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 …

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