Bicycling the Noto Peninsula, part 2

After three wonderful days of biking the west coast of the Noto Peninsula and then across the lush farmland of its center to the east coast, we had four full days to explore the east side of the peninsula, less whipped by wind and waves. Two gorgeous days of sunshine allowed us to explore the middle of the peninsula fully, collecting memories as we went. On our first day we rode from Mawaki Polepole to the town of Anamizu, hugging the coast for beautiful views and stopping in at a bakery for a mid-morning snack only to find a group of Australians also bicycling a similar route! They were fascinated by our folding bikes, and struck up further conversation when we ran into them again later that day. But the best part of the bakery was the chocolate mochi: a mochi-based pastry filled with a thin layer of melted chocolate, at the low low price of 70 cents. Soooo good.

This sign would have been more appropriate in the crashing waves of the other side of the peninsula!
This sign would have been more appropriate in the crashing waves of the other side of the peninsula!

We rode for a ways on the main road, with a wide shoulder and little traffic, then diverted down to a small coastal road that wove past Japan’s largest monument to a sumo champion (whose reign was in the 1820s) and some beautiful villages with picturesque shrines. We love Japan: even on this tiny one-lane road, every blind curve and intersection sported a mirror so you could see traffic coming the other direction! We had a fabulous ride down the coast, ending at a bakery whose selection had dwindled but where we nonetheless found plenty of fodder for lunch.

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Distinctive bread at Marchen Bakery in Anamizu
Distinctive bread at Marchen Bakery in Anamizu

On the following day, Komoot found us a route parallel to the main road but slightly inland, with rolling hills through rice paddies and gardens with views down to the sea below. Only once did a long snake block half the road, causing some unwanted excitement when I was halfway down a hill!

We only had a ten-mile ride to our next hotel, so we dropped off our bags around 11 in the morning and added on another 52 km to circumnavigate the island of Notojima. Our original destination was the Notojima Glass Art Museum, but on such a beautiful day it seemed like a shame to go inside, so after walking through the outdoor sculpture park we continued onward – and were immediately delighted by the sight of a dozen dolphins cavorting in a bay just a few hundred feet offshore!

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The island coast was less spectacular than we anticipated but made for a very pleasant bike ride. The Japan Alps poked out from the clouds; we listened to the birds and the frogs singing and admired the eagles soaring and diving; and except for a short stretch with some traffic, we encountered almost no cars. We made it back to our hotel around 6pm and quickly washed up for dinner in the hotel restaurant: another multicourse affair of tempura, pork hot pot, sashimi, rice, soup, and various pickles, in a dining room where we were some of the only people not dressed in the hotel’s loungewear.

We had watched the weather forecast carefully and knew the following day would be rainy, so we timed our departure to the forecast for the least rain and decided to head directly to our hotel in Nanao rather than taking a more circuitous route. Luckily for us, after four nights in tiny villages, Nanao would be a real city, with plenty of places to while away the time until our hotel allowed us to check in. Even more luckily, the forecast rain hardly materialized at all: a light mist fell as we biked, but we managed to stay largely dry as we bicycled across the two bridges to town. We had our choice of restaurants after several nights in tiny towns, and opted for our first okonomiyaki of the trip, including one made with octopus and udon!

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We spent a quiet afternoon in Nanao, exploring the Fisherman’s Wharf and watching the huge hawks navigate the strong wind before relaxing in our hotel and walking to a nearby izakaya for a dinner of tempura udon and tonkatsu. The next morning, the mist and fog blew off just as we headed out, and we had another gorgeous day of sunshine along a beautiful coast.

IMG_5704We again had the road almost entirely to ourselves, and the water was amazingly clear. The Alps slowly emerged from behind the cloudbanks and we had some great views of islands and beaches along the way. I admit I had kind of expected the last day to be a bit of a slog from looking at the map, but it far exceeded expectations! As we approached the town of Himi, we even discovered blue markings on the road, a sure sign of a bike route, and followed the Toyama Bay Cycling Course for a good dozen kilometers or so, including a beautiful stretch of beachfront bike path. Its presence on the English-language internet is small enough that we hadn’t even realized it existed, and it was delightful! We followed it all the way into Takaoka, then turned onto a series of small streets to head inland to our hotel next to the shinkansen station.

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We arrived at our hotel around 5pm and found that our suitcases had successfully made it – thanks, Yamato luggage service! – so we spent an hour disassembling the bikes and showering before heading to a nearby ramen restaurant for a quick dinner, and fit in a few games of Innovation, our favorite card game, before bed. We decided to take the 1:10pm train into Tokyo the following day to give us some time to relax and explore Takaoka, and for 27100 yen (about $250) we reserved seats. More expensive than our $99 plane tickets from Tokyo to Komatsu, but awfully convenient.

Takaoka turned out to be a bit of a ghost town: the streets were empty, the shops mostly closed, and not much was going on. But we wandered the street of traditional storefronts and looked up at Japan’s third biggest Buddha statue before getting some ramen and some snacks and hopping onto the shinkansen for Tokyo.

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After less than three hours of hurtling across the countryside, we arrived at Tokyo station, where we saw more people in ten minutes than we had in seven days of bicycling through rural Japan. And now we are happily ensconced in our delightful Akihabara hotel, surrounded by restaurants of every type we might possibly dream of and mesmerized by the constant flow of people across the wide, busy intersections. Tokyo really is a place unto itself. Today we wandered through Akihabara and Ueno, stopping at the annual festival of one of the nearby shrines and at dozens of tiny 100-yen shops and artisanal workshops and everything in between.

The annual festival at Yushima Tenjin shrine
The annual festival at Yushima Tenjin shrine

We will leave Japan with many happy memories: of crabs scuttling across the bike path, of frogs singing from the hundreds of rice paddies, of the hawk that stole a hapless Japanese tourist’s ice cream cone, of the giant caterpillars we encountered on portions of the road, of the ubiquitous bearded cranes and the stunning Alp views, but especially of just how wonderful it is to explore on two wheels, with the sun and the breeze and the feeling of really being a part of the places we explore. Should you ever seek out a biking destination, we can highly recommend Noto!

One more day in Tokyo and we head home … time to cram in as much ramen and choco cro as possible in 24 hours!

On the road again: three days of cycling Japan’s Noto Peninsula

After returning to our regularly scheduled lives in October, Michael and I have stayed largely close to home, exploring new bike routes in and around Seattle and settling into our new home near Green Lake. (We have plenty of room for guests, if you’re ever in the area!) But when I was invited to speak at the YOW! Data conference in Sydney in mid-May, we decided to use the free flight as an excuse for our first extended trip of the new year. Michael put into use his dormant skills for bike trip planning, and mapped out a route around the Noto Peninsula in central western Japan, more or less due west of Tokyo.

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Three days into our seven-day trip, I can report that so far the trip has been a resounding success! I write from Mawaki Polepole, our easternmost point of the trip, where we’ve just finished a stellar dinner of a dozen different delicious types of seafood at the oceanview restaurant in our hotel.

The conference itself was excellent: interesting speakers, good conversations, and a positive reception for my talk on the culture of experimentation at Pinterest. We fit in a little bit of exploring on Sunday and Wednesday, riding the ferry to Balmain and then to Taronga for a walk along the coast, complete with kookaburras. (No echidnas this time, sadly.)

We flew a red-eye from Sydney to Komatsu with a short stopover at Tokyo’s Haneda airport (complete with udon for breakfast!), then transferred to Kanazawa by bus, arriving at our hotel mid-morning only to be told that we couldn’t check in until 2pm. So we spent a few hours exploring town and running errands before returning to our hotel to check in and assemble the folding bikes we’d again borrowed from my parents for this trip. Two hours and a quick visit to a bike shop later, we had two operational bikes and had dropped off our bike suitcases at the luggage delivery service, which will (we hope) send them to the hotel where we’d wrap up the trip in one week’s time.

On Friday morning, we set out for our first bike trip in nine months, and with our longest day planned for day one. We arose early and made a quick stop at the Kanazawa Castle Park in town before following very pleasant side roads out of town, often following the levee alongside the many canals.

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After a quick breakfast stop, we reached the coast and hopped onto a perfectly maintained bike path that stretched from Kanazawa all the way to Hakui. Yes, it was directly alongside a major highway, but it was also right along the coast, with pine trees atop endless sand dunes and a variety of sea birds. There was a long section where cars and bicycles were allowed to travel directly on the packed sand of the beach, but we stuck with the path (despite our bemusement at some of the road signs).

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In over an hour on the scenic and well-marked bicycle path, we encountered five walkers, one elderly Japanese woman on a cargo tricycle, and a Western man roller skiing, but no other bicyclists. Here’s the map I’d found on the internet:

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At the end of the path, we turned left to follow a “shared sidewalk” along the coastal road, which soon became one of the nicest bike paths we’ve ever seen. It took us directly along the coast and then through some tiny and picturesque villages and sections of pine forest before emerging at nothing less than the sole French patisserie for miles around! We delighted in delectable pastries and even picked up a few for our afternoon snack, since we had decided to forgo lunch in hopes of reaching our hotel before the thunderstorms arrived.

From Shika to Togi we followed a series of tiny roads along the coast, and saw perhaps two cars along almost the entire route. We also saw a very long snake languorously enjoying the width of the warm pavement, and stopped just in time to avoid a very unpleasant encounter. Unlike the other parts of Japan we’d visited, in Hokkaido and Kyushu, every town had beautiful traditional Japanese architecture and gardens: wooden houses, manicured shrubs, and flowers of all colors as the countryside luxuriated in springtime greens. Rice paddies of all shapes and sizes dominated the scenery on both sides of us.

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This stretch of coastline turned out to be spectacular, too: sea stacks, a rock with a hole in it, a cave you could walk into, and a pair of “husband and wife” rocks tied by a rope.

We got caught by a few quick storms, but arrived in Togi without getting too wet, and Michael had a nice soak in the onsen before we spent a quiet afternoon relaxing over cards and reading and heading to bed early. Day 1: we made it! The temperature was already dropping when we arrived at the Seaside Villa Bokkai: from a high of 80 on a humid Friday, we were slated for a cold and misty Saturday with a high of only 57!

Our ride on day 2 was shorter but hillier, following the coast north from Togi to Wajima. The coastline was again spectacular: oddly shaped sea rocks, storm-torn ravines, and roads directly on the sea front. We cut inland at Monzen after a lunch of soba, and climbed up and up over a pass to meet the sea again at Kamiozawa, but not before stopping to chat with a French tourist and then to admire a striking waterfall.

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When we reached the coast, we were buffeted by strong winds and a spectacular view; the town used traditional reed fences to protect itself from the constant onslaught of wind, and the sea eagles seemed accustomed to gliding and landing in this weather.

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Unfortunately, return to sea level didn’t mean a quick flat jaunt along the coast to our hotel in Wajima; we climbed up and over a half dozen headlands en route, with a quick stop at an amazing waterfall that we later learned was called Oketaki, falling through a hole in a rock so that it looked like magic!

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Tiny fishing villages proliferated on every tiny harbor, and rice paddies abutted the sea and the road to fill every available inch of space. We rode up and down, up and down, up and down until we arrived in Wajima around 5 in the afternoon, happily settling into an evening at a nondescript hotel with a deluxe sushi dinner in town (followed by small bowls of ramen to fill our stomach less expensively).

Sometimes I had to walk up the hills.
Sometimes I had to walk up the hills.

This morning dawned sunny and bright after two overcast days. We dawdled a bit over the deluxe hotel breakfast (croquettes! fried rice cakes! seaweed and squid salad!) and then wandered through the daily Wajima morning market before heading out. A short jaunt north along the coast to the Senmaida rice terraces and we would leave the wild western coast of the peninsula to head eastward.

The ride along the coast was windy but incredibly scenic, along a “sidewalk” that would be a prized bike path anywhere in the US. Cantilevered bridges kept the road high above the water, with spectacular views and sparkling whitecaps below.

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The rice terraces were striking, and after a few more miles along the coast we found a waterfront shrine gate before leaving the western coast for good to head inland.

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IMG_0170IMG_0176We climbed up into the hills of the peninsula to a lush green landscape of (you guessed it!) rice paddies and traditional wooden houses. It was beautiful. We happened upon a beautiful temple and a line of women scarecrows as we wove our way across the peninsula on narrow country roads with scarcely a car in sight.


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A ramen lunch later and we popped out on the eastern side of the peninsula, with striking views of the Japanese Alps across the water.

IMG_0191IMG_01935 km along the coast and then uphill for a mile and we arrived at Mawaki Polepole, a western-style ryokan with an onsen and fabulous meals as well as ocean views and spacious rooms. But the dinner! We feasted on seafood hot pot, an assortment of seafood nibbles (eel intestine, conch shell, squid, pickled fish), four kinds of sushi, amazing tempura, a whole fish, seaweed soup and homemade pickles, and a dessert of fresh fruit and a small cake, all included (along with breakfast) in our $180 room rate. Not a bad deal.

And through it all, we’re getting to remember why we love Japan. Every public bathroom has a heated toilet seat (and often a washlet), and automatic sensors so you don’t have to touch a thing; the drivers are polite; inexpensive and delicious food abounds; and every hotel has an onsen, where Michael usually gets a whole bath to himself since everyone’s a little wary of the random white dude; and each town has its own unique manhole cover design (or sometimes more than one!).

Tomorrow we start our trip down the east side of the peninsula: less stormy and windswept, we hear, but hopefully equally beautiful in its own way.

And now, to bed! Hooray for two-wheeled adventures, which always make us wonder why we don’t do this more often …

Back to the grind: reentering reality

You may have noticed the last few posts were somewhat belated, largely because I knew that writing them would mean the real end of our adventure. After our amazing bike trip, Michael and I flew from Podgorica all the way to San Francisco (via Istanbul and Frankfurt) for a wedding. It was the best possible reentry, with a weekend packed full of seeing friends we hadn’t seen in months.

Michael's belated birthday celebration!
Michael’s belated birthday celebration!

After three wonderful days in San Francisco, we flew north to Seattle, our new home, and began to settle into our new lives: unpacking our house, finding jobs, and – best of all – spending time with family and friends. In our first few weeks here, we’re already loving the opportunities to spend time with close family, and we hosted our first few guests, both overnight and for board games and dinners!

Our first time hosting Sunday dinner!
Our first time hosting Sunday dinner!

We are sad to end our global adventures, of course, but we are incredibly grateful to be returning to the warmth of extended family in Seattle and to begin the new adventures to come!

Bicycling Montenegro with the Burbanks

As our final adventure before returning to real life back in the US, Michael and I spent six days biking around coastal Montenegro with my parents. After a week of all feeling unwell, we were a bit trepidatious to set out on bicycles, but also excited to be feeling like ourselves again. Michael had planned out the whole route and booked apartments along the way; the days were relatively short (20-30 miles) but mountainous, with several days having over 3,000 feet of climbing.

What a fabulous trip it was! The back roads were nicely paved, with very little traffic, and the countryside was absolutely beautiful, especially as the foliage was just starting to change color for fall. (It actually reminded Michael and me a bit of our hikes in Seoraksan last October!)

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P1110337We climbed up to Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, full of embassies from the late 19th century when Montenegro was first created as an independent nation. We coasted downhill to the shores of Lake Skadar, where a series of tiny monasteries dotted the offshore islands and the only road wove through olive trees and fig trees and vineyards along the shore.

We climbed over the coastal mountains to the ancient cities of Bar and Ulcinj, where old fortress cities kept watch over stunning beaches, olive groves, and delicious seafood. And then we climbed our way back up over the mountains on a quiet road over the hills, through a kilometer-long old train tunnel open only to bicyclists, and downhill to a tiny train station where we hopped on a train back to Podgorica.

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IMG_4836Logistics-wise, we arranged to rent two more bikes through 3e travel in Podgorica, where the friendly Angelika met us ahead of time to try out an electric bike and then offered to arrange our luggage transfer for a very reasonable price when we ended up renting a road bike and a touring bike instead. Having our luggage driven around made all our riding much easier, and my mom could go incredibly fast on her lightweight road bike!

IMG_4868It was amazing. And beautiful. And everything a bike ride should be.

P1110264And when we rode back into Podgorica, we went for a walk around the city and then disassembled our bikes into their suitcases and returned them to their rightful owners – my parents – for their flight back to the US. It had been a wonderful, wonderful adventure, but it was sadly time for it to end.

Our last hurrah: biking coastal Montenegro

For our last adventure, we planned a six-day bike tour along the coast of Lake Skadar and the Adriatic Sea near Podgorica. Well, really, Michael planned it, and my parents and I got to enjoy a deluxe self-guided bike tour complete with route planning and fancy apartments.

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Our route is below, exactly as we planned it in Komoot – check out the next post for details and photos!