Riding in the Land of the Rising Sun

Japanese Audax control stop - Spot the foreigner
Spot the foreigner

This is a version of an article I wrote for Arrivée, the magazine of Audax UK – The Long Distance Cyclists’ Association. It was published in the November 2018 edition so now you get to read it too!  If you like it, why not look up AUK yourself – they almost certainly have some rides running near you.

World cycling tours are great but they do have their downsides. Big, serious downsides. Important things like … not being able to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris.

Forget the hassle of chucking in your job and leaving your friends behind, you signed up for that from day one, and all the other discomforts you’ll face; being chased by local animals, contracting Delhi Belly and having catastrophic mechanicals halfway up the Karakorum Pass; those are all just part of the fun. If you can’t show off your superior fitness in an iconic European event when you get back home though, your 20,000 miles of base training we useless and you might as well not have bothered, right?

My own world tour had started in May, riding through Europe and America before turning right for Alaska. Somewhere up the California coast, tired of fighting the constant hills and headwinds, my mind looked for something to occupy itself other than fighting the desire to murder the dozens of smug cyclists being blown effortlessly the other way. Something like … planning a PBP campaign. That meant I needed some qualifying rides – but where to do them?

Riding by the Sea of Japan
Riding by the Sea of Japan

I looked at the American randonnneuring federation, RUSA. I checked the Canadians.   Eventually I looked up the Alaskans but alas, all their events were a bit too early, a bit too late or a bit too far off-route. I could hang around long enough to do one of the late ones, except that I’d then need to tackle the northern leg in winter and I quite like having five toes on each foot thankyouverymuch. Alternatively I could do one of the early ones if I made an all-out effort through Alaska to get to the start line, but PBP might be somewhat of an anticlimax after that sort of stunt. Also, I’d have to ride at night to get there, which in that part of the world would mean I might get eaten by a bear. I don’t like being eaten by bears, particularly not at night and particularly not in Alaska. Better drop that idea then.

Japan came to the rescue: they have lots of Audax, friendly organisers and events extending into the late season. A cold damp evening in Canada, hiding from the bears in my tent with a smartphone and I had one entered: a 300 km event in Hokkaido, the northern island, on September 29th. Sorted. I could even start to get optimistic: perhaps if I did my qualifiers with a full world tourist’s hobo beard, the organisers wouldn’t ask me for parental permission slips like had happened last time?

Hokkaido is the Scottish Highlands of Japan: thrust out into the north Pacific, it makes up a quarter of the country’s land area but only 5% of its people. Unpopulated it may be but what it does have in large numbers are ski resorts; Hokkaido gets the first dumping of snow blown down from the Bering Straits, and acts as a barrier for more sheltered ports on the same latitude – places with sunny names like Vladivostok. No snow was in evidence when I rolled into the HQ car park on start day, thank goodness, just mist, and lots of it.  Perhaps that was why the ride had mandatory hi-viz clothing – what a shame I hadn’t been able to find any in any of the Sapporo bike shops I’d visited! None of the other 70-odd riders seemed to mind though so I’d be riding around like the rest of the island’s population in normal clothes, head-to-toe black all day amid a sea of yellow, a dark sunspot in the land where it was meant to rise. Let’s just hope it rose soon and burned off this mist.

Early morning mist in Hokkaido
Early morning mist in Hokkaido

The first shop came just a few miles into the ride, and it was only a few more before I discovered the first problem with my lastminute.com planning tactics: I’d left most of my food in my touring bags at the start. Oops. That shop was the last thing we saw for nearly 80 km, and it was a very hungry British rider who eventually made it to the coast and the ride’s first major stop – not the first control mind you, that wasn’t until kilometre 122 and there were three of them on the whole ride. With stops so few and far between, they were a good chance to get a cross section of Japanese randonneurs. These were pleasingly diverse: it was still a bit MAMIL biased and I’m not going to count on Japanese Audax to find myself a girlfriend but there was a good spread of years, with plenty of younger people of both sexes present. The special bikes were putting up a strong show too with the odd recumbent, someone on a folder so small it was one step up from a Sinclair A-bike, and even someone on a fatbike, who must have been a complete glutton for punishment.

Audax Hokkaido’s Mr Big, Hiroshi Horikawa, came out to visit us at this stop, and struck up a kindly chat with the lost-looking Euro.

What was the riding like round here?

Yes I liked Japan a lot.

Would I do any more Audax?

I might: Danial Webb had told me the scene in Taiwan was very good.

Indeed it was: he was about to go on an Audax holiday Inn Taiwan himself!

When in Japan, eat your bonk rations with chopsticks
When in Japan, eat your bonk rations with chopsticks

Hiroshi was also very keen that I visit the local Sake brewery, just after the next control. On a bike ride, really? This was all rather jolting after the puritanism of my ride across the US, with its fractal alcohol laws that changed county by county, and the constant demand to see ID if you looked younger than Abraham Lincoln. In Japan by contrast you could get beer in vending machines – here at last was a country that had made its peace with the grape.

The scenery now changed from the wooded hills of leg one to a twisting coastal road, built into and sometimes through the cliffs, passing countless tiny fishing villages as we headed north towards the apex of the ride. Tunnels were a frequent feature here – about a dozen miles of them in total – explaining the rationale behind the requirement for permanently-fitted lights. Tunnels would continue to be a feature for the rest of my time in Hokkaido, so if ever you come here, an automatic tail light would be a sound investment.

The flatlands of Hokkaido: Lincolnshire with Bonsai
The flatlands of Hokkaido: Lincolnshire with Bonsai

At the next control I was hailed by the only other foreigner on the ride: a Malaysian now living in Japan. A Pole on a tour of the island was stopped at the same store. Most Europeans out here were usually on some sort of world tour or other but no, he was just on an ordinary working break, doing a circuit of the island. Hey why not though: the flight might be long but with Hokkaido’s wild stark beauty, its volcanoes, coasts and hot springs, its friendly people and plentiful places to stay, this part of Japan was quickly becoming my favourite destination of the trip so far. The scenery was changing again though as we headed inland for the return leg. Cliffs gave way to flatlands with neat, well-tended gardens and farms providing the foreground to the mountains in the backdrop. It was like Lincolnshire with bonsai, complete with its greenhouses and drainage ditches. If ever a volcano erupts around Market Rasen, the parallel will be complete.

One other feature of the landscape, notable to any seasoned randonneur, were the bus shelters. They had doors and windows, they were spacious enough to stretch out full length inside; they were painted in bright pastel colours that screamed HAPPY to any down-at-heart randonneur who stopped in one for a power nap. In fact, they looked so inviting that it was a real shame this wasn’t a 600 so I could give one a full road test. In the end I compromised, stopping in one at around 150 km for a bit of a sit down and cry whyamidoingthis moment while half the field rolled on by.

I can't be bothered to do this anymore
I can’t be bothered to do this anymore

One thing I didn’t like so much about Japan was the dark. Two weeks previously in Alaska, still pre-equinox I had been able to ride late into the evening. Twenty degrees of latitude further south and the sun now set at half past five, still leaving many miles to go on my daytime tourist’s inadequate lights. It was time to team up with other, better-lit riders, sharing no common language but a common goal: reach through the night, powered by rice patties and vending machine coffee, to find the end. When this eventually arrived, as it always does, my 300km-tired fingers faced one final challenge: how to eat my post-ride noodles with chopsticks.

The next day had been planned as a rest day but a typhoon warning forced me to ride after all, to get somewhere I could comfortably sit out the storm. My legs felt surprisingly fresh so hey, perhaps the world tour had done some good for my cycling ability after all. That should help if I do decide to do PBP – despite the lead-in to this article I’m actually undecided as to whether I’ll do the big French ride when I get back home, as it might clash with some of my other goals. I’m considering my options though, and an International SR series sounds like fun in any case; I probably won’t make it to Taiwan but Thailand and Singapore both have lots of events to choose from, so there’s potential yet. In the meantime, go ride some Audax in Japan. It’s good fun.

Audax controllers, signing us off with a smile
Audax controllers, signing us off with a smile

GREG’S TOP TIPS

  • Audax Japan has many BRM events, you can find them at here but you’ll need to use Google Translate unless you can read Japanese.
  • My ride was on September 29th and was the last in the Hokkaido (northern) chapter. Further south there are rides that run until the end of October.
  • If you email Audax Japan beforehand, they can arrange things for you like an English-speaking riding partner (I didn’t use this offer but feel free to try it out!)
    You need to have your own insurance arranged to ride Japanese Audax, as they don’t do temporary cover like in the UK.
  • Mandatory equipment includes a hi-viz vest, a helmet, a bell and lights that are mounted to your bike both day and night.

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