The ride was full of many stimulating cultural experiences. We visited Nibutani, a comfortable village with a large population of Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous inhabitants. Many place names in Hokkaido are derived from the Ainu language, like “Sapporo”, which means “dry, large river.” We ate deer meat miso soup and sweet dango with some friendly locals who invited us to join them at an Ainu restaurant in Nibutani, and the proprietor gave us a place to stay in her guest room. The room doubled as a work studio for the matriarch of the family, who used a sleek, wooden traditional Ainu device to weave strips of Elm tree bark into rolls of material that she sold to a kimono store in Kyoto. We slept surrounded by hanging strips of bark and carving and weaving implements. We also visited an Ainu museum, where Sho practiced playing the mukkuri, an instrument you hold in your mouth and make a twanging sound by pulling a string forcefully to the side. It’s harder than it looks!
Sho learning to play the mukkuri, a traditional Ainu instrument
Fireworks are popular in Japan throughout the summer, and most convenience stores stock packs of ready-made fireworks, which Sho found irresistible. We spent many nights shooting off a pack, often at campsites with strangers we had befriended. We also watched incredible, multi-hour fireworks displays over the ocean at Kashiwazaki (on the west coast of Japan, just south of Niigata), and over Lake Biwako at Hama Ohtsu (near Kyoto). After the fireworks display finished at Hama Ohtsu, the crowd was so overwhelming that dozens of police officers blocked off the train station entrance and forced everyone into tightly packed corrals, which felt suffocating in the oppressive summer heat. We had taken the train from Kyoto, and it took us an hour of jostling in a crowd that stretched as far as we could see just to get back onto a train. We called this adventure our “fireworks fiasco.”
Fireworks over the ocean in Kashiwazaki
Another popular summer activity is Bon Odori, dancing that takes place in August as part of the Buddhist Obon “Festival of the Dead”, when ancestors’ spirits are said to visit their relatives. Gujo Hachiman, a quaint and inviting town in Gifu prefecture, puts on a dance in a different neighborhood each night for a month. The day we visited, Sho and I found out which neighborhood would host the dancing and stayed in a nearby ryoukan. As night fell, locals spilled out onto the decorated streets wearing colorful yukata robes and geta wooden shoes, and vendors set up stalls selling sweets and enticed passersby with various children’s games. Sho enjoyed trying to scoop up plastic fish from a tub of water using a small paper net that immediately started to disintegrate after getting wet. A large float dominated the main dancing street, and soon a band perched atop the float blasted out a rhythmic traditional tune over blaring loud speakers. A long line of dancers snaked around the length of the narrow street, encouraging everyone to join in. Sho and I dove into the mix and got help from a group of friendly teenagers, who patiently taught us the steps, counting “one, two, three, one, two, three…” After it was all over, Sho exclaimed, “What an awesome way to celebrate summer!”
We also had the great fortune to stay in Tokushima, a city on the eastern coast of Shikoku, during the Awa Odori festival. This annual, raucous 3-day event dates back to the 16th century, and is the largest Obon dance festival in the country. It is often referred to as the “Mardi Gras of Japan.” Over 1 million revelers descend on Tokushima each year, where traditionally-clad dancers and musicians take over the streets in choreographed dances, parading through town each night. At first, Sho and I just watched the procession as part of a massive crowd of onlookers, but as the evening wore on, impromptu dances broke out, and we were invited to join in. Once again, locals helped to show us the moves, and we had a blast dancing the night away!
Sho learning steps from a dancer during Awa Odori
While passing through a small town in the Japan Alps near Takayama, we happened upon a Sumo wrestling festival. Sho was invited to give it a try, and pushed a 250-pound wrestler out of the ring! Sho swears that it was his speed, agility and conditioning from biking every day that made him more than a match for the wrestler.
Sho overpowering a much heavier opponent at a sumo festival near Takayama
While Japan’s major cities boast many fascinating historical and cultural sites, I gained a new appreciation for and interest in the country’s rugged natural beauty. Shirakami Sanchi, a World Heritage Site and the last remaining virgin beech forest in the country, had an ancient, mysterious feel as we hiked around. We caught on video a beautiful bird with a long red beek called Akashoubin and had to maneuver around a 3-foot long snake that blocked our path. The northwestern coast in Tohoku offered a dramatic rocky coastline with fabulous sunsets and powerful surf. Riding through the many mountain passes of the Japan Alps, while exhausting, was fascinating and included a surprise encounter with wild monkeys. And Hokkaido was a bicyclists’ paradise, especially along the sparsely populated northern and eastern coasts.
The snake that blocked our path while hiking in Shirakami Sanchi
A wild monkey lounging by the road in the Japan Alps
Whether you’re interested in cycling across the entire country or just spending a day or two exploring by bike, there are many good options. Here are a few suggestions:
- Hokkaido is a cyclist’s paradise, with gorgeous countryside routes, dramatic coastlines and friendly people. Many people stick to the coasts, but there are challenging mountains, if that’s your thing.
- The Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道) is an expressway with a dedicated bike path that connects Onomichi (in Honshu) and Imabari (in Shikoku). You can rent bikes and helmets at one end and return them at the other. The route offers incredible ocean views as it passes over nine islands. You can complete this 60km (~37 miles) ride in a day, but it’s worth it to break it up into 2 days and stay overnight on one of the islands.
- Consider renting a bike to get around Kyoto. While you will have to contend with traffic and a few hills, Sho and I thought that cycling was a great way to see the city.
Other Useful Info:
- If you plan to sleep in a tent during a multiple-day cycling adventure, one of the major challenges is finding a place to shower. The ubiquity of public bath houses (onsen or osento) in Japan made it easy for us to clean up almost every day of our ride without needing to get a hotel room.
- There are hundreds of government-designated rest stops throughout Japan called Roadside Stations (道の駅 michi no eki), which came in handy on our ride. They typically have information on the local area, food and places to rest. Some include playgrounds, an onsen and other family-friendly attractions.
- If you arrive by bike in a town without any advanced information, make your way to the main train station. That is typically where you will find tourist info. Police officers, often stationed in neighborhood “police boxes” called koban also usually have helpful information.
- Japan National Tourism Organization (www.jnto.go.jp) – this is an excellent resource for planning a trip to Japan. We used info from the website to help us plan the ride and visited the NYC office to collect brochures and get advice from the staff.
- Japan Cycling Navigator (www.japancycling.org) – English language website with many details on cycling in Japan.
- BEE Japan (www.beejapan.org) – a group of cyclists who sponsor bike rides around Japan, environmental awareness campaigns and an annual group ride across the country.