Asia

Luba & Natalia ready to set off on our last day of biking. I think we were all a little happy and a little sad at the same time.

Luba & Natalia ready to set off on our last day of biking. I think we were all a little happy and a little sad at the same time.

We finished this two-week bike tour with a real highlight: after a three-hour bus ride from the little fishing village of Ainan we arrived at the southern end of the Shimanami Kaido, a series of stunning bridges that connect Shikoku to the main island of Honshu across six islands in the Seto Inland Sea. At just under 45 miles the trip could be done relatively easily in a single day but our route took us around a the islands, rather than just straight across them, so we took two days for the journey.

Good planning, it turns out, as the first day had decidedly imperfect weather; a light rain fell pretty much all day. Not enough to make the riding miserable, but not the sort of thing you’d really choose. The forecast for day two on the bridges, though, was pretty good so we figured we’d at least have one nice day of riding.

The Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge. And we bicycled over it in the rain!

The Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge. And we bicycled over it in the rain!

As it turned out, riding in the light rain had a beauty of its own. Again, not something you’d choose but all the gray and overcast and gloom was, in its own way, beautiful. And then for day two on the bridges we did pretty well; not exactly bright blue sunshine but certainly dry.

Mark biking in the rain, with Allison, Peter, and Judith behind him

Mark biking in the rain, with Allison, Peter, and Judith behind him

The bridges were just amazing. One of them, the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, is nearly two-and-a-half miles long, allegedly the longest suspension bridge in the world. Another, the Tatara Bridge, is one of the world’s longest cable-stayed bridges. Opened in 1999, they were all built with bicycles explicitly in mind so there were dedicated bike lanes, completely isolated from the motorized traffic. The bridges were plenty high – have to let ships through, and all that – but the ramps were graded pretty modestly so getting up there wasn’t too big a chore. Once you made it up though, well, there’s just something about being so far above the sea and the islands below. Every time we’d make the climb up another ramp to the start of a bridge and see the world below us I’d break out into another big smile even when it was raining and I was cold and wet. The views, the sense of being on top of it all, was just too much fun.

And then, ultimately, it was over. Natalia had measured each of our rides on her Runtastic iPhone app and calculated that altogether we’d ridden something over 500 miles, not bad for a little under two weeks of riding. In fact, we’re both really pretty beat; that’s a lot of work we put in to finish the ride.

Mark on one of the cable-stayed bridges, this time in the sun (or, well, not exactly sun, but at least it wasn't raining anymore)

Mark on one of the cable-stayed bridges, this time in the sun (or, well, not exactly sun, but at least it wasn’t raining anymore)

Along with great rides along rivers and the bridges and sometimes amazing meals, the real highlight was all the fun people we met. From my experience it’s pretty unusual to get this many strangers together and not have at least a couple that you learn you want to avoid at pretty much any cost. I’m remembering the judge we biked with in Italy who was just a Hillary-hater; not someone I enjoyed very much. But this group was a lot of fun, good riders but lots of laughs along the way. Meeting people is a big reason Mark & I do these organized bike tours and this was a solid win for us.

Christine, Rob, Judith, Allison, Jackie, and Dean ready to head off after what may have been our last snack stop

Christine, Rob, Judith, Allison, Jackie, and Dean ready to head off after what may have been our last snack stop

Finally, it’s always fun to observe some of the quirks of a place. One that appears to be idiosyncratic to Shikoku, or at least we’ve never experienced it anywhere else, is the bean bag pillows they use. We can get used to futons on the floor when we’re staying at some traditional Japanese place even if they’re not as comfortable as you’d like. But lots of the places we stayed had small pillows filled with dried beans. Seriously. Not sure why they haven’t discovered feathers or whatever modern pillows are made from, but the Heavenly Beds at the Westin in Kyoto where we’re headed next are sounding awfully good now.

Bridge pictures

Bridge pictures

One aspect of biking in Japan we’re really going to miss are the onsens – the hot springs and baths – after a long ride. I’ve mentioned them before but they deserve one more shout out. What a great way to relax after a long, tough ride: a thorough cleaning and then a long soak maybe with pools of multiple temperatures, maybe outside in the cool air. Of course, they have their own quirks, too. Japanese have a pretty different attitude about nudity than we Westerners do. In one of the onsens we visited a little girl, maybe four years old, was there with her father, running around between the various pools in the men’s bath just as butt-naked as all the men were; apparently Mark and I were the only ones who thought that was unusual. I just don’t imagine that happening in a locker room in the U.S. That was the same onsen where a woman was cleaning the men’s bath area, again with no one giving it a second thought. Probably a healthy approach but … unusual.

Worried the gray and gloom and rain is going to get you down? Just ride behind Luba and her pink raincoat and that will cheer up anyone.

Worried the gray and gloom and rain is going to get you down? Just ride behind Luba and her pink raincoat and that will cheer up anyone.

So now it’s goodbye to Grasshopper and all the great people we biked with. It was a great ride, notwithstanding a few little lapses and problems. From here we’re slowing down in Kyoto for five nights before catching a long flight to Paris. All that after we rest up, though, because all that biking is tiring!

In case you were wondering, these are the islands we hopped across, connecting Shikoku to Honshu. The blue dot is where we stayed en route and the yellow star at the top was our hotel the last night, finally back on Honshu.

In case you were wondering, these are the islands we hopped across, connecting Shikoku to Honshu. The blue dot is where we stayed en route and the yellow star at the top was our hotel the last night, finally back on Honshu.

And this was the route we took, starting in Kyoto and working our way around Shikoku. It's worth noting that we didn't bike all of this; most days we would be in a van or a bus or train part of the way.

And this was the route we took, starting in Kyoto and working our way around Shikoku. It’s worth noting that we didn’t bike all of this; most days we would be in a van or a bus or train part of the way.

Allison and Rob in the rain

Allison and Rob in the rain

Mark's back

Mark’s back

The ramp up

The ramp up

A view of the Seto Inland Sea

A view of the Seto Inland Sea

One more picture of that cable-stayed bridge

One more picture of that cable-stayed bridge

And finally, our last morning before heading back to Kyoto I went walking around Onomichi. Finally the sun had come out in all its glory and there in front of me was the world's strangest fire station. Yup, that's a fire station.

And finally, our last morning before heading back to Kyoto I went walking around Onomichi. Finally the sun had come out in all its glory and there in front of me was the world’s strangest fire station. Yup, that’s a fire station.

Here we are at Cape Ashizuri, the southernmost tip of Shikoku

Here we are at Cape Ashizuri, the southernmost tip of Shikoku

We’ve been on this trip for over a week now and I still haven’t said much about Shikoku. Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four major islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, and Kyushu are the other three). Shikoku’s primary claim to fame is the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, a 750-mile route that connects 88 temples. As the full pilgrimage takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete most people these days do it mostly by bus or even bike, but some still do it on foot. You see them walking with conical hats, distinctive white over-shirts, and walking sticks. The one temple we passed on day 10 (#38) is over 60 miles from nearest temple, so the walkers have gone a great distance to get here.

Shikoku is a lush, green island and every so often you'll see these big fish strung out across a river valley, blowing in the wind

Shikoku is a lush, green island and every so often you’ll see these big fish strung out across a river valley, blowing in the wind

And, while I’m filling in the blanks with things I will want to remember 20 years from now when I go back and read this again, I should say a bit about the 11 riders and four guides we’re traveling with. Who are these people?

• Rob & Allison, a Canberra couple who claim that while Canberra is obviously not a great tourist destination it is a wonderful place to live. We agree fully with their estimation of Canberra’s tourist appeal but we’ll have to take them at their word about the city as a place to live.
• Jackie & Peter, Auckland dentists and almost inhuman bikers. While the rest of us are struggling to get up these long hills Peter will ride to the top and then go back down just to do it again.
• Christine & Judith, a really cute German couple living in Switzerland.
• Ruth, a Sydney judge who asks a lot of questions.
• Ethyl, semi-retired Broadway conductor and all around interesting woman who has spent literally decades biking all over the world.
• Dean, a retired IBM employee and third-generation Japanese-American with long-lost roots in Shikoku.
• Natalia & Luba, childhood Russian friends. Luba is an investment banker in London while Natalia is still in Moscow.
• Alan, our lead guide, an Aussie living now in Cambodia. He’s filling in for an injured Grasshopper tour guide who’s supposed to be leading this tour and finding the long rides almost as challenging as us amateurs do.
• Issy, our Japanese driver and occasional biker. Limited English but always big with a smile, which is helpful when you’re dying going up a hill.
• Tatts, another Japanese guide, pretty much the nicest guy in the group.
• Tom, a young 20-something French bicycle racer – a serious racer – living in Japan with his Japanese girlfriend.

They’re all well traveled, adventurous, and strong bikers. Which is a good thing, because we’re doing some serious (and exhausting) rides.

Judith, Christine, and Mark practice pounding the mulberry pulp that will become Washi paper

Judith, Christine, and Mark practice pounding the mulberry pulp that will become Washi paper

Day 9: We started by driving up to a tiny village and learning about and making Washi paper. Washi is the traditional Japanese paper that you’ve probably seen at some point, but the traditional ways are disappearing. There is a Dutch guy, though, married to a local Japanese woman, whose life’s mission is to maintain and restore those traditional methods of creating Washi paper. His process starts with the bark from a mulberry bush and involves lots of boiling and washing and separating of fibers and pounding and washing some more. We went through just a little of that process and then, well, made our own paper that included lots of little local flowers and petals and leaves. As I write this it is supposedly drying in his studio and will be mailed to our last stop on the trip. I’m not the artistic type, but lots of the small sheets seemed as though they’d be beautiful when finished. We’ll see.

Then we had a gorgeous ride on a warm sunny day along a beautiful river. The problem was that we started so late after the Washi paper experience; we’d have been much happier to ride in the morning and do the paper thing in the afternoon.

Day 10: This was a long ride, another 60 miles or so, but lots of it was gradually downhill to the coast. Then we went along the coast to the southern tip of Shikoku in more up-and-down terrain.

We rode through scenery like this on Day 10. And yes, the Shimanto River was really that color.

We rode through scenery like this on Day 10. And yes, the Shimanto River was really that color.

We’re finding two big drawbacks on this Grasshopper tour relative to other bike tours we’ve done. First, the rides are just too long. On the 10 days we’re riding after that first mini-ride in Kyoto, we’re averaging about 50 miles per day, with two days over 60 miles. That’s a lot of riding and a lot of time on the bike. With Zephyr (the company we’ve used in Europe) there are always three options, a short, medium, and long ride. And even then the long ride is rarely over 50 miles. These days are a lot longer and we’re getting tired.

The bigger frustration, is that there is a sense that we should all stay together for most of the ride, or at least regroup every five to 10 miles. That means we’re waiting around too much and riding in clumps instead of off by our blissful selves. Mark and I both love riding on our own with no one to watch and nothing to see except the scenery. Instead we’re nearly always clumped with other riders, trying desperately to stay out of each other’s way. And there is a safety issue: when we’re clumped up, with several of us just itching to pick up the pace a bit, if one goes down a bunch will go down. We have Garmin GPS devises on our bikes with the route marked, and someone goes ahead of us in the van marking turns in chalk on the street. We really don’t need to be altogether like this all the time; I’m inclined not to do another Grasshopper tour if they’re all like this.

The view from Cape Ashizuri, the southern tip of Shikoku

The view from Cape Ashizuri, the southern tip of Shikoku

Just a couple hours after I took the picture above the weather changed and a big rainstorm blew in. As it cleared, Mark took this picture from our room. Pretty nice view, eh?

Just a couple hours after I took the picture above the weather changed and a big rainstorm blew in. As it cleared, Mark took this picture from our room. Pretty nice view, eh?

Still, the ride again today was a pretty nice ride. The river was beautiful and the rest of the scenery great, too. The weather was mostly nice, though near the end it was seriously threatening to rain. One highlight was the onsen in the hotel at the end of our ride. It turns out you never know what you’re going to get at an onsen; it might be just a single indoor tub, sort of a shallow swimming pool filled with hot water, or it could be multiple pools with different temperatures including both indoor and outdoor spaces. This one had something particularly wonderful: an outdoor pool – with nice hot water, of course – overlooking the ocean. Just an incredible place to rest and soak after a long day’s ride.

And then another nine- or 10-course meal at the hotel with every imaginable preparation of fish and all sorts of other stuff. After the meal on day three at the Buddhist monastery when we just didn’t have enough food I was worried about the standard that was being set. I needn’t have worried: since then dinners at least (not always lunches) have been extraordinary.

The table set for a feast after a long day's ride

The table set for a feast after a long day’s ride

Finally, Day 11. Another nearly 60-mile day, more riding along the coast this time to a really tiny little fishing village. The weather wasn’t quite so cooperative today. We delayed our hotel departure by maybe 45 minutes as it was raining pretty hard. Alan, the lead guide, was watching the radar and it seemed as though it would pass. It wouldn’t; apparently a big cloud was just sitting over the hotel. Finally he said OK, enough delay. If you want to ride in the van that’s fine. It looks as though we’ll ride out of the rain in maybe 10 minutes and after that it shouldn’t be too bad. Sure enough, that worked. For a while. After lunch we got caught in a huge downpour, getting off our bikes under awnings and eaves as quickly as we could. Even then, though, the rain eventually eased and we sort of dried out over the rest of the ride.

And rain or no rain, we’ve continued to eat really well. Our hotel was pretty modest – OK, distinctly modest – but you wouldn’t expect more than that in such a small village. There wasn’t room for all of us in the ryokan they’d intended, so five of us lucky duckies stayed at a separate place just up the hill a bit. They were both modest, both what would be two-star hotels in Europe, but ours had more than just a single bathroom for the whole group, so that was a step up. And we had a resident kitty, though the owners insist on putting her out when guests are staying. Still, she was around, and that was almost good enough.

Allan with our ryokan's cat, expelled for the night because of us

Allan with our ryokan’s cat, expelled for the night because of us

I love this view, part of a long downhill stretch after a really long uphill climb

I love this view, part of a long downhill stretch after a really long uphill climb

This was our view at a picnic lunch stop on the Shimanto River

This was our view at a picnic lunch stop on the Shimanto River

The next day this was our fun, quirky lunch stop

The next day this was our fun, quirky lunch stop

Our hotel dining room on Day 9. As you can tell the weather has been extremely varied; it goes from sunny to drizzling and back to sunny with remarkable regularity.

Our hotel dining room on Day 9. As you can tell the weather has been extremely varied; it goes from sunny to drizzling and back to sunny with remarkable regularity.

Meal time is often a feast

Meal time is often a feast

Mark at the Washi paper-making activity, starting to like the results

Mark at the Washi paper-making activity, starting to like the results

Here's his work of art. If it dries in time they'll ship it to our last stop with Grasshopper so we can take it home. Or could take it home, if we had a home!

Here’s his work of art. If it dries in time they’ll ship it to our last stop with Grasshopper so we can take it home. Or could take it home, if we had a home!

Mark in front of azaleas in Kochi

Mark in front of azaleas in Kochi

In this mid-period of the 14-day ride we’re having fun: some good rides, getting to know and enjoy the other 11 riders and four guides, and a very welcome rest day in Kochi, Shikoku’s major city. Here are the highlights.

Day 6 was the longest day yet, over 65 miles this time, and that after a 60-mile ride the day before. By the end we were all – or at least nearly all – exhausted. And it wasn’t even a particularly great ride. It was mostly along the Pacific coast, on the southwestern part of the island, and I was expecting to be wowed by beautiful views of the ocean. Instead the day was a dull gray – overcast and cool the whole day – and so the ocean just wasn’t that pretty. And instead of riding in cute little Japanese villages, it was mostly just riding on a relatively major roadway with not much to look at.

Local musicians entertaining us at lunch

Local musicians entertaining us at lunch

One highlight was a fun lunch at some café sort of thing in a little town midway on our ride. I say “café sort of thing” because they didn’t actually make our food; the guides had picked up bento boxes full of Japanese goodies and that’s what we ate. But at the end they brought out this great home-made apple cake for dessert that was a delight and then it got even better. The middle-aged couple who ran the place than sat down at an electric guitar and the electric keyboards and entertained us with a few golden oldies. That’s the sort of unexpected treat you don’t get just bicycling on your own!

Finally, after a very long day of riding, we stopped in a parking lot, loaded the bikes onto the vans (to be clear, the guides loaded the bikes onto the vans) and were driven the last 30 minutes or so into Kochi. We had dinner as a group that night in a little place that specializes in bonito, a local fish related to mackerel and tuna. The strange thing is that nearly all of us ordered the house specialty, bonito made in various ways. So they brought the few plates for people who ordered the other stuff and then, after a long wait, one plate of the house specialty. Somehow they figured that the 14 of us expecting the regular plate had ordered one to share. Among 14 people! And it wasn’t a translation issue; two of the guides are native Japanese. Ultimately it took well over an hour – close to 90 minutes – to get the food out to us. You’d think that with a reservation for 17 people they would know we would want something approaching 17 servings.

Day 7: A rest day in Kochi, and we needed it. These are long rides for just about everyone – a number of people have never done a single 60-mile ride, much less two back-to-back – and we were all beat. So we had a day off to do what we wanted. For us it was laundry – yay! – a fun lunch, a long walk, and a really fun dinner. In other words, it was mostly about food.

This guy liked having Americans enjoying a Kochi lunch so he bought us some sake and then got his picture taken with us

This guy liked having Americans enjoying a Kochi lunch so he bought us some sake and then got his picture taken with us

Here’s the thing about Kochi: there were seemingly dozens of incredibly cute little bars and restaurants within two or three blocks of our hotel. We could have stayed here for a few days exploring all that Kochi has to offer, but had to make do with just the one night on our own.

First off was finding a place for a pre-dinner cocktail. The night before we’d had a drink at a little bar called Boston Café right behind our hotel, with a Red Sox logo and everything. Lonely Planet even described it as being run by an American ex-pat, but we found nothing remotely American, to say nothing of Bostonian about it, not so much as even an English menu. So we scratched that one off the list. After a fair amount of poking around and exploring options, our first stop for dinner was Francois, a little bar with a Japanese bartender who made great drinks. Given the French name I started with a pastis, and felt as though I were in Paris. Then we realized he had lots of various bitters and asked about a Manhattan. Sure enough in just a few minutes we had these perfect little cocktails in front of us. Boston Café was a bust, but Francois was the real deal.

Francois's Hiroshima-born world-class bartender

Francois’s Hiroshima-born world-class bartender

Then it was off to find a place to eat. The first stop didn’t work so well. There was no English menu, but we’ve gotten used to that; we figure out a way to make it work. What it did have, though, was two slightly inebriated (or perhaps more than slightly) young women eating there who practically screeched with excitement about having two Americans in for dinner. One of them just came up and started pointing at the menu yelling “Fish!” or “Chicken!” or whatever in a super annoying, loud, unpleasant way. She meant well and the guy behind the counter was trying to rein her in, but I finally turned to Mark and just said “We need to get out of here.”

The next stop, though, was perfect. A little bar for eating, really really friendly locals helping us figure out the menu, great food, and to top it off learning that one of the older women serving us had been, in her youth, a beautiful geisha. Kind of a perfect night.

This was the local, friendly dinner companion, not the local, screeching woman who scared us away

This was the local, friendly dinner companion, not the local, screeching woman who scared us away

Day 8: After just one day off, I was expecting that the next morning I would still be sore and exhausted. To my surprise I woke up pretty fresh, ready to ride again. And it’s a good thing I was fresh. This was about 55 miles, long but not horrible. But there were three big hills packed into those 55 miles and they were tough. The ride itself, though, was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever done. Lots of it through forests, along rivers, through small villages, sometimes on tiny roads that seemed made more for bikes than cars. The weather was nice, we were rested, and it was pretty good. The only down side was at the end when, after a long downhill run into the town we were staying at, we discovered that we had to ride up maybe three kilometers to our hotel. After those three big hills even a small one at the end was not what you wanted to see.

One of the long stretches on a beautiful ride

One of the long stretches on a beautiful ride

This was near the top of the first hill, a tiny little road through huge trees

This was near the top of the first hill, a tiny little road through huge trees

Once we got to the hotel, though, it may have been worth it. It’s a remote, isolated inn, with great views of the hills and trees and all that. And it has a gorgeous onsen (the local hot springs all over Japan) for soaking after a long ride. This one had a big hot pool for soaking; some smaller, cooler pools for relaxing; a sulfuric pool for getting your mineral fix; a small, freezing dipping pool to cool off in; and – the best – a great little outdoor pool to sit in the 50-something temperatures and watch the wind in the trees. That was just about perfect.

And if that wasn’t perfect, dinner was. We were the only guests at the inn and had the place to ourselves for one of those seven- or eight-course kaisekai dinner with every kind of imaginable Japanese dish: an appetizer with several components, sashimi, grilled amego fish, simmered mackerel, seared bonito, blackfish tempura, sauté pork, rice, soup, pickles, fruit, and a small piece of cake.

So there you have it: a great ride, beautiful scenery, relaxing onsen, and a fabulous meal. It doesn’t get much better.

Christine and Judith, a German couple living in Switzerland and great fun to bike with

Christine and Judith, a German couple living in Switzerland and great fun to bike with

Kochi has this strange outdoor mall thing, kind of open air but covered that runs for several blocks. Kind of indoor but kind of outdoor.

Kochi has this strange outdoor mall thing, kind of open air but covered that runs for several blocks. Kind of indoor but kind of outdoor.

I went for a long walk upriver on our rest day and loved these cute kids out enjoying spring

I went for a long walk upriver on our rest day and loved these cute kids out enjoying spring

The Kochi castle was one of the few castles in Japan not destroyed or even severely damaged during the War

The Kochi castle was one of the few castles in Japan not destroyed or even severely damaged during the War

Boston Café that had essentially nothing to do with Boston. Except, we learned the next night, that former Red Sox star Manny Ramirez now plays for the Kochi Fighting Dogs ... and was in the neighborhood the same night we were!

Boston Café that had essentially nothing to do with Boston. Except, we learned the next night, that former Red Sox star Manny Ramirez now plays for the Kochi Fighting Dogs … and was in the neighborhood the same night we were!

Dinner on our free night in Kochi. We love these tiny restaurants where you sit at the bar and just pick out whatever you want to eat.

Dinner on our free night in Kochi. We love these tiny restaurants where you sit at the bar and just pick out whatever you want to eat.

And finally, an older woman working in the kitchen came out to make sure we were enjoying our food and gave us this photo from her youth, when she'd been a young and beautiful geisha. Can't get much more Japanese than that!

And finally, an older woman working in the kitchen came out to make sure we were enjoying our food and gave us this photo from her youth, when she’d been a young and beautiful geisha. Can’t get much more Japanese than that!