seventy seven kilometers from nowhere

2023.10.28 (updated : 2023.10.29)

On November 26, 2023, at the age of fifty-two I decided on the spot to visit a distant man-made lake by bike that same day. It was a simple enough goal: I could visit Tochigi and Gunma prefectures by bike, and in so doing I would complete the seven prefectures of the Kantō region.

I was going to turn two red prefectures green

I have visited both of my target prefectures before, but by train. In fact I'd stayed overnight at onsen in both and have been to Nikko in Tochigi a few times. This trip wasn't really a big deal, and certainly riding a loop around a "retarding basin" isn't exactly seeing a prefecture.

My wife and I had both taken the day off to visit our son's school's annual gymnastics day event. But then our daughter woke with a headache and a mild fever and we called it off with the assent of The Boy. It was then that I began to seriously think of pushing my old commuter bike onto an unprecedented trip. Two years prior, I had done a 140km round trip. This would be close to 160km, and the days were shorter than they were in June. And of course, the trip would be more rural. And to be honest, I wasn't 100% sure about the condition of my rear tire, because I've been having a LOT of flats lately.

But I'd also bought a spare tube in preparation, and I'd done a practice run with an 80km trip this summer that took me half the distance. That had gone well enough despite temperatures in the mid thirties. And learning from that trip that I had picked up a type of cooler to strap onto my bike - I didn't want to be hunting around in a deep pannier every time I stopped. I already had the loose, breathable clothes I'd need. Even the weather was perfect: less that 10kmph of wind out of the northwest, temperatures in the twenties. The route was almost perfectly flat. What. Could. Go. Wrong?

here goes nothing

I was on the road at 08:30 and entered Saitama prefecture thirty minutes later under a gorgeous blue sky and with normal suburban Tokyo traffic volume. It was all street riding, but it was pretty uneventful.

I passed the place I'd got to this summer in about 2.5 hours (the heart on the map above), and directly passed one of the places I'd stopped for a rest, that day.

I don't really notice the passing of time when I'm cycling, because I have to pay attention to the road. I also don't find it particularly wearying, though I'm at a point now where I can't stand comfortably for more than a half an hour at a time. It just tends to fly by. My right knee started to ache, which has been a constant problem since I strained it with a lot of driving and then lifting when we were in Toronto last summer. But it was manageable. I stopped at a few spots to buy drinks, but didn't feel particularly hungry and ate little.

I wasn't planning to take a lot of photos because I had a pretty tight schedule. Though I'd left at 08:30 I really should have left two hours earlier. If only I'd been prepared for this! I wanted to get back not a lot later than sundown, and if I kept to my schedule I could even manage to get to my Japanese lesson at 19:00. We'd see.

In Saitama, the cycling improved as there were almost always fully separated paved lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. There are damn few pedestrians in those long stretches of open space, and not a lot of cyclists and that can spell trouble for cycling infrastructure. And sure enough, I eventually came to a bridge that had no shoulder at all. It was a bit tense, but the drivers waited for me to puff my way over it and then I waved them on when I could see that there was no one coming the opposite direction.

Then I came to a much larger bridge, the "Saitama Bridge" that spans the Ara river and connects the prefecture to Gunma and Tochigi prefectures in the north. That had a nasty raised concrete raised shoulder like a miniature sidewalk. I wound up walking my bike up its length until that concrete piece gave way to a green painted "bike lane" that was separated by plastic bollards. I dismounted on the far side and then resumed riding on the endless flat terrain of the Kantō plain.

On the far side of that bridge, the cycling quality was much worse. There was still a separated lane but it was now covered in debris and largely overgrown. The surface was rough and there were unexpected drops at place I couldn't always see. By 13:30 I was at point A on the map below -- no more than ten minutes from the lake. I had shaved ten minutes off the travel time despite a couple of combini stops, and things were going great.

where I ran into trouble

But one of those hidden drops was a hard one and I immediately sensed I was losing air pressure in my rear tire. I came to a halt and changed the tube. My replacement -- fresh from Amazon -- looked a bit thin and I now think that I received the wrong type despite the 622-23 label on the wrapper. Anyway, it exploded before I could even board the bike - just the weight of the pannier and the things in it was too much, apparently.

I could see a good-sized store in the distance, so I walked a few hundred meters to a place that turned out to be a drug store. I asked a store clerk whether she knew where I could find bicycle parts, but she didn't. I asked if there were any "home stores" Sitting in the shade and having a drink, I looked at my phone and spotted a bicycle shop about five kilometers away (point "D"). I also tried to find a "home" store because those sometimes have tubes, but nothing came up. If my search had been more fruitful, I would have found the "home center" at point "G" and saved myself a great deal of effort. But no, I decided to walk to point D.

This meant following my sometimes untrustworthy phone along its long chosen path. This led me at one point along a nice foot-path that followed a creek. You can make this out as the meandering dotted line on the left in the map above. I didn't know it but I was walking along the border between Saitama and Gunma. Around 14:15 I probably entered Gunma, my third prefecture of the day. But then phone's route dumped me at a stocked fishing pond. I re-entered the bicycle store, wondering what kind of store could be in a place like this, and my phone led me to this:

Hokuheito bridge on the Yata river in Gunma
Hokuheito bridge on the Yata river in Gunma

You can't make it out, but there is no trail at all on the far side of that bridge. My path just came to a halt (at point "B" on the map). I would later see the second bridge on the other side of the small island to which this bridge leads: it was in such bad shape that it was severed from the ground on both sides. As for the one in this photo, the logs were bad but I think it might have another eighteen months until it is impassable. I don't know why Google Maps thinks that that trail is passable!

With the day now beginning to wind down, I continued on my way. I would have to cross the river, so I walked along the "main road" only to notice that the river was not crossed at grade but rather with a huge over-pass bridge. Realizing that I was going to have to add another half-kilometer to my trip, I instead approached a business of some kind where I was allowed to put my bike through a gate and then use the trail along the river's berm to get to the bridge. The fellow asked me if there was really a bike shop in the area, and I told him my smart phone said yes.

thank you to these anonymous people!

It had been an unexpectedly long and eventful walk, but my troubles were not over. This was the "bicycle shop". Or rather, it turned out, the back of the shop. The front, incredibly, was on a foot path.

so this is a bicycle shop
so this is a bicycle shop

The residents of this home/store saw my milling about (or perhaps herd my cursing) and the fellow came out to speak with me. Over the course of the next hour, I managed to convince the fellow who ran the place to help me patch my tube. He was about eighty years old and moved pretty slowly, but I left on my bike rather than carrying it. I had long since given up on my Japanese class and was now thinking about how I would get home in the dark. But first, damnit, I would do the circuit around the lake.

I zipped past the unusable second bridge that Google Maps had wanted me to follow. I got to the lake in no time, zig-zagging up a berm that separates it from the surrounding city. At 17:15, I entered the park around the "retarding basin" and circled the lake. I was delighted to spot wild boar on several occasions, and that the place was otherwise deserted. As I made my way around the lake, I apparently crossed in and out of Tochigi a few times (again, see the dotted line border above).

The photo below was taken at point E on the map.

It was here that the path around the lake was blocked for some reason, and I realized that I would have to double back quite a way. So I decided to try the path on the far side of the river that ran the length of the "retarding basin".

This took me almost to point "F" on the map, but once again I found the path blocked. This time it wasn't a big gate but rather a concrete hexapod that exist in this country by the millions. It seems that people have been going around it since it was laid down, as there was a foot path making that clear. So I deked around the blocking piece of concrete and took the path to its end. Which meant I was dumped at the side of the water. I refused to double back, an option that would add a further five kilometers to my trip. Walking along the thin concrete strip that topped the bank above the water, I got to an incline that led to a road that crossed a weir. I had completed my circuit -- or enough of it anyway -- and was free to go home.

river full of fish

I started making my way across the flat farm-land, and came upon a place where much to my delight I saw a "home center". I knew that the headlamp I'd brought wouldn't last the duration to distant Kokubunji, and that I would need another. Plus, I was worried about that patched tube. So I ducked in and collected the things I needed.

My worries about the patched tube we were warranted. I checked the tire when I emerged from the store and found it soft. So I replaced the tube, mounted the headlamp, and took off. The area looked familiar, and it was only a couple of minutes later that I spotted the drug store where I'd made the fatefull decision to wander off track to that "bicycle shop". I'd been so, so close to the home center I'd been clumsily asking of that store clerk!

upon re-entering Saitama

I soon found that the headlamp was coming loose with every little bump. It became so loose that I realized my handlebars were just too narrow for it. I wound up spending the rest of the trip holding the thing in my hand. It was dark, the lamp was weak, and I could see that this was edging beyond 'adventure' and becoming ridiculous.

I made it another fourteen kilometers until I had a puncture flat. Normally that wouldn't be the end of the world, but I hadn't thought to pick up another patch kit at the home center. It had slipped my mind that my elderly savior from the bike shop had used all of my patches. By this point it was 19:00, and I realized I was sunk. Mari had been asking me if she could come get me, and I now asked her to do so. I carried on walking, and covered another five kilometers or so before spotting a shopping mall I'd noticed on the way up. I was now 60km from home and ready to call that a night. So I sent Mari the location and headed inside for a meal. Sitting in a Hawaiian restaurant and watching my phone charge, it occurred to me that this was much like when my father was gliding cross country and couldn't make it back to the club's landing field. This was called "landing out" and we, his crew, would have to help out by driving to the site, packing up the glider and heading home. Only, here I hadn't cleared any of this with my wife in advance.

By 21:30 we had the biked loaded up in a Honda Freed from "Times Car". This is a car that Mari has wanted to buy for a while, and we certainly found it useful in easily accommodating my bike. We got in just before 23:00. My big adventure was over.

lessons learned

There are trips, there are adventures, and there are disasters. I think this landed on 'adventure', and I'm glad I did it. But there are a number of factors I'd like to look at.

what went well

My wife could rescue me.

I had brought a battery charger I'd bought while on the 140km trip I completed last year. That worked wonders, because the batter in my now-five-year-old phone is no longer that strong, and I was using the energy-drawing navigation feature on the phone continuously.

My Japanese language skills are inexcusably poor, but I am at a point where I can get around. I was confused when the old cycle shop owner used the word 'jidai' for the state of the tire (not tube) because that word means 'era', not 'age'. It's that kind of random use of a word that only a native person (perhaps using a regional dialect or something that was used decades prior) can do to really throw me off my listening. But on the whole I was happy.

Even though my bike wasn't in great shape, I did 74km without incident.

I had the right clothing. I was neither too hot or too cold. I am not covered in chafing. I used my oldest lightweight sneakers and put all the riding (110km) and unexpected walking (10km!) on those rather than something I might wear to work.

The weather held, making it quite a fine day.

I'd bet on their being convenience stores everywhere, for things like food and batteries and I was right.

All in, I can't really complain. I could have been a bit luckier, but I could have been a whole lot less lucky. I reckon if I'm going to do more of this I can start preparing - and also not do this sort of thing at the spur of the moment. Honestly, I'm already thinking of starting again next June.

what went poorly

The bike wasn't in good enough condition for the ride. Two days after this trip, I took my bike to a store and the guy immediately told me I needed a new rear wheel. He showed me that the old wheel wasn't even stable: it rocked on its axel even with the axel properly seated. It was a seventeen-year-old wheel, I should have recognized the signs -- frequent flat tires is a giveaway.

If I'd spent another five minutes with Google Maps I could probably have realized that I wasn't too far from more retail shops and something would work out. I had a strong feeling that in the absence of knowledge about bike shops I should have just stayed on the main road. Going with the traffic is never a bad idea when it comes to way-finding.

I had the wrong size spare. I'll try to work out what happened - e.g. an Amazon ordering glitch - but this is inexcusable.

I was carrying much too much weight. I was using a heavy commuter pannier when I should have used a very lightweight backpack. I brought a 1.5L water bottle, mostly because of my last experience in much hotter weather. I should have had that or the aluminum thermos I was carrying. I had to carry my break-fix kit, and it's as light as can be, and I was also carrying the charging pack and its six AA's. I should have been more weight conscious -- especially since I weight 100kg.

I simply didn't have enough time in the day for the trip. Leaving at 08:30 when the sun is going down at around 17:00 is nuts when your trip is 10 hours and change.

I didn't have enough headlamp horsepower. I have a decent white headlamp but it can only run about ninety minutes on a charge. By the time I was rolling on the last tube of the day I had at least four hours ahead of me. This left me reliant on random cheap equipment from a "home center", and I got what I (didn't) pay for.

what does it mean

Life is what you make it. If I don't try this sort of thing, I won't really be enjoying life and I certainly won't have these little memorable outings. This is only the third time I've encountered wild boar for instance, and it was by far the longest one-way ride I've done in Japan. Even the failed distance of about 110km ties it for second in my life. Even Mari said she enjoyed the adventure of dropping everything to drive out of the city some evening.

My advice is: go for it. You'll learn as you go, and build on your successes.

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