Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Thursday, 24 June 2010 15:42 UK

Cycling coast to coast across Japan

The road to Tokyo
Roland's journey across Japan took three days

Foreign correspondents spend much of their time on the road but the pressure of deadlines means they do not usually linger, so Roland Buerk who is based in Tokyo, decided it was time to see Japan the slow way, by cycling right across the country.

Once you have told enough people you are going to do something, it is difficult to back out of it.

That was how I found myself on a Saturday morning wheeling my bike out of a railway station on Japan's western coast.

The plan - to cycle all the way to Tokyo on the other side of the country.

The journey over had been worryingly long.

Bikes must be in bags to go on Japanese trains and my unwieldy luggage had excited some comment.

"What's in there?" asked one woman, obviously not used to seeing people dressed head-to-toe in lycra.

Drift to cities

Naoetsu was not a place to linger, the coastline was lined with cement blocks for a start.

Map of Japan

The streets were all but deserted and many of those who were out and about were elderly.

Japan's small towns have been losing their young people to Tokyo and Osaka for years.

The first stretch was flat and, by the time the last boxy chain restaurant selling cheap beef and rice bowls gave way to paddy fields, we were into the rhythm of pedalling.

On either side, smallholders wrapped up in wellingtons, thick trousers and shirts were tending the crops.

The women wore broad hats and scarves wrapped around their faces to protect them from the sun.

From the way they moved about, they looked old too.

I remembered meeting a farmer who told me that, at 60, he was the youngest left in his village.

His son had gone to the city to become a salaryman (office worker), working in a big company and so had everyone else's.

Hills and valleys

The road began to rise towards the mountains.

Petrol station staff
Petrol station staff gave words of encouragement

For hours we rode uphill until we were in the clouds, which stroked the forests with a chilly touch. A mad freewheel downhill brought us back out into the sunshine.

Down in the broad valley, apples were beginning to form in the orchards. The branches were propped up with wooden staves ready to help bear the weight of the crop.

But there was another climb to go and the sun was sinking towards the horizon, turning the mountains purple.

It was dark before we reached the small town of Komoro, our destination for the night.

The receptionist can rarely have seen two guests quite so pleased to arrive at his hotel next to the station - the kind of place with vending machines selling cans of beer on every floor and nylon sheets.

After a quick dinner of ramen noodles, eaten with chopsticks held in hands quivering with exhaustion, we turned in.

Traditional inn

Roland in traditional inn

We stopped at a traditional inn with tatami mats and sliding screens at the windows

Several hours after setting off the next morning, we saw the first sign for Tokyo, high in the mountains where the road curved over viaducts and through tunnels.

Less encouraging was the distance it showed - 148 kilometres (92 miles) still to go.

We got lost in the back roads around some golf courses and had to ask in a petrol station for directions.

They were surprised we were trying to cycle as far as the next town, amazed when we told them our final destination was the capital.

"Gambete!" they shouted as we left to encourage us. "Try hard, do your best!"

Even out in the countryside we came across concrete pylons holding up expressways and bullet train tracks.

Japan's government has built a vast infrastructure, trying to revive its economy, stagnant since the great post-war boom ended at the start of the 1990s.

That night we stopped at a traditional inn with tatami mats, sliding screens at the windows and a garden filled with the delicate red leaves of Japanese maple.

There was an onsen, a communal bath of hot water pumped up from underground. It was outdoors and the trees obscured the factory that dominated the valley.

Tokyo sprawl

Getting up on the third day was tough, but it felt as if the end was at last within reach.

Roland at Tokyo Bay
Roland Buerk arrives at Tokyo Bay

The route took us down a river, along a path on the top of gigantic embankments.

Many Japanese waterways have been chained in this way.

The vast sprawl around Tokyo began, and we were riding along above the level of the rooftops of the houses, for hour after hour.

It was late afternoon when we turned off onto the city streets.

We rode down narrow alleyways between old wooden houses, through parks and past the stone walls and moat of the Imperial Palace.

The pedestrian crossings were busy with dark-suited workers heading home.

Finally we reached Tokyo Bay, we had cycled coast to coast.

Much of the scenery had been spectacular, but we had also seen enough concrete to prove the old adage: "The Japanese have an eye for beauty and a blind spot for ugliness."

I rode home very slowly.

To get fit, I had been cycling to work every day for months. "Tomorrow," I promised myself, "I'll take the subway."

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules.

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Japan country profile
29 Sep 11 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific