponding climbs. Cycling in Japan is full of new discoveries. Aspects of the ride here are different than what you would find in the United States. However certain things, such as how rewarding a beautiful vista is after a hard climb or the details in your surroundings that you are able to perceive from a bike, remain the same no matter where in the world you are.