The Ninja Road to Nara

October 23, 2016

We’re pretty behind on these posts! As anyone really in regular contact with us knows, we’re actually now in Fukuoka at the last stop of our trip! You can check out the detailed routes we took to get here by following me on Strava here. We’re trying to get caught up with the writing but we’re leaving Japan tomorrow and there’s a lot of work to do. Here’s a post written about a week ago that just finally made it to the website! Thanks for your patience, loyal reader!


Bronwyn described our exit from Tsu in our last post, but I wanted to reemphasize something about our experience with the roads in Japan. Generally, they tend to fall into one of three categories (and are almost never exclusive to one category for an entire day of riding) in our experience:

  • Cycle roads, exclusive of both vehicular and pedestrian traffic and with clear, smooth pavement with a minimum of bumps or curbs. These are so rare that I can probably count the number of places that we’ve found these on one hand.
  • Quiet roads with little vehicular traffic, often because they meander through the countryside and are almost inscrutably indirect between point A and B. Usually these are old roads that once served as arteries between old towns or villages before modernization remapped the primary roads that connected places with cars.
  • Primary or main busy roads, filled bumper-to-bumper with incessant transport trucks and obviously-running-late drivers. These may or may not have a sidewalk which serves the secondary purpose of a bike lane, though the 3-inch differential between the curb and the road every time there’s a driveway or intersection would lead you to think that bicycles were not a priority vehicle for the civil engineer who set up the sidewalk (again, when it exists at all).

I wish I could say that we’ve been primarily riding along the first two styles of road during the two million meters that we’ve covered in our cross-country adventure, but more often than not we tend to find ourselves sandwiched between field and traffic in the latter category. The upside: Japanese drivers have been, for the most part, extremely courteous when approaching us from behind in their cars. The larger trucks are occasionally good about this, but we’ve had a couple of near misses with wide side mirrors or careless drivers who were more concerned with getting past us than they were with keeping us alive. We’re confident on our bikes but those moments almost always rattle us.

The route out of Tsu, after all of the drama that the morning brought us, was a wonderful of example of getting it right. We followed a river for the better part of halfway to Iga until we found ourselves underneath an expressway on-ramp. It had been quiet, rural and riparian up until this point. The Google walking directions told us that we might have more luck along the 10 and 25 routes that ran beside the old Kansai train line in the mountains.

If you’re reading this and considering the ride between Tsu and Iga-Ueno, I can’t recommend our path enough. There was some modest climb for the better part of the day but it was exactly what we were looking for. Check out our paths on Strava for more information. It was beautiful. And we got to cruise downhill into Iga just when our tired bodies needed it.

Iga is the birthplace of the ninja; there’s a white castle in the middle of the park and a museum. It’s fairly central to the tourism of the town so we weren’t too surprised to see little kids running around in all black with toy swords. The seven-year-old me would’ve loved this place. We scoped out the park, threw some ninja stars at the museum and decided that if we could be truly ninja-like, we might be able to get away with camping – stealth camping – somewhere in the ninja park. Bronwyn found a good spot and so we tracked down a little bath house in the town and had a soak before visiting a laundromat before bed. Some tempura-don rice bowls later we were ready for bed.

The next morning we woke up to discover a sad-looking tire on my bike; my second patch job of the trip wasn’t holding the air and I had to change out my rear tube again. We record a birthday video for Maryn, Bronwyn’s now-four-year-old niece. She would’ve loved the ninja stuff too.

After departing Iga-Ueno in a cloud of smoke, we found ourselves west of the city and on a truck-filled road. It didn’t look very promising. But perseverance and focus eventually paid off. The signs to Nara, arguably the most important cultural centre of Japan, would eventually lead us back to riverside routes across small bridges and through a smattering of rice patties. The rain threatened to set in on us a couple of times but it would hold off until the last downhill of the day after we had enjoyed a steady diet of cute villages and uphill climbs.

Nara was the first place on the trip that Bronwyn and I had both already visited when we toured Japan by train in 2012 for six whole days. We were less keen to revisit all of the same temples (though, if you’ve never been to Nara, you simply must visit the temples – they’re incredible) and more set on figuring out where to camp. And so we would have our first encounter with the Japanese police as wild campers .

Author: Christian

Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com

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