Cycling Japan

Hand-Cycling through Japan – A Land of Contrasts


When a Japanese friend suggested cycling the length of Japan, I automatically said “yes”. This Spring, we embarked on the 3800 km journey through the archipelago. Luckily, a big chunk of this is water, so the cycling was little over 2000 km, but I seemed to have ignored the fact that Japan is 80% mountains when I agreed to the jaunt!

The 7 week cycle from the snow covered volcanoes of Hokkaido to the subtropical coral reefs of the Okinawa islands offered a unique insight of Japan. It has a wealth of variety and contrasts to offer, and although there are some sprawling urban concrete centres, there is also some fantastic rural scenery.

A Chance Meeting

Two years ago, Sumiyo and I met in a French ski resort. I had been a climber – until I fell from a Scottish cliff and was paralysed. She is a climber…with Everest as a first! I guess my set of wheels reminds climbers of the potential dangers of their sport. It sets their cogs whirring, and seems to conjure intrigue to talk to me. I took our meeting as this, and thought we would never meet again…let alone cycle the length of Japan together.

Paralysed? I’d rather be dead…or so I thought!

As an outdoor sports fanatic, the prospect of being paralysed sounded to me a fate worse than death. In 1993 at age 21, my plummet from an Aberdeen sea cliff and resulting loss of leg use was a shock to say the least! But hey, shit happens and we’re all more adept at dealing with it than we think.

A few months after being paralysed, a close friend died in another rock climbing accident, and I swore to make the most of what I had. Friends thought I’d gone crazy, as I tried every activity remotely possible – sailing, waterskiing, hand-cycling, wheelchair racing, swimming, racquetball, tennis, skiing, canoeing….!!!

I wasn’t crazy. I was really just searching for a way back into the outdoor wilderness I loved so much. After a few years of experimenting, I settled for the combination of sea kayaking, snow skiing and hand-cycling. Together they provide a year-round freedom to access mountains and nature…but I dreamt of bigger mountains than those in Scotland! I longed to visit the Himalayas, but knew that I would feel frustrated if I couldn’t experience them beyond a tourist bus. Hence, one Scottish winter night with a stack of guide books, I invented the idea of hand-cycling from Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan, along a section of the Silk Route and the Karakoram Highway. The following year, it happened…an incredible journey, camping each night and never knowing when we would manage to re-stock our food and water supplies.

She was intrigued

On meeting me, Sumiyo was intrigued by the concept of being paralysed, and managing to visit the Himalayas in an “alternative” way. The Himalayas is a place close to her heart – with a Tibetan mother, and Everest as her first mountain! Believe it or not, Sumiyo hated her first mountain experience. She is an indoor person, happiest with her books and writing pad. However, she was invited to help out at base-camp on a Japanese Everest expedition…despite having a bad time, she adapted superbly to the altitude and thought “it doesn’t look very difficult”.

It proved a bit trickier than she expected, but she is the most focused, determined person I have ever met, and on the third attempt (after one with bad weather and one with broken ribs!) she finally made it to the summit in 1998. The mountain has dominated her life for 10 years. It started as a time-filler between studying and working, and ended up filling time – in fact, becoming her job! It seems that Everest has a magical appeal that sucks people into its aura, sometimes making peoples lives, but more often, destroying them. Sumiyo has seen many friends killed on this mountain. She thinks it will be her last big mountain, insisting that she is much happier safely inside with that book!

Japan – a land of contrast!

It is impossible to appreciate the latitude that Japan covers from a map alone. After 7 weeks of cycling its length, I now have a full appreciation of the variety and contrasts that Japan has to offer. We had to change the initial route thanks to Mt Usu spewing ash over the island of Hokkaido. This meant cycling along a motorway for a few days – a bad introduction to Japan! A few snow-storms later, we experienced some incredible skiing on the driest powder and quietest slopes I have ever seen.

Moving into the Alps of Honshu island, the “Cherry Blossom Front” became all the gossip. A wave of blossoming cherry trees spreads northwards through Japan in the Spring, and is internationally famous. The TV carries “blossom charts”, like weather maps showing the daily position of the blossom front. With all the hype, we were somewhat disappointed to find pouring rain and strong winds when we finally hit the front, with more of the delicate pink blossom on the ground than on the trees!

The rain persisted, and we decided to skip the busy Alpine valleys and cycling the periphery of Tokyo, and hitched a few hundred kilometres south to the sun…and some superb coastal cycling! This was more like I’d expected of Japan – fishing villages and camping of beautiful beaches. The diet is so healthy, consisting mainly of fish and rice…certainly not a place for someone prone to calorie-laden desserts. I guess that’s why Japan doesn’t suffer from the obesity problem of Western countries.

One of the aims of the cycle was to raise awareness of the activities that are possible for those with a disability. We met with various school, community and disability groups along the way, and kept a record of experiences on the Newsweek Japan website – this proved to be successful with a total of 15,000 people accessing the site. Despite the Japanese perception that their country is not very “barrier free”, the modern buildings and abundance of lifts and escalators made getting around towns and cities very easy. The biggest impression though, was left by the people. In general, the Japanese are more subtle in their speech than the average Westerner. They are a very sensitive, thinking nation. Normally, when I travel somewhere and meet new people every day, I am bombarded with strings of questions about being paralysed, which can become a bit tedious! However, in Japan people just seemed very accepting with no questions asked.

After the people, and the amount of raw fish that is consumed, the most striking thing about Japan is the marriage of traditional culture with modern development. In the morning, we would be woken early by a public broadcasting system playing some horrendous electronic tune, soon followed by a soul-stirring sound of drums from the temple. One of the most amusing things I saw was a giant tractor tyre crowned in a small ornate shrine roof feature! Culturally and architecturally, the integration of old and new has never been so striking.

If anyone is thinking of visiting Japan, I would recommend Kyoto, for its incredible temples; Sakurajima, known as the Naples of the east thanks to the constantly puffing, rumbling volcano which overlooks the city; Shikoku island for quiet fishing villages and river valleys; and Yakushima – a World Natural Heritage site, rich in fantastic Cedar forests, monkeys, turtles laying eggs on the beaches, and a spectacular coastline. Japan is renowned for its expense, but the prices are comparable to Britain. It is easy to find basic – middle accommodation for £25/night, and camping is easy too!

Cycling this distance by hand-bike took its toll on my body! My shoulders and arms thankfully survived the journey due to recovery provided by magnetic wrist bands and body warmer that helped significantly with circulation, minor injuries and the obvious muscle aches and pains!

Lots of people seem to have viewed our cycling journey as a great achievement. From my personal viewpoint, cycling and travelling are just things I love doing. Cycling through Japan was just a fantastic time of indulging in the things I love! I’m just a normal person finding my way through life, but I suppose that the wheelchair has given me a unique perspective. I think that through the website of our journey, many people have been inspired to do something they have dreamed of. When I became paralysed, the words that made the biggest impression on me were:

“Too many people live in the past. If we live in the past we make ourselves unavailable to the present and the future”.

Those words have helped me deal with a lot.

I’d recommend Japan to anyone, and of course….cycling!


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