Two Canadians' Tour of Tohoku - Sept/Oct 2010

Nov 16, 2009
35
3
18
Vancouver, Canada
#1
I'm finally getting around to writing up my ride from Tokyo up to the Shimokita Hanto after almost 2 years. To everyone that responded to my initial query in November 2009 when I first posted about my plan to do a bike tour of Tohoku, thank you for all your kind suggestions. I wish we could have visited all the places or cycled the routes that were suggested. After having cycled around the south of France, I believe Japan is just as much a cycling mecca as France but off the beaten path of most cycling aficionados. Not only are there outstanding routes with great scenery but there are also some tasty bakeries and pastry shops...just like in France. We became frequent visitors to Andersen's in Ueno when we were in Tokyo but also found many "Vie de France" locations elsewhere in Japan, among other non-chain outlets.

To those reading this blog with plans to cycle Japan for the first time (which is how I discovered this site), the logistics for doing a bike tour of the country are quite good. My friend, Noelle, and I had done some advance planning and chosen Tohoku as our destination of choice since it is also off the beaten path of most visitors to Japan. Plus, we were looking for a less populated region that didn't necessarily cater to a large number of tourists. Although I had been to Japan before, I had never ventured to northern Honshu so this was a prime opportunity to do so.

From arriving at Narita airport, we took the Keisei Skyliner with our bike boxes direct to Ueno station where our hotel was within walking distance. We had also arranged with the hotel to store our bike boxes while we were away cycling. Getting out of Tokyo was not an issue as we cycled a short distance from Ueno to the Arakawa River which is lined with a bike path. As for lodging on the road, we had no intention of camping which minimized the amount of gear we would need to carry and opted mostly for business hotels and the odd ryokan. I actually enrolled as a foreign member of the Toyoko Inn which became our preferred choice of lodging as they are clean, have internet access, laundry facilities and an all you can eat buffet breakfast. Rates at the Toyoko Inn were between 8,000 to 10,000 Yen for a twin room which is about the same as a youth hostel for two people. Hotels were also quite good about letting us wash our bikes (after a day of riding in the rain) and would often provide a bucket or outdoor water tap for us to access. As for meals, a bowl of ramen for lunch (about 700 to 800 Yen), dinner for less than 2,000 Yen plus snacks/drinks on the road and you'd be hard pressed to go over 10,000 Yen per day. Weather conditions were ideal with regard to temperature (usually averaging around 20 degrees C.) although it did rain for a few days during our tour.

We started from Tokyo on Monday, September 27 and finished up in Aomori on Friday, October 15 (via ferry from Wakinosawa) for a total of 1,279 km. We returned to Tokyo by train the following day. Our route was initially based on the "Coast to Coast" route from "Cycling Japan: 10 of the Best Rides" by Takashi Niwa (and which is described very well in another blog on this site) for the first three days. After that, we relied on the Mapple Touring Books which are entirely in Japanese (and which were to prove challenging in certain instances). Although the Mapple books provide good detail, our lack of Japanese and some poor sign posting resulted in frequent stops to check our location, but we still got lost on occasion anyways (which is part of the fun of independent touring).

Although the map below shows that we mostly rode up the west coast, surprisingly, much of the route was not along the water. In hindsight, it would have been more scenic to ride up the spine of Tohoku, as some others have done, but we weren't overly keen on tunnels and we were intent on getting up to the Shimokita Hanto. I'll save a tour of the mountains of Tohoku for another trip.
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Day 1, Monday, 27 September: Tokyo to Kumagaya, 93 km
We left the hotel in Ueno around 7:30 in a torrential downpour and worked our way through mostly side streets to the Arakawa River. The bike path was deserted and resembled a running creek in some sections with 10 cm deep pools in certain spots. I had made the mistake of wearing only a short sleeve jersey and a vest on the assumption that I would warm up quickly once we started riding but we were slowed by the heavy rain and water swollen path.

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After a while, Noelle noticed that my teeth were beginning to chatter when I spoke and suggested we take a break somewhere to warm up. We rode off the bike path into what turned out to be the Akabanekita area and found a McDonalds near the train station. We warmed up for about 30 minutes and then headed out again crossing the bridge at route 40 to the north side of the Arakawa River. We rolled past the cherry tree lined path and the Honda airfield as per the "Coast to Coast" route. Eventually, we reached the Kumagaya train station by which time the rain had let up. Wandering around the train station, we found a city map listing the nearby hotels and checked into the R&B Hotel, the first one we came to, for 5000 Yen for a single with breakfast.

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Day 2, Tuesday, 28 September: Kumagaya to Takasaki, 64 km
We left Kumagaya via route 341 and crossed over the Tone River bridge via route 407 and then continued via the bike path as per the "Coast to Coast" route. Although we started off in dry weather, it soon began to rain hard again and we were soaked to the skin in short order. Although it wasn't pleasant to ride in such wet conditions, we quickly got used to it. The rain would come and go and had eased up by the early afternoon when we stopped for lunch. As the bike path crossed a bridge which led into some town, we decided to turn off the path into town and found an Indian restaurant which served surprisingly good food. Although quite basic with part of the premises selling Indian groceries and appearing to cater to a small Indian population, we found out that the restaurant catered to ex-pats from Pakistan who come to Japan to buy used cars to export to their home country. I'd always wondered what happened to all the used cars in Japan when they become subject to an expensive inspection fee. Apparently, there is a huge overseas market for used Japanese vehicles.

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After lunch, we returned to the bike path and continued to Takasaki. We encountered virtually no other cyclists and very few pedestrians during these first two days of our tour on the bike path, most likely due to the weather and the time of day when most people are at work or in school. Still it was amazing to be able to cycle all the way out of Tokyo on such a safe, dedicated route. In Takasaki, we checked in to our first Toyoko Inn near the station. This Toyoko Inn had two side by side identical towers, one non-smoking and the other smoking, which we had never encountered before.

Day 3, Wednesday, 29 September: Takasaki to Ueda City, 88 km
We started riding out of Takasaki in glorious sunshine and quickly removed our arm and leg warmers as the morning warmed up. After leaving downtown Takasaki, the ride along the bike path to Annaka City was highlighted by the flower blooms and the views of the mountains to come.

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We missed a turn somewhere around Annaka City and wound our way through little towns to a roadside highway stop on route 18 where we had lunch. We figured we would need to fuel up before the climb. Not knowing what to expect, we soon discovered that although the way up consisted mostly of two lanes, there was no shoulder whatsoever and that buses and trucks would oftentimes pass perilously close. After two days of easy riding along a quiet bike path, it would take a while for us to get used to riding along a busy highway filled with trucks and buses. After many switchbacks, we finally peaked in Karuizawa town where we decided to push on to Ueda City. Going down the other side was a rush after the climb, especially the quiet roads suggested by the "Coast to Coast" route. Finally, we rolled into Ueda City at dusk and were happy to see the large, brightly lit Toyoko Inn logo atop the hotel as we made our way to the station.

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Day 4, Thursday, 30 September, Ueda City: Rest Day

Day 5, Friday, 1 October: Ueda City to Yudanaka, 75 km