So there it is, done and dusted. I have cycled the length of Japan during COVID-19. It took 5 weeks, a lot of blood and sweat, but no tears.
There were simply too many glorious moments, beautiful views, and outstanding meals to do justice in this short article. So instead, I will share with you my purpose for this trip, top picks, thoughts on the future, and what you can do to enjoy Japan.
The bicycle trip started from wanting to rail against the mainstream narrative of “stay home, stay safe” as the coronavirus crisis arrived in Japan. Neither option was particularly appealing to me.
So on April 25, 2020 I flew to Fukuoka in Kyushu, with my bicycle, and circled the island. From there, I meandered back to Tokyo, taking in famous historical spots and unknown towns along the way.
As it gradually became clear that COVID-19 was here to stay, my purpose changed from railing against authority into one of spreading my belief and assurance to everyone I met that everything was going to be alright. A simple but solid enough message for peace of mind in these times of relentless fear mongering.
I reached my home in Tokyo after 3.5 weeks of cycling, managing between 80~120 kms per day, depending on weather, goals and mood.
That was when the Black Lives Matter movement struck. Admittedly ever the contrarian, I took that piece of news as a signal that now was the time to “stay home and stay safe“. However, 3 weeks of holing up at home in Tokyo was far from inspiring. Soon it was time to finish off my Covidian adventure by cycling from Tokyo up to Hokkaido.
Traveling North the Old Way
The purpose for this second part of my journey was more constructive and concrete. I wanted to experiment: Is it possible to live on the road and make a living?
Now, I am not so attached to creature comforts, so the physical challenges were not a huge challenge to me. I actually feel most alive and alert when I don’t even know where I’m going to sleep that night.
To earn money, I provide corporate training in the form of lessons on Western culture to Japanese companies. Prior to COVID-19, I would conduct lessons in-person. But now that my clients have all shifted to teleworking, my lessons are also done over the Internet. They can be delivered from the roadside, from cafes and restaurants along the way.
Essentially, the northern leg of the trip was spent living like a traveler from the old ages.
Although this leg took only 2 weeks, it was more challenging than the southern part because I avoided hotels and AirBnBs, except in Hokkaido when it was too cold. Instead, I slept at bus stops, coin laundries and roadside stations (Michino Eki) dotted along major roads.
For hygiene, I would visit onsen springs during the day to clean, rest and refresh. In that sense, I began ignoring all conventions around what a “normal day” consists of, often cycling deep into the night and resting during the day.
The best feature of this lifestyle is the constant adventure. No mask, no helmet, no shirt, no lights! It was a kind of meditative experience.
There were also discoveries and realizations that came to me as time and the scenery of the world around me melted away into the distance.
Five Top Picks from Kyushu to Hokkaido
Five and a half weeks of bicycling gave me an opportunity to see a wide swath of Japan – all on a bicycle. There were many great spots, but here are my top cycling recommendations for those of a mind to explore Japan by cycling:
No. 5: Northeastern Akita Prefecture, Honshu
This area has so many onsens. Of course, there are expensive resort onsens. But there are also secret, unmanned, rare onsens. The latter ones are usually empty because they are quite hard to reach.
One such place is Hachikuro onsen, a fantastic little iron-based hot spring. You just put a coin or two in the donation box and go in for a dip. Lovely.
This part of Akita is really, really mountainous. But if you’ve got the heart to cycle it, and don’t care about wild bears, the smooth downhills are well worth it.
No. 4 Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu
Kumamoto has a real balance to it. The onsen water quality was great in Hitoyoshi. The climate is amiable most of the time, although avoiding this area during typhoons and heavy rains, which just recently have caused heavy damage, is highly recommended.
The locale has interesting food and a distinct culture. It is just a wholesome place and accessible to bicycles.
No. 3 Saga Prefecture, Kyushu
Another place in Kyushu that stood out is Saga Prefecture. A primary reason was the unforgettable food and price.
At this BBQ, for ￥2700 JPY (about $25 USD) I was served: one plate of premium Saga beef (properly red like Euro/American beef), one plate of chicken, one pork bowl, and a big bottle of Kirin beer. It was delicious. Happy days!
No. 2 Fukushima, Honshu
Perhaps only Chernobyl can rival Fukushima for its dereliction and forlornness. This is atypical tourism, but walking around the town of Namie, right on the “zone of no return”, I was struck by deep melancholy thinking about the town that once was.
It was a town of broken dreams. Life is not all about happiness, and occasionally it is just as well to immerse oneself in the misery, to drink it in, to appreciate it.
No. 1 Hokkaido
Bicycling through Hokkaido was very cold, even in June. It was also very windy.
But the food in Hokkaido is simply the best. Seafood caught in the colder waters of the Sea of Okhotsk is firmer and fattier, making for superior sushi. I must add a plug for my favorite sushi bar in the whole world.
Making Your Own Future: What Lies Next?
Now that I have conquered Japan by bicycle, what next? Will I continue cycling and teleworking like a Covidian gypsy?
I honestly don’t know. The post-Covid “new normal” is a huge opportunity to be geographically liberated. So while my experiment of bicycling from Kyushu to Hokkaido was successful, there are many alternative lifestyles possible. Any suggestions are welcome.
As for what you can do, it is your decision. If you’re so inclined to emulate this lifestyle, go for it. Talk to your employers, take a pay cut if necessary. Put your faith in the road and believe that the future is new and different.
This is the last in a four part series. Find the other parts of Bicycling Through Japan on JAPAN Forward, here.
Author: Julian Israel