Cycling the length of Japan


I’m thinking of cycling the length of Japan and this is quite a last minute decision…

It all started in January this year when I was at the Adventure Travel Show for Cicerone giving a talk on the Kumano Kodo and sitting on different trekking panels. During this weekend I met a lovely man and fellow Cicerone author called Mike Wells who’s written a number of walking and cycling books. We got talking about cycling and unknowingly at the time, Mike sparked something inside me and I started noticing cycling events and tours popping up everywhere. I soon came across a post about the Tour Araroa in NZ, then the Eurovelo 6 (a cycling route from France to Romania) and then started thinking about something closer to home, the Lejog (Lands End to John O’groats) in the UK.

Shortly after this, at the end of January I had to have my gall bladder removed (I’m the third of my five family members to have developed gall stones), so post-op as I was lying down recovering for two weeks, I was even more desperate to do something to try and regain my health and fitness.

Then in early March, Howard suggested we go to Japan to see the cherry blossom and of course my thoughts turned to cycling across Japan. I didn’t have much time, less than a month actually to buy a bike and make a plan so I set out researching different bikes and test-riding as many as I could at local bike shops to find something that would feel comfortable day after day for 2.5 months. My bike experience to date is: riding a bike to school as a kid in Melbourne, riding to work when I was a teacher for three years in Japan and occasionally riding a ‘Boris bike’ in London.

Being new to ‘bike touring,’ the main decisions that needed to be made were:

  • disc brakes vs rim brakes
  • steel or aluminium frame
  • number of gears
  • handlebars (it turns out I really don’t like drop bars)

In the end I was deciding between a Dawes Karakum low step or a Trek FX3. (Both of these have rim brakes and are aluminium.) The Dawes was instantly more comfortable and I liked the butterfly handlebars. The low bar put me off at first because it limited where you could attach water bottles, but as I’ve had a sore lower back (slipped disc and now reduced disc height) since 2015, I liked the idea of not having to swing my leg over my pack panniers. The Trek felt lighter and faster and was cheaper, but in the end I decided it needed too many changes (seat, handlebars, stem height) and bought the Dawes Karakum for £700. This is cheap in the world of touring bikes but was still more than I wanted to pay, hesitant that I might ride it fully loaded for one day and never want to get on it again!

My new Dawes Karakum low-bar bike

My new Dawes Karakum low step bike

On the recommendations of almost every blog I read, I changed the tyres to Schwalbe Marathon Plus, then added (most of this stuff was on sale luckily!):

I also needed to buy the following clothing (everything else I would make do with my hiking gear):

I went to a bike maintenance workshop at Cycle Surgery (having never changed a flat tire) and this gave me a little more confidence, but I also watched a ton of YouTube videos on bike maintenance, just in case.

And actually the most difficult part of this whole process was putting the bike into a box to be able to get it on the plane to Japan! On the morning of the day before I was due to fly I started taking it apart to try and get it into the box I’d been given from the bike shop – not the original box which would soon become quite an issue! I had checked with Cathay Pacific about their rules of carrying a bike and their generous 30kg allowance allowed me to have the bike in one box and my gear in a separate bag. When I arrived in Japan with Howard we were planning to travel for 2 weeks before he left and I started cycling, so I found a company at Narita airport (JAL ABC) who would ship the bike in its box from the airport to our last hotel in Kagoshima – HOWEVER they had a very strict box size limit and the box I had was just within this limit.

So, it’s 9am the day before I’m due to fly and I realise that not only do I have to take the front wheel off to get the bike in the box, but that I also need to take the back pannier rack and mudguard off (but the back wheel could stay on). The pannier had four lots of screws to remove and on the last screw, it broke off clean in my hand with most of the screw still in the pannier.

Oops! this wasn't supposed to brake off!

Oops! this wasn’t supposed to brake off!

Oops! this wasn't supposed to brake off!

I called my dad in Australia and showed him the issue I was facing expecting him to tell me there was a simple solution to remove a broken screw from metal, but alas, he told me I was screwed! I called Evans Cycles and they said they couldn’t get me in today but to try a bike shop called SBC cycles in East London. So I called SBC cycles, they told me to come by, I got in a black cab with the bike (the tyres were flat and the front wheel was off) and went straight there. They were fantastic and told me to come back in a few hours and when I did, they had removed the screw, added a new one and a washer and I was incredibly relieved! I continued trying to get the bike into the box to no avail before deciding that there was just no room for the front tyre in the box and it would have to go separately… it was a very painful process and I’m still not over it!

My front wheel in the front home-made and now wrapped box, and the rest of the bike in the bike box behind

My front wheel in the front home-made and now wrapped box, and the rest of the bike in the bike box behind.

I’ll write another post about the logistics of getting the bike to and around Japan, as well as gear etc at the end of the trip… but now it’s time to get cycling!

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