What do you do when your two years teaching English in Japan are over and you still want more? You decide to cycle the length of the country… despite not being a cyclist! What do you do when an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear meltdown happen just before the trip? You press on and turn the journey into a fundraiser, make a movie, ebook and a develop a website about it. And that’s exactly what Andrew Marston did. Inspired by the documentary Kintaro Walks Japan, he recruited two friends, Scott Keenan and Dylan Gunning and set off.
Derek Pettie: The earthquake and its fallout happened just a month before you were set to ride; how did it affect your trip?
AM: We turned our trip into a fundraiser with a goal of $10,000… and ended up raising $13,500. I talked with a relative of mine who is a nuclear engineer consultant and helps decommission nuclear reactors in the States. He was following the story pretty closely and let us know it was safe to go along the west coast. Originally we wanted to go through Tokyo, and that would have led us along the east coast where the earthquake happened. We had been toying with skipping Tokyo anyway, because it’s such a metropolitan area that biking through is extremely slow and tedious. We ended up taking a route through the Japanese Alps. We didn’t see any earthquake damage en route because we steered clear of the area, but everybody we met was impacted by it.
DP: Is cycle touring a popular pastime in Japan?
AM: Not really. We did encounter several other cyclists on the road, and at one point we camped next to a group doing a similar tour. In general, self-propelled travel is a revered pastime in Japan, so cycling fits in with that, but is a more recent phenomenon. Also the Japanese typically don’t have enough time off to take a big tour. We did encounter several “credit card cyclists”, people who take the weekend and don’t pack anything except for their credit card. They hop on their road bike and go as far as they can — just buying everything they need when they stop, to make the most of their time.
DP: How did people react to your trip?
AM: Most people were impressed and surprised when they heard where we were going. Especially at the beginning, when we were the furthest from our finish line and telling them we were going to bike the whole country!
I think some of them didn’t believe us, but as Japanese people are ultra-polite, they would never say that to our faces. I think they were appreciative we were still interested in their country, right after the earthquake. Right around that time, the Japanese board of tourism was desperate to get tourists to come back because of the radiation scare. They were really grateful that we were giving them some good press.
DP: Did you have any unexpected happenings along the way?
AM: The morning of day two, we were woken up by the police and were kind of freaked out. We had been camping on the beach and were pretty sure it was okay to camp there, but you never want to wake up to the police. They asked us a few questions and established that we were the people they had seen last night near the convenience store before they got to their real point for waking us up… they had found a large bottle of sake near where we had been hanging out and they wanted to know if it was ours so they could return it to us just in case we had forgotten it. That is the only time the police have offered me alcohol. The bottle wasn’t ours, but it made for a comical situation!
Day 27 to day 28, we were cycling to stay with a friend who lived near Mt Fuji and we thought she lived near Shizuoka station. We got there and realized that not only was it 10 o’clock at night, but she lived 30 kilometers further. Also, a typhoon was approaching from the Northeast and we tried to race it! We ended up losing that race and getting hit by torrential rains. It was midnight, and we saw a shortcut on our map that looked like a straight shot to her house. Turns out it was the expressway, with big semi trucks zooming past us and everyone getting soaked. It was just crazy. We got off as soon as we could. That was one of the more nerve-wracking times of the trip.
DP: Any advice for someone who dreams of doing a similar trip?
AM: Allow yourself more time than you think you need, because we didn’t have enough time in the places we were touring or with the people we met. Our 3500 kilometer trip took 43 days and, I would recommend 50 or 60 days (depending on budget and availability). The real joy of touring Japan is in the details of the culture, including the hole in the wall ramen shops and the people you meet along the way. You have to take the time to really benefit from the experiences.
Also, the reason I made the movie and the ebook is so that hopefully other people realize that they can do something similar! The three of us aren’t extreme adventurers living a wild lifestyle; we are really just three average guys who decided to do something big. Anybody, if they put their mind to it, could do something just as big or bigger.
You can watch the film, download the book and research traveling to Japan at Andrew’s website japanbybicycle.com.