A group of Malaysians take their folding bikes on a tour of a fish market in Tokyo and temples in Kamakura, while surviving on budget meals.
Having taken up cycling just about two years ago, I consider myself a newbie biker. I envy those who have done long cycling trips in foreign countries over months, and read about their adventures with awe.
As I was not able to go away for such long periods, an eight-day cycling trip in Japan was monumental for me. Sure, I had cycled in other countries like Singapore, Australia and Cambodia, but this trip would be different as the climate would be cold. How well would we adapt?
Seven of us went on the trip. Ng Yong Sin was the leader and Ten Siew Yung contributed a lot in terms of research (of accommodations, places to visit, alternative transportation, etc.)
I was nominated as the sweeper, perhaps because I had a habit, even when not cycling, of frequently doing head counts. The planning for the trip took several months, as questions were asked by the group and we had to plot a route around Tokyo and – most importantly – not end up lost in Hokkaido!
Flying to and staying in Tokyo
We took the Air Asia X flight from LCCT to Haneda International airport. Some of our buddies had difficulties during checking in, as their bicycles were heavier than the pre-booked baggage allowance. It was a painful lesson as the penalty for excess baggage can be expensive.
Cyclists should weigh their bikes and luggage much earlier to avoid such “surprises” at the airport. But putting that unfortunate incident behind us, we resolved to enjoy ourselves as we flew off.
By the time we checked out of Haneda airport, it was past midnight and the trains had stopped running. We took a van and a limo (which Siew Yung had booked earlier) down to K’s House Backpackers Hostel. For a location right in the city, accommodations here are relatively cheap by Tokyo standards, ie just above RM100 per pax per day.
Three of us squeezed into a small room with our bikes and luggage. The space was so tight that we had to walk sideways like crabs! Now we had an idea of how the migrant workers in Malaysia feel in their cramped quarters.
Temples and fish
Cycling around Tokyo saved us a fair amount of train fare. In inner Tokyo one needs patience because the building blocks are short and one has to stop frequently at traffic lights. Still, it was worthwhile cycling to places like Ueno Park, as autumn was starting to set in, making the place rather picturesque.
We also visited several temples like the Senso-ji Temple with its wide iconic roof and giant entrance drums. When visiting these temples, it’s worthwhile to explore a bit. At the Nezu Jinja Shrine, we rounded a corner at the edge of the compound and, hey, there were nice Torii Gates there!
En route to the Yanesan district to view old Tokyo, we rode by a cemetery. But there’s nothing scary about Japanese cemeteries. In fact they are like parks, nicely landscaped with an air of calm and serenity. Our hairs did not stand on end.
At Yanesan itself, we took a slow ride, as there were many interesting nooks in the side and back alleys. This is one of few places where the old buildings of Tokyo still exist with some dwellings dating back to the Edo period. Many of the residents still maintain a traditional lifestyle.
On another day, some of us also took a ride to Tokyo’s Imperial palace. Once a month, the roads around the palace are opened only to bicycles and pedestrians. Here, by chance, I met the “Brompton in Palace” group of cyclists – it’s always great to meet fellow cyclists overseas.
The following day, we had to check out the Tsukiji Fish Market, with its world-famous tuna auction. As we wanted to snare the limited visitor passes, we started our ride at 3am and reached the market by 4am, an hour before the market’s opening time.
But even then, all the 120 visitor passes for the day had already been given out and we had to be content with walking around the Outer Market.
We made a day trip out to Kamakura, which is 60 minutes by train from Tokyo. Along with Nara and Kyoto, it is one of the ancient capitals of Japan. It is also the birthplace of Japan’s first military government, led by the Seii-Taishogun, or Shogun, in 1192.
The place is surrounded on three sides by mountains while the south side faces the sea, an ideal landscape for a fortress.
It also has many historic temples and lush scenery.
However, in getting there, one of our group members, Kim, had some problems. The Japanese railways are very strict in that all bicycles should be put into bags for train travel. But Kim’s bag was just too large to lug around.
But she solved the problem in an ingenious way – bagging her bike using several garbage bags which had been taped together!
Getting down from the train at Kita-kamakura, we were greeted by sight of the Engakuji Temple situated just opposite the station. Set on the hillside in the outskirts of town, it’s a beautiful place with lushly landscaped compounds.
With this stunning rustic introduction, we rode into town anticipating more pleasant scenes. We were in luck – at the Hachimangu Shrine, a festival was ongoing and the Japanese came dressed in beautiful traditional kimonos! We also got to see many children go through prayer rituals for success in their education.
If you only have a day or two for an excursion outside Tokyo, Hakone can give you almost everything you could desire from the Japanese countryside, so says the Lonely Planet guidebook. This includes spectacular mountain scenery crowned by Mount Fuji, onsen (hot baths), traditional inns and world-class art museums.
From Shinjuku Station, we bought the Odaku Hakone “two-day free pass”. At ¥5,000 (RM160) each, this includes the long train/bus ride from Shinjuku all the way to our hotel in Hakone where we would be staying for a night. The package also provides for free unlimited cruises, cable car rides and discounted entry to many places. The train ride itself is quite scenic, passing by cascading streams with autumn trees flanking them.
Hakone was super-cold even when we visited in autumn. Despite wearing two layers of thermals underneath, I was still shivering. Truth be told, we just did a little bit of cycling here, i.e. the short distance from our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) to the lakeside pier. Even then, my frozen ears felt like they were going to drop off.
We stayed at a ryokan called Fujimien Lodge. The floors were lined with tatami mats and the walls with pinewood panelling. Our re-enactment of a Yakuza tea ceremony here got our friends (on Facebook back home) rolling with laughter.
After a nice kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner), we adjourned to the onsen. Scampering in our birthday suits into the hot spa, we promised not to tell each other naughty stories...
It was worthwhile taking on the freezing cold of Hakone. Mount Fuji looked amazingly grand in the crisp morning.
We took a cruise around Lake Ashinoko in full-scale replicas of medieval war ships, making us feel like old salts of the sea; “Avante! Let’s set sail!” we cried out to each other.
After that we took a couple of cable car rides up to Owakudani where we saw the steaming sulphur hot springs that fed the onsen of our ryokan.
Food and shopping
Eating in Japan is not cheap. Generally we spent about ¥700 (RM22) per meal. A cheap place to eat was the Sukiya outlets where meals could be had for as low as ¥250 (RM8). Missing Malaysian food, I often went for spicy ramen. Other cheap places to eat were the standing restaurants, so called because everybody eats standing up, with no tables.
The traditional kaiseki meal at Hakone’s ryokan was worth it though, at ¥1,500 (RM48), it offered a full multi-course meal that included plum wine, sashimi, tempura, and a hot set – the whole works! We really did enjoy that meal after eating budget meals for the other days.
As for shopping, Ameyoko Market Street is a good place to go in Tokyo; there are many choices of KitKat chocolates, handbags, etc. At the wet market section, one can witness how the local traders go about their business.
Nearby, there is a Uniqlo outlet where the thermal wear is much cheaper than in Malaysia (up to half the price).
For souvenirs, get them at the smaller towns like Hakone-yumoto, Kamakura.
We came back with more experience about how to handle a cycling trip overseas, and with tales of our adventure to the Land of the Rising Sun. Sayonara!
> You can read about more adventures of the “Ah Pek Biker” at ahpekbiker.blogspot.com/2013/11/cycling-japan-2013.html.