Our Journey

Cycle touring is a wonderful way to really get to know a country. The pace is comprehensible, human. You literally get to smell the flowers. You certainly manage to meet and get to know the locals, visit their markets and real-life corner shops and to learn what makes a place tick. You inevitably form bonds of friendship and have the time to stop, learn and wonder. Having heard that Japan, and Shikoku in particular, was a great cycling destination, we had made contact with John Morrell.

John is an expat Aussie who organises accommodation and gear transport on the islands of Shikoku and Hokkaido for cyclists, mainly Aussies and Americans. John worked out an itinerary for us and met us from the Shinkansen bullet train at Osaka at the end of our 285kph rocket ride from Tokyo, at precisely 14:37! The Japanese do NOT do late. Ever.

Shikoku is one of the larger islands in Japan, and is reached these days by a giant suspension bridge from Osaka Bay. It remains largely undeveloped and traditional. Down into Shikoku we and our bikes went, in John’s mini-bus. We kicked off the first day of our tour in Iya Gorge. This lush and steep valley lies high in the heart of the mountains at the centre of this ancient island.
I had been looking forward to getting my (sprocket) teeth into the mountains here. I was not disappointed. For those who like a good climb, Japan provides as much as you can handle and more. Shikoku has the two highest peaks in Western Japan – Ishizuchi San and Tsurugi San (the locals like to give their truly forbidding peaks the honorific “San” – “Mr or Sir Ishizuchi”). At 9 to 15% gradient over 12 km with absolutely no let-up, Ishizuchi San at just under 2,000 metres definitely deserves respect! It really is the climb that keeps giving.

japan-001A good part of each of the next few days we ascended, at times grinding an agonisingly slow cadence. But every coin and every mountain has two sides: we descended equally steeply on sweeping mountain roads, at speeds that moved us through fun to exhilaration to apprehension and then to mild panic. The rest of the days we glided along deserted mountaintop single-lane roads of breathtaking beauty. Our route led us through deep green pine forests above farms, ancient temples and pristine mountain streams. Photo stops multiplied the higher we went: the scenery almost literally stops you breathing. It is stunning.

Many of the roads through the mountainous interior closely follow ancient Samurai tracks from one precariously-perched village to the next. Cars are few, trucks even fewer. But when we did encounter a vehicle going either way the meeting was invariably courteous and considerate with much head-bobbing and waist-bowing on both sides (eerily, almost suspiciously polite for us, used as we are to the battle lines of Sydney’s daily motorised warfare!). The whole ethos of life in Japan is based on patience, consideration and mutual respect – on the roads and anywhere else. It is really lovely to experience.

From the central peaks we rolled down to the Pacific Coast alongside endless rice fields and stunning citrus farms, past Cape Ashizuri.  The coastline is dotted with little bays sheltering fishing fleets that sally forth daily to satisfy Japan’s endless appetite for fish. Reminders of the harsh face of Mother Nature can be seen in the tall concrete barriers guarding the harbours from the swells of the often angry sea, and in the tsunami shelters dotted everywhere in the low-lying coastal areas. The natives of this island need to be tough and resilient, and they are. But equally strong is their hospitality. We stayed in small village inns known as ryokan, and were knocked out by the warmth of welcome we received everywhere.

Most ryokan include breakfast and dinner in the tariff. Fish is prominent in all three daily meals in Japan. Fish is served raw (as sashimi), smoked, grilled, fried, steamed or pickled, accompanied by vegetables, miso soup, noodles and tempura. Rice is served as a “bottomless bowl”. Although we burnt the calories like world tour pros, we were always full to the point of surrender wherever we ate. Cold beer was never hard to find at the end of the day, and good quality sake is inexpensive.

The inns are of course all very traditional. Bike shoes off at the door, house shoes for inside, and special toilet shoes left at the bathroom door. Special outside shoes if you want to take a walk! It took a while to get used to all this, but the locals were patient with our barbarian ways. The thin futons on the floor are an acquired taste, however we were tired enough at the end of each riding day not to really notice. But I never got to the point where I felt comfortable with pillows filled with crunchy buckwheat husks!

All along the way we passed groups of Buddhist pilgrims in white clothes (“byakue”) and wearing old-fashioned bamboo hats. Shikoku is home to the “88 Temple Walk”. This arduous trek over mountain and valley was inspired by the Buddhist scholar Kokai in ancient times. It can take up to three months for the “O-henro-san” (pilgrim) to complete the walk to all 88 temples.

Given the remoteness, we were astonished at the quality of the infrastructure. All roads are sealed blacktop, even in the remote mountains. Every gorge has a modern steel bridge linking villages on either side to each other, and the link highways are signposted in Japanese and English. Even these more major roads have little traffic and allowed us to relax and have a lot of fun with our climbing and descending. The only downer on the roads can be small rock slides which scatter small but hazardous rocks in some areas so the lead rider needed to be vigilant.

Although there was the odd lunchtime when there was no village at which we could stop for food, we always had a snack in our backpacks just in case; and it is amazing how pervasive the vending machines are. These “jido hanbaiki” dispense everything from hot coffee and noodles to iced coffee, perfectly chilled beer, hot espresso and rice cracker snacks. They are found outside houses and little businesses all over Japan even in very remote spots, and somehow they are always well-stocked.

The bikes and our gear

I was delighted with the comfort and handling of the Enigma Echo. Its endurance geometry fits this type of touring like a glove. This type of riding is titanium territory. John Morrell joined us for a couple of climbs and the Enigma had no trouble matching, and occasionally dropping, his Merida carbon flyer on the climbs and even the descents. The Partner rode her Specialized Ruby Disc and felt totally comfy all the way; well anyway she didn’t complain (perhaps those fancy Zertz thingys on the forks and seat-stays actually do help!).

We made a couple of modifications prior to leaving home. Most major of them was getting Nat to put 11-32 cassettes on both bikes. OK, so not strictly necessary, but those extra few teeth on the big end made a huge difference by the end of a day of mountain work!

Brake fade on the long descents was no problem with the Mavic Exalith braking surfaces, and obviously not for the Shimano discs. We went with our Specialized Turbo Pro tyres, which performed well, and in fact we had no punctures at all. I did slash the sidewall of a tyre on a rock from a small rockslide (hardly the poor tyre’s fault!), so I was glad we took a few basic spares. We carried spare folding tyres, several tubes and gas cylinders, a few spokes for the Mavics, and spare cables. That one tyre was all that we used. But the spares were easy to carry.

Our 15 litre Osprey backpacks carried our spares, a proper pump and a few tools, with room left over for a rain jacket, extra water and some energy bars for the day.
We were there in late October, with daytime temps of 17 to 22 C, making for ideal cycling weather. We experienced just two showery days.

We finished our journey in coastal Uwajima, quite a sizeable fishing port. It was bombed to near-oblivion in the Second World War, and so is mostly new. Its main claim to fame is its Museum of Sex. We met John for farewell beers and tapas-style food in an izakaya restaurant, then retreated to a modern hotel with real Western beds with real foam in real pillows! There we packed the bikes for the train to our next adventure – crossing the Shimanami Kaido to mainland Japan. But that’s a story for another day!


Reproduced with permission from John de Launey