A recumbent journey to childhood roots

In the spring of 2000, I bought a folding recumbent bicycle and flew to Japan. It was the best investment I ever made.

I lugged a green REI backpack and a fifty-pound suitcase outside the airport on tiny Rishiri island off the tip of Hokkaido, the north island of Japan. The two bags held everything I thought I needed to survive for three weeks on my first solo bike trip. I sat down on the sidewalk, opened the suitcase and took out the instruction manual for my new bicycle built by Bike Friday in Oregon. I had read through the manual and grasped the general idea of how to assemble the folding bike and trailer kit. The problem was, I had never done it before.

Buffeted by the wind, I anchored the flapping pages of the manual with two rocks. I took out the toolkit and pulled on work gloves to protect my newbie hands. Inside a blue felt bag was the bike chain—a jumble of greasy knots. Fifteen minutes of twisting and turning later, the chain finally untangled. I lifted the bike frame out of the case and attached the front and rear wheels, the seat and handlebars, following the step-by-step instructions. An hour-and-a-half later, I stood beside an object resembling a green recumbent bicycle with an upright seat, pedals shooting out front, and sixteen-inch wheels. 

Six years prior, I had moved to Oregon with a husband, two daughters, and a cat to begin a new life. Oregon’s verdant forests, snow-capped volcanoes, rushing rivers, and rocky coastline reminded me of Hokkaido, my childhood home, where I grew up with my missionary parents and siblings. I eased into my role teaching linguistics and Japanese at the university. My heart settled in, but my marriage bonds wore thin. We set each other free with a champagne toast to twenty years and two wonderful daughters. 

Several years later my hoped-for tenure position at the university derailed. The notice of termination came like a captive bolt gun to the head. I was stunned, immobile, like cattle in a slaughterhouse. Marauders invaded my thoughts; sleep was elusive. Where had I gone wrong? How could I survive without a job? I was groping in a dark cave with no way out.

One day an email landed in my inbox: We are pleased to accept you as a foreign language researcher at our institute.” An invitation from the National Language Research Institute in Tokyo. I jumped at the opportunity to return to Japan—to re-examine my past.

An idea formed in my mind: What if I took a bicycle with me to Japan? It would be fun to explore the countryside on vacation. I could take a bike to Hokkaido and revisit the places I used to live. I had never cycled more than a mile or two, but the idea of a self-powered journey caught my imagination. An internet search led me to a company in town that built custom folding bikes. I promptly ordered one in emerald green, the color of Oregon—the first place in the United States that felt like home to me.

“The hardest part is keeping your balance,” said Mike, the bike consultant, when I picked up my recumbent bicycle. “Once you’re moving, it’s not hard.”

He gripped the back of the chair-like seat as I placed my right foot on the pedal. I pushed off and circled the parking lot. It was exhilarating—I can do this! I remembered learning to balance on a bike as a six-year-old in Hokkaido, pedaling down the road to my Japanese elementary school.

Now I could hardly believe I was back in Hokkaido, filled with childhood memories. I’d spent my first eighteen years in this lush land of mountains and lakes and crop farms. I wanted to track down my Japanese classmates from elementary school—if they were still around. Would they remember me, the brown-eyed American girl? Or would I be a gaijin—foreigner, outsider? Was Hokkaido still my furusato, home of my heart? I intended to find out during my self-propelled tour.

Before leaving Tokyo for my bike trip I jotted down everything I feared could go wrong:

What if I get a flat tire?

What if I get lost?

What if I have an accident?

What if I run out of money?

Underneath those fears lay my darkest doubt: Could I take care of myself alone in Japan?

I had left Tokyo early that morning, flown north to Sapporo, then changed to a prop plane for the short hop to remote Rishiri island, as far north as you could go and still be in Japan. As the plane landed, Mount Rishiri’s jade crown loomed through the clouds. I shuffled off the plane with Japanese businessmen, older couples on a group tour, and several hikers. A blast of chill wind almost knocked me sideways. Tokyo had been muggy and ninety degrees; Rishiri was a brisk fifty degrees. 

Standing before my bike with tools, clothes, and camping gear strewn about, I felt a cold knot in the pit of my stomach. My back, chest and hands were clammy. I was ten miles from the nearest town and the pale sun was sinking. I intended to do a trial run of my bike and trailer set-up before leaving Tokyo but had never gotten around to it—typical of me. I stuffed my camping gear and guidebooks on Hokkaido into the trailer and pedaled away from the deserted airport. 

Dodging a band of raucous gulls, I followed a bike path from the airport to a free campsite. Progress was painful into a stiff headwind. The trailer felt heavier with every pedal stroke. All I could think of was getting to the campsite, setting up my tent, and collapsing inside. When I finally reached camp the sky was dark as coal. I set up my tent under the beams of a lighthouse. Too spent to cook, I ate a small bun filled with sweet azuki beans, crawled into my sleeping bag, and fell into a dead sleep. All night moonbeams danced on the waves like silver seals.

When I awoke the sun was up and the gulls were out to sea. I basked in the warmth sipping tea and devoured nut bread. I set out to explore Rishiri island. Only sixty kilometers around, easily accomplished in one day, I thought. I slung my backpack behind my seat and pedaled out from the campground. A pair of black and white spotted butterflies kept pace with me at fifteen kilometers an hour. They seemed to be flirting: Catch us if you can. I passed white pebbled beaches with wavy kombu laid out to dry in the sun. The kelp released a tangy scent of salt and sea. Cruising along on my green dragon in the warm rays I felt weightless, as if I could glide up into the clouds.

Thickets of pink hamanasu wild roses lined the sandy shoulders of the road. Their dense sweetness pulled me back to memories of family excursions. We were a camping family in the 1960s before camping was cool. Once when we were at the coast, we children were jumping in the waves. Mother and Dad were sitting on the rocky beach reading. The tide swept my older brother Daniel out too far out and he couldn’t get back. I screamed at my parents to save him. Either the wind drowned out my voice or they didn’t see my desperate signal, because they did not move. Daniel somehow made it back, but my heart was squeezed in a vise-grip of fear. 

Hunger pangs led me to a rustic restaurant. I parked my bike and went inside. 

Irasshai-mase,” the cook and waiter greeted me. I sat down on a stool at a small table.

Kaisen-don kudasai”—I’ll have the sea urchin and salmon roe bowl.

The waiter served my dish on a tray. As I picked up my chopsticks to savor the bounty from the sea, a young Japanese guy with a shaved head strode in the door. 

Baiku Furaidee!” —Bike Friday, he shouted. He must have seen my recumbent outside with “Bike Friday” decals.

 “That’s my bike,” I replied in Japanese. “I came from Oregon to tour Hokkaido.”

He shot a startled look at my sharply carved face, then softened. “Nice to meet you. I’m touring Hokkaido, too, on a Bike Friday touring bike.”

And that’s how I met Hirano Keiji from Osaka, cruising on a white bike he ordered from Eugene, Oregon. Serendipity. Keiji, twenty-something, had just switched from a motorcycle to human-powered touring; I was a pudgy matron double his age, masquerading as a seasoned bicycle tourist. We commemorated our chance meeting by taking a picture on our bikes.

Cycle touring Hokkaido

In July and August it’s common for Japanese folks and visitors to escape the humidity and heat of Tokyo by escaping to Hokkaido, where it’s cooler. When they see another cyclist on the road they will inevitably wave or give you a thumbs up and say ‘Gambatte’ (hang in there). Even car drivers open their window and shout encouragement — quite a cultural difference from the U.S. where some drivers, unfortunately, regard cyclists as a nuisance and swear at them, or worse, try to drive them off the road. If a car or truck coming up behind you honks, it doesn’t mean ‘Get off the road,’ but rather a friendly signal letting you know that they’re about to pass you.

What about money? You can use foreign bank ATM (credit/debit) cards to withdraw cash at any 7-11 or post office in Japan, so you don’t need to carry a large amount of money. Traveler’s checks are pretty much useless and small shops may not take credit cards. Vending machines with hot and cold drinks are everywhere (even along isolate country roads) and convenience stores such as Family Mart are plentiful in towns and cities and are a great place to get food for the road – onigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori with various fillings) are great for the road.  It’s pretty safe in Japan and if you ever get lost, people are genuinely helpful and you can always stop at a neighborhood police box for help.

It’s pretty easy to find campgrounds, and some even have an onsen (thermal hot springs), which feels wonderful after a day of cycling. Inexpensive lodging includes minshuku (B&Bs) and Youth hostels (A unique cultural experience in itself – take your international YH membership card), but the cheapest are called ‘Rider house’ (say ra-i-da-a ha-u-su)  specifically for summer bikers ($10-$20 a night) . Their locations, as well as the location of campgrounds and 7-11s very well marked in the map books called ‘Touring Mapple’ – there’s a book for every region of Japan, and although they’re in Japanese, the routes are very detailed and easy to understand. Available at bookstores and amazon.co.jp.

For background information on Japanese culture, language, transportation, and regional guides,  of course I recommend my book “Living Abroad in Japan.” A good online resource is  Japan Cycling Navigator.  A Bike Friday rider who toured Japan offers great tips and photos on Geno’s blog.

Express tikit

I got an Express tikit built by Bike Friday in Eugene, Oregon, in the fall of 2007. It’s the 5-second hyperfold version. I intended to use it primarily for commuting to work and running errands, but I’ve also taken it overseas on tours. My 9-speed Capreo Express tikit with 16″ wheels performed very well exploring 500 miles in southern France and a combined 1,000 miles on the last two Japan cycle tours I led–including a climb halfway up Mt. Fuji.

Express tikit in Akan National Park, Hokkaido
Express tikit in Akan National Park, Hokkaido

Before the last trip I replaced the H-bars with drop handlebars so I’d have more hand positions and a more aero position in headwinds. With narrow, high-pressure Schwalbe Stelvio tires, it rides pretty much like a road bike. To make sure I could get over mountain passes I put a smaller 48T chainring on it. I made it up all but a 13% grade… Another person on my Japan tour rode his Travel tikit and was also happy with its performance.

The big advantage I found with the tikit over the 20″ BF models is when using public transportation. The quick fold, transit cover, and rollability were a huge plus hopping on and off the TGV in France and shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan. Compared to carrying  my  Pocket Rocket Pro (and before that, SatRDay recumbent) in a bag on my shoulder up and down steps and through train stations, the tikit is a breeze.  Now if only Bike Friday would develop a 20″ model with a folding stem and a wheel for rolling…

Freepack backpack

Several people asked me how I carry things on my tikit. Well when I was touring Hokkaido in 2006 with a group of Bike Friday riders, we by chance met a Japanese cyclist on a Bike Friday! He had this cool backpack perched on the back of his seatpost that clicked on and off. I found out it’s made by a German company, Rixen & Kaul, that makes lots of innovative bike bags to carry everything from groceries to your dog. His pack was called Freepack Meta. I begged my BF friend to bring me one from Japan. (Thank you, Maki-san!).

Express tikit in Tokyo
Express tikit in Tokyo

If I have more stuff to carry, I use a TEECO bag. It has a molded rubber bottom and stands up by itself so it’s handy for grocery shopping and for carrying books to the library

Here’s me riding in the rain from Shinjuku to Tokyo Station to catch the Narita Express train to the airport. The Freepack backpack comes with a rain cover and a clever elastic mesh things that holds your helmet.

It’s the little things that make biking a pleasure!

(Where’s my suitcase, you ask? Shipped to the airport via takkyuubin delivery service, of course.)

Personalized tours on two wheels!