A Japanese Odyssey, by Eleonora Balbi
In October 2019 a super typhoon was closing in on Japan. Hagibis. Japan was ready: airports got closed, Shinkansens were put on hold, two rugby world cup games got canceled and everyone was getting prepared to spend a weekend inside.
Everyone except for 49 people who traveled to Kagoshima to go on a bike ride.
Luckily, typhoon forecasts are not always accurate, and instead of riding off in the rain, riders were riding off into the ashes of an erupting volcano.
I know, that Japan is on many “always wanted to go” lists. But to be honest, it was never really on mine. The first time I actually thought about traveling to Japan was when I heard of the Japanese Odyssey. The Japanese Odyssey is a long-distance event.
However: it’s not a race - It’s about discovery, about exploration, about challenging yourself. Or that’s what the organizers say. Then again, you will have to ride fast and far to make it in time for the finisher's party.
Different from other “unsupported long distance events”, there aren’t multiple media cars or race angels on the road. It is quite likely that you’ll reach a checkpoint and you will see nothing. There are no volunteers waiting for you, there is no food and it is most likely a completely random place somewhere in Japan (usually on top of a mountain that requires to climb up to another mountain to get down again to get to climb the next mountain) and if you reach the finish line, there won’t be anyone. No organizers, no fans, no “FINISH”-sign, no photographer. Maybe a handful of other riders that arrived before you. If you take part in the Japanese Odyssey, you are neither doing it for “the fame” nor to win a race against someone else. You’ll do it, because you probably like cycling (you really should, it really is a lot of cycling) and you might have one of these longings to mess up your mind and legs. And that’s why it is so awesome!
In fact, there are at least 49 stories to be told about the Japanese Odyssey 2019 and I could only tell mine properly. And that one would already be too long. So here’s a quick Japanese Odyssey summary of what it is about:
It’s about climbs, steep climbs. And long climbs.
It’s about heat. And cold.
It’s about rain. A lot of rain. Trust me. You will get soaked. Because it’s about typhoons.
And fancy super aero rain protection gear from the family mart. And thankfully about 24h coin laundries.
It’s about toilets. Precisely spoken: toilets with heated toilet seats. You won’t know what you’ve missed until you fell asleep hugging a heated toilet seat for the first time because you were completely soaked and frozen. Besides that, toilets are luxury hotels in Japan anyway. They are clean, huge, usually have power plugs to charge electronics and often come with “a bed”.
It’s about vending machines selling cold drinks, hot drinks and soup in the most remote places – except for when you really need one.
It’s about language barriers.
It’s about 24h konbinis. And spending almost 24h trying to figure out what you are actually eating. It’s about road signs – and a lot of “no”.
It’s about staying away from highways – or getting police escort within 3min if you don’t.
It’s about the crappiest bikeshops. And the nicest ones just next door.
It’s about Onsens. The best thing ever after a full day and half a night on the bike.
It’s about detours. About closed roads. About destroyed roads. Actually it’s a lot about rerouting. And seeing Fuji (worth the detour).
Yet it’s about finding the smoothest tarmac on roads you wouldn’t expect it.
It’s about listening to scary stories while riding through scary forests at night – do you dare to route through the suicide forest?
And it’s about more climbing. One hell of a lot more climbing.
Okay, it’s also about reaching Tokyo and its busy roads in time.
It’s definitely not about racing others. It’s about racing yourself. About meeting people with a similar mindset: ride your bike until your legs can’t pedal anymore until your saddle sores are unbearable or until your bike breaks down.
And because there is no finishers list, there is no fuss about who got there first, who took shortcuts, who left out checkpoints and who didn’t make it. Whether or not you get to that finish line in time for the finisher's party – you’ve had the adventure as soon as you’ve started your trip to Japan. And while doing so, you’re sure to meet an awesome bunch of happy people. And that’s what it’s all about. Go on an adventure. Ride your bike. Far. Enjoy.
Words by Eleonora Balbi, photos by Guillaume Schaeffer