Akita Prefecture, Japan – An ‘off the beaten path’ cycling destination – Part I

5am. That dreaded sound of the iPhone alarm rang through my small hotel room. It was time to wake up. Time for a new day to begin. I was both half asleep, but at the same time super excited. I was about to embark on another off-season adventure in Japan, to a part of the country I’ve never explored before. 

I’d arrived back into Tokyo the previous evening, after spending 5 days South of Tokyo travelling around the Ehime Prefecture in the North-West of Japan’s Shikoku Island. The trip also included taking part in the unique Cycling Shimanami event around the Seto Inland Sea Islands. A truly beautiful experience!

After the overnight stay at the Tokyo Inn Haneda Airport 2 hotel. I packed up my bags and made the 10min train journey back to the Tokyo Haneda International Airport arrivals where I’d be meeting our host and fellow travellers for the trip.

It didn’t take long to find Kanae, our host, and the fellow travellers in the arrival’s hall. It’s hard to miss a group of people lugging around a bunch of bike bags. There was not a lot of time to hang about, as we had a train to catch.

The land of the rising sun was living true to its name on this particular morning. As we made our way into the city via Taxi to the central Tokyo Station. The huge red sun was slowly rising over the city metropolis. At times you could capture glimpses of the majestic Mt Fuji in the distance, it was a beautiful sight to witness on this early morning.

On arrival at Tokyo Station, finally there was some time to relax and properly meet the group I’d be spending the following 3 days with. We were a group of 6 Australian’s (4 ‘cyclists/cycling media/influencers’ and 2 travel agents specialising in Japan travel) who would become to be known as ‘Team Australia’. We had been invited by a group of local governments from the Akita Prefecture who had teamed up together with NorthTime Bikeway to promote cycling in their region to Australian tourists.

When I received the request about this trip, asking if I was interested in joining. I had no idea where exactly the Akita Prefecture was located, and how it was as a cycling destination. The only knowledge of Akita that I had prior to the trip was the Akita dog, as a friend of mine has one. But, any opportunity to go and explore more of Japan doesn’t require much persuading. And if riding a bike is part of the trip, that’s just an added bonus.

After a quick google search, I discovered that the Akita Prefecture was located in the North-East Tōhoku region of the country, and historically it was a region of hunter-gatherers and principally nomadic tribes. From the pictures it looked absolutely stunning. I rapidly replied yes! to the email, and then let Emma; my amazing manager, work her magic with organising all the finer details of the trip for me. 

To reach the Akita prefecture, we would be travelling by one the famous Japanese high-speed Shinkansen trains. In my personal opinion, after having travelled on them a number of times. I find it’s one of the best and most efficient ways to travel around Japan.

As the majority of the group had just arrived off an overnight flight from Australia, and I still hadn’t managed to consume any breakfast. We were all pretty eager to grab some food and stock up on snacks before getting on the train. We ventured into one of the local 7-Eleven convenience stores, which are ‘conveniently’ always close by when you need one. They’ve been my lifesaver on many occasions. Especially when out training in the countryside when I’ve at times, suffered from the dreaded ‘hunger bonk’. They’re somewhat of a novelty too for us Westerners, as they’re full of so many random and interesting Japanese food and drink options. Not being able to read the Japanese language can be difficult. It’s often a bit of a lottery when choosing items, but that’s half the fun. And I’m a big believer in just embracing the cultural experiences and hoping for the best.

7-Eleven convenience stores can be found all over Japan

Equipped with food and drink for the 3.5hrs train journey. We took hold of our luggage and navigated our way through the busy peak hour hustle and bustle of the daily commuters to reach our platform. As the Tōhoku Shinkansen arrived into the platform, lead by its bullet shaped ‘nose’, no guessing where it gets its English ‘Bullet Train’ name from. Everyone took some happy snaps for the ‘gram’, and perhaps for some memoires too, before boarding the train with all of our luggage.

We had to play a bit of Tetris with our bike bags, so they were stored out of the way from the passageways. Unfortunately there’s no dedicated bike carriages or spaces on the Shinkansen trains. But if your bike bag isn’t too big, you are able to find a nice little place for them behind the last seats on each carriage. Once the stress of finding places for all of our bikes, we could finally take our seats and get comfortable for the journey ahead. Everyone kept themselves busy in their own individual ways. When I travel, I tend to have my face stuck infront of a screen. Usually editing photos or catching up on emails or other ‘life admin’ work, utilising the time to be somewhat productive. 

Every so often I would look up from my ‘screen’ and glance out of the rapidly moving train window. Sitting in the Shinkansen, you don’t really feel that you’re speeding along at 320km/h. But when you see how quickly you’re passing the outside traffic, it puts it into a greater perspective. The landscapes outside the window had quickly changed from the expansive concrete jungle of Tokyo, to the quaint and quiet rolling countryside. The further North we headed, there was a distinct change in the seasons and the terrain. The hills turned into mountains, the temperature was getting colder. Rain was falling from the sky, and the incredible Autumnal colours that Japan is famous for became more intense and ever more so beautiful. 

As I glanced down at my clock from time to time, we were finally nearing the arrival time that was written on the ticket. It wasn’t too long until an annoucment came over the speaker for the next station – Kakunodate. Finally! We were about to reach our destintion. We prepared ourselves and our luggage by the door, so we would be ready to jump off the train as it makes its brief stop at the station.

Taking a moment to breathe after the mad rush to get off the train with all of our luggage, I had a quick look at the station surrounds as the Shinkansen sped off into the distance. It felt like I had stepped back in time, and the metropolis of Tokyo was a world away. There was a sense of calmness and a refreshing chill in the air as the rain continued to fall from the sky. The station was small, consisting of just two platforms. Across the tracks on the other platform I saw a sign that read ‘Welcome to Kakunodate, the little Kyoto of Tohoku’. I had visited Kyoto once before back in 2013, and I vividly remember how beautiful it was. So, if the sign read true, I knew we were in for a treat over the next few days. 

There was one last small commute, a 10min van ride to reach the hotel where we would be staying for the following 2 nights. Everyone was happy and relieved when we pulled up at The Akita Art Village Onsen Yupopo at around lunchtime. It had been a long travel day already for everyone.

Our rooms weren’t available until 3pm, the question pondered what to do for a few hours before the rooms were ready. I was keen to get out on my bike, stretch my legs and get an initial feel for the area. I checked the weather radar, and it looked like there was a small window where there wouldn’t be rain. There were mixed opinions from the 3 other ‘cyclists’; Blogger’s Ryan Miu (B Grade Cyclist), Matt de Neef (The Climbing Cyclist) and Photographer Damian Breach initially on the decision whether they wanted to ride or not. But after a quick look on Strava and Google Maps to see some of the potential options for roads we could go and explore. Everyone was onboard to join for a little cycling adventure.

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

We built up our bikes, put on some warm cycling clothes, equipped ourselves with cameras and navigation devices and headed out onto the roads. I was chief navigator, we had pin pointed our first road that we wanted to ride to. A road that looked like it had potential switchbacks and possible amazing photo opportunities. 

It didn’t take long to find a quiet and picturesque winding road on our planned route. Everywhere you looked there was beauty, and despite the weather you couldn’t wipe the smile and excitement off of any of our faces. After about 15mins of riding, we stumbled across the entrance to the Dakigaeri Gorge and the striking red Kami no iwahashi bridge that crossed the Tama river below. The bridge was built in 1926, and is one of Akita’s oldest suspension bridges. The bridge was surrounded by an incredible array of coloured Autumn leaves on the trees. We stopped for an impromptu photo shoot before I checked the maps and realised we had missed a turn to get to our ‘destination’ road. But hey! We could’ve ended up in far worse places after a missed turn.

Our little adventure continued as we retraced our steps to try and find the intial road we wanted to find. I’m usually pretty good at taking notice of my surrounds, and I didn’t remember seeing any turn off’s along the way, at least any sealed roads. As we approached closer to the ‘turn off’ on the map, we found the ‘road’. It was a small dirt road. The boys were happy to give it a crack, so off we went.

Damian was loving life as he was on a gravel bike and is from a mountain bike background. For the rest of us on full racing road bikes, it required a few extra skills to ride. But luckily we were all up for it. Initially the road was manageable to ride, and we had a small amount of optimism that it could turn into something amazing. This was until we made a sharp turn to the left. The road continued upwards, became rockier and was covered in leaves. As beautiful and enticing as the unknown road seemed, we quickly made the mutual decision to turn around and try explore somewhere else, as this road perhaps was a little too gnarly for our road bikes to handle.

I pulled out my phone, had a quick look on the maps once again and found another squiggly line that looked like it was something worth checking out. It was about a 10km ride through the flat rice plains to reach our next point. The roads were smooth and fast, but as we made the right hand turn onto our next ‘destination’ road, the conditions and surrounds began to change again. 

The road narrowed and became more covered by trees, it was a beautiful road and I thought we were on a winner this time around. But after a short while the bitumen turned to gravel once again. This time however, the gravel looked more manageable to ride. It turned out to be an absolutely stunning gravel road, with many sweeping curves that climbed up to a the Jindai Dam Lake …. As we reached the edge of the Lake the question was. Left or right? I decided to take the left route towards the Natsuse Onsen, as on the map it looked like it was a slightly bigger road and was the better of the two directions. Covered head to toe in mud from the wet gravel road, the Onsen sounded pretty tempting in that moment.

After riding for about 30mins or so along the edge of the lake, stopping every so often to take a moment to capture the beauty of the area. We passed the Onsen as the road continued through a small sealed tunnel and finally we decided to stop at the other end to reconvene. Although the road continued further, we decided that we should probably turn around and start to head back, as the time was nearing 3pm. And I knew another rain band would be approaching soon.

Damian had pin pointed a few shots that he wanted to capture along the way back. Matt, Ryan and I were happy to be his models for the ‘shoot’. As we weaved our way back along the gravel road, trying to avoid the countless potholes. I was happy to finally have reached smooth and fast tarmac once again.

On the way back to the hotel we decided to make a quick convenient store detour to stock up on some snacks, so we would be able to make it through until dinner. The boys felt the need to step up the pace, along the long straight road. I guess they needed to warm up. You could see a dark grey cloud rolling in, we knew it would be a race against the cloud to avoid getting drenched from head to toe.

As we reached the town of Kakunodate, I noticed a hose at the local service station next door to the Family Mart convenience store. With our bikes absolutely filthy, it was a great opportunity to give them a quick rinse down. After a little bit of sign language with the service station attendants to ask if we could use their hose. We hosed each other down and then made a quick dash into the Family Mart as the skies were about to open.

Our timing was almost impeccable, as the rain came lashing down as we entered inside the store. Cold and famished, we were all happy to get some food into us. Although the thought going through all of our minds were, how are we going to deal with the 5km commute back to the hotel?

Luckily it was just a passing shower and we only had to deal with a few wet roads. We time trialled our way back to the hotel, everyone still with a smile on their faces, but also well and truly ready for a hot shower.

First impressions of cycling around the Akita prefecture on our little afternoon adventure had me super excited for the days ahead, and what we would be experiencing. This was simply the appetiser to what is sure going to be an amazing mains and dessert.

Look out for Part II of the ‘Akita Prefecture, Japan – An ‘off the beaten path’ cycling destination’ to read about the rest of my trip and the amazing adventures I experienced.