East Tokyo Cycle Tour

Note: I wrote most of this last spring for a previous incarnation of my blog, but am republishing here since my Facebook feed is full of cherry blossom photos now. We did this on April 6, 2017, so almost exactly a year ago.

So Tokyo’s shitamachi(下町), literally “low city”, is a great place to cycle around because it’s a filled in swamp and very flat. Since it’s so flat, it’s not very difficult to get around on a mamachari, typical Japanese neighborhood grocery shopping bike which may or may not have more than one gear.

Last spring, after the snow season, I took some of the Schneider season staff who were staying at a backpackers near Asakusa on a cycle tour of the east side of Tokyo (otherwise they were stuck partying in neon-lit Shibuya).

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Cherry blossoms in full bloom along a canal near Fukagawa

Here’s the itinerary we took: Asakusa Station -> Kiyosumi Garden -> Tsukishima -> Tsukiji Market -> Kabukiza Theatre -> Imperial Palace -> Sumida River -> Asakusa Station

Taito City Rent-a-Cycle

Taito City, the municipality where Asakusa is located, rents mamachari type bicycles for 300 yen a day (return by 8PM) from four locations. The most convenient pick up point for us was the Sumida Park underground bike parking facility located right next to Asakusa Station and Azumabashi Bridge.

I called ahead the morning of to try to reserve 4 bikes for us, and was told I could not reserve but that we would have no problem renting 4 bikes after 12 noon (this is why we ended up starting our tour around 1PM). So I would recommend calling ahead for availability.

The number for the Sumida Park rental location is 03-3841-4031 (likely Japanese only).

Here’s the Taito City rent-a-cycle website:

https://www.city.taito.lg.jp/index/kurashi/kotsu/jitensha/rental.html (Japanese only)

There are numerous other options to rent bikes on the east side of Tokyo, but this public one is the cheapest.

You need to bring photo ID (passport or residence card for foreigners) and fill out the address of where you are staying to rent the bike. But it was a pretty smooth process and the bikes were of not bad quality. (I suspect this is where some of those abandoned mamachari’s at train stations that get fixed up by retirees in each municipality end up.)

There was a cool bike escalator to help you push the bike up the ramp out of the underground parking facility.

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Bike escalator

Kiyosumi Garden

Kiyosumi Garden is a Meiji Era Japanese garden administered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. It’s designed so that you take a meandering walk around the pond, over bridges and stepping stones. The pond was full of koi, turtles, ducks and tons of tadpoles. There were also many beautiful birds stopping by. We were surprised by the amount of wildlife in the garden. Here’s the official website: http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/en/kiyosumi/index.html.

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Please do not be an obnoxious gaijin and disturb the wildlife in Kiyosumi Garden

Tsukishima Monja Street

Completed in 1892, Tsukishima is the oldest landfill island in Tokyo Bay.

Enough high-minded tour-guiding. Actually, this entire cycling itinerary was born of my idea to take my friends down to Tsukishima for monjayaki lunch. Monja is my favorite food to haze visitors with, because it looks like vomit. But the ingredients are pretty benign and who doesn’t like to play with their food? I’m a nice person. I could be hazing visitors with shiokara (fermented squid pickled in it’s own guts).

Read more about monjayaki here.

There’s a covered shopping street on Tsukishima that is lined with monjayaki shops. Just pick a shop that looks busy but not too busy and walk in!

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Monja Street

Tsukiji Market

I’ve never seen the tuna auction and waking up at 3 am to line up for Sushi Dai does not appeal to me, but the outer (retail) market is always fun to walk around. Everything closes down by 3 pm though, so not much was open when we passed through here on the bike tour.

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A bit of afternoon snack

Kabukiza Theatre

Cycling straight down Harumi-dori from Tsukiji to Hibiya to get to the Imperial Palace, you will pass Kabukiza Theatre. The building is now kind of interesting from an architectural perspective because is was rebuilt in 2013 to have an abomination of a skyscraper coming right out of the top of it, kind of like Grand Central Station in New York.

Kabuki theatre is the Elizabethan theatre (e.g. Shakespeare) of Japan. It was born of entertainment for the masses, so there is witty banter, beautiful dancing, and exciting action scenes involving trap doors and other stage tricks. You don’t need to understand Japanese or know anything about the story (Kabuki plays tend to be in media res like Greek plays) to enjoy it. Traditionally kabuki was an all day affair where you would go and eat and drink and socialize all day (like Peiking Opera) and plays went on forever so people wouldn’t always be paying attention (like American baseball). Now, Kabuki performances are usually just a series of highlights from the most famous plays broken into matinee and evening sessions. If you want to see kabuki and have not planned in advance (the lower price tickets tend to sell out quick), you can try your luck to get a hitomakumi “one-act” ticket on the day of the performance. Tokyo Cheapo has a good article about how to do hitomakumi. 

Imperial Palace

We passed near Nijibashi of the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace sits in the middle of Tokyo and since all train lines have to go around it, no train line in Tokyo seems to go straight east-west or north-south, making the Tokyo Metro map super intimidating. The palace is almost an exact 5KM loop making it a popular spot with runners.

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No bikes allowed here. Police came to shoo us away.

Sumida River

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good bike path along the Sumida River. There is a walking and jogging path, but bikes are not allowed. We cycled across the bridge near Asakusabashi, headed north a bit on the other side of the river and then crossed back over another bridge before taking some back streets back up to Asakusa and the Sumida Park bicycle parking facility. There is apparently a cycle path along the Arakawa that I would like to check out next time.

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Obligatory golden poo and Sky Tree photo

Trip Data:

  • Total Cost: 300 yen bike rental + 150 yen entrance to Kiyosumi Park + 1700 yen monja lunch incl. one beer = 2150 yen per person
  • Distance: ~10 km
  • Time: 5 hours (including signing up for and returning the rental bikes, fully enjoying the wildlife in Kiyosumi Garden, two rounds of monja at lunch, and a stroll through Tsukiji Market)

Google Map of the tour for your reference below:

 

Hiking in Taiwan: Know Before You Go

I grew up in Taiwan, but just completed my first two high mountain hikes (and bagged my first six Baiyue!) over the month of July. I am fluent in Chinese and have family here so it was probably easier for me to figure out how to do it than for most people. Really, it was my brother that figured out all the permit stuff. Anyway, it was amazing so I wanted to share the information I gathered that might be useful to any English-speaking folk that want to hike in Taiwan.

Hiking culture in Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese hiking culture, as it was the Japanese that first developed modern, western-style hiking culture in Taiwan during the colonial period. Of course the mountains were sacred places and important hunting grounds for certain aboriginal tribes in Taiwan before the Japanese arrived and many of the current trails used to be hunting trails or trading routes used by the native peoples. My impression is that hiking infrastructure is very similar to the Japan, but the mountains are wilder.

Like Japan’s Hyakumeizan (日本百名山), Taiwan has its 100 famous peaks, known as Baiyue (台灣百岳) (see list here). But Japan only has 21 peaks above 3000 meters, while all of Taiwan’s Baiyue are above 3000 meters. The eastern two-thirds of the island is basically a series of mountain ranges running parallel to each other. The mountains are extremely rugged and remote for such a small island. The Central Mountain Range is the length of the JMT, but there is no practical way to resupply by hiking out to a town so you cannot do an American-style long distance hike of it. People have hiked the full length of the Central Mountain Range, but more in the manner of a full-fledged hardcore mountaineering expedition.

Speaking of hard-core mountaineering expeditions, see documentary of hard-core Taiwan canyoning expedition led by Mike Harris from Canyons in Gunma here.

Permits

Permits are required to hike the major trails in Yushan National Park, Shei-pa National Park and Taroko National Park. There is a lottery to climb Yushan Main Peak, so you must apply for a permit at least a month in advance. For the majority of other trails, you must apply for a Park Entry Permit at least 7 days in advance. This can be done at the National Park Permit Application website: https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/. (The website also comes in English and Japanese.) Everything is automated. You select the trail you want to hike and the online application form will automatically populate your options for itinerary and lodging. Check availability of beds/tentsites on your desired route before choosing dates. Generally, all Saturdays will be booked out for popular trails as soon as registration becomes available (usually a month ahead). You will need an emergency contact with a Taiwan ID number and phone number.

After completing the National Park Permit Application, you should be directed to a link to apply online for a corresponding Mountain Entry Permit from the police bureau. You can apply online up to 5 days in advance of your hike, or you can actually do it last-minute in person at the police station closest to your trailhead. (Taiwan police are notoriously friendly and nice.) The permits are free, as are most mountain huts and campgrounds.

Park Entry Permit approval depends mostly on availability of space in the huts/campsites for your dates and the difficulty of the trail. You’ll see a difficulty rating on the permit application for your course. For anything more than an A rank trail, you will be required to provide evidence of adequate previous hiking experience (e.g. photo with summit marker). Solo hikers are required to sign a waiver co-signed by a family member, so your family can’t sue the park service if anything happens to you. Mountain Entry Permit is apparently just some anachronistic formality and is automatically granted if you have a Park Entry Permit.

You’ll need to print 2 copies of each permit after they are approved. You will deposit one copy of each with the ranger at the trailhead when you enter the trail and hold on to the second copy, which you may be required to show on the trail and will have to deposit back at the trailhead when you finish so that the park service knows you’ve come back down to civilization and are not lost somewhere.

Permits may be annoying but I think they are understandable for safety and environmental reasons. When you deposit your permit at the trailhead, depending on the mood of the ranger, you might be required to watch a mountain safety / leave-no-trace video. I jokingly call this “the defensive hiking video.” They have an English version for foreigners.

If you need help with permits, contact me.

Mountain Huts, Porters and Food

When you apply for a Park Entry Permit you also designate your planned lodging / campsites. The mountain huts and campsites in the national parks are free unless otherwise specified. For example, Jiujiu Hut (or 99 Hut) on Daba Trail charges 200NT per person per night. It’s run by the forestry bureau and has a live-in caretaker and hot showers. Management of the hut most people stay at for a Yushan / Jade Mountain climb is outsourced to a private company and supposed to be really nice, so you probably have to pay for that one too.

Mountain huts called XX山莊 (shan-zhuang) have facilities like designated bunks covered with a thin rubber mat (think cheapest yoga mat), a cooking area, toilets, running water, solar-powered lighting. This is where most people stay and will probably be lively and noisy with big groups and aboriginal porters and cooks. I saw these guys servicing hikers at both 369 Hut and 99 Hut: http://www.bununclimbers.com/. They were friendly and professional. At 369 Hut, the rate was 200 NT per kilo to carry your stuff to and from 369 Hut and 800 NT for a sleeping bag and hot dinner and hot breakfast, which was 100% real food, mainly consisting of local fresh veg, and didn’t look too shabby. So, even though the national park website will say there is no food service or bedding at the mountain huts, you can get it from a private provider if you contact one in advance. When I was coming down from Dabajianshan on a Thursday, there were 7-8 young porters carrying 200kg of fresh food in styrofoam coolers strapped to external frame packs up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. (On a side note, fascinating history of external frame packs here.)

Huts called XX山屋 (shan-wu) are intended to be used as emergency huts and don’t have any facilities. (Park service considerately provided a shovel and hoe for digging catholes at Zhongba Hut.) It appears the emergency huts in Shei-pa National Park have all pretty recently been rebuilt or refurbished and had rainwater collection tanks added and are quite nice.

Don’t expect the designated campsites to have any facilities; they are just places which are relatively flat and have water sources nearby.

Maps

Sun River publishes hiking maps for climbing Taiwan’s Baiyue very similar to Yama to Kogen hiking maps in Japan. They cost 200NT apiece and are should be available at any serious outdoor gear shop. I got the one for the Holy Ridge which covers most of Shei-Pa National Park. The map provided information about the huts, campsites, water sources, model itineraries, course times and elevation profiles for popular routes. If you can’t read Chinese, the map is still useful for matching Chinese characters to signs, water sources, hut locations, course times etc. Beware that trail conditions are constantly changing due to typhoons, earthquakes etc. and maps may not be fully up to date. Check the appropriate national park website for latest conditions before you go.

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Water

According to a Chinese language Taiwan mountaineering book my mom has, there is no water in the mountains of Taiwan that will make you seriously ill, there is only water that may not be very tasty to drink. The mountains are mostly sandstone, shale and half-metamorphosed shale-slate and when the water from the porous sandstone hits impermeable shale, it flows out in delicious mountain springs. Up on a ridge though, the water sources may be brown snow/rainwater ponds, so you’ll probably want a filter for that.

In Taiwan, it’s still not recommended to drink the tap water in the cities; so most people habitually filter or boil their water even if it looks fine. Use your own judgment or ask an aboriginal porter rather than some flatland Taiwanese person.

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Water seeping through cracks in the shale in the Black Forest under Xueshan Main Peak

Weather

As with any high alpine environment, the weather changes really quickly in the mountains. I hiked in July in the typical summer weather pattern of not-a-cloud-in the-sky mornings and short afternoon thunderstorms. Best time to hike, according to the caretaker at 99 Hut, is from September through December when the weather is most stable (after typhoon season and before cold fronts). You can hike most trails year round but snow gear (crampons, ice axe) may be necessary January-March and the difficulty rating on the trail is increased for permitting purposes.

In mid-July, at 3000 meters it got down to 8 degrees Celsius at night. Daytime temps above 2000 meters were so comfortable for hiking. It was a great escape from the sweltering sauna of Taiwan summer down below.

Dangerous Animals and Plants

If you see a Formosan Black Bear, you should go buy a lottery ticket because that means you’re really lucky. Their remaining habitat is the three national parks you will probably be hiking in but they are extremely endangered and sightings are extremely rare, so few that no meaningful estimate of the population can be done. Taiwan’s poisonous snakes are nicely distinct looking if you have the misfortune to have to tell a doctor which one bit you for anti-venom, but they don’t live at high elevation. Formosan macaques look small and cute but have been known to be aggressive, so don’t look them in the eye and don’t leave your pack unattended if they are around because they will go for your food.

There is a really scary plant to be aware of that is common in mountain forests called yaorenmao (literally “biting cat”). It’s a variety of stinging nettle. It’s covered with really fine little hairs that will prick and burn you with an acid venom if you accidentally touch it. It was all along segments of Dalu Forest Road on the Daba Trail when I hiked in, and the Forest Service had sent a private contractor to cut it down by the time I hiked out, so it’s good to know they are trying to keep it under control.

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Once bitten, you won’t forget what it looks like.

Elevation

Diamox / Acetazolamide is available over the counter at most any pharmacy in Taiwan for prevention of elevation sickness.

Cultural Quirks

For some reason, a lot of people hike in rubber boots, or wellies. I think that would be so hot and uncomfortable and ill-fitting. No one hikes in shorts; I got so many shocked comments. I guess you would think it’s cold in the mountains if you can wear jeans in the 39 degree sauna down at sea level.

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Take me back to the mountains!

Yakushima: Choose-your-own-adventure-land

So, you’ve read about my Yakushima adventure and want to plan your own. This post provides information about my trip that may be relevant to your trip planning.

Yakushima Hike Map

My Yakushima adventure

My Yakushima trip was very spur of the moment. I had already purchased a plane ticket to Fukuoka for a Kyushu ceramics tour and then decided to attach Yakushima to my Kyushu trip. This was literally the first time I just went traveling without knowing where I was going to sleep every night.

I used as reference http://www.yakumonkey.com/ and http://www.yakushimalife.com/. But once I was on the road I didn’t have reliable Internet, so I bought the Yama to Kougen Yakushima hiking map (山と高原 is the series of maps used by most Japanese hikers) when I got to Kagoshima and it became the primary resource I really used to plan my trip. The map comes with a little handy guide with trail descriptions and model routes for day hikes and multi-day traverses. It also has campsite and hut information and phone numbers for emergency, lodging, transportation, etc. It is completely in Japanese.

Why I like to call Yakushima “Choose-your-own-adventure-land” is it is a really easy place to go with no plans. According to the Internets, the campsites are rarely crowded and no reservations are required (or taken) for the mountain huts. (Of course, I would avoid Golden Week or any Japanese public holidays.) There are six mountain huts. Two are located close to a trailhead and four are centrally located high up in the mountains around Mt. Miyanoura. The two located near the trailheads — Shiratani Hut and Yodogo Hut — make it possible to catch a ferry from Kagoshima in the morning, take a bus to a trailhead in the afternoon and stay at a hut the night you arrive. (I didn’t need to bring a tent, I just wanted to test out the one I bought for the JMT.) All trails are connected and lead to Mt. Miyanoura, and the centrally located alpine huts mean there are plenty of places to retreat in case of bad weather.

Itinerary

My plan when I arrived on the island was:

Day 1: Get oriented. Camp in Miyanoura.

Day 2-4: Hike for three days staying 2 nights in mountain huts.

Day 5-6: Chill at South Village youth hostel with friends.

Curio beach rest day

Kurio Beach rest day

Food

I purchased ~3500-4000 yen worth of food for my 3-day hike from a grocery store in Kagoshima, consisting of instant ramen, instant miso soup, tea, instant coffee, nuts and chocolate, bread, tuna, granola biscuits and cheese. I would recommend purchasing food on the mainland because there is more selection and it is cheaper. However, there is a relatively large supermarket at a shopping center very close to the Miyanoura tourist info center.

After the hike I spent maybe 4500 yen on food in 2 days while staying at South Village. We bought stuff from a grocery store in Kurio and went out to a nice izakaya for Brig’s b-day.

Transportation

I had to take the jetfoil to the island because the normal ferry was under maintenance when I departed. The jetfoil cost 8400 yen and takes about 2 hours. Website here.

On the way back I enjoyed riding on the normal ferry — Ferry Yakushima 2. It costs 4500 yen and takes about 4 hours. It’s a nice ferry with a gift shop, cafe, various seating areas, and library, which I appreciated because I didn’t bring any reading materials. I borrowed a book and learned about the geology on Yakushima. I also struck up a conversation with a 70-year-old hiker (we identified each other by our backpacks) from Fukuoka who has been to Yakushima over 60 times and plans to make it to 70 trips by the end of the year. He gave me a lot of great tips for my next trip to Yakushima. There was also an amazing view of Kaimondake, Kyushu’s little Mt. Fuji, from the ferry.

There is also a municipally run overnight ferry that is 3000-some yen. My friends took it and said it was okay. It’s the cargo ferry and docks overnight at Tanegashima. The issue with the overnight ferry is that it doesn’t leave from the main ferry terminal in Kagoshima and it’s a bit of a mission to get to the right ferry terminal.

Jetstar flights between Kagoshima and Narita can be had from about 6500 yen each way.

On the island I relied on the bus. There is a bus that goes pretty regularly on the main road most of the way around the island, maybe once an hour. For hikers, there are four buses a day to Shirataniunsuikyo from Miyanoura, and two buses a day to Yakusugiland from Anbo (the other main town on the island). For an idea of bus fares, here’s what I actually spent:

Bus from Miyanoura to Shirataniunsuikyo – 520 yen

Bus from Hirauchi to Kurio beach – 500-some yen each way

Bus from Hirauchi to Miyanoura Port – 1870 yen

Lodging

The first night I ended up illegal camping (oops) at Oceanview Campsite. There isn’t much in the way of facilities there, but it was free.

The 2nd and 3rd nights I stayed in the mountain huts. These are free, but I paid the recommended donation of 2000 yen for overnight campers in the national park.

After my hike, I spent two nights tent camping at South Village youth hostel. It was 1080 yen per night for “camping” with access to a well-appointed guest house with kitchen, dining and lounging areas, big screen TV, washers/dryers, bathrooms, showers and private hinokiburo! The staff were really nice and I definitely want to stay there again. (Actually, I would love to work there…) The website says they only take reservations for 3-nights or longer, but you can stay there for a shorter period of time depending on availability.

For Kagoshima lodging I stayed at Green Guesthouse Kagoshima. A capsule is 2300 yen/night (single sex dorm was full when I went). It is just okay. The building shakes when large trucks go by. Reception wouldn’t accept my takkyubin in typical inflexible Japanese service manner. (I get that they are small and don’t want everyone to send their luggage ahead, but I sent my sleeping pad and trekking poles to arrive the day I checked in and after I checked in they still wouldn’t just receive the package for me. I had to wait for redelivery in person.) Wifi was spotty. But it’s less than 5 min from the ferry terminal, so would probably stay there again if going back to Yakushima on a solo trip.

Moneys

In summary, for 6 days, 5 nights on the island, I spent around 20,000 yen not including the cost of getting to and from the island. Including cost of getting to and from the island from Kagoshima, staying a night in Kagoshima (which you have to do because of ferry times unless you take the overnight ferry) and the cost of flights to and from Tokyo, I spent about 50,000 yen on my trip to Yakushima.