Cycling in Japan

A search on the internet for things to do during my 4 day layover in Japan turned up a 60km cycling road from Arashiyama (near Kyoto) to the edge of Nara Prefecture. Cycling in Japan is difficult due to the complex network of roads and inevitably impassible rail traffic, but the roads along the series of rivers make it much easier to travel through the boonies.You may not get anywhere you want to go in the major cities, but, as I’ve found, it’s a great way to see the countryside.

I don’t have a bike in Japan. However, a train ride to Kyoto and a few phone calls to some bike shops turned up a storehouse of used bikes near the JR Kyoto Station. I picked up a “mamachari” for $30 and I was ready to go. For those of you not in the know, a mamachari is a bike that mothers use to do their grocery shopping. “Mother Chariot” == “mamachari”. I lucked out and got a 3 speeder (most are fixies) without the SCREAMING brakes (mine had disk brakes!) that most residents seem immune to. Japanese bikes have the loudest brakes on the planet. It’s surprising that more Japanese people aren’t deaf.

The first night, I paid $20 to stay in a shared room at a gaijin (foreigner) hostel. It’s no wonder that Japanese people think so poorly of foreigners given the scum that seem to flock here and ruin the party for the rest of us. I awoke at 4:30 to a hand groping my ass trying to find mywallet. Never again. If there is an English sign and people at the desk who speak English, do yourself a favor and call it a day. I still don’t know what I was thinking.

The ride was incredible. Miles and miles of vegetable gardens and solitude. The beginning of the road at Arashiyama sports some fantastic scenery and I wish I would have had more time so that I could have gone to the Matsuo Taisya, but the abundance of tree covered mountains and greenery made the long trip to the cycling road worth it. Of course, I had to pick the hottest day of the year to ride and I stopped counting the number of cycles which passed me along the way, but, 8 hours later, I made it to Nara to see the massive Daibussan at the Toudaiji Temple in Nara Park. Fantastic. A 60 foot tall iron Bhudda house in the largest wooden structure in the world surrounded by flocks of mini-deer who will beg for cookies. Highly recommended. The Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in the world and the temple itself dates back to the 8th century.

When in Japan, one should always spend a day shopping and exploring Japanese consumer culture, but the history and architecture here are not to be missed and can take up several days. This country and its history, for all its problems, should never be underestimated. Tourists who spend days on end in Akihabara at the expense of the gorgeous countryside truly do themselves a disservice. Nara Koen not only sports the Giant Buddha, but also an incredible collection of other structures and temples including several log buildings. I am sure that there are miles of hiking trails that extend into the reaches of the mountains which surround the park.

When I lived here in the late 90’s, I had no appreciation for the immense amount of opportunites for cheap and incredible sightseeing. I remember being bored a lot of the time and now wonder exactly what I was thinking. Maybe it was the drinking. Or the TV. Or the lack of vegetables. Mostly, I think I was just stupid. Either way, next time, I will buy or bring a decent bike and do a longer, more planned journey, but now at least I’ve cracked the egg. Youth is truly wasted on the young.

Readers Digest version: In total, I rode nearly 80km that day and eventually was so tired and beat and covered in sweat and grime that the I dumped the bike at a convenience store in Tomio City and took a train into Osaka. I would have ridden all the way into Osaka, but a giant mountain stood in a the way and 3 speeds wouldn’t have been nearly enough to make it over the top before dark. I found a $15.00 a night hotel in the “bad” part of town that came with a 4.5 tatami room, futon, towels, hot water, tooth brush, internet, coffee and a TV/VCR along with a large selection of Yakuza movies and 4 porn channels. No English, just helpful people and a clean shower. More later.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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