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Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh By Bicycle An autobiographical and reflective account of traveling from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh on a bicycle.

Tokyo to Osaka - The Journey

JAPAN | Tuesday, 30 November 2010 | Views [2051] | Comments [3]

The Thorn and I with Mt Fuji behind in the distance.

The Thorn and I with Mt Fuji behind in the distance.

Day One

After a week in Tokyo making final arrangements and going through all my equipment I decided it was about time to hit the road. I'd had a great time and hung out with all my all friends again. Saying goodbye to Nana, my girlfriend who had been so supportive and understanding of my tour was particularly difficult, as it's hard to say when we may meet again. I've seldom met anyone with the patience and generosity which she displayed. It would have been so easy to put it off for a couple of days, but after booking a ticket on the Osaka-Shanghai ferry I knew that time was of the essence, and putting things off any longer would just equate to escapism. I left Ogikubo, Tokyo on Sunday morning and said good bye to my wonderful friends Tim and Keiko Williams who had so kindly looked after me for the week. Tim walked me up to the 7/11 convenience store and watched as I rather desperately rustled through my front panniers for anything that I may not need. I'd tested the bike fully laden properly for the first time only half an hour before, and was really concerned about the wobble that seemed to have developed under weight on the front handlebars. I'd thought I'd tested the bike enough by doing two short tours earlier on in the year. The first from Toyama to Tokyo in June, alone, in which I'd covered 450km although pretty slowly I might add. The second was from Nikko to Tokyo with my good friend Mathew. This was particularly interesting because it was my first experience of cycling with a partner, and with Mathew not being a cyclist, it had been amusing watching him cut his teeth on his first tour. He coped extremely well, and Mathew intuitively recognized that this method of travel offered a wild sense of freedom and exposure to the world around you that no other form of travel allows. On both these tours though I'd had no problems with my handlebars wobbling. I hadn't read anything about this particular problem anywhere. So with Tim watching me while I tried to sort this minor setback out whilst looking calm on the outside yet having some grave reservations inside I decided that the shoes I was wearing would be first for the chop. One of the girls at the counter happened to be emptying the outside dust bins and wasn't expecting a tall blonde foreigner to suddenly walk up, smile at her, take his shoes off, throw them in the bag she was sorting out then saunter off. This clearly wasn't normal Sunday morning behavior in these parts. As I'd been unnerving the locals with my strange manners I'd heard a whole host of strange noises going on around the corner and returned to find Tim grinning like the Cheshire cat at what can only be described as a fairground attraction on three wheels. Now I've seen some particularly horrible examples of bad taste reflected in peoples choices of transport in my time. Visits to several kit car exhibitions as a teenager with my father, giant plastic gin palaces in the mediterannian or fluorescent lime green Lamborghinis cruising the King's Road in London spring to mind but this was a corker. Not only was it completely impractical and covered in every cheap plastic Halfords accessory you can imagine, it also played fairground music and was covered in lights that moved in time with the music. This was a spectacle guaranteed to take my mind off the present problems I had, and as Tim and I posed for photos and the owner announced that "Japan was number one" I reflected on how this might be the bizarre sendoff I needed. So as the garish spectacle blasted off into the distance Tim and I said are farewells and I in completely opposite fashion wobbled off slowly into the distance. A whole host of questions rattled through my brain but it was a refreshing feeling to be finally on the road and on my way.

I was already a day behind schedule and I'd decided to take a train from Tokyo to Mishima just North West of the Izu peninsular. Mishima is of some significance for me as it's where I had started my very first tour ever about three and half years ago. As I was pushed for time with the boat leaving in five days from Osaka, I felt that Mishima would be an sentimental place to start cycling from, a decision that I'd later on look back on as a wise move. As I arrived at Ogikubo train station I was reminded of how awkward it is to take bicycles on trains in Japan, especially when you have panniers and other items to carry. So I went through the motions of disassembling the bicycle and putting it into the bag that I'd used so many times before on a whole host of different tours I'd done of Japan, before boarding the train to Tokyo station. Tokyo station was the usual scenario, a rabbit warren, labyrinth of different neon lit signs pointing to different train lines. As I reflected upon all the times I'd done this before with the bike I made my way in snail like fashion towards the Shinkansen ticket gates. Over the last few years I'd developed a method in which I leave the rear panniers and racked equipment on the bike, whilst pulling the back of the bag slightly forward in front of the rear wheel, so that I can lift the front and then wheel all the luggage around attached using the rear wheel. This is particularly effective when you have a lot of items that need to be kept together, alleviating the need to make several trips backwards and forwards moving different sets of luggage when one trip could suffice. This time though it was not to be. On approaching the gates a guard decided not to let me through, stating that I wouldn't be allowed to take the bike on the train. An impasse developed and in typically inflexible Japanese fashion I was left to try and reason with him that I had done this many times before, understood the rules and that once on the platform I'd finish preparing the bike for the train. A women approached who announced she was a travel agent and that you can't take such items on the train. According to her it was my fault for not reading the web site properly. I replied by asking her whether she had anything useful to contribute to the problem rather than just making it worse. It was frustrating to say the least and resulted in me having to make five journeys back and forth to the platform when one could have been case. So after four years of dealing with my equipment in a practical and logical fashion while taking bicycles on trains in Japan it was the last journey that proved to be the one that was a problem. I was really relieved to be on the train. Tokyo is a superb city with much going for it yet I felt a sense of weight lifted now that I was about to be whisked at high speed away from it. I'll reserve my reflections on Tokyo for another time, another post.

The train journey passed without any problems. I managed to get off at the correct station, not something that was guaranteed, and on arrival in Mishima set and loaded the bicycle up before wheeling it out of the station. When exiting the station though another guard approached, all be it a rather pretty one full of smiles, and after a lost in translation moment she helped me out through the gates. A perfect example of how a simple smile can go a long way. She was a far cry from the surly, grim looking, inflexible, autocratic, dinosaur of a man and the smug, po-faced office lady in Tokyo. I was free, with the winding open road in front I imagined that everyone would be generally friendlier and more engaging than the general population in Tokyo, a point that I was not about to be proven wrong over.

After the usual start, stop, start stop routine that usually follows after leaving a train station on a bicycle for fear of cycling completely the wrong way, and with the taxi drivers all laughing about the fact I intended to cycle to Osaka, I was off and pointing in the right direction. The sun was shining, it was warm and after a quick stop off for food at a convenience store where I witnessed the strange spectacle of a car inside a car I started to hit pace and rhythm. I was averaging about 15km hour including all the traffic lights and decided to pull off route 1 and take the the 380 B road down the coast which didn't prove to be any better, just smaller with the same amount of traffic. I then found the coastal cycling path which I stayed on for most of the day. It was a sporadic affair that often entailed having to return to the main road to cross bridges but the removal of traffic from the cycling equation and serenity coupled with the beauty of cycling right down the coast literally next to the Pacific Ocean and Suruga Bay made it a special experience. At stages down the coast the cycling path would descend into nothing, forcing you to navigate huge highways or rubbish strewn paths sandwiched between a motor way and train lines. For a country that depends on the bicycle so heavily, I was amazed at how badly thought out whole swathes of the coast were for cycling, but the good parts were really good, it's just a shame they're not joined up. After 40km or so the light started to fade so I found a place on the map that looked like it would provide a good camp site and went for it. By the time I reached Shimizu it was pitch black but I managed to find the peninsular that had provided such a natural harbor.

I always like to stop off and buy any food and supplies I need before actually finding the exact position to camp so I stopped off at a convenience store and made my way towards where the dolphin is pictured on the map. I set up the tent on the foundations of a Summer house and cracked open a beer whilst admiring the beautiful lights of the port across the water. I'd done it, I was really on my way and before retiring to my tent to sleep I used the time and light to understand better how my camera worked.

Day Two

It wasn't an entirely peaceful nights sleep. At one point a man started bouncing a buoy on the wooden planks 10ft away from my tent which made a seriously disturbing sound and later another started fiddling around with the bike but all in all it was a good start. I had a charming chat with an old man in the morning who was curious and friendly before setting off again down the coast. It was warm and I had a lot of distance to cover. It was Monday and I realized that with the boat leaving on Friday I'd need to do about 120km today. I managed to get into a rhythm in the morning but by the afternoon a very strong headwind pulled in and slowed me down to half the pace I'd been managing. It got worse and worse as I cycled across the Omaezaki peninsula and I hadn't eaten properly. I finally had lunch which consisted of a big bowl of steaming ramen around 1pm before continuing along the coast fighting against the headwind.

The Pacific cycling path started out of the blue which gave me the opportunity again to escape the traffic and I spent the rest of the afternoon cycling along the coast again. There was a campsite up ahead which I was aiming for and after stocking up on food made a bee line for. Nearing the campsite and with the sun going down, I was distracted whilst passing what looked like a racing circuit. I watched for a while as the motorbikes blasted up and down the straits until a local explained that it was where Suzuki test their motorbikes. This made sense as all the barriers had been covered in a think blanket of protective padding. The bikes were reaching ridiculous speeds at full throttle, and I imagined the rider would have had little chance if there was a major mechanical failure. Things fell silent and I continued towards the camp site which I was dismayed to find was under a wind farm. Considering the hellish headwind I'd had most of the day though this explained many things. The campsite owner wanted £20 before he'd let me pitch the tent which I felt was extortionate and after a few wrong turns I decided to make it across the bridge before nightfall and find another place to camp.

Once across the bridge I followed the path along the coast but was stopped by a huge construction site and a crane swinging in my general direction hardly filling me full of confidence of finding a good site to camp. I got turned back and cycled into the urban area which I hoped would be less windy. After cycling around for a while I found a small park away from the wind. It was my best chance so I quietly pitched the tent behind a hedge away from prying eyes and after checking the map to figure out where I was, fell asleep.

Day 3

I slept amazingly well on the second night. I awoke around 6am to find all the old pensioners going about their strange exercises in the park, a few waved hello and smiled and I did the same in return. I thought it best to make a move as quickly as possible and within 45 minutes I was on the road again before stopping for breakfast 10km later. The aim today was to make it to the Irago - Toba ferry ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ise-wan_Ferry ) which had been reported as closed down, but was still apparently in service when I called them before leaving Tokyo. The cycling path did it's usual stop start routine most of the morning and I passed my first other touring cyclist riding in the opposite direction. I was cheerful considering he looked Japanese that I was on the right road. After crossing under the elevated highway running along the coast dozens of times I was quite taken aback to round a corner and find five large ostriches staring right at me. It was the most unlikely place for them to be hanging out so I turned the video on and had a chat. They looked mad a snakes frankly, and I didn't reckon much of my chances if they'd not been behind a giant fence. I bought a coke and watched them for a while before being joined by a Japanese family who looked equally bemused. The man came over for a chat about the bike and he turned out to be a cyclist himself, but of the lycra kind. He realized fast that the bike wasn't from Japan before questioning me about the gearing system. The eccentric bottom bracket really foxed him though, so the camera popped out and I watched as he examined the bike in fine detail. They were also on their way to the ferry so on parting we waved good bye in the knowledge that we would probably pass each other again later in the day. Ten minutes later and a rode past them along a tiny coastal road that descended into a rather large sand dune. I've had no experience of cycling in sand with a loaded bike and subsequently gently toppled over into a dune. Moving a loaded tourer through sand is no joy and as I peddled/pushed past the surfers, I wished I hadn't been sidetracked by what looked like an easier route. A rather sandy hour later I was out and back on to the main road. The 42 road is frankly dreadful until you pass the junction with the 410 road. I was up and down small hills like a yo-yo and with little area on the side of the road to cycle and many long queues of three to a dozen trucks passing full of chicken manure. It was a thoroughly stinky experience. Finally the Pacific cycling path started again so I jumped at the chance to get off the road and continued towards Irago. The cycling path winds around the small hill in Irago before descending towards the port, something I was very glad about considering the amount of tour buses I had seen in the distance using the rather thin road full of hairpin bends. The girls behind the ticket counter were cute and helpful and I was lucky to only have to wait five minutes before boarding the ferry. It was hardly busy, just three cars, a scooter and my bicycle. There's nothing much on the ferry but the cruise reminded me of crossing the Solent to the Isle of Wight as a child when my parents lived there. Ferries always remind me of the start of the holiday and it felt great to be out on deck watching all the small islands roll by.

On arriving in Toba though it was too dark to cycle to my first choice campsite so I opted for one near the port. It was up a steep hill on the other side of the bay. I walked up the hill and found a smart looking hotel and strolled in to speak to the concierge. It was a "security risk" apparently to allow me to camp on their campsite. A risk to who or what was never explained and they wouldn't budge. It seems extraordinary to me to have a campsite but to not allow anyone to camp on it, especially when the next one is 20km up the road, the persons on a bicycle and it's about to get dark. I left feeling rather put out that they'd been so unhelpful but I'd spotted a small park on the way there and decided to have a look at that. When riding around the park I was approached by a man who on first impressions struck me as homeless but turned out to be the park warden. This was a major stroke of luck and after a short chat he said it would be no problem for me to stay the night there. We both decided on a good spot before I ran off to get dinner before returning and setting up the tent. I found a good perch on top of a large climbing frame and watched the world going by. The sky was completely clear and I wondered what surprises the next day would have in store for me before retiring. The warden came around at ten to check everything was ok just as I was dropping off and sunk into a deep sleep.

Day 4

I awoke after sleeping pretty well and was met by the warden with a hot coffee in his hand. We chatted as I packed the bike up and then parted company and went our separate ways. I stopped though less than five minutes later after finding the back rim of the bike making some strange noises against the brakes. I was seriously worried and at first glance it didn't look good. I tried to figure out where I might have damaged the wheel. I remembered hitting some pretty large rocks hidden in the sand the day before and some of the bike lanes had involved pavements that may have jolted the rim slightly untrue. The rim had been untrue before from a head on collision I'd had three months before, involving a girl on a bike riding with no lights along the wrong side of a one way street under an elevated section of a railway line in pitch darkness. I had two days to get to Osaka and worried that the wheel needed attention at a specialist shop I decided to air on the side of caution and get the train direct. I found the train station, packed the bike and found the train to be arriving in five minutes which created a mad dash to the platform. I boarded the train and sat back content in the knowledge that I'd be making the boat. Starving after the rush and not having enough time to buy any food I settled for a crisp sandwich which brought back memories of when I was at school and such things were all the rage. On the way to Osaka I managed to explode a beer all over the carriage in front of the ticket collector which was deeply embarrassing, by the signs of things no one was much amused by the smelly gaijin in the back seat. I was lucky to get off again at the correct station and once off the train proceeded out of the bowels of the station before setting up the bike. I knew that this would be a great opportunity to check the back wheel and I was amazed to find that it was a break problem not a rim problem. This was excellent news all round so after setting the bike up, heading for the nearest Starbucks and booking a hotel room, I felt confident that all was settled apart from the steaming pile of dirty clothes in my panniers. The New Oriental Hotel wasn't that far away and on arriving I found myself negotiating beween some rather over enthusiastic and excitable Siberians and the hotel staff. The Russians wanted a receipt that they could fax to their boss back home but somehow all this had got very confused and they seemed most interested to find out if there were any heavies around who might sort the concierge out. "I was in Italy with La Cosa Nostra" he proudly told me without hesitation. "If only they were here now" he mused. I didn't want to explain that La Cosa Nostra was the US arm of the Sicillian mafia or that given he was in Japan the Yakuza wouldn't give a monkeys whether he was in the right or wrong, they'd side with the Japanese regardless and parade him around Osaka on a stake if need be. Still, I managed to sort things out in the end. The Russians were apparently dealing in pottery which I was highly suspicious was a euphemism was something a whole lot less savory. So I'd made some rather hearty Russian friends and from then on everytime we met in the hotel there was throaty chuckling as if we were all in on something secret that nobody else knew about. My stay in Osaka was a great move as it enabled me to sort through my equipment and post what I didn't need back to the UK and prepare for the boat and China.

Tags: boat, cycle tour, irago, japan, lake hamana, mikawa bay, mt fuji, osaka, shizuoka, toba



fantastic..cant wait for the next instalment!

  robert Dec 4, 2010 5:24 AM


Hi Luke - your writing as always is incredibly alive and insightful - thinking of you and take care! Lou x

  Lou Dec 6, 2010 10:07 PM


I've really enjoyed reading about your adventures! Myself and my fiancé are off cycle touring soon and will be riding some of the same route as you. Sounds like you had a great time!

  Juliet Apr 28, 2014 6:26 AM

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A random shot of me in Majorca with my lightweight tourer before flying back to Tokyo.

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