Osaka – Kyoto

Two bikers standing in front of Osaka Castle

Part II of our Kyoto – Nara – Osaka saga was a leisurely day of riding from Osaka back to Kyoto. We’d agreed to meet in the lobby of the love hotel at 8, which gave me ample time after waking to soak in the tub and repack my kit. In fact, Fearless Leader Joe called not long after 7 and we agreed to meet at 7:30. Checking out turned out to be a simple matter of touching the screen on the machine mounted on the wall of the room and inserting the correct amount of money. We paid ¥4,390 each, using coupons that FLJ had found online.

While FLJ and Sanborn visit Osaka on a regular basis, I’d only been once, decades ago for wedding. So the first order of business was for Sanborn to lead us on a brief cycle tour of Osaka. The love hotel was quite close to Osakajo (Osaka Castle), so we started with that. And at the early hour of our visit, we were sharing the castle park only with busloads of Chinese tourists.

Two bikers in a cafe
Reviewing the day’s plan over coffee and scones

Photos taken, our next order of business was coffee and breakfast. We soon chanced across a Starbucks, where the counter workers were eager to hear details of our ride, how long we’d lived in Japan (and where), etc.

The next port of call was Dontonbori and the iconic Glico Man sign. By this point Osaka was waking up, and we needed to navigate our bikes through the crowds to get the photo.

Dontonbori and Glico Man
Dontonbori and Glico Man

After that, it was just a matter of finding our way to back to the river — the Yodogawa in this case. The cycling path is broad and straight, but every crossing is zealously guarded by a wicket designed to keep scooters off the path, and these required dismounting. (FLJ and Sanborn seem to have figured out how to navigate them by pushing their bikes through while still seated, but it looked like the kind of thing where I would be inviting a spill.) We rode under blue skies with mild temperatures (although with a bit of a headwind), stopping once for onigiri, until we reached the confluence with the Ujigawa.

Here, as we stopped to eat more onigiri and Snickers bars, we discovered an outdoor cycle fair in progress. As we snacked and drank water, a fellow Westerner emerged from the crowd and asked where we were riding. Gabriel turned out to be an artist who serves as designer for Muller, a local bike company. Last year he completed a 30,000km, two-year-nine-month ride around Japan. He’s a very amiable young Argentinian, and he and Fearless Leader Joe exchanged mail addresses before we continued our way up the Uji river.

Outdoor cycle fair at the confluence
Outdoor cycle fair at the confluence

We followed up the bike path up Ujigawa as far as the Kangetsukyo bridge while Fearless Leader Joe spoke of his plans to launch a Kinki Urban Cycling Network to promote the construction and maintenance of cycling courses in the region. We crossed the river and then continued west through city traffic until we reached the Kamogawa. Turning north, we began retracing our route of the previous day as we headed back into Kyoto.

We made a pitstop at a convenience store along the way, and this time it was my turn to befriend a local as a Japanese man from Shiga struck up a conversation. “Where are you going?” and “Where have you come from today?” are universal icebreakers among cyclists.

As we continued along the cycling path, it became more and more crowded the closer we got to the heart of Kyoto. With the beautiful weekend weather it seems the entire country had turned out to enjoy the fall colours. Joe, in the lead again, has no bell on his bicycle and so he would shout back a request for me to ring as we approached pedestrians who were not keeping an eye on where they were going.

We left Sanborn where we’d met him the previous day, at Demachiyanagi, and continued back through the city to home. After a shower and change of clothes, we set out on foot to enjoy a dinner of okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki for dinner
Okonomiyaki for dinner

Strava put our day’s effort at 70.4km over a relaxed 6 hours 47 minutes. It was certainly a leisurely pace following the strenuous climb of the day before. The combined effort of the two days came to just 160km. And in response to Sanborn’s “Never again!” remark atop the Kuragari Pass, FLJ has already proposed another route which takes us around the southern end of the mountain.

Osaka Kyoto route
Osaka Kyoto route

Don’t miss Part I, Kyoto – Nara – Osaka.

Kyoto – Nara – Osaka

Three bikers stand at sign marking Kuragari Pass

Fearless Leader Joe is always on the lookout for new adventures, and so he suggested we use our three-day weekend in November for a triangle ride starting in Kyoto and hitting Nara and Osaka before returning to Kyoto. He and Sanborn have frequently ridden two of the legs of the triangle: Kyoto-Nara and Kyoto-Osaka. But the Nara-Osaka leg was a new challenge, and with its climb up Mt. Ikoma to Kuragari Pass, it was more of a challenge than we’d hoped for.

Backpack and helmet, bicycle in a delivery bag
Packed for the trip

I’ve traveled to Kyoto with a bicycle via the shinkansen before, when the same Three Gaijin-teers circumnavigated Lake Biwa. There’s very little luggage space on the bullet trains and so it’s a matter of securing the last seat in the car and stuffing the bike behind the seat. And of course it means carrying the bike to and from the train station (unless I’m prepared to cycle to the train station and disassemble the bike on the spot). All things considered, for this trip I decided to have Kuroko delivered ahead to FLJ’s house.

That proved to be a very wise choice, because I’d put off everything until after the last minute on this trip. When I went to book the shinkansen, I learned to my horror that all seats were full. Not just for the first train of the morning, which I’d planned to catch, but up through about 9:30. With the three-day weekend and the peak of the autumn foliage, Kyoto was an extremely popular destination. I was able to secure tickets for non-reserved seats on line, but of course that meant showing up on the day and taking my chances.

And what a chance I took! I arrived at Tokyo Station about 5:15 on Friday and rushed to the ticket area, where I bided my time until the ticketing opened at 5:30. By the time I’d picked up my ticket and found my way to the train platform, the conductor advised me that the open seat cars on the first train were already full, and he directed me to the next train on a different platform. I rushed to the further platform and ran to the cars with open seating and found — I would have to stand. Well, a little standing won’t kill me, and I soon realized I didn’t have to remain squeezed in next to the toilet. I could stand in the aisle between seats in the middle of the car, which allowed me to put my bag and helmet up on the luggage shelf and be reasonably comfortable.

Note to self: Get the smartphone app which allows you to board the train without waiting in the line for tickets.

Selfie of three bikers in helmets and sunglasses
The Three Gaijin-teers

Sad to say, I remained standing for the entire 2-hour-8-minute trip to Kyoto. On my arrival I followed Joe’s directions to the subway, where I found myself standing again on a packed train. Mercifully, it’s only 15 minutes from there to FLJ’s home station, where FLJ himself was waiting for me in a car. In almost less time than it takes to tell, I was removing Kuroko from her bag and assembling her while having a second breakfast of coffee and delicious cake baked by FLJ’s sister. With another five minutes spent changing clothes and filling water bottles, we were on our way.

I followed FLJ into the heart of Kyoto and we soon met up with Sanborn on the banks of the Kamogawa River. We continued south on the river path, which was quite bumpy in spots, until it blended into the Katsuragawa, finally bringing us to the confluence with the Yodogawa. Here we turned east and followed the Kizugawa until we came to the famous Koutsuya bridge, Japan’s longest wooden bridge at 356m, where we stopped for some refreshments.

The Kizugawa took us within 10km of Nara. Unfortunately we had to leave the path at this point and continue in traffic as we started a gentle but long climb into the city. We turned navigation duty over to Sanborn at this point and he led us directly to Nara Park, home of the famous bowing deer, and thence to the city center.

Bikes parked in front of no parking sign
No bicycle parking

After a minute of discussion, we chained our bicycles to a no bicycle parking sign and took a seat in a nearby Italian restaurant. The salad and pizza were quickly served and just as quickly consumed, and provided some much-needed energy. When we emerged from the restaurant, the sun was hidden behind clouds and the temperature had dropped noticeably. Our first couple of kilometers were a bit chilly until we had worked up some energy.

As we left Nara behind we picked up Rte. 308, which would lead us up to Kuragari Pass near Mt. Ikoma. I had plotted this portion of the ride on the Garmin and so I took over navigational duties. Within 8km of leaving Nara we came to the first foothill, which on the Google Maps profile looked like a slow, gradual climb. Reality turned out to have a few surprises in store for us, though. The little foothill route had gradients exceeding 15% in places, and I soon found myself pushing Kuroko upwards as my cleats scraped on the pavement. FLJ and Sanborn stuck it out a bit better, but there were portions where they also succumbed and had to dismount and push.

At the top of the foothill
At the top of the foothill

After a short breather we began a sharp descent which brought us to a small town where — despite the assistance of the Garmin — we had a couple of moments of difficulty determining our route. When we found it, we were a bit surprised. Our prefectural route was a narrow, winding and poorly maintained bit of pavement. We also knew at this point we were in for the long haul: more than 4km of climbing at an average gradient of 9%. And again, that average left leeway for portions exceeding 15%.

I was again the first to dismount and begin pushing. I knew from the feeling in my thighs that I might be able to power up a slope or two, but I would pay for it in the long run. Sanborn held out longer by zig-zagging across the steepest parts of the climb, but he was not making a better pace overall than I was by walking.

The view back down the mountain
The view back down the mountain

Out in the lead (where he belongs) was Fearless Leader Joe on his new carbon fibre bike, grunting along in his lowest gear and taking frequent breaks. At times he was only advancing 50-100m between breaks, where he would wait until we caught up with him. But in the end he cycled the entire climb! (I’ll just briefly note that as he waited for us to catch up on each break, and as I set out first from the final break point before the goal, that I was the first one to the top.)

Three bikers stand at sign marking Kuragari Pass
Kuragari Pass between Nara and Osaka

There was a café in the pass with a number of bicycles parked outside, but we only lingered a few minutes. We were looking forward to a swift descent and then onwards into Osaka where dinner and bed awaited. We set out downhill and soon found our optimism was unwarranted: the descent was far steeper than the climb, the pavement was pockmarked with anti-skid divots, and the switchbacks were treacherous. We descended with our brake levers pulled right back to the handlebars. FLJ soon started skidding and ended up walking his bike down the mountainside (he, the one who had ridden the entire way up)!

Roadside shrine on the Mt. Ikoma descent
Roadside shrine on the Mt. Ikoma descent

The descent was peppered by little shrines at nearly every switchback. It was unfortunate we were racing sundown at this point and couldn’t spend much time enjoying the scenery (although we did have a bit of time as we waited for Joe to catch up to us at his walking pace). We came out onto comparatively flat streets and took stock. Sanborn noted that he’d worn his new brake pads halfway through! (FLJ and I have discs and so were better off in this regard.)

The sun was fading quickly now and we turned on our lights and joined the traffic entering Osaka. FLJ and Sanborn had a good idea where we were going and that was good because when we were still about 8km from our destination, the Garmin suddenly began insisting we turn to the north. The two Kinki natives were sure we wanted to continue due west to the Osaka Castle, and so I followed their advice and we disregarded the Garmin for the rest of the evening.

Cheap accommodation: the love hotel
Cheap accommodation: the love hotel

By the time we rounded the castle and turned towards the hotel, the sun was well and truly gone. Sanborn again took the lead and guided us unerringly to the goal: a love hotel. All the regular hotels had been booked for the three-day weekend, and we’d hit on this as an alternative. I let the others negotiate with the hotel staff as I guarded the bikes (yes, leaving the dirty work to them). It took some talking and convincing, but we eventually secured three rooms for the night. We agreed to meet in 15 minutes for dinner, and that gave me enough time to shower and change into civilian undershorts and shoes.

Sanborn was first out the gate and had located a nearby Mexican restaurant and called to get a table for us. We quickly flagged a taxi and were off. I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurant as the tacos were much closer than I had expected to the street food I’d had in Guadalajara. We ate mountains of food and drank schooners of beer — in fact, we drank up every last Tecate in the place. (They apparently only had 10 or so bottles when we arrived.)

Full up from dinner, and getting chilled as the night drew on, we caught a cab back to the love hotel. We were all so tired that we didn’t even think to check on the bikes, which we’d left chained to a traffic sign around the corner from the hotel entrance. I poured a nice hot bath and soaked my muscle aches away, and then was asleep the moment I touched the pillow.

A hot bath and a warm bed
A hot bath and a warm bed

According to Strava, we’d covered 89.2km from Joe’s house to the love hotel in a total elapsed time of 7 hours 56 minutes. Garmin gave a slightly shorter distance and a much shorter riding time (although the total elapsed time was identical). I believe it doesn’t track the time I spent pushing the bike uphill.

Kyoto Nara Osaka route
Kyoto Nara Osaka route

Part II

Part II covers our morning tour of Osaka on Saturday and the triumphal (but very easygoing) return to Kyoto.

Suboptimal conditions

Bicycle in front of the moat at Budokan

When I looked at the clock this morning, it was much later than I expected. I got up and checked for messages and there was the Halfakid, reminding me that I was supposed to meet him within 10 minutes. I told him I’d need another hour or more, and started getting ready for the ride.

The bike is ready
The bike is ready — but I’d forgotten the tire pump

As it turned out, I rolled into his apartment lot two hours late. The Halfakid answered the intercom after a wait of 30 seconds or so, and his voice was bleary. I waited patiently for some minutes, and when he appeared he confirmed he’d fallen asleep waiting for me.

And so off we set. I had a headache from last night’s party, and the Halfakid was complaining that his legs were sore from yesterday’s karate practice. There’s only one thing to do when the riders aren’t in the best condition: obey Rule #5!

Gingko trees at Meiji Jingu
Ginkgo trees at Meiji Jingu

Our first stop was at Meiji Jingu. We were a bit early to see the ginkgo trees in their brightest yellow, and we hadn’t counted on the crowds … we dismounted and walked even before we reached the park entrance. Fortunately, once we reached the end of the main boulevard, the crowds thinned out a bit.

Tokyo Tower from Shiba Koen
Tokyo Tower from Shiba Koen

From there it’s a lot of up and down through Akasaka Mitsuke and Nagatacho en route to the National Diet Building and various ministries. Ol’ Paint threw the chain when the Halfakid tried to shift to the smallest chainring, and he walked the bike up one of the steeper inclines as a result. Once past the ministries, we turned towards Azabu Juban and then turned again to Shiba Koen, where we stopped for water. I checked the time and it was just past noon, and so I realized we were more than an hour behind schedule as we planned to lunch at Tokyo Big Sight.

After a short break, we turned back towards Hibiya and thence the Imperial Palace. We exited the palace grounds and headed east past the Bank of Japan on our way to Mitsukoshimae. From there the route takes us over Nihonbashi and south towards Tsukiji and then Toyosu. We arrived at Tokyo Big Sight around 1:30 and immediately tucked into donburi.

Tokyo Skytree and the Sakura Bridge
Tokyo Skytree and the Sakura Bridge

After lunch we headed back north, paralleling the Arakawa. We finally emerged at Sakura Bridge and paused for a photo of Tokyo Skytree. When I sent the picture to Nana she messaged that there was rain in the forecast, and indeed the sky had turned darker.

Our next turn took us west, and we passed the Asakusa temple without pausing to look. There’s a long, straight ride in traffic until we reach a steep — but thankfully short — climb bringing us up to Ueno Park. This is followed by more “up-down” to reach Tokyo University, and the Halfakid was groaning behind me as we pressed on up the hill.

The sky continued to darken, so at a stoplight I took off my shades. A few stops later, I turned on my lights for good measure. It looked like we might get caught out in the rain, and I was beginning to believe I’d jinxed the trip by washing my bike first.

The course takes a long downhill at this point to Tokyo Dome, and then it’s level and south until we reach Budokan. It was getting quite dark by this point, and I kept trying to remove my sunglasses — having forgotten I’d already removed them! It was quite a bit darker and more grim than it seems in the picture, and we felt a growing certainty we’d be caught in the rain.

Bicycle in front of the moat at Budokan
Kuroko at Chidorigafuchi

In the end, though, we managed to beat the weather. We rode into a gloomy Shinjuku at just past 4 o’clock, passed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings and cruised down the final downhill towards home. Final for me at any rate: the Halfakid had another 8km to go from there. He knew the way, so we said our goodbyes in Nishi Shinjuku and I wheeled home, glad to be out of the elements before the first raindrops fell.

Tokyo Landmarks route
Tokyo Landmarks route

Bike Beautification Project

Downtube and crankset after washing

Kuroko has needed a bath since our return from Okutama in the rain, and this morning I finally had everything ready and enough free time to get the job done.

A good work stand is not necessary to wash a bike, even in a high-rise condo, but it helps. It holds the bike in place, allows me to get around all sides without having to move the bike, and it allows me to spin the wheels. It will also come in handy when I disassemble the bike for shipping, as I’ll be doing in a couple of days.

Bike stand parts
Bike stand parts — some assembly required

Folded stand and Kuroko
Folded stand and Kuroko

Kuroko in the assembled stand
Kuroko in the assembled stand

It’s not perfect: the cockpit bag is in the way of the clamp. Fortunately there’s enough play that I can get the bag out of the way with just a little velcroing, as that thing is a real demon to get on the bike.

Kuroko was certainly due for a bath.

Chain stays spattered with dirt and grease
Chain stays spattered with dirt and grease

Dirty bike
Dirty bike

Fujisan was supervising the work from a safe distance.

Fujisan on a clear day
Fujisan on a clear day

(I suppose you could argue that I should be out riding on a day like this and and washing the bike on a rainy day, rather than the other way ’round …)

For the washing up I just used a clean cloth with dish soap and hot water. A brush would have been helpful for some of the tight spots.

Bike in stand covered in soapy water
Rub-a-dub-dub

Including setting up the stand, it took nearly an hour. But the result is worth the trouble.

Downtube and crankset after washing
Downtube and crankset after washing

Rear derailleur is clean
Rear derailleur is clean

Once it’s dried out a little, the final step will be to clean and oil the chain. I picked up a kit for doing this when I was looking at bikes with the Halfakid on Thursday.

Pro chain cleaner
Actually, I’ve seen pro mechanics just use soapy sponges and brushes

I also discovered a cable guide on the floor of the balcony after I was finished. It’s not immediately apparent where it’s come from. I’ll have a closer look when I’m maintaining the chain.

One out of three ain’t bad

The next big adventure will be Kyoto-Nara-Osaka-Kyoto, a two-day trip at the end of this month together with L2P veterans Fearless Leader Joe and Sanborn. My plan is to ship the bike out and follow on by shinkansen. The lads had discussed (and more recently apparently affirmed) staying in tents for the night, but in my last discussion with FLJ he encouraged me to find a cheap hotel nearby in which to stay. Good — from my point of view, less to pack and carry (and I can show up in the morning freshly showered and full of kaiseki).

I’ll be leaving navigational duties to Kyoto residents Joe and Sanborn, so that leaves me with three basic tasks:

  1. Order the bike delivery
  2. Order the shinkansen tickets
  3. Book the hotel

My days have been quite full recently, including the weekends, and — together with a dash of procrastination — I’m just getting around to the list tonight. Tackling things in order, first up is ordering the bike delivery. I’d done this for Tour de Tohoku, a scheduled event, and it was fairly easy to book. The service wasn’t the greatest — the bike was jounced around a bit in transit — but basically everything was delivered on or ahead of schedule and in one piece. This time around, with no scheduled event, it was up to me to create a user account (by the end of which process I had six tabs open to the deliverer’s various websites), enter the dates and addresses, and of course whip out the credit card in the end. (That part was the same, but it was a tad cheaper this time.)

And I’m done with that bit. I’ve got the confirmation, which I’ve forwarded on to FLJ (since he’ll be hosting Kuroko between the delivery and my arrival, and the two of us for an additional day once the ride is over). Now, who knows when I’ll get around to Step Nos. 2 & 3? At least I have an excuse on Step No. 3 as I’m waiting for FLJ to confirm the location, and he and Sanborn have just come back from a reprise of Lake Biwa.

Takaosanguchi

Selfie of bikers in front of Takaosan cable car entrance

The Halfakid and I set out early Sunday for a new destination: Otarumi Pass in western Tokyo. I’d mapped it out at 113km round trip, based on some other rides I’d found on line. I was glad I’d found the routes, because there’s a second bike path covering the whole distance from where we leave Tamagawa, around Fuchu, as far as Hachioji. I’d also plotted a different route from home down to the Tamagawa, bypassing Futako and shaving off 5km.

We had a deadline for the trip — when I left in the morning, Nana reminded me we had a dinner planned in the evening. “You’ll be back at 3, right?” Well, right … hmmm.

The Halfakid was ready to go in a couple of minutes after I wheeled into his apartment parking, and we set off in heavy traffic towards the river. It was a bit cool when we started out, at 13C, but I was already sweating by this time and shed my windbreaker. We stopped in a park just before joining the Tamagawa cycling course and filled our water bottles.

Progress on the course was smooth, and I had the Halfakid set the pace until it was time to cross the river and pick up the course on the opposite side. I missed a turning almost as soon as we’d joined the course, and we muddled along suburban streets until we came to a Lawson near a train station. This gave us an opportunity to stop for a snack, as Nana hadn’t provided any onigiri this time.

Garmin route to Takaosan
Takaosanguchi route

After our short break, we navigated back to the path and were on our way again. Smooth riding … until Ol’ Paint started emitting squeaks, and we had a repeat of the mechanical we’d experienced on the Okutama ride.

This time, simply releasing and reseating the wheel didn’t do the job. After a couple of attempts, the wheel locked up solid. We got it turning again — I can’t say “spinning” — and it was making a noise I’ve never heard a bicycle make before (and there are a lot of cheap bikes here that never get maintenance and are very noisy).

The Halfakid got onto Google and located a bike shop about 1km from where we were. He checked the website and it said it opened at 10 (it was then 9:55) and they did repairs. So we walked our bikes, with the Halfakid at times lifting the rear wheel off the ground to make progress.

We arrived at the shop when the worker was still setting out bicycles on display on the pavement out front. We described the problem to him and he agreed to have a look. He had the wheel off in seconds and quickly confirmed what we had suspected: a bearing problem. He said he’d be able to get us back on the road, but warned that the hub was probably worn and the bearing cups might be scratched. Sooner or later, he said, we’d have to replace the hub.

After that, work went pretty much according to the video. The guy kept up the chatter with the Halfakid as he worked, and it was obvious he was trying to sell him a new bicycle. Well, the Halfakid had already decided to buy a new bike, but this shop was rather out of the way for us. The mechanic said there aren’t many good shops in Shinjuku and mentioned that his colleague had a shop in Sugamo, but that’s not much more convenient for us.

In the end, the repair cost about $40 and took 40 minutes out of our day. The results were immediately apparent: not only had the squealing stopped, but the Halfakid was having an easier time of it than he’d ever had on Ol’ Paint. He’d been trailing me by up to 50m previously, and now he was breathing down my neck.

Crowds waiting for the cable car
Crowds waiting for the cable car

After that it was simply a matter of following the river course through its twists and turns (and dealing with the occasional child out on his pusher bike under mom’s watchful gaze) until it joined up with Rte. 20, and following that into Takao and finally Takaosanguchi (lit. Entrance to Mt. Takao). We got off here and pushed our bikes through thick crowds making their way to enjoy the autumn colors in order to get our photo at the cable car entrance. I’d already made some mental calculations at this point and realized we’d used up whatever reserve time we had in dealing with the mechanical, and we wouldn’t be able to make the top of Otarumi Pass and get back in time for dinner.

Garmin route showing distance remaining to Otarumi Toge
Remainder to Otarumi Toge

With that decision made, we started looking around for a restaurant to enjoy lunch. There are a number of soba restaurants in the area, but each one had a line of people waiting outside. There’s an Italian restaurant that I usually visit with Nana (who’s allergic to soba), but it’s right in the midst of the press of people, meaning we’d have to find someplace else to leave the bikes. In the end, we backtracked until we were just out of town and stopped at a convenience store with some picnic tables located in the shade.

Our return trip was downhill — although into the wind at times — and we made better time than on the way out. The Halfakid was breathing down my neck the entire time. When he gets a new bicycle I’ll be no match for him! He was even hot on my tail on the few climbs back out of the Tamagawa valley towards home.

In the end I arrived home at 3:20, giving me just enough time to gulp some water, have a shower and get dressed for our dinner date.

Okutama Revenge!

Participants at Okutama Station

This ride has always seemed a no-brainer, and I first started planning it four years ago. The Tama river has a nice cycling course for the last 53km to the mouth at Tokyo Bay (near Haneda airport). But why not trace it further, up to the source? Okutama, an artificial lake created by damming the Tama river, is a beautiful location regardless of the season, but especially so when showing off autumn leaf coloration.

We planned out the route last year, with three of us riding and Nana and her mother taking the train to meet us there for an overnight onsen stay. But our plans were interrupted by a late-season typhoon, and we ended up all going by train. We enjoyed an abbreviated visit, beautiful foliage, and a nice onsen stay. As we enjoyed the relaxation, our resolve was fixed: next time, Okutama Revenge!

In preparation this year, I replotted the course. There’s a straight route out from Shinjuku, but it’s crowded with traffic and there’s little space given for bike traffic. On the other hand, there’s no need to take countless back streets in an effort to avoid the traffic. I searched routes others had posted and found an acceptable compromise: Not overly trafficked, from what I could see, and a minimum of turns. Climbing all the way from Hamura, which is the end of the cycling course, but not too bad overall.

Okutama to home
Okutama to home

There was the usual kerfuffle with the arrangements, but it soon became clear: a hotel was booked and the principals were all available on workable dates. Tomo had a new bicycle which was much more suitable for the outing than the one she’d planned on using last year, and the Halfakid was ready with Ol’ Paint, which was surely up to the ride. Right?

We met at Futako as planned (Tomo was a few minutes late as she lost her way) and set off in high spirits. I made my usual fast descent into the Tamagawa valley and then waited for the others to join me before we crossed the Tamagawa to the path on the Kanagawa side. We rode on without event and crossed back into Tokyo to our first rest at a park not far from the cycling course.

Mechanical No. 1

We suffered our first mechanical at the first rest stop, and it was entirely self-inflicted. A couple of years ago I’d bought a tire pump for Ol’ Paint, and I got the wrong size: It was just too small to fit snugly in the frame. I kept the pump as I thought it might fit Tomo’s bike. Her previous bike wasn’t suited, but when she bought a new one recently, I thought this was the chance. So I brought the pump along, and at our first rest stop I decided to see how it went. Tomo was curious about how the valve worked (it’s her first bike with Presta valves) and we went over that. And then we fit the pump to the frame and it was perfect.

But as we pulled away from the rest stop, she let out a yelp. The tire we’d been toying with was flat! With her skinny tires, it only took a little air to make a big difference. We spent a few minutes playing with the universal adapter on the pump and finally got it right. In the end, it took just a couple of dozen strokes of the pump to refill her tire.

After that, it was smooth sailing to Hamura, which is my usual turnaround point on this route. We stopped, took a few pictures and ate the onigiri prepared fresh that morning by Nana.

Three riders with Tamagawa Brothers
Three riders with Tamagawa Brothers

From there it was into traffic as the cycling course was at an end. Our first stop was Aso Shrine, which sells good luck talismans for cyclists. Then back on the route and onwards (and upwards!). We were glad to see the traffic wasn’t bad compared to Tokyo proper, and the streets had a usable bit of shoulder for bikers. Meanwhile, Nana and her mother had already reached Okutama by train and were sharing photos of the scenery.

Okutama foliage
Okutama foliage

I had to take care not to just leave the others behind, but in the end the climbs were not quite as bad as I had anticipated. Some of the route that I had plotted did not include the available tunnels, which were (for the most part) accessible to cycling, and that cut down on the expected climbing. Meanwhile, the Halfakid reported that Tomo was not using the smaller chainring on her new bike. She’s still adjusting to the sophisticated gearing, and she spent the entire ride Sur La Plaque.

As a result of having overestimated the effort required, and Tomo and the Halfakid keeping up with the pace, we arrived in Okutama more than an hour before the time I had allotted. Our triumphant arrival was duly noted by … er, ourselves.

Participants at Okutama Station
Participants at Okutama Station

From there it was a scant few dozen meters to the hotel. The concierge directed us to a parking lot where we could chain our bikes, and I signed the registry on behalf of Nana (who was still out exploring the scenery with her mother). Within minutes of checking in, we were enjoying the luxuries of a Japanese bath to soothe our aching muscles.

Why are there stairs?

Tomo

(The first shortcoming of the hotel that we noted was that our room was on the second floor — and there was no elevator. Then the concierge informed us that the ladies’ bath was on B4 … )

Dinner was fantastic, and made up for whatever other shortcomings the hotel may have had (e.g., old and run down, staff that could probably inspire a roman à clef, lack of in-room facilities or indeed elevator).

Mechanical No. 2

Before we set out in the morning, the Halfakid asked me to have a look at his brakes, which had started dragging in the final legs of the previous day’s ride. I adjusted and loosened them, and gave the wheel a spin. “How’s that?” I asked. “A bit better,” he replied.

Three riders and their bikes
Setting out under cloudy skies

We set out under cloudy skies with the Halfakid in the lead, since we had several tunnels to pass through and he’d forgotten to charge up his taillight. He readily set the pace and we followed along to Kori, our first turning point.

After that the route turned downhill, and we soon noticed that the Halfakid’s bike was in serious trouble: Ol’ Paint was setting up a squealing that I could hear from 30m back. We pulled off the side of the road and loosened the brakes some more. That didn’t help. We checked that the tire wasn’t rubbing the frame. Finally it dawned on me that the bearings in the hub were going.

We didn’t have the tools, grease or parts to service a bearing in the field, so I did the only thing I could: I opened the quick release, slid the wheel out of the dropouts and then seated it again. Finally I tightened the quick release just enough to hold the wheel in, and no more. We gave it a couple of spins and it seemed to have improved.

Then came the rain

We’d no sooner got back on the bikes when it started to drizzle. “This isn’t so bad,” we thought, and continued on. Ol’ Paint seemed to be doing better, and at our next stop we discussed at which shop en route we could stop to have the bearing serviced, as well as how much the Halfakid would be willing to pay before it became more than what the bike is worth (putting aside sentimental value). While we were stopped I put the rain covers on my backpack and cockpit bag, thinking at the time it wasn’t really necessary.

As we rode on, though, the rain continued to pick up. We had our lights on, and I’d ditched my sunglasses. The Halfakid continued wearing his because they kept the rain out of his eyes, and he doesn’t have regular glasses as I do. We kept our pace moderate to avoid skidding, and did our best to stay out of the way of the other traffic.

In less than two hours, including the time spent dealing with the mechanical, we were approaching Hamura. At a convenience store we agreed it was too early for lunch, but a snack was definitely in order. We loaded our purchases into our bags and continued on to Hamura to rest and eat, and joke that the forecast had been for cloudy skies with rain in the evening.

After the break, the rain came down steadily. It could no longer be called sprinkling as our tires kicked up rooster tails to splash our backs with muddy water. In the lead, I continued to signal caution on descents and curves. It’s a path I’ve ridden many times and so I know its potholes, speed bumps and deceptions. I picked the next rest area for its large covered area — enough to get our bikes out of the rain — and restrooms.

Optimistic start
Optimistic start (with wobbly Tomo)

We were weighing the risk of heavier rain if we stopped to have Ol’ Paint serviced vs that of continuing on and having the bearing fail completely. As we were contemplating this, the Halfakid was checking his bank balance. “I’ll just buy a new bike,” he decided. Tomo told him she’d bought hers during a mid-summer sale, and he decided he’ll wait for the New Year’s sales. As the bearing was not complaining at this point, we continued on. The rain lifted for about 20km, and we started drying out quickly. There were still slick spots in the course, though: in particular the tiles on one of the bridges over the Tama river.

Following another convenience store stop for carbohydrates, the rain started again. We were just a few kilometers from Futako now and there was nothing to do but continue onwards. We were soon crossing back over the Tama river to Tokyo, and then I made a mistake in the traffic and we had to dismount and walk a bit before coming to the last good climb of the day. We had a brief rest and sipped water at a small park and then said our goodbyes. Despite the rain and the mechanicals, we agreed to meet up again soon for another ride.

In less than an hour, I was home, wet and tired. Nana accepted my muddy clothes without complaint and started the bath for me. When I got out of the bath, Nana informed me that she and her mother had decided that next year they would follow along by train when we biked to Otsuki.