November 18, 2016

The Japanese Odyssey – a cycling adventure for those who like to swim upstream

Living in Hamburg the two passionate bike buddies and photo/videographers Carlos and Philipp should really know what constant rain feels like. But what it is like to cycle in a real typhoon during a mountain passage they had to learn on this crazy bicycle journey across the land of the rising sun: the Japanese Odyssey.

The call of the land of smiles

When Timo from Pelago Bicycles gave me a call, I was at the Hamburg airport with my camera gear pack.
The call didn’t last particularly long. “Carlos, it’s Timo from Pelago. We’re a sponsor this year of the Japanese Odyssey, an endurance ride across Japan. We really want and value good photos and would like you to ride in it for us.”

Timo offered me a few additional key pieces of information: “Start is in Tokyo, the finish in Osaka, 14 days, 11 checkpoints, approximately 2,400 kilometers (1,491 miles) and 48,000 meters of climbing (157,480 feet) My thoughts starting churning: “Japan! Cool! Adventure! Mountains! — I have zero experience with biking in the mountains. I do live here in the Hamburg, where it is totally flat!” After a few seconds and so unimaginably many thoughts, I heard the following sentence come out of my mouth: “Hell, yeah!”

Two bikes, two buddies and a naive kickoff to the adventure

I immediately asked my buddy Philipp (Lee Heidrich/videographer) whether he wants to come along with me. He too is a bit blindsided with this unusual offer: “Actually, I was planning to go to Mallorca for two weeks for a little vacation and lay around on the beach, but … sure, I’ll come along!” That’s when all of our planning started: Route, equipment, information about Japan, flights… Our naive idea prior to the start in Tokyo of this odyssey was simply to conquer our route of 2,294 kilometers (1,425 miles) and its 47,400 meters of climbing (155,512 feet) and ride it straight through. We didn’t give any further thought to the culture, its hospitality, weather conditions and the people whom we would meet on the other end of the world. A mistake perhaps, but it was precisely this naivety that turned out on our trip to be the best thing that could have happened to us.

Starting gun in Tokyo: let the Odyssey begin

The start of the Japanese Odyssey on the Nihonbashi Bridge, which is Kilometer/Mile 0 of the Japanese roads system, was quite relaxed. All 21 starters from various corners of the world gathered there. The official starting gun went off at 5 a.m. From that point on, for the cyclists that meant getting out of the urban Tokyo area as quickly as possible. That took about 80 kilometers (50 miles) before we weren’t surrounded by the city anymore. It was also warm and dry — certainly ideal conditions for us. We climbed the first mountain to the first checkpoint, which was at the high point as are all checkpoints on this Odyssey. We then pushed it on the downhill. With our bikes weighing only 26 kilograms including baggage (57 pounds), we hit a top speed of 80 kph (50 mph), and that tempo magically spread a wide grin across our faces.

We get to know a wet companion and dive deep into a strange land

Check off the first stage. We search for some lodging, and then decide instead to camp behind a “Konbini,” the Japanese term for a sort of convenience store that is a bit of a blend of kiosk and supermarket. And then the rain started. It poured buckets and didn’t seem to appear as if it would stop anytime soon. For eight long days, this rain was our reliable companion, aside from our rain gear. It took a short break now and then, just like we did, but was ubiquitous.
Just as ubiquitous was the hospitality of the Japanese. Despite language barriers, they invited us to tea, a meal or just a chat in many places and won us over by their aura of kindness. As naive and unprepared as we were for this trip to Japan, oh so deeper did we plunge into the culture of this mystical land during our Japanese Odyssey. We also had our route to thank for this because it took us off the beaten path. We road through the most remote areas, over streets that only existed for carts, but in reality had been abandoned due to earthquakes and landslides. Again and again, the mountains tested our will and resilience.

The first days: lessons in swimming upstream

Over the first few days we went over six summits in the Japanese Alps, only accompanied by the tail of the first typhoon. That deluged us with constant rain and meant landslides and desolation in the southwest of the country.
Departing the Japanese Alps and heading to the southwestern area of the main island, the first typhoon dissipated and we enjoyed a few stages of just pleasantly light drizzle. But we didn’t have to wait long for the next typhoon. It welcomed us with a wet, cold reception right after the ferry ride to Tokushima, and stayed with us until just shortly before our last kilometers. Some uphill rides felt as if we were swimming upstream rather than riding.

‘Game over’ right before the summit

On the 11th day, only a few kilometers from the next checkpoint, I was riding along in the twilight along a nice, long, but now unused road that ran along the edge of a rock face.
And that’s when my rear derailleur broke into two pieces — continuing to ride wasn’t for the first time even a consideration. And, to make matters worse, we were 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the next city. So that meant we now had to push our bikes — and it was uphill to boot. The only thing we could do was keep going and hope for more luck on the other side of the mountain.

Readiness to assist and the end of an amazing ride

We topped out at the summit and started to roll downhill, where we came across a larger street. Here, an older couple crossed our pathes speechlessly. We must have awakened their sympathy because after initial skepticism vis à vis our two tired, beat up and most certainly not so pleasant smelling selves, they started to make some phone calls. With their help and the help of the Japanese police, we found our way to Makoto, an extremely helpful 25-year-old in the next village. There, we got a meal, a room for the night, and the prospect of a ride the next morning to the next larger city. But during our night there, we came to the decision to end our bike travels right there. In our days there, we grew closer to the Japanese culture and the people of this country in ways much larger than we would have ever imagined. We experienced innumerable fantastic encounters, hospitable gestures, and acts demonstrating readiness for assistance. All from people we would never have expected such acts, alone for the reason of the language barrier.

From Uwajima (the next city) we traveled with the train and ferry through Hiroshima to Osaka, the final checkpoint of the Japanese Odyssey.
Most of the 21 starters arrived there via many different routes to be able to celebrate together and to swap stories about their experiences. It was to be a very long night….

Here you can find more information about Carlos and Philipp:

Carlos Fernandez Laser / Photographer & Road Connoisseur / IG: @carlosfernandezlaser

Philipp Lee Heidrich / Videographer / IG: @philippleeheidrich

This stuff keeps you dry under extreme conditions:

Got into a typhoon whilst biking? Hopefully you had the right equipment with you. Like Carlos and Philipp. Both are wearing our most innovative jacket, the ONE GORE-TEX® Active Bike with SHAKEDRY™ product technologie.

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