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Our Wanderlust trips are some of our favorites because even we don't know what will happen. Just as the trip name suggests, we wander with nothing but some basic bike gear and a map.
With only a vague destination in mind, or an area you have heard is interesting, we will work with you to find the best start point, and use our ability to intuit what routes might be interesting. Often, we have never ridden nor scouted the route ourselves. We only know what is written on the map and what we can find on the internet.
If this sounds a bit scary and irrisponsible to you, good! Some of our most memorable trips have been Wanderlust trips.
These trips are rated as challenging rides because we can not guarantee terrain and how long it will take each day to find the next open hotspring or place to eat. For anyone with an average level of fitness and thirst for adventure, and that is willing to push themselves. On-road altitude gain of up to 800m over 50km, and off-road downhill ride which may require some walking over terrain impassible even by bike will give you a greater sense of accomplishment than if you just stay home and spend your three-day weekend surfing the web.
Since each Wanderlust is different, I will take you through one of my most memorable trips on which we started from Fukuoka, Kyushu and rode for five days through mountains, hot-spring villages, volcanoes, and islands to Nagasaki where we cought a bus home.
These were some of the unplanned highlights of this trip for me:
- A night in Hakata station sleeping with a homeless community. With our nice tent, we were the only ones without a box, but this did not stop people looking for day-laborers from offering us a job the next morning.
- Wandering onto a military base while looking for a road with little traffic. Apparently we didn't pose much of a security threat, and the military traffic that did pass by seemed more confused than we were.
- A night in a small town park near a quaint hot-spring, just one hour short of our planned destination - which turned out to be a gaudy tourist trap that we quickly passed through the next day.
- Getting lost and pitching tent atop a mountain when the road we had been following ended. It turned out to be a maintenance road for the electrical tower.
- Carrying the bike down roads washed out by landslides after a recent typhoon.
- Finding a nice farm with fresh fruits, vegetables, and ice-cream waiting at the end of this ordeal.
- A ride through vibrant green rolling hills before cruising down to the base of one of Japan's most famous volcanoes, Mt. Aso.
- One of the longest downhill rides I have ever experienced - fun despite the frightening traffic.
- A restful ferry ride across the bay to our final stretch toward Nagasaki
- Rolling into Nagasaki after a challenging up-down-up-down ride with wonderful views of mountains, rice paddies, and rugged coast-line.
- Chinese food in Nagasaki's famous Chinatown.
- Forgetting a helmet on the bus when we got back home. (well... I guess that was not much of a highlight.)
Eating famous Tonkotsu Ramen at one of Fukuoka's yattai street stalls. before strolling through the colorful "red-light" district.
This is what happened on a Kyushu Wanderlust trip mentioned above. Remember, no two trips are the same.
We arrived at Hakata Station via bullet train, planning to stash our stuff and explore the city before setting up camp in a quiet park. After a great meal at one of Fukuoka's famous yattai food stands, we began to wonder if there really was anyplace quiet nearby.
Dissapointed that we would have to ride to the outskirts of the city, we returned to the station to get our gear out of the locker. As it happens, it was just about closing time, and we started to see the brown boxes popping up in every open corner and wall-space available. A quick conversation with the security guard found us locking our bikes up again, while someone ran to find a space big enough for the tent. The guard said that as long as we were out by 5:30 am, the police don't care.
Distance: 95.2 km, level, up and down.
Time: 7:02 - 18:55
Route: Hakata Station - Haki
While definitely one of the most interesting and memorable, it was not one of the most restful nights. The station lights were on all night, and a thin bright yellow tent does not block much of it out. Add to that the heat with no natural breezes inside the building, and it is a recipie for sleepless-ness
Around 4:00am the union activists started coming through with their fliers knocking on every box (and tent) to recruit support, followed construction contractors looking for day labor.
We politely declined, instead heading to the Mr. Donughts where we grabbed a bight for breakfast, along with a bottomless coffee cup. We were fueled for the day.
With a few wrong turns, it only took us a few hours to get out of the city and headed for Dazaifu, a famous temple where school kids go to pray for good grades. This is where it started to rain a bit. This would normally be fine, but combined with getting lost because we hate riding on the car-polluted main roads, it turned a bit ugly. By the time we arrived in Dazaifu however, all was well again.
This was actually probably the twentieth time I had visited Dazaifu. In my University years, I was a foreign student in Fukuoka, and every new acquaintance one meets insists on taking their new foreign friend to Daziafu to show them the beauty of Japanese culture. It was just as I rememberd it. hordes of Japanese school children taking the easy way out - hanging a good grade wish instead of cracking a book
We left Dazaifu hoping to make it to Hita by nightfall. Had we followed the busy route 386 through a valley, we would have made it, but instead we opted to climb a mountain which slowed us down, but oh-was-it-worth-it.
Following 509, and then a smaller road through Nihara, was one of the best few hours of biking I have had in all our bike trips through Japan. The views were great, the road passed through a mixture of small villages, field, and forests before we arrived at the top. Unfortunately, by the ride down it had already gotten dark, but it was fun none-the-less.
We didn't make it all the way to Hita, but luckily it is Kyushu, where there are onsen baths in every town. We stopped in Haki, taking a well-deserved bath at a rather boring hotel. It was not until we started searching for a place to set up tent that we noticed a much more local, interesting, and cheap bath tucked away on a side street. Oh-well, it was still worth the 800 yen we payed.
After a great dinner at a local izakaya, we set up camp under the roof (it was cloudy and looked like rain) of a road-side vegetable stall that had closed for the night. Another wonderful end to another wonderful day.
Distance: 80 km, level, up and down.
Time: 7:45 - 18:15
Route: Haki - Yufuin
Again, we woke up early hoping to get out of the vegetable stand before the owners arrived to open for business.
Following some side-roads through the fields in the valley between Haki and Hita, it took about an hour to get to where we had originally intended to camp. There we stopped for breakfast from a supermarket, as well as to see if I could get a few spare tire tubes as I only now realized that I had mistakenly packed English style tubes while our hand pump only works with US style. So long as we are in a city, English style is no problem, but if the tire should puncture on top of a mountain (as had happened on a previous trip and, as you shall soon read, would happen on this trip) it could be devastating.
I was not able to find a US style tire to use with her pump, but the nice old man in the bike shop sold me his portable English/US style pump for 500 yen. I was happy. (this is intended to be a little foreshadowing).
Leaving Hita, we again decided to bypass the crowded route 386, fowling instead, route 48 over the mountains. Yet another great biking road of Japan. (I have been thinking I should make a book about great biking roads in japan.) I judge a "great biking road" partly by my ability to forget that we are walking our heavy bikes up a hill for hours. This time was easy to forget because of both the scenery, and also because we had a stash of dirt-cheap umeboshi and pears left over from the previous day's lunch at a local farmers market.
After a quick lunch of onigiri and Pocari Sweat sports drink, from a tiny local convenience store style place this time, we faced the choice of going over yet another mountain pass, or following the car-polluted valley.
Our original goal was to go to Beppu, but there were a few problems with that now.
- if we go to Beppu today, we have to retrace our same path back the next day on our trip to Aso.
- in order to get to beppu we have to take a crowded, dangerous, ugly road.
- we are already behind schedule.
Tomoe came up with the great idea to stay at Yufuin and just take the train to Beppu and back to Yufuin the next day. This would give us a rest, as well as prevent us from having to cover the same road twice.
I would have been fine without Beppu, as I had been there once before with my Parents. While I think it was good for people who have never been to someplace like that, it was nothing I expected to enjoy myself. The main draw of Beppu is that it has a lot of onsen. It also has some different colored hot springs that aren't baths, but some people like to look at. Imagine Yellowstone in the middle of a city -but even more Disney-ized and even more expensive (each hot spring has an entrance fee).
Given that this is a Wanderlust trip, we decided to take the mountain pass and stay in Yufuin, which is also famous among Japanese people (though I had never heard of it). The road was not so much fun. While I can handily going up for a few hours before going down, I hate roads that can't make up their mind. This one went up and down and up and down. The only redeeming quality was that it was on the border of a Japanese Self Defense force training ground. While this was only evident by a flow of jeeps filled with troops passing by on the otherwise empty road, the novelty factor was still there.
As bad as the up-down pass was, the downhill into Yufuin was brilliant (as most down-hills are).
Yufuin is famous (it is even the setting of a recent NHK drama) and therefore filled with over-priced onsen. We, however, used the locals' bath which was only 100 yen.
Enjoying a beer in the break room afterwards, we struck up a conversation with the locals, discovering that some of them come there twice a day -despite the fact that they have onsen water coming into their own home as well. Just as it is in our own village in Nagano, the public bath is as much of a social ritual as it is a cleansing ritual.
After dinner at another izakaya we spent that night in a parking lot.
Distance: 20 km, level, up and down.
Time: 15:30 - 18:45
Route: Yufuin - Mystery Mountain Top
Getting up early again, we checked the train schedule to Beppu discovering that it took a long time and was expensive. Luckily, there was a bus that was quicker and cheaper, and passed by better scenery.
We went to Beppu and partly followed a walking tour recommended by the crazy lady at the tourist information center. As expected, we were too cheap to visit any of the Disney-style multi-colored hot springs. Beppu wasn't anything special and the only value was that found in avoiding the regret that would have felt if those who had never been there had not visited it while we were so close.
We got back to Yufuin around 2 and left around 3.
We had intended to take the "Yamanamai Highway" recommended in our Touring Mapple 7. I am glad that we screwed up and found ourselves following another road south. Instead of going back, we decided to improvise by crossing a smaller mountain pass that leads to the same destination.
Along the way we passed an amazing little one-(steep)-road town that I found myself dreaming of living in.
After that town, we followed a road that was marked as "daato" (in katakana) on our map. Even Tomoe knew what that meant until, after a few near getting lost, we turned onto a steep "dirt" road. (get it? daato = dirt.)
We were to follow this road for about 2 km until we come across _another road on the right. It was not until it had grown dark and we had climbed and climbed the daato road for much to far that we finally came to the top of the mountain. Expecting to have a nice (if a bit dark and bumpy) downhill into our intended destination on the Yamanami Highway, we instead found that we had been following a electric-pole service road that ends at the top of the mountain.
Our choice now was either to go back down the dirt road in the dark to where we "know" there is another route, or to camp there. In my opinion, camping there was one of the best things that could have happened to us. It was windy, it was on the top of a mountain, it was in the middle of nowhere, it was a clear sky, and there were more stars visible than I have seen anywhere outside of Sweden and the Great Sand Dunes park in Colorado.
Distance: 60 km, up and down.
Time: 7:16 - 15:40
Route: Mystery Mountain Top - Mt. Aso
It was also a good choice to stay there that night because, as we found the next morning, the "other route" we would have taken was in terrible condition. We should have been suspicious considering the road work going on the previous day where the major road had been covered with a land-slide, but we are just a little too slow in the brain I guess.
We walked our bike up the mountain through a terrible dirt road, and then back down the other side where it was impossible to ride -especially with our heavy gear, as was illustrated when we tried to ride down and I blew out my back tire.
This is where that foreshadowing about the bike pump comes in. The tire blew out and I thought "no problem." I have a pump and a tire. I will just change it. Unfortunately, the new pump didn't quite fit with the new tire, and it wouldn't inflate, in fact, the nozzle on the new tire broke off!!! The old blown out tire was US style, meaning Tomoe's pump would work on it, but it was punctured in two places -one was fixable by patch, the other was right by the nozzle where no patch would stick. We patched what could be patched and tried our best to fill the other hole with glue. In the end, it worked well enough that I was able to inflate the tire and continue walking my bike down the mountain.
Don't get me wrong, the reason we were walking is not because of the tire... it's because the road down was worse than the road up. There were points where the road was so washed out that we had to literally pick up the bike and carry it over a crevasse where the road used to be. I can't even imagine trying to navigate this road in the dark had we decided to make a go for it the night before. Eventually however, despite fears that this road too would end (at the bottom of the other side this time), we met up with pavement leading to the Yamanami Highway.
In actuality, I prefer following the beautiful foliage covered dirt roads of the mountain in the rain and soft mist than I did Route 11 (Yamananmi Highway). The road from here was filled with speeding cars, each with one, two, or three people driving all the way up to the nearby national park gift-shop where they stop for ten minutes to buy some crap before continuing on to the Aso gift-shop. I often wonder what they get out of such a bike-less, adventure-less trip...
Despite some swearing that as soon "as we get down the other side I am going to stop riding", we somehow (after a big lunch) found the strength to ride on up and over the Makinoto Pass.
The road after the Makinoto Pass was a highlight of the trip. It was foggy, rainy, and cold. It was a busy, windy road. But, it was all downhill. Oh-so downhill. What's more, when we neared Aso, the area which I had mistaken (on a black and white copy of our map) as an uphill, was actually a downhill. We cruised on more and more, further and further, making it much further than we had expected.
After a stop at a local bath which is said to magically cure any ailments one may have, we rode the final four kilometers to the base of Aso. Here we used the coin laundry to ruin my sleeping bag, and set up camp behind the local office.
Distance: 69 km, mostly down.
Time: 8:15 - 19:30
Route: Mt. Aso - Shimabara
As usual, we were up early, this time we rode to Aso station where we caught a bus to the top of Mt. Aso. Again, this is someplace I have already been, and been unimpressed with, but the main value was not in actually seeing the gift-shop at the top, but rather in not regretting missing it after being so close.
We did our best to kill the time until the next bus down. Once down, we mounted our bikes and set off on the best city riding I have ever seen in Japan. It was hours of downhill riding as we cruised from the Aso plain down to the coast where we caught a ferry over to Shimabara.
This day was, for the most part, uneventful. When we weren't waiting for a bus to escape the Aso gift-shop, we were cruising through a boring city. The only thing I really have to mention is that it is here that we set our speed record of 56 km/h maintained for at least thirty seconds.
There was a brilliant sunset, but we could only see it from behind the line of motorcycles waiting to get on the ferry. By the time I had a clean shot, the sun had sunk behind the islands.
When we arrived at Shimabara, we took a quick bath and set up camp in a museum parking-lot.
Distance: 76 km, mostly down.
Time: 7:45 - 16:07
Route: Shimabara - Nagasaki
I awoke lamenting that this was to be the last day of our trip. We had originally planned to ride to Kagoshima, but our little Day 3/4 adventure on the top of Ogiyama caused us to rethink. We had intended to already be further south along the island chain by now, but by now our plan had changed. Our new goal was Nagasaki. The only question was if we should go north, following the coast, or over the famous Unzen volcano.
Thankfully we chose to go over Unzen. Along the way, we stopped at the disaster park where houses that were covered in a 1991 landslide are preserved in their post-slide condition. Looking up at the top of the volcano I imagined what I would do if it began erupting and I found myself in the path of a landslide.
The ride (or walk as the case may be) up the mountain was not much different than previous up-hills, but this time we knew it was the last one. This made it worse and more tiresome. Once we arrived at the top, however, all the suffering was forgotten. The ride down was the windingest of them all, but it also offered some of the clearest, tree-free views of the coast below. As we neared the bottom, everyone stopped in the sameplace without even having to signal. Each of us thinking the same thing... This is our fantastical image of Japan -the farmers harvesting golden rice from a field bordering on the jagged coast, across the bay fog softens our destination's jagged sillouette.
Yeah, that was beautiful, but the rest of the ride to Nagasaki was hell. There was only one realistic route, and as such it was extremely crowded with careless drivers. To make it worse, it was several hours of up-down riding such as we had never before seen.
By the time we arrived in Nagasaki, some were more than ready to get on the train home, but we were also deathly hungry. As such, we decided to stick with the plan and stay one more night, enjoying a meal of famous Nagasaki chanpon noodles in Chinatown.
Later, we took the famous trolly (100 yen) to a bath in the north of the city within walking distance of the Peace Park and ground zero. There were big statues and what not, but the most impact (on me) was a simply map showing what was where at the time the atomic bomb dropped. It showed how the roads to the right and the left were lined with noodle shops, shoe repair shops, rice-stores, and everything else you would never suspect as being threatening enough to bomb into oblivion... Yet another time and situation I have difficulty empathizing with.
Cheap as we are, instead of paying 100 yen for the tram, we walked back to Nagasaki Station to pick up our gear from the locker. The rest of the night was spent on a mountain side overlooking the city, sitting in a park where 26 catholics were martyred in 1597, with a bottle of famous Kyushu potato wine, and brown-sugar ume-shu (plum wine) from relativly nearby Okinawa.
The most memorable and exciting thing to happen this day, other than waking up early to catch the bus which I had mistakenly thought left forty-five minutes later than it actually did, was loosing a helmet and my tent poles in our rush to dissasemble and pack the bikes, catching the bus that was scheduled to depart in one minute. Yipee!
Price per person:
The costs of a wanderlust trip always vary. Many nights we pitch tent in a park or shrine, while some nights we are lucky enough to find an nice inn. Generally, we charge a per-day fee for guide and gear, and any other expenses that are incurred along the way are out-of-pocket.
Guide(s), bikes, gear, tents, sleeping bags, maps, photos. (See below for details.)
Does not include transportation to and from start and end points, or any meals or accommodation along the way.
Bikes:Our cross touring and mountain bikes are selected to make your trip the most comfortable and enjoyable possible. Our frames are sturdy, stable, and light-weight, fitted with ultra-comfortable seats, handle bars and grips. Pannier saddle bags allow you to easily carry warm clothing, water, snacks, and any souvenirs you pick-up along the way.
Facilitators &Communicators:You have the option of riding with bilingual facilitators that have studied the area and culture and are anxious to share as much as you want to hear, and probably a lot you didn't even know you wanted to hear. (Of course, we will shut-up if you ask nicely). Alternatively, you can strike out on your own with scheduled meeting points. Either way, we will be available every step of the journey, whether you are trying to communicate with your host for the night, the old man at the vegetable stand, or trying to find a certain color of kimono for that perfect souvenir. We can also provide printed translations of important museum exhibits and explanation of various foods and interesting cultural artifacts found along the way.
Maps:Reading a map in Japanese can be a daunting task. We try to make it a little easier by adding some English where it makes sense, as well as important landmarks and points of interest. We even give you a pen to keep notes on the map of the one of a kind encounters and experiences you have along the way.
Photographer:Photos of you, your fellow adventurers, and the people you meet on your journey, edited and collected into one CD with optional large-size prints of the really good shots.
We can organize a trip for you anywhere in Japan. All we need to know is where you will be on the starting day.