In this twisted, mountain-bike dominated world in which we all live, Japan seems to fly a little under the radar. Unless you’re into riding powder on planks, there’s not much you’ll be hearing the land of the Sumo and running sushi besides perhaps the latest drivetrain innovations... until now at least. Join Shimano Team riders Bernardo Cruz and Steffi Marth as they fill their treads with volcanic soil and their bellies with Tokyo onagi on a bike adventure to Japan’s main island of Honshu. Hosted by Japanese pro, Hiroshi Ato, it is set to be a fascinating eye-opener, both on and off the bikes.
. Perhaps it seems unusual to begin with a ‘thank you’, but there’s nothing ‘usual’ about Japan and we need to show our appreciation for this great place. In a land where you simply cannot be polite enough, ‘arigato’ is a word you don’t forget. Practice it now. Practice your chopstick technique while you’re at it. Prepare your neck to nod and bow a thousand times and bring an extra suitcase for gifts in case you meet… anyone. After your bike, pack your shovel. You’ll be needing it to assist the local trail maintenance crew on their painstaking mission, not to buff the singletrack ready for more tires, but instead to return each and every misplaced twig and pine cone you carelessly swept aside on your ill-mannered decent. This is by no means an exhaustive list to help remember your ‘P’s and ‘Q’s abroad and if it sounds curious to you now, get ready to make some serious cognitive adjustments later on. Japan intrigues from the moment you’ve said the word and won’t quit until your last memories spark out at 93. With or without bikes; Japan is a whole other planet.
Still dazed by automated toilet procedures, the continuous assault on our senses, the time difference and in Bernado’s case a 36 hour travel time from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, we found ourselves in a whirl-wind of classic Japanese mini-bus travel without the space for a spare chop-stick or time to use it on anything much more than some convenience store noodles. From Hiroshi’s garage in suburban Osaka, we’d been chauffeured overnight in a maxed-out Toyota; two hosts, a driver, Bernardo, Steffi, myself and Phil our videographer, along with 9 bikes and all baggage to the Yamanashi district within touching distance of the World-famous and locally sacred volcano that is Mount Fuji.
Lodging a stone’s-throw from a temple site over a thousand years old, with a group of local riders caring for the trails and campaigning for their official-dom, we were treated to some of Japan’s finest MTB offerings right off the bat. A lengthy shuttle took up high up into thick cloud-forest, as dense as it was ancient, shrouding the most natural single-track of so many incredible phases. Old man’s beard hanging from the trees hid epic views of Fuji as we flowed over roots and loam, floating full-gas into a natural halfpipe filled with dead leaves.
Bernardo Cruz - GT
|Oh man, Japan is crazy. It's my first time in Asia, so for me it's a lot... I didn't know there was just forest like this everywhere and sick trails... I wish we could build some more jumps, but we're not allowed haha! The locals are so funny it's amazing, I think we seem really rude to them! |
Hiroshi's girlfriend, Keiko, lives to ride. A good English speaker, she closed her bakery in Osaka for two weeks to help get us to the best spots on Honshu. Since our visit she's begun working for Deity Components as a distributor in Japan as well as managing a national DH race team.
Just a few days into our trip and already we had both wet and dry laps under our belt on trails better than we could have ever hoped for; some unforgettable times behind bars. However, our bikes had left scars on the face of this magic mountain and with the nervous locals not ready to step into plain sight in a place currently unwelcoming of life on two wheels, the branches were swept back across the tracks, returning it to its disguised, hibernation state once again.
Our already calloused palms caught some short relief in Tokyo. Perfect timing with the sumo’s arrival in the capital came at a heavy-weight price, but some of the best things were free... Tsukiji fish market, the temples of Asakusa and the World’s busiest pedestrian crossing at Shibuya came without a price tag and in a land without tips we kept out yen for what was next.
As much as sumo wrestling seems to be about the build up, when the flags go away and all the foot stomping and salt tossing stops, the fighting is fast paced and vicious. Luckily one of these monsters usually gets flung over the edge of the ring before anyone's face gets torn off. No one seems to stop you taking photos or video so we stood there with an unsubtle 300mm lens on a Red Epic until the very end.
The next morning, from dimly-lit alleyways teaming with fast moving industrial vehicles we were ushered out of the spitting rain and flashing headlights into the tightly-packed confines of a warehouse viewing area. After a 3am wake up on the hard wood floor of Hiroshi's uncle's house we were quickly shaken from our travel-zombie status’ by the regimented shrieking of the auctioneer as crowds gather between the rows of what appear to be gigantic, frozen torpedoes. It was, in fact, the catch of the day - top and tailed blue-fin tuna at the World’s largest fish market, Tsukiji and our focus turned to not making an unintentional bid on a 400 pound chunk of sushi. Half-way through our bike adventures on Honshu, and the crazy cacophony of sights and smells continued to amaze us on our Japanese initiation.
Fujimi Panorama is Japan’s largest lift-accessed bike park. Out of the gondola, the long descent through pygmy bamboo and over high-speed jumps and turns is a key stage of the Japanese national DH race circuit. Two weeks before the next round, the parking lot was awash with mini vans and gazebos of prospective racers, already training for the big day. We left with dreams of a World Cup rematch - the first since Japan hosted at Mount Arai, all the way back in 2001.
Steffi Marth - Trek
|The Japanese bike scene is like a little microcosm that's just been doing it's own thing for so long. It's awesome to get the chance to look inside the bubble and see how much potential it has. With the unique culture, open-hearted people and insane sushi, it's my new favourite place... there's nowhere else like it. I'll be buying a kimono any day now. No, really! |
Not content to put the big bikes away so soon, Hiroshi and Keiko took us to another gem that was a little closer to their Osaka home. Leaving their bikes unlocked and on the street outside their house overnight (take a look at Japan’s crime figures), we were shuttled the following morning to a huge conifer forest close to the temples that see racers compete on the sacred staircases of the RedBull Holy Ride urban DH race.
Illustrated trail instruction manuals in hand and handlebars fitted with mini cowbells we headed to the hills above the skyscrapers of Osaka for one last ride. A country so steeped in tradition and formality is difficult to change and Hiroshi and Keiko appreciate what it will take to convince the 127 million people, sandwiched between the ocean and steep volcanic terrain that mountain biking deserves it’s place. Although Japan’s bike scene may be mature and relatively strong compared to many nations, it now seems to find itself somewhat on the back foot from its 90s heyday. One thing is for certain – with this kind of terrain and such a huge volume of hiking trails - this nation’s potential for mountain biking is unreal. As word of the joys and benefits of an outdoor pursuit’s lifestyle arrives with mainstream Japan we can only hope the bicycle rises to the top.
One last culture stop before the long flight home... Kyoto's Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine and it's thousands of orange Torri gates. Each archway was donated at some point by local businesses and families for good fortune and the incredible walkway is punctuated by ancient graveyards of former cityfolk who are now believed to have become gods. Foxes have supernatural shapeshifting powers in Japanese folklore and here we found hundreds of candle-filled shrines and spooky, moss covered statues, curiously dressed in red capes. It was a lot to take in, but that was really the underlining theme of our entire experience in Japan. Two hours of climbing up and down stairs and we were no less in awe of this place.