“When it Rains in Japan”
I had just arrived at the airport in Hamburg after finishing an assignment and was waiting for my luggage when my telephone rang.
It was someone by the name of Timo at Pelago Bicycles in Finland. “Carlos?” he said, before continuing, “Listen, we’ve never met before, but I like your photos. How would you like to ride the Japanese Odyssey for us?” “Me?” I responded. “I’ve never ridden more than 190 km in a single day. And not much in the way of elevation! When does it start?”
It wasn’t long before I was stepping off a plane in Tokyo with my buddy Philipp. We had flown to Japan to ride the whole stretch of the Odyssey, from Tokyo to Osaka with a total of 11 checkpoints, 2,294 kilometers and a cumulative elevation gain of 47,400 meters. What we didn’t know when we set out was that our adventure would include an encounter with 2 typhoons, 8,5 days of incessant rain, streets that existed on only on maps and, on the rewarding side, the truly gracious hospitality of the Japanese. Every one of the 1,508 kilometers and the 30,500 meters of elevation we wound up riding shifted the focus of our tour away from our original plan. Instead of seeing the country pass by us on the left and right while riding at a good clip, we immersed ourselves in the culture and explored the remotest regions of the country.
The start in Tokyo was auspicious enough. All 21 riders met at the Nihonbashi Bridge, which marks the point from which all distances to the capital are measured. We cruised through the streets and suburbs of Tokyo. Then we headed out for what would be 6-day tour through the “Japanese Alps”. The rain started the very first night – and didn’t stop. It fell incessantly from the heavens and soaked everything we didn’t stow in our bags.
It seemed to underscore the theme of the Japanese Odyssey itself: “Be prepared!” Our raingear advanced to the status our new best friend. That first typhoon passed over just southwest of the main island, but left us to continue along our route for a few days in a light drizzle. The next typhoon greeted us shortly after in Tokushima and accompanied us almost until the end of our tour. That’s when it happened. We were on an off-road stretch of the way with dusk approaching, around 45 km from the next city. I heard a cracking sound, looked down with a sinking feeling and saw that I had snapped off my derailleur. End of the road with a long way to go!
What then happened is referred to by hikers and bikepackers as “trail magic”. An older couple appeared along the route. After some initial skepticism about us two battle-weary and musty smelling bikers, they placed a telephone call and put us in touch with Makoto, a 25-year-old, especially helpful resident of the next village. Makato took us in, fed us and gave us a room to sleep in. By a stroke of luck and Japanese hospitality, we had avoided a cold, wet night in the middle of nowhere. The next day, after deciding that our bike journey had come to an end, we hitched a ride to Uwajima, the nearest big city. With a sense of satisfaction, we realized that we had immersed ourselves deeper in Japanese culture than we had ever dreamed possible. From Uwajima, we went on to Osaka, the final checkpoint of the Japanese Odyssey where we met the other riders for a big celebration. It turned out to be a long night.