We’ve started a 14-day bike trip in Japan with Grasshopper Adventures, a great little company that specializes in Asian bike trips. We’ve used them before to do a two-week trip through Myanmar, along with a couple day trips in various places, so we’re confident they do a good job. We start in Kyoto, the old imperial capital on the main island of Honshu, then quickly make our way down to Shikoku, the smallest of the four major Japanese islands. We love these bike trips because we love biking (or, well, I love biking and Mark likes biking), because it’s a great way to see the countryside up close, and because we often meet interesting people, some of whom on occasion become friends for life. We hate these organized bike trips because we pay more to stay in hotels that someone else has chosen and that aren’t as nice as the place we would stay, and we eat at someone else restaurant choices on their schedule, and we pay too much to put up with these restrictions. Typically the good outweighs the bad, but you’re never quite sure until you get well into the trip.
The first five days brought us from Kyoto down to Shishikui on the southeastern coast of Shikoku; lots of biking, some good, some great, and some brutal; a fair amount of train and van riding that we don’t particularly like; some incredibly frustrating hotel experiences; and food that ranged from good to great to way too minimal. In other words, everything that we both love and hate about organized tours.
Day 1: This was just the arrival day for the start of the trip in Kyoto after a fast train from Nagoya. Nothing interesting except that again, for the second time with Grasshopper Adventures, they assumed Mark & I wanted separate twin beds. But this time we’d emailed them a month ago, when we saw their mistake, and explained that we’re a married couple, not Bert & Ernie. They apparently ignored the email. So instead of having an hour or two to poke around Kyoto before the evening initial meeting and dinner with the group, we dealt with the hotel and Grasshopper to fix the situation. The good news is that the only available room to suit us was a nicer room. The bad news is that now we know that they’ve made poor arrangements for the next 13 days.
Day 2: Still in Kyoto, the day was a simple 20-mile ride around Kyoto. On a Sunday in cherry blossom season. Thus the crowds were intense and biking was much more a chore than a joy. The sites were packed, the roads and streets were packed, and there was nothing particularly fun about it. Lunch was a sushi restaurant, one with Harry Potter-esque conveyor belts delivering sushi to your table. To Grasshopper’s credit, they treated it as an all-you-can eat experience. Like a piece of sushi you see going by on the conveyor belt? Take it. Want something from the menu? Order it. Repeat. I wasn’t crazy about the biking part, but lunch was good. When we finished the ride, I felt as though I wanted a little more exercise so I walked down to and along the river. We’d biked on it earlier and it was mostly unpleasant, just trying to avoid hitting the many, many people walking along it. Walking, though, was fabulous; I was just struck by how beautiful it was and how I had essentially missed all that while biking and trying not to run anyone down. Clearly a case where walking was more joyous than biking.
Day 3: Now the real riding starts. We started by taking a train out of Kyoto about 75 minutes, while a van drove the bikes and luggage. Then a really brutal day of riding in weather that was cool and on-and-off rain. Only about 50 miles, but three pretty brutal hills included. The first one was tough, but OK, we can do this. Then down, flat for a while and back up. Now it’s getting hard. Finally the third one, and this one is a killer. Not massively steep but long. In fact, of the 13 riders who started, only six of us made it to the top. I finished it but it took absolutely everything I had to do it.
When we finished, then, we were staying at a Buddhist monastery. Unusual, but maybe interesting. Except not, really. It was a public inn, where anyone could stay, but I could tell I wasn’t going to be happy when the sign at the front gate indicated we couldn’t roll our bags; they had to be carried. And for us it was up three or four flights of stairs and along numerous hallways. Total pain in the ass after a brutal day of biking. And to make matters worse the meal was not only vegetarian on a night I needed protein but remarkably meager. I can’t remember a time I’ve ever gone to bed hungry, ever, until that night. And the meager vegetarian breakfast didn’t help things. I’m starting to think I just don’t like Buddhists.
Day 4: A much easier day, 40 miles, much of it downhill, to a two-hour ferry across to Shikoku Island. Not much to say except I ate too much at the breaks trying to make up for my massive calorie deficiency caused by those damned Buddhists. The disaster was when we got to Tokushima and checked into the hotel. Instead of a normal hotel room, we were in what was essentially a single room. Yes, it didn’t have twin beds, but that’s just because there was no room for beds, as in plural. It was about 8 feet by 10 feet, just a tiny room for one person except they were squeezing two of us in there. No room to put clothes or move around or anything, while other couples had nice, normal rooms. And on top of that dinner tonight, after a picnic lunch that had consisted of five (count them, five) pieces of take-out sushi, was going to a ramen noodle place where meals cost, at most, $7. We actually took a look at the offer and said “To hell with this. We can get decent food on our own.” So we went to a restaurant nearby and had Japanese steak that was incredible, along with some Italian appetizers, German sausages, and a Montepulciano wine that was heavenly. A great meal, but now we’re really not happy – really not happy – with this organized tour: cheap food, lousy hotels, and way more expensive than it should be.
Day 5: Ah, this is why we bike. Mark’s still angry about the hotel and meals yesterday, but the weather has turned beautiful, 70 degrees and clear, and the cycling is close to perfect. It’s a long day – well over 60 miles – and much of it is uphill, but it’s a very gradual uphill. And at some point we come around a bend and suddenly we’re on the coast, with great views of the Pacific Ocean. Not a lot of pictures, because who wants to stop and take pictures when the cycling is so great. But this was a good day, followed by a great dinner at our beach-side inn (where the Northern Minnesotan in the group was the only one to go for a swim in the very spring-like weather). We’re still not at all sure that the experience is worth the expense, but today was a great day.