Ten Tokyo-based Brits will next month ride their bicycles all the way to Tohoku – and it’s not just in the name of fun.

The group of enthusiastic but unapologetically amateur cyclists are all part of the recently formed Tokyo Brits – born out of a more established expat club – and they will leave their homes on Friday, April 19, aiming to arrive, perhaps a little saddle-sore, 325km away in Minamisoma by the Sunday.

We spoke to Robert Williams, one of the self-styled “middle aged men in Lycra” about the project and what it will mean for the group, as well as the area they are trying to help:

Just who are Tokyo Brits and what kind of people are involved?

Tokyo Brits was born from a longstanding lunch club named Brits at Lunch. B@L was originally formed nearly 30 years ago with the intention of allowing British expats from all walks of life living in Tokyo to gather for an informal lunch to discuss the joys and frustrations of living and working in Japan.

Today, not much has changed but we now have members as diverse as entrepreneurs, CEOs, musicians and even sumo wrestling commentators and Olympic marathon runners! Tokyo Brits was born late last year when a group of men at the lunch realized they shared a common love of cycling.

After a number of leisurely weekend rides, we discussed how we might combine our hobby with raising money for a good cause. The Tokyo Brits website was then set up, designed to be a resource & directory for British expats living in Japan who want to know where best to buy their bangers and baked beans or where to get their favourite ale! Above all, it is hoped that after our charity cycle ride, the website, tokyobrits.com, can be an avenue to raising further funds for charitable causes in the future.

Robert Williams

Robert Williams has been in Japan for 14 years (Both photos by Ivan Doherty)

Can you tell us more about the idea of a cycle to Tohoku?

Late last year, we chose a ride to Tohoku: after considering various destinations it seemed obvious that after the 2011 tragedy, we should ride there. For those of us in Japan at the time of the tragedy, the memories remain vivid but somehow the feeling is that many people in the region who now have no livelihoods have simply been forgotten.

We hope that our ride will become an annual one and involve more nationalities and ladies too! Of course we hope that there will soon be no need to provide support to people in Tohoku in which case, we shall turn our attention to another charitable cause.

Why specifically Minamisoma? Can you tell us more about the Save Minamisoma Project?

Minamisoma is a small town just north of the current exclusion zone which was devastated in 2011. Almost 7,000 residents are living in temporary shelters and have no means of farming land or sea due to contamination. Two years later, they are still struggling to purchase the basics.

We decided to support the Save Minamisoma Project (www.saveminamisoma.org) because it was set up by a group of mainly expat volunteers in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Being expats ourselves, this project was clearly aligned and more importantly when people continue to question what happened to the money raised by various parties, we know that the donations are being used promptly and directly to purchase food and water for local residents.

Even now, through the tireless work of Japanese and expat SMP volunteers, supplies are delivered from Tokyo every few weeks or so and SMP recently completed its 44th delivery to Minamisoma. Volunteers are still needed, be they delivery people and/or fundraisers and you can get in touch via their website.

What do you hope the money raised will specifically do?

According to SMP, the support the residents mostly request is simply food and water, incredible as that may seem, two years on. All the money we raise from our ride will be donated to SMP, which will then purchase and deliver the necessary items through its volunteer network.

Back to the ride – did anyone take a bit of “persuading” to join the trip?

No. We were all keen cyclists anyway but some more experienced than others. Some of the riders did take some persuading over the degree of difficulty of the route however! It was felt that some sweat and tears were required to persuade people to part with their hard earned cash and sponsor us!

The ten riders are all over the age of 40, and classed as an ever increasing breed of MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra). We all have day jobs in white-collar positions, and being British we do all like a pie and a pint every now and then! Indeed, the number of six packs in our 10-man team is not likely to be much more than two. However we do have a liberal sprinkling of one-packs!

It has been difficult to train as a group due to winter weather and work commitments but when possible we get out at weekends and head to the Tamagawa River and beyond.

What kind of bikes are you guys riding – do you anticipate quite a quick pace or a lot of stopping and enjoying the scenery? (Three days is short so may not be too much time to take breaks!)

We will all be on good quality road bikes, no cheating with small engines attached! Some of us have raided the piggy bank to buy new ones, others shall rely on their existing trusty steeds.
There will be no time to enjoy the scenery. On day one, we face an 8-hour, 150km ride, arriving at our hotel just past Hitachi in late afternoon – assuming no hitches.

If we can get out of our beds on day two, we shall head inland, skirting the exclusion zone to arrive at our destination 90km later having done the last 30km in mountains. The last day will be a ‘celebratory’ 85km into Minamisoma.

How will you document your trip (are you guys blogging or anything like that?) and what will you do when you get there?

People can follow our progress on Facebook or Twitter. We will also have a dedicated photographer travelling with us and who knows, one of the riders might even have a video camera!

However the most important link is where people can sponsor us. I’d ask readers to please go to our sponsorship page page and make a pledge, with heartfelt thanks from the riders and the people of Minamisoma.

Dave Lawrence, Tony Collins, John Stanton, Jon Hindley, Chris Page, Craig Harrison, Ian Smith, Richard Williams and Nick Rees will join Robert on the ride, and we wish them luck!

The team have been given cycling gear by Wiggle, a UK based online cycling store, and DHL have provided financial and logistical support, meaning that all money donated will go directly to the project in Minamisoma. Sponsor the team at www.tokyobrits.com.

We’re always looking to hear of expats and others doing projects like this in Japan – if you or anyone you know is involved in something you think we would be interested in, drop us a line! [email protected]

by Matthew Holmes