Photography Eigo Shimojo
‘In Japan, spirituality and wilderness go hand in hand,’ says Emmanuel Bastian, who, along with French compatriot Guillaume Schaeffer, is the architect behind what has become one of the most enigmatic events on the bikepacking calendar. At over 3,000 km in length, unsupported, self-navigated, and with an assortment of mandatory checkpoints to negotiate, Emmanuel and Guilaume’s project has all the ingredients of a classic, but there is also one key focus that sets it apart.
The event of course is the Japanese Odyssey, and if the spirituality and wilderness that Emmanuel speaks of go hand in hand in Japan, then the organising duo behind it have done their best to honor that bond by creating something that marries the spirit of the cyclist with the wild places that they go in search of.
‘Japan is often associated with huge, tumultuous cities, high tech gizmos, and crowded trains, but it has a lot more to offer,’ explains Emmanuel. ‘So much of the country is made up of relatively unexplored areas, filled with green forests, waterfalls, wondrous bridges spanning luscious valleys in the middle of nowhere, and ancient pilgrimage routes. That’s the side of Japan we wanted the riders to discover on the Odyssey this year.’
Nonetheless, back in mid-August, the 2017 Japanese Odyssey got under way in Tokyo, the sprawling metropolis of almost 40 million people on the east coast of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. ‘We wanted riders to experience the contrast between urbanity and nature,’ explains Guillaume of the reasoning behind the start location. ‘It takes 65km of riding to get out of Tokyo, but once you’re out, you’re out. The landscape changes very quickly from suburban areas to full-on nature.’
The Kanto region in which Tokyo is situated is home to the largest plain in Japan, and in many ways the city’s size is owed to this fact, as much of the rest of the country is a maze of mountains and valleys, in which the wilderness that the Japanese Odyssey seeks can be found. The stark contrast between the two environments must only be intensified when travelling between them by bike.
‘This year the route took riders 500 km north of Tokyo, before guiding them south-west, back through the island of Honshu, to the island of Shikoku, and finally the island of Kyushu to the finish in the city of Kitakyushu,’ explains Guillaume. ‘As you navigate through the course, you experience drastic changes in climate and atmosphere. Up in the pine forests of the north, you often find yourself in a cold, deep mist, which gives everything around you an eerie aura, but once you begin to head for the bamboo forests of the south, this peculiar atmosphere metamorphoses into an almost tropical climate, with high humidity levels and a pounding sun.’
Dictating this journey through Japan were nine mandatory segments, whose long and testing nature put a challenging spin on the rider experience, and gently guided participants into the regions in which Japan’s secrets are to be found.
‘The mandatory segments we selected offered loneliness, steep climbs, narrow, winding roads, and gravel,’ says Emmanuel. ‘Gravel in Japan is quite different from the smooth gravel encountered on most gravel events though; the Japanese variety is made up of large, crushed rocks of flint. It not only challenges your bike, but also your legs. For example, the first segment, which climbed just 30 km to Mount Nantai, took about 5 hours for entrants to complete. In these areas you won’t find any sign posts or cell phone coverage either, but we wanted riders to fully experience the isolation of the forest.’
However, despite such challenges, Emmanuel maintains that the The Japanese Odyssey is not a race, and indeed the event website clearly states that while it may be a demanding adventure, it is not a competitive one. ‘There won’t be any ranking, nor official finishing times,’ it reads. ‘Successful riders will be those who accomplish the course within the 13 days, and that’s it.’
Indeed, rather than racing other entrants, the focus of the Odyssey is very much about connecting them with the country, its people, and the ride itself. ‘Entrants encounter Japanese culture and etiquette on a daily basis, simply by nature of the necessary interactions they are forced to make,’ says Emmanuel. ‘This could be ordering a bowl of noodles and eating them in a small traditional restaurant, or taking a dip in an onsen (volcanic hot spring) after a long day in the saddle.
‘But the Odyssey also connects riders to the land, and the spirits within it,’ Emmanuel continues. ‘Segment six was a perfect example. It lured riders onto roads that come under the umbrella of the Kumano Kodo, which refers to a network of pilgrimage trails running between the sacred sites of the Kii peninsula. As you ride along, in the silence and isolation of these remote mountainous roads, you’ll often see reminders of this intricate spiritual presence, whether in the form of small Shinto shrines at intervals along the road, or old Toriis (traditional Japanese gate-like structures, representing a transition into spiritual place) perched on the slopes above you.’
In Japan, spirituality and wilderness go hand in hand, and it seems that a cycling journey – or Odyssey – through the country is perhaps the ultimate way of appreciating that.
The next Japanese Odyssey will take place in October 2018. Visit japanese-odyssey.com for more information.