I’ve ridden Biwaichi — the route around Biwako, Japan’s largest lake — once before, in 2014 with Fearless Leader Joe and Sanborn. I’ve had a number of invitations to join rides since then, and finally decided my holiday this week was a good chance. José hadn’t done the ride before and quickly agreed to join.
We’d previously started from Kyoto and cycled around clockwise. This time I decided to start at Maibara, on the opposite shore, because the shinkansen station is just 2 kilometers from the lake. And when I had a look at the route via Street View, I saw there were full markings and signposts for a counter-clockwise ride (or anti-clockwise, as FLJ would have it). It makes sense in Japan to circle things counter-clockwise, because it puts us nearer the view.
When I informed everyone of the plans, FLJ said he’d try to join us, leaving Kyoto at 3 a.m. to meet us at Maibara and continuing around. I thought that was ambitious, but he’s done the whole route in a single day before — on more than one occasion I believe.
There was a lot of anxiety about our 6 a.m. departure from Tokyo. I didn’t get confirmation from José that he was awake until I was already on the train to Tokyo station, and then my poor directions left José scrambling to meet me at the shinkansen entrance. (It turns out there are several.)
Our next moment of anxiety was the train change at Nagoya: we only had three minutes. Fortunately, we only had to cross the platform to the waiting train, but our seats were nearly at the opposite end of the train. We hustled down the platform with our bikes. In the end, I boarded a couple of cars before the goal and humped my bicycle down the aisle. I’m happy to say the cars were nearly empty, and we settled in for the last leg of the journey.
At Maibara, we quickly found a place to assemble the bikes and change. Somehow, we managed to burn through nearly 50 minutes getting ready, and then as soon as we started out, we stopped at a convenience store for water and snacks.
On the road
It had been raining overnight, and so FLJ hit me up with a last-minute change in plans. Rather than meet us at Maibara, he and a friend would start from Otsu (our goal for the day) and work their way around clockwise until they met us. Then we’d continue on to Otsu together.
So José and I set out on the first leg of the ride, with clearing skies but still plenty of puddles under our wheels. The view of the lake off to the left was splendid. The temperature was about 18C at our start but soon rose to 21C, and we continued under sunny skies. I’d forgotten how many tunnels there were along the way, and so we entered the first one without our lights on. We were lucky in that we weren’t overtaken by any cars. Before long we were working our way up the first real climb of the day, and after passing through the short tunnel at the top we stopped to rest and enjoy the view.
Following a swift descent we worked our way around the top of the lake and through a small village. We were ready for a rest stop and some food, and were looking for a convenience store. After winding our way through a number of short tunnels we came out next to a ramen shop and decided to stop there and have a hot meal (just about 1km from the next convenience store, as it happens).
We’d just finished eating when I got a call from FLJ. He and his mate were just 11km south of us. Did we want to wait at the ramen place for them to join us? I calculated and consulted with José: no, that would be a half-hour wait and we didn’t want to lose that much time. We decided to meet on the road.
Within minutes of setting out again, we saw a great, black cloud looming over the horizon. There was no doubt about it — we were heading directly into rain. As the first drops fell, José called for a break and we put on our jackets. FLJ called again to say they’d be bunkering down to avoid the rain, and advised me to keep an eye out for his bike on the side of the road.
Soon the rain was coming down in buckets. We saw other cyclists sheltering from the rain, but we continued on with our jackets zipped up tight and our lights on. After about 10 minutes the downpour lightened up, and by the time we saw FLJ waving to us from the side of the road, the cloudburst was finished.
With greetings and introductions out of the way, we continued on as the sky cleared once again. Soon we were mostly dry under sunny skies. Our next break was at Shirahige Jinja, an Important Cultural Property established in 1603 and featuring a torii in the waters of the lake.
There was a convenience store just beyond the shrine, but on the opposite side of the road. Traffic was very heavy at this point, and it was a challenge getting across. I noticed a couple of timid high school girls (with very nice bikes and full kit) following my lead in a gap through the traffic.
From there it was a straight shot down the western shore of the lake to Otsu and our hotel — or it should have been, but FLJ’s friend had other ideas, leading us off on scenic byways, out of the traffic and with views of the lake. But these byways were not without their pitfalls, from gravel and sand to picnicking pedestrians and multiple speed bumps. At last, following a dead end, we decided to stick to the main road, as we had just a few kilometers yet to go and the shoulder was wide enough to allow us to get ahead of the rows of cars stuck in traffic.
Bath, dinner and bed
FLJ and his friend bid us farewell at the turning towards our hotel. The hotel drive was very steep, so we dismounted and pushed our bikes. The staff greeted us and cheerfully directed us to park our bikes in the hotel meeting room.
José and I were both exhausted. The bath was refreshing, and we were lucky to have it to ourselves. Following a delicious meal and a couple of drinks, we collapsed on our futon and were soon sleeping.
On a moving time of 5:10:48, we averaged 21.0km/h. As this was my first 100km ride of October as well, I got the Strava Gran Fondo badge.
Relaxed ride back
On our own on Day 2, José and I had the option of continuing around the lake, about 80km total, or taking the Biwako Ohashi bridge across to the opposite shore for a 50km ride home. José had already voted for the shorter route the night before, and I found myself in complete agreement in the morning.
After crossing the bridge were were in a long drag of fast traffic along a major artery. The drivers were mostly polite until we came to a construction area which reduced traffic to a single lane. As we emerged back into two lanes, I had a close brush with a tour bus whose driver apparently felt we’d been the reason for the delay.
This was followed by a very pleasant twisty bit along the shore with a bit of up-and-down thrown into the mix. Signs on the roadside called attention to various rock formations, such as Turtle Rock and the Three Sisters. There was a convenience store just where we rejoined the main road, and we stopped for some food before continuing on the last bit of the journey.
The final ride was a mix of main and back roads, with occasional glimpses of the lake. I was looking forward to seeing Hikone Castle as the final waypoint before the end, but somehow passed it by without noticing. I asked José if he wanted to circle back, but he was for pressing on towards the station.
On a moving time of 2:38:13, we averaged 21.4km/h. That’s not bad at all considering we were taking it easy.
We got back to Maibara station on the dot of 1 p.m., and had packed away our bikes and changed clothes by 1:30. Our return train was 4:33 (I’d allowed for the 80km ride on Day 2), so we asked at the ticket office if we could get an earlier train. There were many seats available, but none with the luggage space we required for the bikes. There was nothing for it but to retire to a nearby café for a celebratory drink while we waited for our train.
We snacked on the train home and José put his mind to the task of improvements for our next Biwaichi. The train change at Nagoya was easier this time, with less distance to hump the bikes along the platform. Back in Tokyo at 6:45, we parted ways. José lives close enough to walk home, while I carried my bike bag through commuter traffic to catch the express to Shinjuku. A taxi finally brought me home at 7:42, where Nana welcomed me with a hot meal and a cold beer.
When I’d booked the shinkansen, I just looked for the one that would give us the earliest start from Maibara: depart from Tokyo at 6 a.m. on the Nozomi and change at Nagoya to the Kodama, which brought us to Maibara at 8:03. But José pointed out we could get the Hikari instead and save the transfer, with a delay of only 4 minutes. His suggestion for the next Biwaichi is to leave Tokyo in the afternoon, stay in Maibara, and then set out the next morning, doing the full circuit in a day. After another stay in Maibara, then set out at our leisure for Tokyo the following morning. It sounds like a good idea to me.
The ride was mostly trouble-free. When we arrived at Maibara and José assembled his bike, he noticed the rear brake was rubbing on one side. I took my multitool to it and soon had it centered again.
Then, following a steep descent with switchbacks covered in wet leaves, I noticed my rear disc was rubbing. I didn’t notice any drag, but when there was no traffic I could hear it. José, following behind, confirmed it. At the next break I checked if the rotor was bent, but it looked straight to me. On Day 2 I didn’t hear it (but then, we were almost always in traffic). I’ll probably have a look later today.
Some photos courtesy of FLJ.