Oodles of Noodles: Bikepacking in Japan

The Vitals

Dates: June 4 – June 18, 2019

Location: Fukuoka – Osaka, Japan

Distance: 812 km

Photos by Brittany

Total Route

The Trip

We woke up at 5:00 a.m. when the lights and the TV in our cabin flicked on by some authority beyond our control. The previous night we had boarded the New Camellia ferry at the port in Busan and had set sail to Japan around 10:00 p.m., passing by the container port and under the beautifully illuminated Busan Harbour bridge. As the bright coloured lights of Busan twinkled behind us, ahead lay a breakwater and beyond that, just the blackness of a night with a new moon.

Leaving under Busan Harbour Bridge past my bedtime

We disembarked at the Fukuoka port on Kyushu and waited for the other passengers (a mixture of Koreans and Japanese) to go through customs and immigration before we navigated the narrow lines while pushing our bikes. We received a stamp in our passports which is notable since we haven’t had our passports stamped since entering Thailand back in January. Even New Zealand, a place that often feels a little behind the times, has an all-electronic immigration system. Sadly, unlike Incheon airport, there was no anthropomorphic greeting robot upon landing.

Outside the port office at 8:00 a.m. with a shortened night’s sleep behind us, we examined the map looking to get out of the city by the quietest route. With a likely candidate chosen and a quick parking lot breakfast in our bellies, we reengaged the parts of our brains that contend with left-hand traffic and pushed off to join the morning commute.

Bamboo forests on our first day on Kyushu

After the ultra-modern neighbourhoods we saw in Busan, Fukuoka felt more like stepping back to 1985. The apartment buildings were square with tiled exteriors reminiscent of the classic image of a subway station in Toronto or an old hospital and much of the signage is a tad faded. I thought maybe this was just a symptom of Fukuoka, but it wasn’t until we reached Osaka that I experienced the same feeling I had in Seoul or Busan. In the bigger city, bright lights abound again but the effect still feels dated. Maybe this is simply a reflection of the economic boom of the 80’s and the lethargy of the 90’s.

Another thing we didn’t realize was that June is the rainy season in Japan – a reminder that researching climate is prudent when you plan to spend a lot of time outside. The rainy season here doesn’t mean rain every day, but it means muggy and hot weather followed by a day or two of heavy rain (especially afternoon storms) repeating for a few weeks. In 25 days, we haven’t seen a single other cycle tourist.

Arriving at a WarmShowers host family
Camping in a greenhouse

Our first day on Kyushu was in the muggy part of the cycle. We rode out of the city on progressively narrower roads until we could peel off onto quieter mountain roads. It had been a long time since we had faced any adversity on our bikes, so climbing a few hundred meters on the first day in suffocating humidity was a reminder of how unusual the riding in Korea had been. A significant part of the climbing was on a paved road through a bamboo forest that was so rarely used it was covered in a thick carpet of dead leaves. The sensation was like riding a north shore loamer.

Typical campsite in a park in Japan

Kyushu has a ton of backroads through the small mountains and sometimes they are barricaded with no warning. The bamboo forest loamers hinted at this since portions of that road had collapsed on the downhill side (marked by pylons) or had lifted and cracked. It seems the earth is far from static in this area whether that is from soil stability or tectonic action. By the end of Kyushu we had encountered a few different fenced off roads but in some cases we pushed our bikes around the barriers and cycled on the damaged but car-free sections.

On our third day, and the last before the heavy rain was forecast to strike, we climbed uphill in the quiet forest (sighting an anaguma and a deer along the way) and eventually out to an open landscape above 900 meters. We were headed to meet a host family from WarmShowers and we knew they lived at the foot of a volcano but there was a different surprise in store. As we reached the high point of our day, the land in front of us simply dropped away. We were standing on the lip of the Aso caldera, a giant depression that has, in the past, been mistaken for the largest caldera in the world. In the centre stood the five peaks of the Aso masiff forming the largest active volcano in Japan with a thin pillar of steam rising in the still air. The plateau forming a ring around the central group was a patchwork of farmland. With the muggy weather came a heavy haze which meant no pictures of the caldera 🙁

One of the shorter tunnels on Kyushu

Given the steep sides of the caldera, all traffic from our side was concentrated down to one small, switchbacking highway much too narrow to have a shoulder. A significant population lives inside the caldera so the ride down this highway was beside a wall of trucks that were uninterested in passing safely. Once past the chokepoint, we could pick and choose from the network of quiet farm roads in order to reach our hosts. We actually wanted to take a smaller old road down but an earthquake in 2016, the scars of which were everywhere, had destroyed it and the entrance was blocked by hay bales.

Small village near Naruto. Only a few kilometers from a busy trucking route.

Set up in our tent under the cover of a greenhouse, we spent a sleepless night as heavy rain pounded the plastic above us and winds threatened the entire structure. The rain didn’t let up until almost noon the next day and the winds never abated, so we asked permission to spend another night. With time to kill, we rode our bikes in the wind to one of the many onsens in the caldera and scrubbed away our grime in the hot pools with views of swirling clouds obscuring the peaks of the volcano.

Looking back to the port in Oita at our last campsite on Kyushu

After a better sleep in drizzle the second night, we got an early start and climbed up the walls of the caldera on the east side where the roads are a bit less steep and much less busy. In a light rain and with a heavy tailwind we headed east towards the city of Oita. With almost 900 meters of elevation to lose and the favourable winds, we easily covered a lot of ground in the first two hours but after about 50 km I heard a pinging noise on a long descent and my heart sank.

One of the ubiquitous vending machines. Usually soft drinks and sometimes instant noodles.

I first noticed that I had some spiderweb cracking around a few spokes on my rear wheel way back in Wanaka during our visit with Will and Anne. I decided to ignore it since we were only 3 or 4 days from Bluff. The damage was also a major reason we abandoned a plan to ride the Oregon Timber Trail and instead take it easy on paved roads in Korea and Japan. Instead of trying to get a third wheel built, I had decided to risk it. In order to ease my mind, I simply never looked at my wheel again so I had no idea if the situation was getting worse. Turns out, it was.

I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious

With the ping ringing in my ears, I stopped my bike at the next pullout and inspected the damage. What I had last seen as very faint cracking at 4 or 5 spokes was now definite cracks at 8 spokes with a large sliver of aluminum flaking off the worst damage. I was in agony as I tried to decide what to do about it. In the end, with Brittany’s support, we decided to do nothing. We would keep riding until catastrophic failure or Osaka, whichever came first. In order to stack the deck in our favour a little bit, we chose to ride the northern coast of Shikoku island which would save us about 200 km of riding but at the expense of more time in cities.

The rest of the afternoon we continued through the city of Oita and towards the ferry terminal to Shikoku, wincing with every little bump. The daily pattern that repeated all the way to Osaka (spoiler: we made it) was a morning inspection of the wheel while noting any new damage. My stress levels would skyrocket with the inspection but soon I would gingerly mount once more. After 10 minutes of being laser focused on riding as smoothly as possible, my attention would start to wander and by the end of the day my hope and optimism had returned somewhat. Repeat the next morning. By the last day there was undeniable damage to 11 of 32 spokes and the severity of the worst ones had been growing.

A long tunnel on Shikoku

From our last camp spot at a highway rest stop on Kyushu, we caught the ferry to the nearest point on the island of Shikoku – the Sadamisaki peninsula (narrowest in Japan, for what it’s worth). What a wonderful day that turned out to be! With hardly any civilization on the peninsula, the riding was quiet but the road quality was very high. The peninsula is hilly but a multitude of well-lit tunnels with good sidewalks cut out the worst of it. In a day where we rode about 50 km, fully 10% of the time was spent in tunnels, the longest of which was 2156 meters long. We also got to eat fruit when we found an untamed plum tree. Eating fruit is hard to justify for the budget traveller in Japan when oranges are usually more than $1 each and large watermelons are an astounding $30.

A precious bounty

We found some public showers in a tiny town next to the ocean and camped in an empty lot in light rain after watching a pair of black kites hunt along the rocky beach. A local lady walking her dog also went home and came back with two cans of Coke when she saw us. This kind of thing was common in Central Asia but this was the first time it happened in Japan.

After the hilly peninsula, the route was all but flat for the next few hundred kilometers. We hugged the coast to the city of Matsuyama where we spent two days in warm, clear weather with a light breeze and low humidity. What rainy season? Being the most inexpensive option, we stayed in another “love hotel” but this one had a lot more XXX rated items on the TV and for sale in the in-room vending machine than the one we had stayed in in Korea.

Quiet temple entrance in the city

In Matsuyama we ate udon in the local style and visited the castle first built in the 1600’s. The wooden castles and pagodas in Japan are beautifully constructed with lots of joinery tricks to avoid the use of nails but they have a propensity to burn down in lightning strikes.

Ticket to ride

The coastal waters of Matsuyama are dotted with islands and are a brilliant blue that wouldn’t be out of place in the Caribbean. We skipped examining the map to instead just freestyle as near the water as we could. For most of our time on Shikoku, a west breeze pushed us east to Tokushima and the ferry to the island of Honshu. These coastal roads usually have a wide sidewalk for cyclist and pedestrian use but inexplicably they will start and end without warning so we were continually jumping on and off the road. During on-road sections, a steely nerve is required as the trucks barrel past.

Coast heading out of Matsuyama

After a few more days ride, we rolled through the hilly little collection of small islands near Naruto and then ended at the ferry terminal in Tokushima where we caught an afternoon sailing to Wakayama. Included in the price of the ferry ticket is a train ticket straight to Osaka. We were getting so close! Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring unpackaged bikes on the train so instead we would ride for one more day.

Typical midday break in the shade at a park
One of our last sunsets before we left the west coast

An evening ride in the golden light up the coast north of Wakayama led us to a tunnel entrance on the highway. Next to the entrance is a gate to the old highway that climbs up and over a little set of steep hills and is now closed to motorized traffic. We entered the pedestrian gate and started climbing up the deteriorating road. For our final campsite, we chose the small parking lot in front of the now defunct highway stop with its listing traffic lights, broken windows, and old refuse bins full of rusting cans. Our only company (besides an infestation of mosquitos) was a few passing fishermen coming and going throughout the night.

Black Kite hunting over our campsite

The last morning dawned muggy and grey. After a couple of kilometers we reached the edge of continuous civilization to Osaka and beyond. We stuck to the backstreets with their narrow lanes and uncontrolled intersections that allow you to ride nonstop for kilometers at a time, albeit at a pretty low speed. In the afternoon we reached another WarmShowers host in Sakai city just south of Osaka. We were choosing to give up on the bikes for the moment and take the train to Kyoto. We would store them with these hosts and retrieve them in a few days to figure out my wheel situation.

The ferry that brought us to Honshu

Feeling strangely unburdened, we walked to the train station with our necessities in our small bags to embark on a good week off exploring Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara.

Our first night in Osaka