200 KM Bike Ride to Kyoto

My second goal for this summer was to ride my bike to Kyoto.

Supplies

  • Calorie Mate Jelly (4)
  • 2L of Aquarius
  • 2L of Pocari Sweat
  • 2L of water
  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste
  • mouthwash
  • 2 sweat towels
  • small bath towel
  • washcloth
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 2 polo shirts
  • 2 pairs of shorts (soccer & casual)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • sunblock

Route

I wanted to take the Route 1 to Kyoto, 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 there are too many mountains, hills, wild animals, narrow roads, and few convenience stores along the way.

A Japanese friend who often goes to Kyoto advised me:

    1. Go north and take Route 21 in Gifu.
    2. From there, head west towards Shiga and Lake Biwa.
    3. Once near Lake Biwa, take Route 8 and head south along the lake.
    4. Follow this route to Kyoto.

He told me this way would be longer but much safer and easier to do on bike. He also said the scenery would be great. Taking Route 1 directly to Kyoto would be 120 km. The route my friend suggested was double.

Checkpoints

      • Kanie, Aichi (start)
      • Kuwana, Mie
      • Ogaki, Gifu
      • Maibara, Shiga
      • Otsu, Shiga
      • Kyoto (finish)

Story

My Canadian friend, Darren, came over and stayed the night before. We left at sunrise the next morning. We woke up at 4:30 AM. We had a big breakfast with extra vegetables. I assumed we wouldn’t be able to eat any fresh vegetables for a while. After breakfast, we checked our route map and supplies. We left at 6 AM. The weather was perfect.

We got to Kuwana easily. It took two hours to get there. The road conditions were great, and we had room to ride comfortably on the side. From there, we headed north to Ogaki. We knew this was going to be harder. This line, traced on our map, was much longer than Route 1’s line.

Cycling on Route 258 north to Ogaki was 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. There were moments when trucks would pass just a few cm away from us. The worst was crossing bridges and overpasses. Getting hit by a truck, then falling 20 m down into rocks or shallow water from a bridge was scary to imagine.

We made it to Ogaki. I think we were in shock or experiencing an adrenaline high. As we calmed down, we realized we were hungry. We didn’t want to go off course for food. We saw a McDonald’s. Why not? It was noon. We each had a Big Mac Meal with Supersized fries and chicken McNuggets.

As the food began to rot in our stomachs, we stretched to get ready.  We got back on our bikes and headed west towards our next checkpoint, Maibara. We started taking side streets. Some of the roads didn’t match our map app and Darren’s iPhone 3G. We were out in the middle of nowhere, but the iPhone’s GPS got us back on track.

We reached Maibara. Tired from the bike ride and weathered from the sun and wind, we passed through looking like zombies. The mountains in Gifu and Shiga were beautiful.

It got darker. We were deep into the forest, possibly on Route 21. We couldn’t see much other than transport lights zipping by us. When there were none, it was so quiet, dark, and scary. We had no idea where we were. Our minds started playing tricks on us. My bike had a small light that allowed us to see up to a few bikes’ length in front of us. It felt like navigating in the early Silent Hill games.

We found some civilization and later an okonomiyaki restaurant. It was after 8 PM. The restaurant looked decent from the outside. On the inside was a different story. The containers of sauces on the table were left open, probably all day. There were crumbs and pieces of food on the floor. When the waitress brought us the batter to make the okonomiyaki, she spilled it all over the table. She wiped it with her bare hand back into the bowl. She came back about five minutes later. I hoped it was new batter. We didn’t care anymore. We ate silently then left.

We continued riding into the darkness. The sides of our bodies which were facing south all day were burned. Our legs were swollen and sore. Our private areas were chaffed and blistered. Sanitation standards didn’t matter anymore. I remember thinking to myself, “Maybe we shouldn’t have tried this with the cheapest bikes from the home center.” We used the bikes that old women ride to go to the grocery store. We were using them to ride halfway across the country.

Hours later, we were ready to collapse. We found a love hotel in the middle of nowhere. We parked our bikes side-by-side with the cars. Some people feel embarrassed running into others at a love hotel. It was the last thing on my mind. A couple in a car watched us get off our bikes and limp to the entrance. They had no idea what we had been through. We checked in then found out our stay would cost 12,000 yen. It was advertised as 8,500 yen outside. I called the front desk. The staff said check-ins after 10 PM pay 8,500 yen. It was 9 PM. We had to decide:

  1. stay and pay the extra
  2. wait an hour and a half to get the discounted price
  3. ride our bikes to the next hotel

I have no idea why we chose the third. We rode for a few hours. It was dark and silent. We reached a business hotel at 10 PM. It was 5,000 yen for a small single room. We got separate rooms. I don’t know about Darren, but I took my shoes off, laid down on the bed, and passed out. I didn’t even pull the sheets down.

I woke up at 8 AM. I knocked on Darren’s door, and within a few minutes we were ready to go. We went to a nearby 711. I got a rice ball, protein jelly, and an energy drink. While eating breakfast, we started to take about the rest of our trip. We realized the route we took was three times longer than the other. We wouldn’t be back within a few days. We would probably die along the way.

We decided to finish riding our bikes to Kyoto, but for the way back, we would rent a pick-up truck and drive home with our bikes in the back. Suddenly we had a bit more energy. Having a better plan can really boost morale.

Every rent-a-car agency was out of trucks in the Kyoto area. It felt like the world had rejected us. Maybe it was because one side of my body was burned red. The staff made a lot of calls for us. They said could have a truck for us from Shiga by tomorrow morning, but it would cost us extra. We arranged to pick up the truck in downtown Kyoto, not the branch where we were now. It would also cost extra because we wouldn’t be returning the truck to the original rental agency. We were going to leave it at their Nagoya Station branch.

When we reached the Otsu checkpoint, we knew we were close. We skipped lunch and kept biking towards Kyoto. Once in Kyoto there were many hills and the majority of the roads were like spider webs. Some sections of Kyoto are well organized on a grid system, such as the north of Kyoto station. The other parts of the map are quite the complete opposite. It would have been impossible to navigate without GPS.

We were hungry and wanted to have a soak in a bath to relieve our stiffness and soreness. We ate at a small local restaurant. We were surprised the owner could speak English. I read somewhere that the Kyoto English level is one of the highest in Japan thanks to the tourism. The locals also seem comfortable around foreigners and were extra friendly to those who could speak Japanese. We asked the cook if he knew of any public baths in the area. He pointed next door.

We finished our meal and headed to the bath house. It was small and the type where you have to bring all of your own things. Soap, shampoo, and a towel are usually provided at bigger places. We entered into bathing area. We noticed a lot of men covered in tattoos. It’s highly likely they were 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. They never said anything to us. At one point, the old lady who ran the place came into the bathing area and told them to be nice to us and help out if we had trouble. We just said thank you and kept quiet. One man had a beautiful tattoo of a sumo wrestler wrestling a giant koi. The water here was much hotter than other places I had been to. We cleaned up, changed, and left to explore the city.

Kyoto is full of tourists. I saw different groups of French, Italian, and English speaking tourists. The staff at all stores were very helpful. I asked a man at a restaurant if he knew any nearby hotels. He started calling and checking the availability for us. I told him he didn’t have to do that. We just wanted some directions. He kept calling. He told me everywhere in the area was booked. He drew a map by hand and wrote the phone numbers of different hotels on the paper. He said there may be a cancelation, so call again later to see if anything would open up.

We gave up on hotels. We started trying internet cafés, but they were all full, too. We wanted to stay in the area of our rent-a-car pick up point, so we didn’t want to go far. We went to local McDonald’s to rest. It was after midnight. We had spent six hours trying to find a place to sleep. McDonald’s was crowded. People were playing DS, a couple was doing graphic design on a laptop, a group of four housewives were having coffee and laughing out loud, students were studying, young women were looking at wedding magazines, and some people were sleeping as they charged their electronic devices in the outlets. I couldn’t sleep here. The AC was too cold.

We left and headed for a place to sleep outdoors. We found a good place near a bank that had a wall for shelter. We found some cardboard near the outside of a store. We made bedding with it and used our backpacks for pillows. We fell asleep but kept getting woken up by drunken people, people talking on their phones, and cars screeching by. This wasn’t a small side street. It was next to the Route 1. We realized why there were no homeless sleeping near this street. Darren said he got bitten by some insects. I think he just wanted to leave. We got up and began looking for a new spot. We found an internet café! We had missed this one earlier. We checked it out and it was available. Darren slept in the massage chair. I slept in the recliner. It was 1,500 yen each for the night.

We woke up at 7:30 AM. It felt like I had smoked a carton of cigarettes. We went to the rent-a-car on Route 1. We learned this was not our pick-up point. The clerk made some calls and told us our truck was at the branch south of Kyoto station. We rushed to the other branch, got the truck, loaded the bikes into the back, drove home via Route 1, took the truck to the Nagoya rent-a-car branch, and said goodbye to Darren. We still had to ride our bikes home.

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