Category Archives: Cycling

Kyoto winter!

Last winter I chickened out and got out of Kyoto a few times with stops in the USA, Cairo, and Malaysia.  This winter, I am being brave and staying here the whole winter.  It will be my first complete winter in years and years!

All of my apartment windows are opaque, so I don’t see the weather until I open the door to check.  This morning I got a nice surprise and a fun ride to the lab. Yay for snow!

First milestone. 143 more.

I set myself a target last week to transcribe all the interviews from Kota Kinabalu.  There were about 15 and it was a total of about 13 hours of recordings.  That equated to 26 hours of transcription.  Yikes.  And, I am still not sure if it is quality data or not.  I will find out later.  But, I figured I deserved a reward for that first, small milestone.  And it just so happened that my helpful Yahoo Weather App was predicting 3 days of clear skies and temperatures nearing 20°C. So I planned a cycle trip around Japan’s largest lake – Biwako.

My trip around Biwako: Red - first day. Blue - Second day morning. Yellow - Second day ferried in a truck. Green - Second day afternoon. Blank - My sports tracking app won't export the final day. :( I hope I can update it soon.

My trip around Biwako:
Red – first day.
Blue – Second day morning.
Yellow – Second day ferried in a truck.
Green – Second day afternoon.
Blank – My sports tracking app won’t export the final day. 😦 I hope I can update it soon.

The route for the 3rd and final day of the trip.

The route for the 3rd and final day of the trip.

A trip around Biwako can be 210 km, with a few extra added to get from Kyoto to the edge of the lake.  In all it was 230 km (185 miles). It would be an easy trip of three 75 km days.  What a treat!  I also wanted to test my hammock in cooler weather and practice with some camp cooking in cooler weather.  This would also be a training ride for longer trips in the future.  As a bonus, I wanted to see some of the ducks and waterbirds on Biwako.

I spent Saturday in the lab finishing up the last of the KK interviews and tuning up my bike. I worked on the brakes and the chain to make sure all the parts were clean, well oiled and tight.  It was fun to get to know the brakes a bit more as I had not really worked on this style of brake before.

Sunday morning was cooler and cloudier than I expected. I had a nice small breakfast and set off at about 8:30 am.  I had two full panniers with food, clothes, and my hammock.  I also had my binoculars and nice new camera.


It didn’t take long to get to the lake.  This portion was retracing my steps from the end of my Obama trip last summer so it was pretty familiar.

By 4 pm I was heading into Takashima.  Last year, I had passed this same route on the way back from Obama last year and had spotted some good places for camping.  Earlier in the day I cooked some noodles for my lunch and noticed that the stove gas was low and not hot enough to boil the water.  This presented some issues for making my dinner.  A quick detour to the outskirts of Takashima didn’t result in a new gas canister so I got some supplies from a convenience store for a cold dinner and headed back to the lake to make camp.

After making camp and having a bite to eat, I climbed into the hammock just after sunset.  It was cold before I got in and just got colder as the night progressed.  By midnight I had made several forays to my panniers to get more clothes.  Eventually I was wearing a knit hat, a knit neck warmer, 3 thermal shirts, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, 2 pairs of thermal pants, 3 pairs of socks and my sleeping back. But I was lacking an underpad in the hammock and my back was always freezing while my front was too warm.  It was a miserable night.  When the sun came up, I managed to coax a hot coffee out of my stove and had a cold breakfast.

Monday morning started with a thick fog and heavy clouds.  I was afraid of rain.  When I managed to check my weather app again, it predicted clearing skies by mid-morning so I made the decision to continue with the trip but with the idea of getting a hotel for the second night.  Before spending another cold night in the hammock I need to devise a better under-insulation system.

My research had me excited about the north end of the lake.  It was supposed to be coastal roads skirting steep mountains and it did not disappoint.  That road was nearly empty of traffic, full of birds and was blissful.  I was even looking forward to the climb at the end which would take me soaring to 400 m above the lake along a parkway to clear the last ridge.

I reached the last town before the anticipated climb at around 10 am.  The sun was out and I felt that I deserved a break and a snack before the climb.  My pastry was delicious and I didn’t even mind that the vending machine stole my money.  Then I looked at the road leading up to the parkway and saw this…..


Locked gate.  No walking. No biking.  No nothing. Closed.

Locked gate. No walking. No biking. No nothing. Closed.

So I had to backtrack 7 km to the previous town and cross on the big road and through a big tunnel.  I wasn’t thrilled but the coastal road was nice to ride again.  Fortunately the inland route had a smooth, wide foot/bike path beside and the climb was not too bad.  Even the 850 m tunnel had a small walkway and I walked my bike through the tunnel.  That brought me to a another small town before having a choice to stay on the main road or take a smaller coastal road around the hill.  I was planning on the smaller coastal road, of course.  When I finally reached the turn off, it was full of construction equipment and the tunnel was closed.  That diverted all the main-road traffic to my idyllic coastal road.  How exciting to share a small road with all those big trucks.  Not.  That ended with yet another small tunnel and then I got to get back onto paddy field roads!  Without the cars and big trucks!!

I love the paddy field roads.  They are usually perfectly straight with long lines of sight and the occasional charming, small town breaking up the monotony.  These were no different.  Until the paved road turned to gravel.  No problem.  I just kept going… tracking the main road in the distance as I worked my way back to the lake.  At one point I noticed something rather anomalous for Japan…. a stray dog in one of the fields. Until I approached closer and it was a fox!  And it let me get some photos.  I took off my headphones and got closer and closer.  So cool!



And as I continued on, this time without the music that I had been indulging in (only one headphone. always. for safety sake), I heard that dreaded metallic clicking from the back wheel.  Broken spoke.

My cool touring bike has a special spot for keeping extra spokes.  This was the second to break this year, but I had a shop repair the previous one.  This one I had to try on my own.  So I sat down on the side of the road and pulled off all my gear, upended the bike, removed the back wheel, tire and tube and the broken spoke.  Then…. how to slip in the new one.  The empty hole on the hub was on the drive-side which meant that the read gears were blocking the hub.  I had to pull off the cassette to fix the spoke!  And the cassette removal tools were all at home.  😦

As a farmer walked past with his power tiller I said hello and asked in my best Japanese (which is AWFUL) where the closest bike shop was.  He gave me the dreaded X-arms which indicated that there was no bike shop around.  I check my maps.  The closest town was at least 10 km away.  It was going to be a long walk.  I passed the farmer in his field and he was with his wife, who had passed me on her bike earlier.

Oto-san preparing to plant potatoes.

Oto-san preparing to plant potatoes.

His wife called out to me in Japanese.  I stopped and tried to talk to her.  She seemed concerned about what I was doing but kept speaking very fast Japanese.  Eventually she held up her hands in steering wheel pose and said “Turukku,” truck.  I understood.  They were offering to take me to town!!! With all the requisite Japanese humility and gratitude I could muster, I gratefully accepted.


Oto-san drove me to the closest shop but it specialized in Japanese town bikes and did not have tool needed to pull the cassette. Oto-san was generous enough to take me to another shop about 20 minutes away.  We made small chit chat in the car, but with my rudimentary Japanese it wasn’t much.

When we reached the new shop, the owner came out and looked at the situation. He was gruff and kept going on about something.  Not wanting to keep Oto-san from his potato planting, I just started unloading my things from his truck.  The shop keeper took my bike inside while I said my farewells to Oto-san and got his phone number and address.

image4By the time I got into the shop, the rear wheel was off and the shop keeper was working on getting the cassette off.  He had all tools.  I got down and started to help and he warmed up.  Then his wife brought me a cup of coffee!  The new spoke went on without a problem and the shop keeper cleaned my chain, adjusted the brakes and double checked everything!  Then he sat down and chatted with me for a while.  When I asked how much, he told me (in Japanese, so I’m kind of guessing here) that it was his gift to me.  I insisted and he let me give him a token amount.  So nice!

I wanted to stay and chat some more but I had to make it to Hikone and I was worried about finding a warm place to sleep, so I bade my farewells and headed back onto the road.  The rest of the day was spent just focusing on making it to Hikone before dark.  I got there just as the sun was setting and found the first reasonable business hotel.  After a hot, hot shower I headed down for dinner and found a Big Boy for a big hamburger and endless salad bar – perfect.  That led to a warm night’s sleep.

On Monday I got up at 6 and was out by 7.  I need to get back to Kyoto in time to have a shower and go teach an English class by 5:30 so I wanted to make good time.  The day started cloudy and cool but eventually the sun came out and was lovely.  I visited the historic Hikone Castle and then stayed by the lake all day.

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Here are some of the roads I rode along during the trip…. some quite and lined with trees or bordering the lake.  Some bike paths along roads.  Some tunnels.  Some industrial.  Quite a mix.  Its Japan.



I made it back to Kyoto around 2 pm, treated myself to an ice cream, a hot bath and headed off to my English lesson with time to spare and take a few pictures with a spectacular blossoming plum tree.


Hosting cycle tourists

In April 2014 I signed up with the website  This site is similar to Couchsurfing but it caters exclusively to people on bicycle tours.  Some cities have hundreds of potential hosts, but Kyoto only has a handful and lots of people want to come visit Kyoto.

Since April, I have had a steady stream of people come through.  A few have been on amazing adventures cycling around the world, some focused exclusively on Southeast Asia, and some were just on a short holiday to ride around Japan.  There were Swiss, French, Spanish, British, Canadian and Polish people.  Some were couples, some were individuals, some were friends.  Its fun to offer them a floor to crash on (even if its just in my living room and on a small futon mattress), some maps of Kyoto and sightseeing tips, and to take them to my favorite okonomiyaki and ramen restaurants.  Most stay for just 1 or 2 nights.  Hopefully they get a bit of rest and comfort when they are here and a bit of extra energy to continue their travels.  I get to enjoy some company, get some tips about long-distance cycling and get to make new friends.

Many of the cyclists have websites or blogs to document their trips.  Here is a small selection of them:

Laura and Tim – UK

Jessica and Alban – France and Switzerland

Karen and Daniel – Germany

Gorka and Arantxa – Spain

Maria and Francois – Spain and France

Franck – France

First solo cycle trip

I have caught the cycle touring bug.

But there is still lots to learn and experience.  Last weekend, I set off for my first, short, solo cycle tour.  The plan was to leave Kyoto Friday afternoon, cycle to the norther coast and back on Sunday.

This trip had several purposes, other than to just get away for a bit.  I wanted to test my new bike and panniers under a loaded condition.  I also wanted to see how it would be to camp in Japanese forests.

The trip took 2.5 days.  Friday evening after school, Nate and I rode up to Ohara.  Nate had to get back to Kyoto so I rode on for a while until I got to my targeted campsite.  There was a big climb and a tunnel but I found my target place with no problem.  There was a nice stream and a concrete structure half-way up the hill to sit on.

Friday evening. Kyoto to first campsite.

Friday evening. Kyoto to first campsite.

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The night was very calm.  No cars.  I heard some animals, but nothing came to close. In the morning, I made a nice coffee. Ate my bread. Packed up and hit the road to Obama.

The road followed a nice mountain valley.  Sometimes I could cross from the main road and ride on the opposite side of the river without traffic.  The small farm towns were lovely and there were loads of guys fishing in the river.

There was a pretty big climb to cross the continental divide and start the descent into Obama.  My new bike does not have the same low gears that the Gary Fisher had.  May need to swap out to some lower gears to climb better.  My skinny legs don’t play that game!  In some places, the road got narrow and the trucks got big.  At times, it kind of sucked.  At other times, it was magnificent.

The route into Obama.

The route into Obama.

I tried to get off the main road and follow a smaller parallel road to Obama but ended up in a side valley.  Rather than go back, I kept going to the coast and was rewarded with some great views of little coves and the rugged coastline.  There were three tunnels but they all had nice, wide sidewalks. One even had a railing!

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When I finally reached Obama, I was tired, hungry and smelly.  I set off looking for a public bath but only found a foot bath.  After riding around, searching some more, and asking at a convenience store and at the town visitor information, I found out that the sento was right next to the place with the foot bath!  Ha ha.  So I paid my money and had a lovely shower and a soak in a hot bath of medicated pink water.  They had a nice little cafe and I had a bowl of tempura and rice and charged my phone.

The ride back over the hills on Sunday was on my mind and I still had some time, so I rode out of Obama, back up the hill to get a head start on Sunday.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 10.56.18 AMI managed 20 km out of town and found a quiet little forest road with a stream to hang my hammock.

DSCF7474 DSCF7475-001Sunday morning I woke up to a light sprinkle.  I managed a quick breakfast and packed up in the rain and set off for the climb.  It wasn’t as bad as I expected but it rained and rained and rained all the way over the hill and down to Biwa Lake. I rode along the lake for a few hours until I came across a nice little hut by the lake and stopped to make tea and have a snack.

The rain stopped but the clouds stayed for the last push along the lake shore to Otsu town.  I stopped for a traditional Otsu hotdog (or 2) before crossing the last 2 hills back into Kyoto.  The whole trip was 220 km and I rode farther than expected on Saturday and Sunday.  My shoulders hurt at the end but learned some good lessons about myself, the bike and the camping.

Sunday's ride in the rain. Over the hills, to the lake and along the lake shore.

Sunday’s ride in the rain. Over the hills, to the lake and along the lake shore.

Can’t wait for the next trip!

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Day dreaming.

I wonder if I could do this bike trip.  Kyoto to Cairo.  Japan. Russia. China. Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan. Iran. Turkey. Cyprus. Egypt.  This very generalized route is 14,000km.  At 75km per day average, that would be….. 186 days.

Kyoto to Cairo

Keep dreaming Ken.

Do I need a new bike? Probably not…

Do I need a new bicycle???

Probably not.  But I think I’ll get one anyway.

Since 1995 I have owned 4 bicycles.  In Tuscaloosa, there was the awesome Schwinn Flyer.  I’m not sure if it was original or not, but it was slick.  It was hip before hipsters.  That bike served me well to get between my office and apartment but never took me any further.  And I cannot even remember what happened to that bike when I left Alabama.

The Schwinn was something like this.

The Schwinn was something like this.

When I reached Washington DC, it was clear that I was going to need another bike. Washington was (still is?) a great place to cycle. With lots of bike paths, wide roads and relatively polite drivers, getting around by bike was often better than using the car.  So, I headed down to REI and got a shiny Bianchi mountain bike.  At the time, I had no idea what I was getting but I got lucky and loved that bike.  The highlight of the Bianchi was riding it for 200-plus miles along the C&O Canal from Cumberland, Maryland back to my apartment on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.  But, while I was on a work trip to Mexico someone scaled the backyard fence and stole the bike.

The replacement, after one bought and returned within the “no question return period” (that got a lot of questions from the shop), was the Gary Fisher Tasajara.  What is a Tasajara?  I don’t know, but the bike has been with me since 2000 or 2001 and been ridden in Borneo, Peninsular Malaysia, Washington DC, Japan and Korea.  Now some of the gears are bent, I need to buy its third chain soon and am feeling that I want something a bit more suited to bike touring as I prepare mentally and physically for two upcoming trips (Kyoto – Hokkaido – circum Hokkaido, and Vladivostok – Istanbul).

The trusty Gary Fisher on the beaches of Peninsula Malaysia contemplating the South China Sea.

The trusty Gary Fisher on the beaches of Peninsula Malaysia contemplating the South China Sea.

So, I am busy bike shopping now and it seems to have come down to three choices.  These bikes are specially designed for touring and have some special features suited to long distances, carrying gear, simple to maintain and repair, flexibility without suspension, and durability.  In no particular order:

The Giant Great Journey 1. Only available in Japan. How cool is that? Bike shop says its indestructible. But they would say that. Downside – cannot test ride first. 😦

The Jamis Aurora. I don’t see any downside.

The Kona Sutra. Good name. Downside – it has disc brakes.

Watch this space for an update soon!

I got a new bike!  Its the Jamis Aurora!!! Its great!!!!

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Titiwangsa, Chow Kit, Sentul

I joined another KL bike mapping survey this weekend.  There were several people on folding bikes, some mountain bikes, a few tourers, and a road bike.  The group of people are just as diverse and really nice.  As usual, we were led by Jeff Lim.

Survey of Titiwangsa, Chow Kit and Sentul

Survey of Titiwangsa, Chow Kit and Sentul

The route followed some busy roads but we also found, as usual, some really interesting back roads, lovely houses and even some wildlife!

As it turns out, I like cycling too!

It seems that I like cycle touring.  I’ve done 3 so far.  In 1999, I cycled the C & O Canal from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington DC.  In 2012, Nate Badenoch and I cycled from Kyoto, Japan to Seoul, South Korea.  In 2013, I cycled with two friends from Kota Baharu to Kuantan, Malaysia.  There are more trips planned! Stay tuned.

More to come soon……..IMG_8017

Bike route mapping in KL

Everyone said that trying to cycle in KL was for the insane.  The drivers are crazy, the roads are in bad condition and you’ll get run over.  I ventured out onto some relatively quiet streets but I felt hemmed in by highways and more highways and ramps and didn’t dare to get onto the roads.

Then I slowly started making cycling connections on Facebook and found myself on 5 or 6 KL and Malaysian cycling Facebook-groups.  My first encounter with really riding around town was with the guys from the Roadlink bike shop in Bangsar.  I joined them for a Sunday morning ride through the heart of KL.  We visited Dataran Merdeka, Bukit Tunku, Hartamas and Bukit Damansara.
You could ride through town after all!  But it felt safer in a group!

First ride around KL with the Rodalink Bangsar guys

First ride around KL with the Rodalink Bangsar guys

Then one day there was a story in the local newspaper about a guy who was making a map of cycling routes in KL.  I couldn’t wait to call and went over to meet him. Jeff gave me several blank copies of his map and asked me to fill in where I ride.  Unfortunately, his map didn’t extend to where I live and I was still timid to ride much around town.

And then he started with his survey rides.  I have joined several of the Saturday morning rides. Usually there are 10-20 cyclists who join and ride around checking and verifying routes that Jeff thinks might be good for cyclists.  This week, I did my first post-dengue ride around Sentul and Chow Kit.  We rode on busy roads, crossed railroad tracks, circled river islands, saw an otter in the river (!!!!) and had a great time.

I can’t wait to see the final product of Jeff‘s efforts!