Since kindergarten, I’ve wanted to visit Japan. Their culture, lands, and people fascinate me. And in recent years, I’ve become an avid cyclist. A brainstorm to combine the two–my love for biking with the chance to see Japan–led me to sign up for Japan Biking’s 13-day Japan Highlights tour.
Our tour began in mid-October, 2012, with a deep-dive, 2-day tour of Kyoto. Yuko, one of two Japan Biking tour guides, is native Japanese and once lived in Kyoto, so she was able to expertly lead us around the city to see major sites of interest. She also gave us sneak peeks into delightful nooks and crannies known only to a savvy resident…and she did all this while wearing a beautiful kimono, riding her bike! The image of Yuko rolling down Kyoto’s streets, her kimono sleeves flying behind, brings me joy whenever I think of it.
Leaving Yuko and Kyoto behind, her husband Thomas took over the tour, and escorted our group of 4 riders (one married couple, and two singles—I went as a 50-year-old woman on my own) to the 11 other sites on the itinerary. It was a whirlwind introduction to Japanese cities and villages, large and tiny, with miles and miles of tea and rice fields, riverside bike paths, and winding mountain roads in between. Every day brought new sights, unveiled to me from the seat of my quality, well-equipped, comfortable bike (rented from Japan Biking).
A side note about bike maintenance on the tour: Thomas used to work in bike shop. His bike panniers are packed with handy tools and repair materials, and Thomas is at-the-ready to fix whatever complications surface. He speedily resolved a fender problem that one tour member had been struggling with for a long time (it was her own bike), and in one case, came quickly pedaling back up a steep hill to repair my punctured tire sidewall, resourcefully using materials in his kit bag. Thomas knows bikes!
Thomas also knows Japanese (I don’t). As I learned when I tried to navigate on my own in Tokyo (post-tour), having someone like him to act as guide and translator is a gift. Thomas has lived in Japan for several years, and understands not only the language, but the culture and protocols. Having him give us a heads-up on when to change our shoes, how to navigate the hot-springs onsens, and where to buy sunscreen, was invaluable.
Additionally, Thomas is ideally suited to introduce a group of diverse personalities to a foreign country. One of our group members described him as “unflappable”. I’d also add, “Great sense of humor, respectful, and encouraging”.
Our tour was a Level 3 ride. This being my first multi-day bike excursion, I’ll admit I was naïve about what this level of ride would entail. I’ve completed long-distance rides, and bike-commute daily. The Japan Biking site defines Level 3 as: “Riding distances of 70-100 km with steep climbs. For riders in good physical condition.” Four of the 12 riding days really tested my fitness; there are many steep climbs on this tour. But Thomas and the other riders provided encouragement (and there’s no shame in walking your bike up a hill!), and the views at the top of the climbs were worth the effort. I am thrilled that I
pushed myself beyond my former riding limits, and I’m grateful to Thomas for his cheerleading in that process. But you’ll want to be in very good shape for this tour.
Japan Highlights exposed us to a huge variety of sites (tourist and otherwise), cuisine (from top-of-the-line, multi-course meals to fast food grabbed along the way), and lodging types. We stayed in several traditional-Japanese ryokans, sleeping on futons in tatami mat-lined rooms. These were gorgeous facilities, and gave me the true Japanese experience I craved. We also stayed in a few Western-style hotels, with raised beds, which were a welcome return to familiarity at times. And we stayed in hostels (a new experience for me!), which turned out to be a highlight of the trip.
Other favorites: seeing the many groups of schoolchildren that we crossed paths with at the temples, shrines, sites, and museums. They love English speakers. Be sure to say, “Hello!” as you pass. You’ll be rewarded with delightful responses! Having Thomas uncover out-of-the-way eateries for us to enjoy. One day, after riding in the rain for several hours (a typhoon had passed through), he found us an okonomiyaki restaurant for lunch. There, we feasted on their hot, tasty cabbage-and-shrimp pancakes, and dried out a bit. And making it to the top of a particularly challenging hill, seeing the gorgeous views, and reveling that I had “become a better [wo]man because of it”, (as Thomas says you will, with each hill you conquer).
As I said earlier, I had dreamed for decades about visiting Japan. The Japan Highlights tour, brought to me through Japan Biking, made that dream come true, and far,far exceeded my vision for what I would experience. It was the best trip of my life. If I can provide any additional information, please don’t hesitate to contact me: Katy@CareerSolutionsGroup.net