In 1977, British author and long-term Tokyo resident Alan Booth made a journey on foot from the northernmost point in Japan, Cape Soya, to Kyushu’s southernmost tip, Cape Sata.
Booth’s account of that epic trek, “The Roads to Sata,” became one of the classic Japan travel books of the modern age, with its vivid but witty portrayal of rural Japan in the ’70s and the quirky characters who populated it.
Booth has now, sadly, passed away — he died of colon cancer in 1993 — and the Japan he wrote about has also gone. Yet the will or desire to make the challenging journey from one end of the country to the other remains alive and well, and since Booth’s time numerous foreigners have covered the same top-to-tail route on foot or two wheels.
Seeking adventure and inspired by those who came before them, three young North American lads — Andrew Marston, Scott Keenan and Dylan Gunning — decided to make the legendary trip by bicycle in early 2011.
Marston, who worked for two years as an English teacher in Fukuoka before hitting the road, says he was motivated by a desire to dream big.
“Pursuing big goals is essential to realizing your capabilities and pushing your boundaries further,” he said, speaking from Maine, where he now lives.
The seed of the idea to propel himself across the entire length of Japan was sown back in college after Marston watched the documentary “Kintaro Walks Japan,” in which American Tyler MacNiven treks from Kyushu to Hokkaido to try and locate the birthplace of his father, who was born to missionary parents in a then-unknown location on the Hokkaido coast. He was also inspired by New Zealander Craig Stanton, who made the same journey in 2008.
Marston says that after reading about these treks and talking to others who had made the trip, his curiosity began to grow and he started to wonder if he too could accomplish such a feat.
Naturally, though, he had his doubts. “Setting big goals is scary stuff: What if it doesn’t happen? What if I try and fail? Thoughts like these can play on the mind,” says the 26-year-old.
But, he adds, “It was important to me to show myself what I was capable of accomplishing, where my limits were, and areas I could improve.”
All their preparation and pre-training complete, the trio set their sights on April 2011 for the departure date. Then, a month before their planned departure, the triple disaster devastated the Tohoku coast.
“Originally we didn’t plan on using ‘Japan by Bicycle’ as a fundraiser, but when the 3/11 earthquake hit, we knew we wanted to do something to help,” Marston says.
The trio initially considered trying to get official sponsors, but in the end decided to simply ask readers of the trip blog to donate to either a Samaritan’s Purse campaign they had set up or to the Red Cross, and then to send them a donation receipt.
“One hundred percent of the money went directly from donors’ pockets to the charities. We never touched a yen of it and were just acting as a catalyst to encourage people to give,” Marston explains. “Our original goal was $10,000, and we ended up crossing the finish line at $13,092.”
The trio decided to travel Japan from south to north — the opposite direction Booth took when he made his fabled journey — so, naturally, the start line had to be Cape Sata, the southern tip of Kyushu’s Osumi Peninsula.
They had to get there first, though, and after a side trip to Yakushima Island and an 85 km cycle from the ferry terminal to the start line, the grueling reality of what they were about to embark upon began to hit home.
This is the entry by Marston from the trip blog for Day 1 (April 14):
“Today was much more physically demanding than I had anticipated. No one had warned me that near the Cape, the roads switch from being flat and coastal to steep and mountainous. I’m talking about 20 km of muscle-binding inclines.
“My Japanese isn’t perfect, but I swear I saw a sign that read ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ Our average speed was reduced from a comfortable 23 km/hr on the day to around 15 km/hr, and the sun was hot.
“After an hour of sweaty first-gear hill-crawling we made it to the entrance gate. Paying the ¥500 admission fee and walking our bikes through some final park paths, we arrived at the southernmost point of mainland Japan.”
Despite this initial rude awakening, Marston and his two partners in grime managed to find their groove and ended up covering a whopping 3,518 km in 43 days, arriving in Cape Soya on the northern tip of Hokkaido on May 27.
To quote Marston again from the trip blog:
“While standing at Cape Soya, I felt incredible. Reaching the stone monument at the finish line didn’t feel like anything special by itself, but when I considered how far we had come, it was exhilarating to know that after 43 days and 3,500 km we finally had made it.
“Between incredible views, amazing hosts, and unforgettable memories, the trip had been a proper adventure of a lifetime. Arriving at Cape Soya was the culmination of the whole journey. It was the moment I had been waiting for.
“No one could take away the fact that we had cycled the length of Japan. This will stand as one of biggest accomplishments of our lives.”
As well as traveling the length of Japan (bar Okinawa, of course), the trio got to see some of Japan’s most famous and scenic spots along the way, including the atomic bomb memorials in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Fushimi Inari-Taisha and Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Mount Fuji, the Japan Alps and many other less known but equally fascinating destinations.
The good news for readers is that you don’t need to burn muscle and shed sweat for 43 days to see these amazing places for yourself. In fact, you don’t even need to walk out of the front door.
Unlike Booth, who walked the length of the country with nothing more than a notebook, a pen, a roll of coins to call his anxious wife back in Tokyo and a healthy appetite for beer, the Japan by Bicycle team made the epic journey with all the high-tech gadgetry of the modern age.
The result is “Japan By Bicycle” the movie and its accompanying blog site, which allow you to experience the highs and lows of Andrew, Scott and Dylan’s epic trip from one end of country to the other, without having to get off the couch.
Exploring Japan has never been this easy.
3,500 km, 175 hours on saddle, 43 days, seven crashes: a trip in facts and figures
Some impressive facts and figures collected by Andrew Marston, Scott Keenan and Dylan Gunning from their trip across Japan:
Total distance: 3,518 km
Hours pedaling: 175 hours, 1 minute (according to odometer)
Days taken: 43
Final crash count:
Andrew: 4; Scott: 3; Dylan: 0
Total damage to cycles:
• Andrew: nine broken spokes, rear wheel completely replaced on Day 19, “Deep Night Towa Tei Show”; front fork bent in Hokkaido car accident on Day 40, “Desire vs. The Police”; frequent break and gear tuning
• Scott: Minor tune-ups and wheel truing
• Dylan: taco’ed front wheel on Day 19, “Deep Night Towa Tei Show,” six flat tires, tune-ups
Bike shops visited for repairs:
Five (Nagasaki; Hiroshima; Fukuyama, Hiroshima Pref.; “Cycle Shop Tomato”in Himeji, Hyogo Pref.; “Attack Niigata Cycle Shop” in Niigata)
Three best views:
• Nagasaki Omura Bay coastline on Day 6, “Nagasaki: Memorials and Mikans”
• Mount Fuji from the Kasais’ house in Fuji, Shizuoka Pref., after the typhoon passed on Day 30, “Home is Where You Lean Your Bike”
• Northern Alps from Hakuba, Nagano Pref., on Day 32, “Two Days Through the Alps”
Total nights camping: 25. Dylan had 26 since he camped every night on his solo trek of Shikoku.
Most nights camped in a row:
Five. From the first night on Yakushima, Kagoshima Pref., through to the second night after the start line. Dylan also camped five nights in a row because of his Shikoku detour.
Top three coolest campsites:
• On a beach on Day 2, “Soggy Ride to Topher,” Kagoshima Pref.
• Under a bridge near Okayama on Day 16, “In Spokes We
• In a real-deal bamboo forest in Nara on Day 24, “Dylan Takes the Plunge”
Worst night camping:
All three of us in Scott’s tent in a parking spot in Nagasaki Public Park on Day 5 (photo in Day 6, “Nagasaki: Memorials
Most comfortable campsite:
The Watanabes’ front lawn in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Pref., on Day 33, “Everything Happens
for a Reason”
• Treated to dinner at the Hiwatashis’ restaurant in Isa, Kagoshima Pref., on Day 3,
“Famed Japanese Hospitality”
• Okonomiyaki in Nara made by Jun Ohashi on Day 23, “The
• Pizza buffet in Nagoya on Day 25, “Dangerously Cheesy”
• Takaaki Yatsunagi’s traditional Japanese feast in Akita on Day 36, “Know Your Role”
• Eating salty ramen in Hokkaido and then being invited to sleep in the ramen shop on Day 42, “The End is Nigh”
• Too many more to list . . .
Longest distance covered in one day: 222 km from Nagoya to Fuji, Shizuoka Pref., in about 10 hours of pedal time, on Day 27, “Typhoon of the Century”
Most difficult sections to cycle:
• The 20 km of hills leading up to the start line at Cape Sata, Kagoshima Pref., on Day 1, “Hard Fought Start At Cape Sata.” Not only did we have to bike this section twice to get to and from the cape; we were also still out of shape.
• Mount Ikoma between Osaka and Nara on Day 23, “The 308 Blues.” We spent three exhausting hours pushing our cycles up 5 km of the steepest grade road on the whole trip.
• The last 20 km to Fuji in the torrential rain of a typhoon after midnight on Day 27 (technically Day 28), “Typhoon of the Century”
Prefectures visited: 22 (24 for Dylan because of his trip to Shikoku)