Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lake Biwa (琵琶湖) ride

Lake Biwa (琵琶湖) is the largest lake in Japan, and just over the mountain, about 10 km from Kyoto. I rode to Ōtsu (大津) and then anti clockwise around the lake, keeping the lake to my left:
GPS tracklog
Nearly 210 km (130 miles) and 750m of climbing. Ride time was 8 hours 15 mins. That does not include stops at convenience stores and photo opportunities.  I started just after 6:45am from Kyoto University, and got back around 4:45pm. I used my folding Bike Friday:
Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro
Number of calories burned was either 3500 or 3700 kcal, depending on whether you trusted my Pioneer powermeter (based on force) or my Garmin Vivoactive HR (based on heart rate). Navigation was supplied by my iPhone 6 Plus using Google Maps. The iPhone was mounted on the stem for visibility (see picture above). A white USB battery pack (10,000mAh) with an ultra-short Lightning to USB cable kept the iPhone alive and the screen on during the long ride. (The pack is sandwiched between the iPhone and the stem.)

At the bottom of the tracklog picture, you can see that I actually crossed the "mini Rainbow bridge" to get to the other side of the lake. This is the bridge in the background below. (Actually, I call it the "mini" because it doesn't seem to be the real Rainbow bridge. Studying Google maps after I got back, this one seems to be called Omi-Ōhashi (浜江大橋). And there is a much bigger bridge crossing the lake further up from Ōtsu that is probably properly referred to as the "Rainbow bridge", though the official name seems to be Biwako-Ōhashi (琵琶湖大橋). On the way back, I wasted time putzing around at the western end of that bigger bridge at the Biwakoohashi Kome Plaza (びわ湖大橋米プラザ), which I thought was an onsen but it's actually a crowded rest stop featuring Shiga rice. I decided not to cross the bridge as it warned of a toll booth. As far as I can tell, there is no toll for the smaller bridge:
Omi-Ōhashi (浜江大橋) in the background
The picture above is from the Ōtsu side. There is a nice path near the bridge (which doesn't continue through downtown Ōtsu, unfortunately). Along the path, many runners were out there early. I saw hikers too. They all had individual numbers on a vest. And volunteers clapping. And they all looked kinda tired. As far as I can make out, it seems to be the finish perhaps of some 100 km hiking event.

Well, onto the bridge, there's a really nice wide bike lane:
On the Omi-Ōhashi (浜江大橋)
From another bridge early on in the ride, we can see Ōtsu:
Ōtsu (大津)
The tall building is the Prince Hotel. The waters are still calm early in the morning. (More on this later.) City-wise, you pass through Nagahama (長浜) "Long Beach" approaching the northern end of the lake. After that, it's real quiet.

Here at the northern end of the lake (looking south), it seems particularly unspoiled:
Northern part of Lake Biwa (琵琶湖)
Japan is the land of the convenience store, or "konbini". I carried only a single water bottle, choosing to take advantage of liquid refreshments available for purchase at the many convenience stores along the route. Here is one that has a special bike rack catering to Lake Biwa cyclists.
Note the special bike rack. My Bike Friday is second from the right.
Why is this special? Well, normally bikes in Japan have kickstands. Race bikes don't. This is a special rack that is designed to hold the non-kick stand-equipped machines. (The saddle rails rest on the horizontal bar.)

Another view down the lake:

The long side of lake runs north-south, and in fact at the northern end we're actually quite close to the Sea of Japan (see below). Incidentally, the map below also gives you an idea of why the lake looks particularly narrow from this end.
Sea of Japan at the top
Although it's October and the temperature has begun to drop significantly, the leaves haven't begun to change color yet. A few more weeks and the mountainsides should be spectacular.
Uncrowded roads at the northern end
In my opinion, this is the nicest part of the route:
Northern route
There are tunnels to navigate though. Some are mercifully short, but others are up to 1 km long. Cars go pretty fast through them, so it's important to turn on your lights to prevent being run over from behind.
A short tunnel
Many are lit but I'm not sure all of them are. Can you see the tunnel in the next picture?
Unlit tunnel?
Sometimes we don't need a convenience store. Just a vending machine and a view:
Vending machines besides the lake
I carried my "good camera" on this ride, an Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with the Panny Leica 15mm lens (30mm equivalent for full-frame). I had it attached on my waist using a Miggo Aqua Quick Draw pack. (Trick install using a carabiner. The Miggo is not designed to be a fanny pack.) This allows me to quickly take pictures at a stop, and keep the iPhone on the stem full-time. The mirrorless camera even can do selfies (LCD screen pivots out to the side so it can be seen from the front):
At the vending machine stop pictured above
I was surprised to see a sign for the Kamo River (鴨川). This famous river flows through the middle of Kyoto. I didn't know it started at Lake Biwa.
Sign for the Kamo River (鴨川) next to the lake
As the route comes closer to Ōtsu (大津), it gets nasty; especially Route 161. Full of traffic. Commercial. Only plus point is that I was moving faster than the cars. However, I think I came off worse breathing in the fumes.
A torii (鳥居), the only one I saw in the lake, along Route 161:
Torii (鳥居) along Route 161
Notice the water on the lake is no longer calm. In fact, we have a fairly strong headwind in the afternoon. Didn't seem to bother the jetskis though:
One of two jetskis near the torii
By the 172 km point, I needed to eat some solid food. Konbini(-no) onigiri, here we come!
Unfortunately, I chose poorly; this is the bad no-preparation-required onigri:
Onigri at hand
On the other hand, I bought two onigiri-s. The second one happened to be the good convenience store onigiri:
Onigiri and milk tea
You see the good convenience store onigiri keeps the nori (seaweed) separated from the rice until it's time to eat. At the time, I thought hot English milk tea would go well with it. (It was in the afternoon after all.)

Outside, I'm surprised at the other bikes parked there. Surely they're not also doing the Lake Biwa run?
My Bike Friday is not the only bike parked at the convenience store here
Route 161 dumps me back in the center of Ōtsu (大津) at the Keihan Hamaōtsu station. (Ōtsu has trams too.) I turn right to head over the mountains back to Kyoto.
Keihan Hamaōtsu station (浜大津駅)

Back at the apartment, I have a lot of devices to recharge:

From left to right, we have: (1) white USB battery pack (10,000mAh) to keep the iPhone on and displaying the route at all times. (I need to be able to see the map and my current position just by glancing down at the stem briefly.) (2) A black USB battery pack (7,000mAh), whose job is to keep the wifi hotspot alive during the ride. (3) My Garmin Vivoactive HR watch. It has a wrist heart rate sensor. It recorded the Google Earth tracklog shown earlier. (4) The WiMax2 hotspot brick. Gives my iPhone internet access. (5) The Pioneer SGX-500 cyclometer. As well as showing speed/distance/time, it reports my power output for each leg individually in real time. It can also record a GPS tracklog. The above 5 items all need a USB power adapter to recharge. I have a 4-in-1 plus another single power adapter. Actually, that's not all the items. My Olympus camera's battery charger (not shown) isn't USB.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Daimonji-yama (大文字山), Kyoto

At the culmination of the Obon (お盆) festival, each year on August 16th in Kyoto, fires are lit on the hillsides surrounding the city. One of these fires is lit on Daimonji-yama (大文字山), which is right behind the main campus of Kyoto University. Unfortunately, I wasn't in Kyoto on August 16th but it should look like this:
Picture taken from wikipedia
In daytime, it looks like this:
Don't have my telephoto lens with me, this picture is borrowed off the internet
From the vicinity of my apartment building at dusk, it looks like this:
See the clearing up on the hillside?
It's actually rather close to Kyoto University. Here is my GPS tracklog:
red = bike ride, yellow = hike up to the 大, blue = hike up to the top
It's about an 8 min  bicycle ride (2.5 km) from Kyoto University to the Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), or Silver Pavilion. At the entrance, go left and you will find a short road that leads to the path up the Daimonji (大文字) mountain. I parked my bike at the end of the road:
My Bike Friday at the bike parking area
The wooden board in front shows the route:

It's a 20 min (1.25km) walk. There was a lot of water running down the side of the road because it'd rained a lot the last few days here:
Cascading water besides the road

You proceed up the dirt/cement road until you see steps to this bridge:
Take the steps, go over the bridge and turn left.
We turn off the road here but just ahead at the end of the road is this cable-driven platform for taking supplies up the mountain. Useful for festival time.

Leaving the road behind, we have a dirt path, sometimes with steps:

Nearing the clearing, we have stone steps:

At the top, we're at the center of the 大 character. There is a panoramic view of the city below:
Panorama taken at the center of the 大
The elevation here is about 331m. Note the small fire pits made from brick. Each one will be lit (and extinguished) by someone come festival time.

(BTW, modern cameras are amazing. I took the stitched picture here hand-held, no tripod, with a 35mm effective focal length lens, i.e. not a telephoto. And the camera is only a 16Mpixel model. A lot depends on atmospheric conditions and a tripod will eliminate a lot of blurring, but even so, the level of detail available from a casual setup on this slightly hazy afternoon is impressive. A 100% excerpt:
At 100%, Kyoto Tower is plainly visible 

The panorama at full resolution is available here: 26MB.) I guess a calm day in winter with a 42Mpixel camera would be simply incredible.)

At this point you can climb up these steps to go on to the top of the mountain. It's another 0.85km, or about 15 mins. You're actually climbing the vertical part (of the 2nd stroke) of the 大 character initially.
Up the vertical of the 大
The clearing will disappear soon. And the path will go on up through the forest, past several saddle points, until you reach the top at 446m elevation. There is another panoramic view here:
Panorama from the top of the mountain
The top is marked here:
Daimonji-yama 3 corner point is at 466m
At the top there is another way down that goes to Nanzen-ji (南禅寺). Unfortunately, I can't go that way. I have to retrace my steps as I have my bicycle at the bottom behind Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺). Another time then.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A bike ride along Kyotoyawatakizu (京都八幡木津) Cycling Road and to Osaka castle

In the previous blogpost, I mentioned that my coffee run to Arashiyama (嵐山) along the Katsuragawa (桂川) used the Kyotoyawatakizu (京都八幡木津) Cycling Road. As the name indicates, it runs from Kyoto (京都), goes through Yawata (八幡), and finishes in Kizu (木津) about 45 km away. I was also told one can make use of this road to go all the way into the heart of Osaka (大阪); in fact, one can pop up next to Osaka castle (大阪城). How cool is that?

Well, it's such a cool concept that I had to ride it using the portable Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro that I recently brought to Japan in my checked luggage.
Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro all disassembled into its Samsonite suitcase

Reassembled in the apartment in Kyoto, this is what it looks like.

iPhone 6 Plus on the stem for Google Maps navigation. The aerobars are only used to hold accessories.
Here is the GPS tracklog of the route I took. I started from Kyoto University using the path along the Kamogawa (鴨川) to join up with the Kyotoyawatakizu Cycling Road at the confluence of the Kamogawa and the Katsuragawa. Then I rode the bike path to its terminus at Kizu. Turned around, and rode from Kizu to Osaka castle. Then turned around again and rode from Osaka back to Kyoto University. All in all, that adds up to a century, i.e. 161 km or 100 miles.

GPS tracklog recorded using my new Garmin Vivoactive HR

Notice that the bike paths are simply taking advantage of, and following, the path set by the local rivers (marked in yellow above). From Kyoto, it's along the Katsuragawa and Kamogawa. To Kizu, we simply follow the Kizugawa. To Osaka, and ultimately out to sea at Osaka Bay, it's the Yodogawa. The Cycling Road is nearly completely paved with tarmac and  built on paths along river banks or on top of flood embankments. Sometimes it seems like it splits into multiple paths that proceed in parallel. Then it's a question of spotting the next road, railway or utility bridge, and figuring which path stops and which path ducks under the bridge. Signposting exists, though not always where you need them for disambiguation. On a weekend, the route is full of cyclists, young and old. You will see groups of club cyclists in a paceline wearing their club jerseys, guys with gear in their baskets going fishing along the river, a line of kids in their little league uniforms cycling to riverside practice grounds, walkers, people pushing their bikes, mothers with babies, runners of all ages and styles, even Japanese men dressed in Arab robes - you get the idea. Along the river, you may see housing estates, golf courses, softball fields, industry, railways, allotments where hobbyists grow vegetables, farms, people camping in tents, ducks, naked men washing their clothes in the river, people doing tai-chi, couples sitting on the banks - sometimes sleeping there overnight, whole families enjoying a picnic in the afternoon, or ordinary people sitting on the embankment watching the river. In summary, it seems like a good way to see a fairly wide cross-section of Japanese society. Not many tourists though, unless we're talking about downtown Kyoto or Osaka. One thing I didn't see any of is watercraft until I got well into Osaka; there I spotted some tourist barges. But along the way, no boats, no barges, no jet skis, no kayaks, no paddleboards, and no swimmers (the rivers were flowing swiftly).

A route map along the Kyotoyawatakizu Cycling Road

Here is a signpost. On one side it says to Kizu (12.2km), on the other side to Arashiyama (32.8 km):

I have to say the end of the cycling route is rather disappointing. The start is near the beautiful Togetsukyō (渡月橋) in Arashiyama.  The route peters out at an ordinary road intersection. Since Kizu is near Nara, it would be nice there the bike path could be extended all the way into Nara.

Cycling Road terminus

So I decided to backtrack from Kizu northwards along the Kizugawa, and eventually south onto the Yodogawa (淀川) down into Osaka. This is near the confluence of the rivers in Yawata (八幡). The path on the Kamogawa is just a few hundred meters away over two back-to-back bridges.

Osaka Bay 37.0 km away

Arriving in Osaka, one can continue ahead to the high-rise district of Umeda (梅田) (in the far distance), or turn left along the channel to Osaka castle.

Following the water, it appears this is as far along the bike path as one can get. Notice you can make out Osaka castle 400m away. The board explain how a bicycle can get there taking two city streets and one bridge:

The end of the bike path along this section. Osaka castle is visible in the background.

Basically, at this point the Keihan railway line is in the way. Those stairs go down to the right and up under the line. Alternatively, as recommended on the board, ride down the street until you can duck under the line.

Entrance to Osaka Castle
Navigation came courtesy of Google Maps running on my iPhone 6 Plus velcroed to the stem. A iPhone Lightning to USB cable can be seen running from the iPhone down to the main tube and thereon down to the Profile Design bento box pressed into service to hold a 7000mAh Elecom USB battery. The battery has two USB outputs; the other output is actually connected to a WIMAX hotspot, also stored inside the bento box.

Bike Friday by the moat. I am not here to fish:

The moat at Osaka castle

Allow me to emphasize how cool this is: it'd be a bit like riding from Princeton, New Jersey along a bike path and somehow popping up next to the Rockefeller Center or Times Square in New York, having avoided all motorized traffic and traffic lights.

Unfortunately, the Yodogawa section of the route is not so friendly for an entirely different reason: there are frequently gates or barriers that are designed to basically force cyclists to dismount:

Along the Yodogawa
The one that can be seen in the background can be ridden through without dismounting if you're careful to unclip from the pedals and keep the cranks horizontal, i.e. at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock. But many of them are specifically designed to prevent even that. The motivating idea must be to slow cyclists down in areas where kids may be playing. I found them so annoying I preferred sometimes to take the road when one exists alongside the path. Fortunately, it is only along the Yodogawa that this happens.

Anyway, it's about 53 km from Osaka back to Kyoto University. And at 100 miles and 3000 kcal total, overall I'm a pretty happy camper: