The rain, when it came, started on the outskirts of Kyoto. A few spots, barely enough for a raincoat, and the only inclement weather of our 12-day tour of Japan. Our luck with the weather was emblematic of a fantastic trip.
It is about 650km from Izumi in Kagoshima prefecture to Kyoto if you join the dots of the cities we passed through on the route, although more like 580km allowing for twists and turns andsubtracting the odd ferry or bus transfer. Along the way the beauty of Japanreveals itself in dozens of subtle and enchanting ways.
The trip, Japan Highlights by Japan Biking is billed as “pure indulgence for the senses” and happily our experience well and truly lived up to the advertising. There were equally-matched highlights for me: the riding, the scenery, the food and the accommodation. It’s hard to have a bad time riding moderate distances on an unladen bike, so the first was a bit of a given. Less expected though was the stunning quality, the delightful routes, the variety of the food and the wonderful accommodation.
Our group met in the small southern town of Izumi, where our guide, Thomas Holvoet, lives. We had hired a pair of hybrid bikes rather than bring our own, so Thomas quickly fitted the pedals and saddles we’d brought from home and after a quick test ride and a few adjustments we were ready to go. After an afternoon spent around the hotel our tour group met for an initial briefing. Our riding companions for the next week and a bit would be some friends from Tasmania and a group of seven - six from California and a Brazilian woman who had done several similar trips together. They had mostly bought their own flash matching Richey Titanium Break-Away travel bikes.
We met and chatted over the first of many fine meals to come over the following days. Early the next morning we started off with some gentle stretching as Thomas chanted us through our routine with a count of one to ten in Japanese, then at last we were on the road for a gentle tour of Izumi and its samurai neighbourhood before turning north in earnest. It quickly became apparent the care with which Thomas had prepared our route. We rode on quiet roads and paths, through small quiet neighbourhoods and lush green rice fields. There was little traffic and the small climbs of the first day were rewarded with lovely coastal views. Thomas rode with us, leading sometimes, following at others. Several of the group were equipped with GPS devices he had supplied, making route finding easier - although we always seemed to go better with Thomas at the helm weaving our way through the twists and turns.
Before too long we were greeted by the sight of our support van and the wonderful Mida-san to provide us with refreshments. The day was warm, so the break was welcome. Coastal views and some not too demanding ups and downs followed with a cracking roadhouse lunch of noodles along the way. Our goal for the night was a hundred-year-old Hinagu Onsen Ryokan.This delightful old-style Japanese inn was typical of the lovely places we stayed over the 13 nights of our trip - an absolute delight with crisp cotton yukata gowns awaiting our trip to the spring-fed outdoor onsen where the grime and cares of the day’s riding were quickly scrubbed and soaked away before a few beers and dinner.
The rhythm of the following days wasn’t greatly different. We started our mornings with a tasty and varied Japanese breakfast, which always included some form of pickle and miso soup and rice, often accompanied by fish and dried seaweed and other delicacies. Then the road opened before us, through the small plots of rice nearing autumnal harvest and the compact Japanese homes along the way. The drivers we did encounter were almost invariably courteous and gave us plenty of room in passing.
There was some spectacular scenery and some challenging climbs in the surprisingly warm temperatures. My favourite was the ride across the caldera near Mt Aso on narrow farm paths that ran through verdant fields stretching right to the edge of the old crater. Then there was the descents - and we had a few - which wound down roads sometimes scarcely wide enough for a single vehicle, twisting and turning downward seemingly forever, repaying in spades the hard work of the preceding climbs.
And the climbs? I enjoyed the challenge as the road rose up, often finding myself at the summit before I’d expected and ready for the cool run down. The GoPro video camera I had mounted on my handlebars worked overtime capturing some of the long downhill runs through tall bamboo groves and forests and I often found myself at the back of the group with the sag wagon sometimes not too far away because I’d stopped and taken too many photos, if there is such a thing as too many photos in a land of such great scenic beauty.
Contrary to what I might have thought at the outset, our little group stuck together quite well on the road. The impetus among the faster riders to speed off into the distance was less than one might have thought and it was generally the case that we were only a few minutes apart at most breaks - a little longer at the end of substantial climbs. One of the great things about cycling is the egalitarian nature of most bunches and we were no eception we whiled away the miles chatting about this and that as one companion or another drew alongside. I spent a bit of time off the back of the bunch too, enjoying the spectacle as it rolled by in quiet solitude. And so the towns of Kyushu passed under our wheels. After Kumamoto and a visit to the castle, we rode into the magnificent caldera of the Mt Aso volcano - although some small eruptions prevented us getting as close to the volcano as we would have liked.
Some more climbing, and some delightful riding on quiet country paths took us to the town of Yufuin, where we were treated to a fantastic meal and once again delightful accommodation. After Yufuin came a generally downhill run with a break for spectacular views before a series of switchbacks deposited us in Beppu, a tourist town of hot springs where we enjoyed a lunch cooked over the steam venting from far below the earth.
Thee only drawback to being on a guided trip is that the caravan must move on. I would have liked to have spent another day or two in Beppu, tourist trap though I suspected it to be, but the ferry trip across to Yawatahama proved to be a nice break to the rhythm followed by an enjoyable climb out of town on a quiet hillside road. We were now on the island of Shikoku and stayed the night in the delightful town of Uchiko, where the moon festival was in full swing. Rather than being accommodated just out of the centre of town as we were expecting we were right in the thick of things and we were able to enjoy strolling through the festival and its many attractions and take in a late night visit to the town's rather impressive lying Buddha.
Onward once more, over a couple of 300m climbs before reaching Matsuyama - which is famed for its public baths fed by hot springs. After a warm day in the saddle I was keen to dive in the shower, but was greatly entertained by the stories of those who had ventured across the road and braved the baths. Everyone seemed to have a different tale of how things had gone wrong, from forgotten tickets to forgotten soap or some hilarious breach of etiquette which had them retreating behind a cloud of apologies. The own itself was charming, no less so for the custom of Japanese people frequenting the baths to promenade in their yukata, which we had become quite accustomed to wearing around our accommodation.
After a rest day and a transfer by bus to Tokushima, we took a ferry to Wakayama on Honshu island. There followed a long, but most enjoyable climb - despite the heat - out of town and onward up Mt Koyasan. The final few kilometers were a bit of a push, but we arrived in the cool heights of Koyasan to soak in the astonishing culture of the temple and the monastery where we stayed and delighted in a terrific vegetarian meal. After breakfast the following morning we enjoyed a thrilling descent before a flat ride into the town of Nara, where we fed the delightful deer and stayed in the middle of the town's lovely park. Another highlight.
Our trip was now drawing to a close and while the ride to Kyoto was flat and fast and enjoyable, I was a little sad that we couldn't go on for a few more days at least. We had at least the city tour the following day to take in some of the sites of Japan's ancient capital before a final meal as a group and farewells the following morning.
It was a magnificent trip, as promised a real taste of Japan - just long enough to feel immersed in the country's gentle and ancient culture, but also short enough to leave me keen to return and again travel by bicycle through this fascinating and alluring destination. Thanks to Thomas for delivering an unforgettable trip, just like he promised.