Japan on a Folding Bike
by Rob Ainsley

Japan on a folding bike. It seemed logical for the country that gave us Walkmans, capsule hotels, folding beds and origami.

Indeed, their word for 'folding bike' uses the same 'ori'. It's 'oritatamijitensha', which means rather prosaically 'folding bike'. But then the Japanese language (spoken, easy; written, impossible) is rarely abstract. It's largely concrete. Like the country.

Which was why I went to Shikoku. I'd been in Tokyo for two weeks and needed to breathe in.

My Brompton had proved ideal for getting round the capital, saturated as it is with train lines. I could clatter along pavements, accompanied by herds of schoolgirl cyclists in sailor suits, weaving among suited salarymen. Then, at the impeccably clean station ticket hall, my collapsible-horse magic. So you can fold a piece of paper into a crane? That's nothing! Watch as my bicycle turns into a satchel-sized modern sculpture! See the wheels nestle together like the eyes on a Picasso!

Passers-by cooed as my bike melted into its carrybag. Folders are uncommon in Japan; everyone has a bike, but they're cheap clunky shoppers. Surprisingly, in a land where petty crime is as rare as an anorexic sumo wrestler or delayed train, unlocked bikes (and umbrellas) get 'borrowed', like unattended newspapers on a London tube. So I took my Brompton everywhere with me. It fitted snugly in crammed commuter trains, car boots, cable cars, phone boxes. It was so small it even fitted - incredible, but true - inside Japanese apartments.

Tokyo had been exhilarating: sushi restaurants down secret lanes, futurama monorails, kaleidoscopic neon, Bond-gadget electronics shops. But the only green thing I'd seen so far had been the dollop of wasabi mustard on my sushi. In the kiosk-sized bars, everyone told me that Shikoku was the place to go, a quiet untouristed rural haven. The smallest of Japan's four main islands, it was over the water from Osaka, 300km away. So I packed my Brompton and hopped on a bus, thinking I would head to the edge of Tokyo, and cycle to Shikoku from there.

Snag 1. When got to the edge of Tokyo we WERE in Osaka. Even then I couldn't get cycling. The new Akashi bridge to Shikoku doesn't allow bikes, which meant another bus. A shame: it's the world's longest single-span suspension bridge, overlooking dramatic whirlpools, and would be a terrific cycling experience. (The previous record-holder was the Humber Bridge, which of course does allow bikes and is indeed a terrific cycling experience. And dull as the Humber's dog-brown waters look down there underneath you, they're actually the second most dangerous shipping lane in the world after the Orinoco. Which is all irrelevant, but then irrelevance is OK in Japanese writing, so long as it feels appropriate.)

Snag 2. I had too much luggage - a big rucksack of camping gear. The Brompton's back rack wouldn't take it:. Put the bike under too much pressure and it folds. I can't complain. I'm the same. So I dispatched most of my luggage back to Tokyo (it cost 8 - which was absurdly cheap, in a land where a bottle of house wine costs 50) and travelled super-light, with just a loaf-sized daypack bungeed to the rack.

But now I was free. For two weeks I roamed Shikoku's towns, villages and countryside. Some days I cycled 80km, others 80m to the bus stop. I biked along riverside lanes and over mountain passes. I took little-known trains and buses up to distant temples to pray. Invariably I would pray to not have an accident as I freewheeled back down.

From the saddle you see some mighty odd things in Japan. For instance, at the head of Iyakei's huge, breathtaking valley was a statue clearly modelled on Brussels' mannekin pis: a beaming, self-satisfied little boy enjoying an endless wee hundreds of metres down into the vast gorge.

Then there are the inscrutable roadside advertising hoardings in English. One said confidently 'YES. AMENITY IN HUMAN LIFE', a sentiment I'd thoroughly agree with if I knew what it meant. (It was for financial services, so made no less sense than their British counterparts' ads.) A common road sign advises you to beware of monkeys. I found only one example of graffiti: several well-drawn Disney characters festively decorating an underpass. Which all goes to show that, by western standards, Japanese vandalism really is Mickey Mouse.

Outside Tokushima I saw a mountain of discarded but perfectly usable cycles by the side of the road. The Japanese like throwing things away. When bikes are no longer wanted (maybe they've got a puncture, the back wheel squeaks, or they need the space in the flat because someone's coming to tea) they simply chuck them. But - according to an unfathomable cultural rule - taking one of these bikes is BAD, as bad as being late for work. It's stealing, as opposed to taking one from a station bike park, which is borrowing.

But travel in any country isn't about seeing sights, it's about meeting locals, and I certainly did. Which is why cycling off the beaten track is so good. In two weeks I saw one non-Japanese (an American in Kochi who directed me to an Internet café. Wrongly). Otherwise I was the only 'gaijin' in a parallel universe, a curiosity trick-cyclist, in contrast to Tokyo where I'd been just another damn westerner complaining about the cost of house wine.

When it rained or got hilly I condensed the bike and hitched an instant lift. I got rides in open-top sports cars, luxury saloons, and ancient vans with dead speedos. I met dental hygienists and doctors and plumbers and benignly mad women. I was invited to go kayaking and to stay at people's houses.

Dawdling through a remote fishing village, I saw three men at their picnic lunch, dressed in extraordinary clothes. They carried staffs and bells. They wore lampshade hats, and white robes emblazoned with Chinese characters. And Reebok trainers and North Face rucksacks.

I stopped to talk. They were henrosha - pilgrims doing the 88-temple circuit of Shikoku, a historic trail which atones for the 88 earthly sins. (What are the other 81? Clearly the Japanese are not as strait-laced as many people think.) It takes weeks to do on foot, though I was to run into people doing it by bike, public transport, motorbike, and car.

When the Japanese do something, they do it properly. For around 120, shops on the trail sell the pilgrim's full monty: hat, staff, robes and bell, plus a large book where you collect the name of each temple visited. Its name is inscribed by the priest in artful calligraphy, done so skilfully it is totally illegible even to very educated Japanese. Smarter than those felt-pen-coloured stamps you collect in your YHA booklet.

In fact, many temples on the circuit are youth hostels too. I knew this from one of the three pilgrims I'd stopped to talk to. He was a Technical Support manager for Smith and Nephew back in polluted Tokyo. Like me, he was here for the country air. We ate the traditional henrosha fare, a melon-sized citrus fruit which is half grapefruit, half orange, and half pith. At his suggestion I stayed at Iwamotoji temple, an afternoon's cycle away. I was the only foreigner there, the only non-henrosha, the only one without a lampshade hat, and the only one who slept with his mode of transport. I think everyone was relieved that at least the crazy gaijin wasn't travelling by horse.

It wasn't like an English hostel. We slept on tatami eight to a Japanese-style room, our folding beds (and bikes) crammed up against each other like a rush-hour Tokyo train. We dined on rice and fish and seaweed with chopsticks from little bowls on a lacquer tray. We ambled round the temple buildings, made the huge bell boom, lit incense, and prayed for peace and prosperity and recovery for the Japanese stock market and to get lucky with that student from Nagasaki we all fancied and no punctures.

We bathed together in the scalding hot communal bath and I fainted. Partly it was the cold douche. Mostly it was my prior patronising of the beer vending machine in the hostel lobby. Yes, the good news for cyclists is that beer vending machines are everywhere - city streets, tiny villages, hostels and temples - always working and unvandalised. To me that's a country that has got it right.

With a folding bike you acquire few tales of hardship, punishing distances or entertaining disasters. When it was time to return to Tokyo I'd collected only four temples, but lots of friends. Indeed, I came back from Japan with dozens of new entries for my address book. I just can't read any of them.

© Rob Ainsley

other stories by R. Ainsley