Peddling Health

Features - May 2nd, 2008
Cycling in Aso-Kuju Park

Cycling out of the city

by Denis Leaker

Cycling is not just for those who couldn’t pass their driving test, or can’t play ball games. Riding a bike is becoming increasingly popular as a hobby, mode of transport, and a form of exercise. The hectic pace of life in the city leaves precious little time for socializing, sightseeing and exercising, however, with a bike you can do all three and help save the environment at the same time.

For those of us who live in Tokyo the biggest appeal is that cycling allows us to get out of cars and trains, out of the city, and into the countryside. Whether it be a long tour or a day jaunt, the cycling tourist will finish the day having truly experienced his or her surroundings. Like hiking, cycling immerses you in the outdoors. You are exposed to the sights, smells and sounds of nature and a bike allows you to experience it all at your own pace. Experienced cyclers will explain that it is not the post-exercise feeling that keeps you going, rather what is experienced along the way. When faced with a daunting hill climb, thinking about the views and the subsequent downhill provides motivation. The further you cycle the more you will see. It is a positive feedback reward system. Looking back over a landscape that you have crossed gives a feeling of accomplished pride which blocks out gluteal pain.

Another benefit is that cycling is versatile. What you want to get out of it depends on you. From bulking up the thighs when tackling steep gradients to simply breathing fresh air on a Sunday cycle, it is accessible and beneficial to people of all fitness levels. Providing you don’t seek otherwise, riding a bike is a low impact recreational sport. This makes it particularly suitable for those wishing to avoid joint stresses. Cycling has been shown to reduce the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and the most common form of diabetes.
Japan is a great country to cycle around. As a non-native, every trip becomes an exciting adventure sure to throw in a few surprises. The friendliness of the people in the countryside is overwhelming. Kids screaming “hello-I’m-fine-thank-you” before eagerly setting pursuit give the over-competitive rider an easy, air-fisting ego boost. Cycling past kids in England would most likely elicit greetings of a different nature.

“it is not the post-exercise feeling that keeps you going,
rather what is experienced along the way.”

And as with many other things in Japan, getting out on the bike couldn’t be more convenient. The sheer quantity of Japanese roads means that avoiding crowds is easy; vending machines on the most obscure of routes make dehydration unlikely; omnipresent convenient stores provide refueling opportunities all too frequently; and locks are used as a habit rather than a necessity. But best of all is the prize of the onsen at the end of the day. This is where the aches and pains of lactic legs float away and the smug smile of self-satisfaction sinks in. Let the water soothe as you roll through your memories of the day.

Having to haul the bike out of the city needn’t be a hassle either. A much vaunted transport system means the Japanese countryside is only a train, plane or ferry ride away. To get the bike on public transport just put it in a bike bag. If going for more than a day trip, consider relieving the burden of the bike, with the wonderful takkyubin service. Those vans with the black cats can transport a bagged bike from most of Japan to the doorstep for only a few thousand yen.

If you are wanting to escape the Tokyo metropolis head for the mountains. Areas such as the Chichibu-Tama National Park and Takao-san are all within cycling distance from the city. Following bikepaths along rivers such as the Tamagawa and Arakawa, will inevitably lead you into the hills. To plan routes try Touring Mapple, a widely available map book designed for motorcycle tourists (note that purple outlined roads are particularly scenic). A useful website for Tokyo route inspiration is www.cyclingtokyo.com, whilst for routes further a field visit in the Kansai region, see www.kancycling.com. However, remember that with less planning come more surprises.

This spring a friend and I embarked on a six-day, 650km cycling tour of Kyushu. Statistics aren’t included in order to brag (max. speed 65.4km/ h) or boast (max. elevation 1330m) but instead to indicate the distance you can travel under your own steam. Having spent a winter enjoying the kotatsu with an occasional guilty gym visit, this was achieved not through vigorous training, but because the physical strain was actually enjoyable. The tour took us over epic mountain passes, into the world’s largest volcanic caldera, past secret local surfing coves and at the end of each and every day into well deserved onsens. This did not feel like a tortuous, iron-man training expedition. It was a healthy, memorable and at times challenging, sightseeing holiday. Exercise was merely a by-product of our adventure.

Cycling can be what you want it to be. It can be a family day out, an intense workout, a competition, political statement, a means of getting to work or a holiday sure to stay with you forever. Whatever you use your bike for, it will leave you with a sense of well-being. So rather than spinning to nowhere in a TV infested, halogen lit room, take your energy outside and go somewhere beautiful with it.