Two weeks in Japan - A Journal of Cycling

James Smith , Pearland Cycling Club.

Last year I traveled 5 times to Japan and twice to Italy for work.  The trips ranged from as short as 5 days to Japan (left Monday, returned Friday) to nearly 2 weeks.  One thing I've learned is that each time I'm away I gain 1-2 pounds a week due to relative inactivity and lose fitness that takes a week or two to recover.  I've tried running, which while a great workout, just doesn't burn the number of calories I can on the bike.  Plus running does absolutely nothing for my riding legs.  My threshold power typically drops and my first hard ride back is numbing.  My heart races and I feel like I want to pass out.  So in an effort to keep my riding fitness up, I did a trade study on whether to buy a bike case or a break-apart bike.  I ended up with the case for my travels.  This is the first trip for using it.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

I headed off to the airport for another trip to Japan.  This time would be different, however, as I was traveling with my road bike.  I packed the bike in a Serfas hard case for the long trip from Houston to Tsukuba, Japan.  I arrived at the airport well in advance of my departure in anticipation of any difficulties I that could arise from the bike case.  Upon hitting the reservation counter I loaded my bike on the scale.  The reservation clerk was looking through her computer for quite some time and I thought something might be amiss.  Turns out she was checking on the baggage policy.  She quietly started to say, "Uh, did the travel agent tell you about … "I interrupted her and filled in the rest. "You mean the $80 charge?  I know about that." And with that I was $80 lighter in the wallet. The next step was to ask how the box would be inspected.  I told her I was concerned that if it were opened that there could be some difficulty getting it closed or that some items may fall out.  She suggested I head over to another area of the check-in where bags could be x-rayed on the spot.  The TSA rep really started to grumble. "We do these all the time downstairs.  There's no need to do it here.  This is the last time we do it."  Last time or not, it got x-rayed and was on its way to the cargo hold.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

After nearly 14 hours on the plane, I had finally hit Japanese soil. After clearing immigration I went to the baggage area where my bike was already waiting for me. I was relieved to find the box in pristine condition; it was just a little wet from the rain outside. I saw that rain coming in and was hoping it would disappear soon. The last thing I wanted was for a week's worth of wet riding. I collected my bags, converted some cash to Yen, and bought my bus ticket for Tsukuba, which takes another 90 minutes from the airport. As the bus arrived, one of the baggage handlers gestured that there would be a problem. The case would not fit. There was no way in heck I was going to come 6600 miles only to have my bike left at the airport. I indicated that it would fit if they lay the case flat. There was some grumbling from the bus company, but it got on. I had a nice nap on the bus and arrived a bit later at Tsukuba Center. Typically I just walk from the bus station to the hotel, which is about 5-10 minutes by foot. With my bike case, roller bag, and duffel, this would be more difficult, but I set out anyway. About 100 feet later I decided I'd just try to cab it. I approached a cab and motioned to the back seat and said "Ii desu ka?" to see if it was OK to put the case in the rear - there was no way it was going to fit in the trunk. Fortunately Japanese taxis are spacious and it fit nicely in the rear seat. I got to the hotel a few minutes later. After a quick trip to the grocery store for fruit and some tempura I headed back and crashed. I didn't even open the case up.

View from the hotel looking South. You can make out Fuji-san in the distance. It's over 100 miles away but still looks incredible. An awesome sight.

onday, January 17, 2005

I woke up bright and early (430 AM or so) to put my bike together. Everything went nicely and I was ready for a quick ride. I only had time for about an hour but since I hadn't ridden in a few days I was itching to get outside. I bundled up for the near-freezing temperatures and headed out into the darkness, with nothing but a headlight and rear flasher marking my path. The streets were empty, which is not surprising considering the Japanese penchant for not going to work until 9 or 930 in the morning. I was surprised at just how smooth the streets were. I'm used to a mixture of road surfaces around Houston, including concrete, asphalt, broken up asphalt, and chip-seal. Potholes are almost non-existent in Japan, and it was a refreshing change. I did see a few other cyclists out, but they weren't the fitness type. These were Japanese on their single speed commuter specials on the way to who knows where. In the afternoon I headed to the one and only bike shop I know of in Tsukuba. The shop has high quality gear and does not stock the cheap single speed commuter bikes prevalent in Japan. The location was boarded up. Fortunately the location was a 5 minute walk to the hotel so I went back and checked the status. The shop moved about 10 minutes away. I walked over to buy a CO2 cartridge. Using my best Japanese (which isn't that great) I conveyed my desire. I received my cartridge and proceeded to my next mission - asking about roads to ride or group rides. They didn't have any bike maps, and unfortunately their group ride for the coming weekend was mountain bike only.

There wasn't much room in the hotel room for me and the bike. The little floor space you see is all there was.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Tuesdays are normally tempo days and this was no exception. I was out on the road by 430 AM. After a short warmup I ventured down some new roads for me. I was really enjoying the cold, clear morning though I desperately wished for the sun to be up to fully enjoy the beautiful Japanese landscape. Getting away from Tsukuba I hit some narrow Japanese roads. The roads could best be described as one and a half lanes wide. The narrow streets give a good sensation of speed and it help motivate me for my tempo portions. Getting away from the center of Tsukuba meant I was hitting some short hills. Living in Houston, there are zero hills around me, and I took the opportunity to attack each and every one. Despite the temperatures hovering just above the freezing point, I was in a sweat by the time I finished. A great ride.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I try to get a 2-3 hour ride in on Wednesdays, and as I wanted to keep my training as normal as possible during my stay, I would have loved to accommodate such a ride. However, I also knew I would be doing a threshold workout Thursday and didn't want to push myself too hard or long. Since I'm not on my usual diet while in Japan, I just am not sure how quickly I can recover. More importantly, most of my rides back home are in the afternoon, and with my workouts being done in the early hours I don't get the full benefit of a day's worth of fueling. I just kept the power in level 2 for most of the ride and headed towards Mount Tsukuba. The room where my meetings have been have a clear view of the mountains and they have beckoned me since my arrival. I came within a few miles of the base of the mountain before realizing I better turn around so I could make it back in time for a shower, breakfast, and the walk to work. On the way back I decided to alter my route a bit. I was thinking about how I hadn't been chased by one dog yet. Not 5-10 minutes later I heard a bark in the dark and was spooked. It's one thing to be chased by a dog you see in advance, but this little pup totally surprised me. At some point I should have crossed the road I came out on, but I didn't recognize it. I ended up getting mixed up on directions. I would say lost since I could backtrack a few miles and get on course again. I popped out on a major 6-lane road that I instantly recognized. I was doing plenty of running last winter and spring, and on one trip to Tsukuba in early 2004 I had jogged from Tsukuba to Tsuchiura and back (about 13-14 miles round trip) before work. That experience helped me as I knew where I was and where I had to go. I headed down the major road, and by this time (around 630 AM) the Japanese started to hit the streets, though traffic was minimal. I passed the Red Lobster (yes, these are the same Red Lobsters as in America) as cars and trucks whizzed by at 40-50 mph. I made it back to the hotel fine and with the knowledge of a pretty good route for my threshold workout.

The view from my room. Mount Tsukuba during daylight hours. This weekend's fun.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Another day, another ride in the dark. Armed with the knowledge of yesterday's route, I planned on this one for my threshold workout. I knew it would be about an 8-9 mile stretch from the start point (across a major intersection) to the turnaround point. The route has a few hills and unfortunately a few minor intersections along the way. Since it was dark I had no idea what kind of power I was generating. I just did the workout on perceived effort. This was the coldest morning yet but once I got on the power my frozen fingers thawed out. My face felt like it was freezing, but I was feeling good. I took a short rest period at the turnaround and started the second interval. I hit a couple of intersections that required a full stop and ruined my pace. It will be interesting to see the data from the Powertap once I download it. After the second interval I was a bit concerned as I seemed to have lost feeling, um, below the belt. I felt around and had no feeling. I was thinking how I better not have suffered frostbite in my bits and pieces. When I got back to the hotel I took a long, hot shower to warm things up and make sure I was OK. A few hours later everything was nominal.

Friday, January 21, 2005

No ride as I want to rest up for the weekend of riding.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

I could not get a full 8 hours of sleep as I woke up at my usual time of 430 AM or so. I went to the 24 hour book store Tsutaya to buy a map of the prefecture. I found a good one and went back to the hotel to plan my route. The goal was 100 miles. Did some planning and then headed to breakfast where I had the pancake set (3 pancakes, salad, corn soup, yogurt, and juice) as well as an extra order of toast. After breakfast I packed my supplies. This was my first time to bike with a backpack, and perhaps the last. It was loaded up with food, drink, camera, bike stuff, and the map book. I headed off and within the first hour my back was hurting from the backpack. I made my way over to a 40 km bike path from Tsuchiura to Iwase, battling the 20+ mph winds. The path was around 10 feet wide and was of good surface. There were multiple intersections along the path which caused me to slow to a crawl often. I stopped near Mount Tsukuba and noticed another roadie nearby. I used my best Japanese to ask about the mountain, but I guess he had enough and went into English. He told me about the climb and I jumped at the chance. A 2.4 km climb at roughly 10% average grade. 10 minutes later and riding my smallest gear (39x23) I was as high as you could go by car or bike. You can't get to the summit except by foot or cable tram. I scooted back down and continued to face the cold, windy day. The 45 degree temperatures weren't bad in themselves, but the wind aggravated the issue.

A typical Japanese street. Barely enough room for a couple of cars

Out in the rice fields, looking towards Mount Tsukuba

The dedicated bike path from Tsuchiura to Iwase

The path is 40 kilometers long and provides a great view of the local mountains

The best thing about the path is the availability of clean bathrooms

Eventually I made my was to Iwase where I saw another potential climb awaiting me. The climb was similar to the previous one, though a few tenths of a kilometer shorter and somewhere between 8 and 10 percent in grade. After coming down I anticipated the tailwind. Unfortunately it was more of a crosswind, and it slowed me down more. I stayed on the bike path for the entire 40 km return and had a quick rest to down some cookies. Then it was back to Tsukuba to make up the rest of the miles. I ended up spending the entire day outside. The traffic conditions, hill climbs, and weather slowed me down quite a bit. Total on the bike time was 6:45, and the total time including breaks and sits at traffic lights was a bit over 8 hours. Nonetheless it was a nice ride, though tough. I was wondering just what my normalized power and ride TSS would be. When I downloaded the data, I had confirmation that this was my toughest ever ride. A TSS of 337 for ride is 18% higher than any previous ride of mine, including several centuries.

Getting closer to Mount Tsukuba

Yes, I did make the first climb!

Iwase had even better views

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Woke up totally beat. I got a full 8 hours of sleep, went to breakfast, and took another 90 minute nap. I went out to get a Pepsi so that I could try to ingest some energy into my body. I didn't have enough in the tank for another century, so I decided to just make it a tempo ride in the hills. Man was it great. I headed towards Tsukuba mountain where I ran into some of my coworkers. They rented some of the Tsukuba city bikes and actually rode the 10 plus miles out to the mountain on commuter bikes. Must have been a tough ride for them. I had to hit the restroom before making the climb, so I was behind them on the way up. I passed them soon as they were walking their single speeds up the hill.

The bikes my coworkers rode to Mount Tsukuba. Can you believe they rode these for close to 25 miles?

Wattage for the first climb was 281 watts. I was able to better reduce the data and the first part of the climb up Mount Tsukuba has roughly a 7.8% average grade for 1.52 miles. The road dipped a little before going up again. This time the climb was steeper and registered at around 1.22 miles and a 9.6% average grade. Despite the long ride yesterday I still had plenty of power available to me - 275 watts for that 10 minute climb. Near the base of the climb I passed a rider. I waited at the top to check out the view, figure out my next turn, and scarf down the rest of my banana. I saw that rider again 2 minutes later. Near the top I also saw a bunch of Japanese motorcyclists doing daring hill climbs. Pretty cool stuff. On the decent, I was freezing my butt on. I worked up a good sweat on the way up and all that sweat was getting close to freezing on the way down. The temperatures were in the low to mid 40s. I stopped halfway down to urinate on the side of the road. While standing there, I really took in the beauty of the area. Pine trees were abundant, and I could hear mountain streams flowing in the background. It was stunning. I continued the descent and by the time I hit the bottom my teeth were chattering, my toes and fingers were frozen, and I wanted to find a nice warm place. The descent took me into an idyllic little town in the valley of the mountains. It was Japan at its best - traditional architecture, clean, and narrow roads. I wished I had my camera for both the manmade and natural beauty of this area. At the edge of town I stopped in a convenience store. As I was hitting the parking lot, a group of 4 roadies were leaving. Combined with the half dozen or so riders I saw earlier in the day, I realized this is a prime cycling area. I bought a rice ball for some quick carbs and set off again. A few undulating hills later I was passing through a town that must be known for its strawberries. I resisted the urge to buy some (you can get incredible good fruit at the grocery stores) and just went about my ride. I was in the heart of the valley with mountains all around. The view was fantastic and I just sucked it all in.

Of course, being in the valley meant to get back to the hotel I'd have to dig myself out of the valley. I checked my map and headed off. I was on route 138 when there was a fork with no indication of what the roads were. I spent a few minutes trying to figure out on the map what the correct one was. I guessed, figuring if I was wrong I could just backtrack. Of course, the road had to shoot up again. I had absolutely no idea how long this next climb would be. The road was narrow, with enough room for a car and not much else. Around me were tall pines, the sounds of birds and mountain streams, and just a bounty of natural beauty. Tottemo kiree desu nee. I had been blessed once more in the hills. I just held a lower pace than previously, partly due to fatigue and because I didn't know how long the climb would be. Many switchbacks later, I completed the 1.76 mile climb in just over 14 minutes and at 255 watts. The road had 10% grade signs posted repeatedly, but I calculate the average grade was around 9.1%. Along the way I saw only one car. I paused at the top again to get my bearings and check out the view towards Tsukuba below. Unfortunately it was cloudy or I would have had a spectacular view of Fuji-san. I saw another 2 riders coming the other way while waiting at the top. One thing, it seems like roadies acknowledge each other everywhere. Whenever I'd pass a road rider going the opposite direction, we'd each give a wave or a nod. I hit the descent again, paying attention to the many switchbacks and narrow roads. The last thing I wanted to do was go too fast into a turn, flip over, break some bones, and try to explain it to the wife. Plus the many blind corners meant I had to be cognizant of oncoming traffic. My speeds suffered, but my safety was in check. I was more worried about heart buildup on my rims and a potential blowout. I reached the bottom and saw the same group of 4 riders I saw earlier. It looked like they were heading back to Tsukuba as well. I passed them and plugged on back, spotting yet another roadie on the way. I kick myself for not having a camera to capture the beauty of the route, but at least it's pegged in my memory and I know the route for my next trip.

Monday, January 24, 2005

I was dead tired and didn't ride. My legs were definitely fatigued.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The intent of today was to do a tempo ride. My plan was for at least a two hour ride. When I got out I realized I still hadn't fully recovered from the weekend of tough riding. My legs felt flat and I could feel the buildup of lactate acid on the shorter climbs I attacked. The temperatures were around freezing or below, with frost on the ground. One of my bottles froze near the nipple cutting off my supply. The freezing didn't end there. About 80 minutes into the ride my toes were getting frozen and my hands started freezing as well. I couldn't last much longer. I stopped in a parking lot to try to warm my hands up. It worked, for about 20 seconds. As soon as I was underway the pain in my hands returned. I got back to the hotel 15 minutes or so later and was struggling to get my gloves off and turn the GPS off. I took a long, warm shower until I got my feeling back in my toes and hands. The gloves and shoe covers work, just not in temperatures that cold.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I really had no motivation to ride today. I was up late Tuesday night and I was tired, felt a burning desire to stay warm, and my just felt listless. I was going to persevere, however. I got up and looked out the window. Right then and there I realized I could safely take the day off. There was a forecast of rain overnight, but rather than rain I was treated to a fairly heavy snowfall. The roads were clear but it was coming down pretty good. The safest thing to do was to stay in. I did still get a chance to ride a bike though. The same bikes my coworkers used to head to Mount Tsukuba were still available. One of my coworkers locked them up at the hotel to make certain they were nearby. He and I commuted to work that morning on the walking path and sidewalks. The one mile commute was chilly and the sting of snowflakes hitting my face was apparent. I was wet with melted snow by the time I arrived at the facility. One thing, those bikes are different, but fun. The small wheels and front-heavy design took a little getting used to. Additionally, I didn't set the saddle height so it felt my knees were in my chest. Slight grades were tough due to inadequate leg extension. The good news of the day was word I could go home. I headed back to the hotel after work to disassemble my bike.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

I checked out of the hotel at 11 AM and prepared to head to the bus terminal for the bus ride to Narita Airport. There were 4 of us going to the airport that morning and we had plenty of luggage. We paired up and called a couple of taxis. All my gestures couldn't convince the driver to put the bike case in the back seat. He insisted on the trunk, which clearly was too small to accommodate the case. I put the case in with less than half of the case hanging over the bumper. We loaded luggage on top to try to keep it from falling out. I said to the driver "Yukkuri ikimasu yo" (go slowly). He adhered to the order and we safety made it to the bus terminal a few minutes later. The case got on the bus without problem and at Narita I had minimal problems. At Narita you have to send the luggage you'll check through the x-ray machine before you check in. When the bike went through, the security folks asked if the tires were deflated. They were. Of course, they didn't ask about the CO2 cartridge snuggled in the other bag. It will be interesting to see if it survives intact. The check in staff there was about to charge me over $230 for the case for considering it excess baggage. I told them it was a bike, and several minutes later I was only $80 poorer. While on the plane I've debated whether to ride when I get home. Since I haven't seen my wife in over three weeks, I think I'll stay off and continue what has turned into a rest week. Friday I'll do some testing (1, 3, and 12 minute power) to see where my critical power and anaerobic work capacity lie.


As I sit here on the plane writing this, I'm left with fond memories of my bike travels in Japan. The joy the bike brought me as I traversed the Japanese countryside more than makes up for the difficulties associated with the air and ground transportation. I logged nearly 17 hours and close to 300 miles on the bike in just over a week. While much of the riding was in darkness, I still had a chance to see nature in its splendor. Clear nights afforded me the chance to see starlit mornings and the silhouettes of the mountains in the distance. The thrill of seeing snowcapped mountains during the day was fantastic, as were the travels through the mountain forests. I found Japan to be very bike friendly. While I wouldn't contemplate riding in Tokyo, once you get away from the large cities there are plenty of great roads with little traffic. The Japanese people are always respectful, and that carries over to cyclists as well. No yells from cars or throwing of debris out the window (both would be frowned upon in that culture). If you never though of cycling Japan, try it. You'll enjoy it.

uploaded:08, 11, 2005