Kevin Ricker is a native Colorado resident who moved to Japan to teach English and then decided to explore his new homeland by bicycle.
When Kevin first contacted me about his cycling adventure in Japan, he stated that he had set out with the intention of riding to one location on his bike, but once hitting the road, changed his mind and went off on an entirely different course altogether. Best of all, it seems as though his change of plans enabled him to slow down and enjoy the experience more than he ever would have been able to with his originally planned route.
To learn more about Kevin and his cycling adventures in Japan, check out the interview transcript below.
Kevin, can you explain where you are from and exactly what it is that you do?
I am originally from Colorado. I’ve spent much of my life in Colorado. About 10 years ago I lived in Auburn, AL for two years and then I moved to Tokyo, Japan for one year. I returned to Japan one year ago and I am currently teaching English at a private school, MeySen Academy, in Sendai, Japan. Sendai is about 2 hours north of Tokyo and is big enough to have all the conveniences of a large city, yet I’m able to get on my bike and get out of town in about 20 minutes.
And how was it that you first found out about bicycle touring?
That is a tough question. I guess I saw a few people touring on their bikes as I rode my road bike around Colorado. It makes me think about your article on how touring cyclists are perceived. Bicycle touring didn’t interest me much. The thought of carrying everything I needed in 4 bags, going without showers and hunting for a new campsite every night sounded less than appealing.
Then I had a friend do a bike tour down the coast of Oregon and California. That was the first time I personally knew anyone that did a tour. I almost went with him, but gave some excuse like, I don’t have a bike, money, or something like that. I really regret that decision!
Why did you decide to give bicycle touring a try? And why did you decide to go where you did?
My first summer break in Japan opened up 10 days that I had to fill with a vacation of some sort. Unfortunately, travel, lodging and food can add up when vacationing in Japan.
I remembered riding in “Ride the Rockies” in 2003 and how much fun it was just to bike all day. I suppose that was my first ‘bicycle tour’ but it was a fully supported event. They carried all the luggage, had sag wagons, and rest stops with snacks, water, and meals along the way.
I’m not sure what finally prompted me, but I decided to purchase a touring bike and take my vacation from the seat of a bike. I heard one of the the best places for biking in Japan is Hokkaido due to the openness, beauty, and lack of traffic, so I set my sites there. I researched bikes, gear, and tried to find any itinerary of other bicycle tourists for Hokkaido. I decided to set the northern point as my goal for my trip. I found a website where people are proposing a bicycle route from the northern tip of Japan to the southern tip. The Hokkaido leg was posted 6 days after I decided to go. It greatly bolstered my planning and I revised my itinerary to more closely match their route.
What type of bike and gear (pannier, trailer, or backpack) did you use and why did you select those particular items?
I started doing research about 3 or 4 months before my vacation. I looked at different bikes (mainly tire size: 26″ verses 700c).
Several people asked if I would just take a backpack with all my stuff in it. Personally, I don’t like riding with much weight on my back. I didn’t really consider a trailer either. Maybe it was due to my mental image of other bicycle tourists I’d seen. Also the tire size on trailers is generally odd, so I would feel compelled to carry 2 extra tubes and a backup tire.
I considered a Trek, a Louis Garneau but I decided to get a Giant, Great Journey 2. This was greatly determined by availability. Many bike shops in Japan only sell ‘mama chari’ bikes. Those are bikes with baskets, and are generally two speeds: go and stop. The Giant Great Journey 2 came with front and rear racks, and four waterproof panniers. It is only sold in Japan with this setup. The tires are 26″; I read that it is easier (and found from some personal experience in Japan) to purchase 26″ tire than the 700. Since I was going to Hokkaido and didn’t know what the bike shop situation would be like, I decided the 26 inch tires were the way to go.
The bike cost around $860 USD and was ready to go from the shop. I added a cycle computer, handle bar bag, seat bag, and rear rack bag that sits on top of the rack.
(A little note: I went to the bike shop to order the bike about 2 months before my trip. I figured it may take a couple of weeks to get the bike. They said 2 months. It would be arriving in the shop about 2 or 3 days before I planned on leaving. I was on a 5-day school trip immediately before my vacation and upon my return I had a message on my phone saying my bike was in! I picked it up 2 days before I left. I DO NOT recommend this! Again, as Darren mentioned in a recent article: Get your stuff now!)
Did you take any cool/neat items/electronics/toys on your trip that are worth mentioning?
The most interesting thing I brought was an electronic dictionary (Canon Wordtank V90). Otherwise, I think I was pretty boring on my list of electronics. I brought a pocket ‘point and shoot’ camera that takes videos and is waterproof. I also brought a Nikon D70s which I put in a ‘dry bag’ when the weather turned bad. I almost brought an mp3 player, but decided I didn’t want to fool with it and I could use the time away from technology. I don’t have a cell phone, so that wasn’t an option. I did consider getting a pre-paid phone for emergencies, but didn’t do that. I brought 2 books and a journal. I found I didn’t read as much as I thought I would have, yet the books were great on the ferry ride.
What did your family and friends think about you leaving on such an epic bike ride? Did they think you could do it? Were they nervous? Excited? Scared?
Several of my friends thought I was insane. (They still do.) I told them I was planning on covering 600 miles in about 8 days. Some wondered what I’d do if something bad happened. I’m sure others were worried about me getting by with the language barrier, but I am able to ask for directions and can generally understand the answers I am given.
Talk about the first couple days of your trip and exactly what kind of thoughts were going through your head. What happened in the first couple days of your tour?
Technically, the first day of the tour started with a 1-hour ride to the port and getting on the ferry. Yet, mentally, I didn’t start until the ferry docked in Tomakomai around 11 a.m. the following day. I planned on riding around 50 miles the ‘first day’ and it started raining after about 3 hours of riding. I stopped for around 30 minutes hoping the rain would let up. It appeared to stop, so I took off and then it dumped on me again.
I did reach my goal of cycling 50 miles on the first day and found a dry place to set up my tent. I was a bit discouraged by how tired I was and mostly with the rain. And it at was at this point that I started having thoughts that I wouldn’t make it to the northern point.
I hadn’t calculated a rest day/rain day into my plans and it sounded as though it rained all night. Additionally, I looked at my average speed and realized it was significantly lower with a fully loaded touring bike than I expected.
I woke up to a heavy fog and some drizzle. I wasn’t encouraged by that and thought about bailing and just doing a short ride around the central part of Hokkaido. I decided to press on. I ate a granola bar, some Cheetos and took off. The clouds burned off and I was feeling great! Then I realized I didn’t eat breakfast and this leg of my trip has no towns for about 60 miles. I ate several granola bars and finally stopped just before I bonked and had some rice and instant curry. I was feeling much more tired than I thought I would.
There was a lot of climbing this day and the weight of the bike started taking its toll on my physical and mental state. I was exhausted at the end of this day and started considering an alternate route or goal. The following day I changed my course and decided to enjoy the beauty of Hokkaido as I rode. It was very freeing and allowed me to stop and rest some more, take pictures, and just enjoy the beauty around me. At the end of the ride, I think I could have made it to the northern point if I pressed on, but if anything went wrong, I may not have made it back in time for my ferry.
In the end, I enjoyed my ride so much more by simply taking in the places I was passing through, rather than trying to rush to my final destination.
What was the best place you visited?
The most beautiful place was Toya-ko. It is a lake with an island in the middle. It was absolutely beautiful! I would not have made it there if I went to the northern point. The campsite was right on the lake and they have fireworks every night during the summer.
What was the best part of the trip (not necessarily a place, but an experience)?
The best part of the trip was after I changed my course, I started enjoying the trip. I was no longer driven by how many miles I had to cover, and how tired I was. I was able to talk to people I met along the way and to stop wherever I wanted. I met some college students at Toya-ko. They came down to camp for one night. They invited me to join them in their BBQ. It was a great time! I also met some people on motorcycles later that night. We talked the next morning and I saw them at another stop the next day. We had a few good conversations (in broken English and Japanese).
What was the biggest thing that surprised you once you got out on your tour?
My biggest surprise was how much slower I rode on a fully loaded touring bike. I was also greatly surprised by how easy it was to find a camping spot in Japan. I purchased a “Touring Mapple” map that is all in Japanese, but it lists all the campsites, “Rider Houses”, and hostels (here you have to read a bit of Japanese to find them, campsites and rider houses have pictures). Every campsite I was at had water and toilets. Over 1/2 the campsites I stayed at were free. I generally paid from $3 (for a place on a grass lawn) to $5 (for a tent spot with an electric fence around the whole campground to keep bears out). A “Rider House” is generally for motorcyclists that are touring. People open their place up to people that want to stop by and rest for the night. Some are free and the facilities greatly vary (showers, laundry, etc.) It was very easy to change plans as I had no reservations at any place and campsites were abundant.
Speaking of expenses, how much did the tour cost you?
Since many readers will be thinking in USD. I will give the prices in USD at the exchange rate of last summer – roughly 105 yen to 1 USD (Prices rounded to nearest dollar).
Overall cost per day (without ferry cost): $18
Overall cost per day (including ferry): $40
Ferry cost (round trip, 15 hour trip overnight cheap room with bike below): $225.
Food: $12 per day – $120 for the whole trip.
I brought oatmeal, rice, trail mix and granola bars with me, so I didn’t figure that into my cost. I would purchase rice balls from a convenience store, with a drink for lunch (roughly $4 per time). I would get instant curry or something similar to dump over rice and eat that at night. I found that oatmeal for my morning breakfasts didn’t always satisfy me. I would purchase the oatmeal packets for $1~$1.50 at a supermarket.
I did eat at a restaurant a few times. Ferry: $10 for all you could eat breakfast buffet, and $20 for supper buffet on the way back. Lunch one day $7, and lunch the last day $15.00. (That put my last day food total to about $40.00. Breakfast: $5, Lunch: $15, Supper: $20) I am pretty low budget when it comes to food, so this could increase if you enjoy good food.
Campsites: $16 for entire time. I paid for 4 campsites. If you choose to stay at a youth hostel, you will pay about $35~$40 per night.
Onsens (public baths): $20 for the entire trip. I would have gone to 3 more, but sometimes the campsites were not close and I was too tired to make the trip, (One campsite had showers available for $1 for 10 minutes). Onsens can be anywhere from free to $25 per time. I found some inexpensive ones, but I would figure about $10 for each onsen.
Misc: $17 (Zoo entrance, $5 for phone calls (pay phones are not cheap), $1 for stove fuel). I didn’t do much in the way of paying for sightseeing. The zoo was it.
If you had just one piece of advice for someone who was new to bicycle touring, what would you tell them?
Train hard and tour easy.
No, I’d say enjoy the ride. Make your goals more process oriented than goal oriented. What I mean by “goal oriented” is trying to ride a certain number of miles in a fixed amount of time such that you are unable to enjoy the beauty of being on a bike. Plan your route with flex.
Have you thought at all about another bike trip for the future?
Yes. I am going on a 4-day tour this May with a friend. We will travel by bus for 2 days and do a 2-day bike ride. I will go back to Hokkaido this summer. I should have a few more free days this year and I will go to the northern point and, if time allows, a small island off the tip of Hokkaido. I will do some weekend trips around Sendai in preparation.
Is there anything else you would like to mention or add for the readers at BicycleTouringPro.com?
I am 36-years-old and am now hooked on bicycle touring. The route I will take in Hokkaido will be basically the one I didn’t complete last summer. It is roughly 1000 km (600 miles), and I’ll be going around the middle of August. Let me know if you are interested in joining me.
If anyone is considering a similar trip, the campgrounds are required to make a copy of passports if you do not have a Japanese address. The Japanese are very accommodating and I felt very safe on the roads at all times.