My second goal for the summer was to ride my bike to Kyōto.
- Calorie Mate Jelly (4)
- 2L of Aquarius
- 2L of Pocari Sweat
- 2L of water
- 2 sweat towels
- small bath towel
- 2 t-shirts
- 2 polo shirts
- 2 pairs of shorts (soccer & casual)
- 3 pairs of socks
- 3 pairs of underwear
I wanted to take the Route 1 to Kyōto, but I was strongly advised against it by several friends. They said the roads would be too busy and dangerous, and there would be too many big hills. I asked about Route 421, the shortest route in terms of distance. My friends advised against it saying too many mountains, hills, wilderness, narrow roads, and no stores.
A Japanese friend that often goes to Kyōto advised me to go north to Route 21 in Gifu, and from there head west towards Shiga and Lake Biwa. Once near Lake Biwa, get onto Route 8 and head south, parallel to the lake, and keep following this route until arriving in Kyōto. This friend told me that this route would be longer, but much safer and easier to do on bike. He also said the scenery would be great. The distance of Route 1 directly to Kyoto would be 120 km; approx. 8 hours at my regular pace non-stop. The route we took, as advised by my friend, appeared to be at least double this distance.
- Kanie, Aichi (start)
- Kuwana, Mie
- Ōgaki, Gifu
- Maibara, Shiga
- Ōtsu, Shiga
- Kyōto (finish)
My Canadian friend Darren Leanage came and stayed over the night before. We left at sunrise the next morning. We woke up at 4:30 am, had a big breakfast with extra vegetables, since I assumed we wouldn’t be able to eat any fresh vegetables for a while. After breakfast we double-checked our route and supplies. We left at 6 am. The weather couldn’t have been better.
We got to Kuwana with relative ease. It took about two hours to get there. The road conditions were great and we had lots of room to bike comfortably on the side. From there we headed north to Ōgaki. We knew this was going to be a long haul, just on the map alone, it looked really far. Not only that, but cycling on Route 258 north to Ōgaki was extremely dangerous. Japan is known for narrow roads, but it seemed like suicide at some points on the 258. The scariest was having transports and huge trucks fly by at 80 km/h non-stop. There were moments when trucks would pass just a few cm away from us. The worst was when we had to cross bridges and overpasses. Getting hit by a truck, then falling off a bridge, 20 m down into rocks or shallow water was a scary thing to imagine.
We eventually arrived to Ōgaki in one piece, slightly in shock, adrenaline high, weakened and hungry. We didn’t want to go off course for food. Why not McDonald’s? It was noon. We had a few Big Mac Meals, Supersized with nuggets.
After the food began to rot in our stomachs, we stretched then got on our bikes. We wanted to rest a few more hours. We headed west towards our next checkpoint, Maibara. We started taking side streets thanks to Darren’s iPhone GPS system. The GPS saved us when we were out in the middle of nowhere. We eventually got to Maibara but passed through like a couple zombies trying to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The mountains in Gifu and Shiga were especially nice. As it got darker, we went deeper into the forest on Route 21. We couldn’t see much in the dark, other than the random transport lights. Our minds started playing tricks on us. My bike had a small light but navigating felt like Silent Hill or Blair Witch.
At around 8 pm we ate at an okonomiyaki restaurant that looked decent from the outside, but on the inside was a different story. The containers of sauces were left open on the tables all day. There were crumbs on the floor. Also, when we got our meal, the lady spilled the batter on our table. She wiped it with her bare hand. After biking under the sun all day, we didn’t care. Our sunburns desensitized our sanitary standards. After eating, we left, and continued to ride in the dark.
Eventually, we reached a random love hotel in the middle of nowhere and decided to check it out. We thought that this was the best possible choice for us in this situation. I’m sure not too many guys, especially gaijin, check into a love hotel together. We parked our 6-speed bikes into the private car parking space and headed up into our room. The room had a queen size bed, Jacuzzi, big screen LCD TV with PS3, free DVD rentals and a big couch. When confirming our stay details on the computer the price was 12,000 yen, rather than the advertised 8,500. I made a call to the front desk and they said check-ins after 10 pm get the 8,500 yen price. It was 8:30 pm and we had to make a choice.
- stay and pay the extra
- wait an hour and a half and get the discount price
- keep biking (in the wilderness) until the next hotel
Naturally, we chose 3. And to think, things were just about to get romantic… We kept biking and then a good few hours away from the love hotel, we found a business hotel. We arrived at around 10 pm and gained some major distance on the map. It was 5,000 yen for a small single room. We couldn’t care less at that point, so we decided to each take a room and crash for the night.
We woke up at 8 am, refreshed and ready to go. We went to a nearby 711 for a rice ball, protein jelly and an energy drink breakfast. At this point, we started to realize the route we took was three times longer than the one I wanted to take. The route was scenic, but extremely hard on our bodies and dangerous. I wanted to be back by Sat., and at the rate we were going it wouldn’t be possible. We started making backup plans. Since we had so much time on our hands, I think we got up to Plan J. But the modified Plan G was our best way home:
rent a pick-up truck and drive home with our bikes in the back
Unfortunately, all rent-a-cars were out of cars in the Kyoto area. Then we thought about getting one in Shiga, and biking from Kyōto the next day to pick it up. After going through a long discussion and explaining our situation to the Mazda rent-a-car people in Shiga, they gave us the option to have the car sent to Kyoto (from Shiga), and return it to the Mazda branch near Nagoya station. We were charged a bit extra for the different return point (9,000 yen extra), but this was our best option: Modified Plan G. Total charges: 14,500 yen plus gas. After signing all the papers and knowing we would have a truck near Kyōto station the next morning, we felt a sudden burst of energy and continued our journey.
When we reached the Ōtsu checkpoint, we knew we were close. We skipped lunch and kept biking towards Kyōto. Once in Kyōto there were many hills and the majority of the roads were like spider webs. Some sections of Kyōto are well organized on a grid system, such as the immediate north of Kyōto station, but other places are the complete opposite. It would have been impossible to navigate without GPS. But we were relieved to finally complete our task. Our first priorities were to eat and then go to a public bath to remove the stink and stiffness from our bodies. We ate at a small local restaurant and were surprised that the owner could speak English. Apparently the Kyōto English level is one of the highest in Japan, thanks to the tourism. The locals were also pretty comfortable around foreigners and were very friendly to those who could speak Japanese. We asked the cook if he knew of any public baths in the area and I guess we were in luck, because he pointed right next door.
We finished our meal and headed to the bath house. It was a small local place and slightly different from Nagoya. It was the type where you have to bring all of your own things. In Nagoya, soap, shampoo and etc. are usually included. When we entered into the actual bathing area, we noticed a lot of men covered in tattoos, meaning yakuza. I immediately told Darren not to do anything stupid and to be mindful of his Japanese manners. The men around us kept talking to each other while looking at us, but they never said anything to us. It was nice of the old lady who runs the place to tell them to be nice to us.
One yakuza had a beautiful tattoo of a sumo wrestler wrestling a giant koi fish. I also noticed the water at this place was a lot hotter than places in Nagoya, by at least 10 degrees. We cleaned up, changed and left to explore the city a bit. We never did any sightseeing, but Kyōto is beautiful. The women are also more natural; less makeup and fashion more basic than Nagoya. Kyōto is also full of tourists. I saw many different groups of French, Italian and English speaking tourists. The staff at all stores we went to was also very helpful. I asked a man at a restaurant if he knew any nearby hotels. He then proceeded to check and call a few numbers to check the availability of places in the area. He told me that they were all booked, but gave me the number and drew a map to tell me where they were, just in case something opened up. This didn’t bother us too much, because we were originally planning to stay in an internet café.
After searching for a while we realize that not only the hotels, but also all the internet cafes were full. Store clerks told us that there were several other internet cafes south of the Kyōto station, but going around the station was troublesome and also far from our Mazda pick-up point. Since we wanted to stay in the pick-up area we tried to take a nap in a local McDonald’s (yes, again, but we didn’t eat anything). It was really strange because this McDonald’s was crowded with people at midnight; people playing DS, a couple doing graphic design on laptop, a group of four housewives having coffee (WTF?!), students studying English, girls looking at wedding magazines, people sleeping and etc. I couldn’t sleep here though, because the AC was too cold.
We left and headed for a place to sleep outdoors. We found a really good place near a bank that was secluded by a short wall. We got some cardboard and made some bedding and used our backpacks for pillows. It was actually pretty comfortable. We quickly fell asleep for a few hours, but kept getting woken up by drunken people, people talking on their phone and cars (transports too) passing by. I should mention that this was on the Route 1, a very busy highway in Japan. Then, we realized why there were no homeless sleeping near this street: way too noisy and too many interruptions. Darren got bit by some insects, so he seemed pretty happy to leave this spot as well. We began looking for a new spot and then found an internet café that we previously missed. We decided to check it out and it was actually available! What a relief that was. Darren took the massage chair and I got the recliner; 1,500 yen for the night.
We woke up at 7:30 am. I had 2 Espressos and Darren had a coffee from the café to keep us awake during the upcoming drive home. We went to the Mazda rent-a-car on Route 1 to discover that this was NOT our pick-up point. The clerk made some calls and told us our truck was at the branch south of Kyōto station… How did we miss this? Most likely because we didn’t have a map of the pick-up point, and the only branch listed in the Mazda Kyōto pamphlet was on Route 1. Anyway, we rushed to the other branch, got the truck, loaded the bikes into the back, drove home via Route 1, took the truck back to the Nagoya Mazda rent-a-car branch and biked home.