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Making cycling trips cultural experiences

by Stephen Mansfield

Among the thin crop of books on cycling in Japan are Josie Dew’s hilarious account in “A Ride in the Neon Sun,” of her trip from Tokyo to the edges of Okinawa and the extraordinary people and hospitality met. Then there is Leigh Norrie’s more recent “Japan: 6,000 Miles on a Bicycle,” an engaging account of the joys and frustrations of being on the road.

CYCLING JAPAN: Ten of the Best Rides, by Takashi Niwa, Tokyo Chizu Publishing Co., Ltd., 151 pp., ¥1,700 (paper)

Both books inspire, but sound off cautionary notes. One thing that long put me off distance cycling in Japan, particularly in the summer months, was a friend’s description of encountering slumbering snakes in the long, dark tunnels of Kyushu. Such trifling details don’t seem to bother Takashi Niwa, who is clearly made of tougher stuff.

Niwa in any case, plans the 10 routes in his “Cycling Japan” to expressly avoid confined spaces in preference for the country’s great outdoors. A writer, tour operator, and TV host of the program “A Specialized Rider,” Niwa stays away from arterial roads, those thundering expressways dominated by heavy trucks, many of their drivers invisible and menacing behind batteries of lamps and chromium shields. On the assumption that “roads not only connect points en route to the destination but rather define your experience” the writer provides rides that are not only scenic, but have cultural depth.

The routes vary in intensity, from a trip across the entire girth of Honshu to the relatively easy negotiation of flat Miyako-jima. The island-hopping route along the Shimanami Kaido involves using stunning airborne cycling lanes suspended over the sea. This section also includes a box on the different types of cable, arch, suspension and girder bridges the area is known for.

The northern trip to Cape Soya is described as a “cyclo-pilgrimage.” This tour, like others in the book, comes with tips and caveats. We are inveighed to watch out for dehydration on the subtropical routes in Okinawa, to be careful of black flies along the edges of wetland areas, and to never drink stream water in Hokkaido, as this can give you an echinococcus (tapeworm) infection.

The well-plotted, bilingual maps are indispensable. Interesting data has been added to the maps. Little inserts tell us, for example, that a stretch of one particular ride involves an uphill road through a gold birch forest, that on the Lake Ogawara to Shiriyazaki route, there is almost nowhere to buy food or find lodgings. Tokyo may boast a convenience store every 500 meters, but one of Niwa’s maps points out “The first convenience store in 120 km!” Color photos show cyclists in action, local landscapes, architectural styles, and some of the sights en route.

Niwa clearly appreciates the places between the better-publicized spots. On the road to the thousand rice paddies of Senmaida, it is the old rural houses that Niwa relishes as time capsules of a Japan that is rapidly vanishing. Also noted are easily missed features of interest. In Nagahama, for example, a row of merchant houses with rare “funaita,” or “ship plank sidings” are pointed out.

In addition to standard maps, altitude distance charts provide crucial data on the respective challenges posed by individual routes. Each section includes photos of regional dishes: sushi in Kanagawa, tasty Omi beef, Kochi’s seared sashimi bonito, Okinawa soba and round doughnuts made from black sugar. Seafood markets are also highlighted.

For many people, the pleasures of evenings spent in country inns are the reward for a hard day of pedaling. In plotting a circumambulation of Mount Hakkoda in Tohoku, Niwa’s map points out a series of rustic hot springs where cyclists can soak their weary muscles, the perfect way to end a day’s virtuous exertions.