This being my first bike tour, I decided to make the first day of the trip the hardest. Not the longest, but the most difficult in the way of navigating and ride complexity.
I wasn’t wrong. This day was hard.
Starting out from my hotel in Osaka, I spent the first few km on city streets heading to a bike shop. I’d had a slow leak in my front wheel since replacing the tube the week before. I did the job myself and even though I thought I was extremely careful, I must have pinched the tube somehow in the process. I wanted an expert to replace the tube and mount it for me, just to be SURE it was 100% ready to go.
Arriving at the shop, I found out that I was there an HOUR before they opened. Damn, valuable daylight wasted. I found a can of hot coffee from the nearest machine and found a place to sit. Yes, I did say hot. It’s delicious, cheap and the machines are everywhere. On the main street, there’s no place to go. No benches or seats. Just around the corner I found a set of stairs to rest on. An older woman soon passed by me and I nodded my head to say ‘hello’. She bowed to me and quickly left. A few minutes later, she returned and held out her hand in my direction. She had gone to the store and in addition to her shopping, she had bought an orange juice which she was now offering to me. I quickly thought about this: I’m wearing very odd clothing, siting in a fairly dirty sidestreet and I don’t appear to be in any hurry to leave. OH MY, she thinks I’m *homeless!* I politely decline the juice and give her a big smile, bowing my head quite low to indicate how grateful I am. What a nice lady!!!
There are very few homeless in Japan and even fewer beggars. At least this is what I thought as long as I stayed in the cities. On the outskirts I found that there are LOTS of homeless. Living under bridges isn’t a just a stereotype, it’s the truth. Leaving Osaka, I saw more than I could count.
The bike shop opened on time and their mechanic quickly had my tire fixed. He told me that he could not find a leak in the tire itself, but the valve had a slow leak. Aha! Maybe it was just defective… I’ll never know as I left it there and quickly remounted the wheel and got riding.
My route involved some very busy city streets and dedicated bike paths by the river. Nothing too difficult. I’d been on all of the route during my little ‘scouting’ trip the week before. Because of this, the ride pace was quick and easy. The only change in plan was a quick stop at a restroom because of the coffee earlier.
Within a half hour I was on my way outside of the city. With a very wide path almost all the way to Kyoto, I knew I could relax a little. The only real pain were the barriers preventing cars from driving on the bike paths. They’re designed so that riders can roll right through so long as they lift their feet and go slowly. The bad news for me: My panniers are too wide to get through. I had to dismount and LIFT the bike over the barriers. Considering how heavy my bags are, this was no easy task. And they’re frequent. Every 1 to 2 km. The good news: It’s an excuse to get off the seat and stretch a little.
Before I know it, I’m turning off this bike path across a large river towards Kyoto. This is the end of the section that I’ve scouted ahead of time. It’s all new territory.
On the other side of the bridge, I find the path I’m supposed to take. It’s heading in the wrong direction. I pull out my handy phone and look up the map. Sure enough, it too shows this but also shows a 180 degree loop just out of sight. I head off again and soon enough find the loop. At least I’m headed the right way now.
The bike path is quite nice. Well paved and clean. I’m riding beside a large river, with steep slope leading to the water. This part is concrete and a little scary. I really don’t want to go off the path here!
Several km down the path, I get to a train crossing. It’s fenced off, presumably because the ‘Shinkansen’ (aka bullet train) comes through here and you’d never get out of it’s way fast enough. There seems to be no way around it. On the other side, I see a man on a bike staring at me. I wave and get his attention. With a series of hand gestures I ask him how to get around the train line. He points to the slope, indicating to walk the bike under the bridge. I start to push the down the slope. I quickly realize that the bike, myself or both are about to quickly end up in the water. I decide against this and go back up. This would turn out to be my first of many route changes on the trip. Detouring several km’s out of my way, I did manage to find a way around those train tracks.
Several kilometres down the road following the river, I ran into another dead end. This time when I checked the GPS, it showed a different reason for my troubles. I’d biked several well past the point where I should have turned away from the river. This time I had a decision to make: Turn around and go back or try to find a new route. I opted for the new route, which meant leaving the bike path. This was a mistake. Due to many small streams and railway lines, one way and dead-end streets were quite common in the neighbourhood I was travelling through. I probably rode 3 times the distance I really needed to go.
Finally back on track, I joined another very nice bike path by yet another river. This one was wide and well paved. I quite enjoyed this section as it had some beautiful scenery and there were plenty of other people biking and roller skating on the path. I was having such a great time on the ride that I again rode past a turn and found myself quite a ways off my intended route. This time the route I needed to take was clear and one angled road took me where I needed to go. On the way though, I was stopped by the police at a checkpoint on the bike path. They were making sure that everyone had working brakes and lights. I was waved through though. I suspect that they didn’t speak English and couldn’t be bothered with trying to deal with me.
Navigation continued like this all day. Getting slightly lost and then finding my way. I’d chosen a much too difficult path. This was made worse by the fact that I was starting to climb some small hills. Evening was approaching fast and although I had lights with me, they were only blinkers, which were only to help me avoid being hit by a car. I didn’t have a light bright enough to light the way in front of me in complete dark. If I didn’t get to the hotel soon, I’d have to slow down or perhaps even walk my bike to avoid running into something.
Climbing hills isn’t new to me. But I I alway prefer to do it at the start of a ride. Not at the end, when I’m mentally and physically wiped out. But with no other options, I had to press up the hill as quickly as possible. The sun was now setting and I guessed that I had at least 10km to go before reaching the hotel.
The path now was right beside a highway. A straight shot to my goal, but it continued to get harders. Car headlights were now hitting me in the face and it had turned completely black. Lucky for me, there were streetlights here and I could keep riding at a reasonable speed. The uphill turned downhill and I was now coasting down a very long hill into Otsu, a city on the edge of Lake Biwa.
Arriving at my hotel, the Toyoko Inn. The front didn’t look impressive, but I was so happy to get off the bike and check in that this was quickly forgotten. A few minutes later I had my room key and was carrying my panniers up to the room. A hot shower made me forget about all the troubles of the day. Next thing I knew, I was out the front door and wandering around Otsu looking for a place to eat. A ramen and a half dozen gyoza later, my belly was full and I was headed for bed.
The next day I would see Lake Biwa for the first time. The next 2 days I’d be riding around the lake, on what should be a flat scenic ride through rural Japan.