Okinawa and the Surly Travelers Check

The Surly Travelers Check in Okinawa

[For additional images, please see photo gallery at the end of the article.]

There is a running joke at the bike shop where I work: whenever I talk about my Surly Travelers Check, a detailed story about how I took the bike to Okinawa is sure to follow. I believe that my fellow employees are also designing a drinking game based upon certain words I have a tendency to repeat. These words include, but are not limited to Okinawa, Japan, and Surly. I had an amazing time, so I cannot tell the story of my trip without repeating the destination and the bike I rode. This means a lot of people are going to get really drunk.

Okinawa, which is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, lies in the East China Sea. It is a subtropical island that has a diverse history including the longest and most deadly battle of World War II. The water is clear and blue, the people are amazing, and the food is unique in Asian cuisine. The cycling is also equally amazing. The variable landscape of the coral island offers plenty of climbs, beautiful coastal flats, and seemingly endless routes and destinations.

The trip was over the new year. Spending time with friends and family. Although the trip lasted for more than two weeks, wet weather and high winds hampered my ability to ride every day. Below is a map of two of my most memorable rides during that trip.

Both rides are mapped from Naha Main Place, a popular mall in the center of the capital, Naha. I chose this starting point as it was close to my home base and I wanted to give all of you, dear readers, a central location from which to start your own rides.

Okinawa Peace Memorial Park Ride

At the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park.
The Okinawa Peace Memorial Park is just off highway 331 in the southern part of the island.

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and Park and is 14.2 mi/22.8 km from Naha Main Place. I returned by the same route making this ride a total of 28.2 mi/45.7 km. There are other loop routes back to Naha continuing east on the 331 past the park. Since this was my first ride in Okinawa, and the weather was constantly changing, I decided to return via a route with which I was already familiar.

Starting at Main Place, highway 330 is the closest and most obvious route going south towards the airport. The route is fairly easy, with the only confusing part being the intersection of the 330 and highway 221. It is beset on all sides with a staggering array of pedestrian walkways suspended over the street. It would have made more sense if I stayed on the street, but the lanes are narrow and dangerous. I only had Google Maps to guide me, so I had to do my best and follow the signs to the 221.

Somewhere on the 330 in Naha, Okinawa
Some of the intersections like the 330 to the 221 in Okinawa can be downright confusing.

Once on the 221, the route was a lot easier. The T-shaped transition to highway 331 was a breeze and the military base across the road made for easy reference. The Park is just off the 331 so I followed this road to the southern coast. There wasn’t much to see along this stretch besides freeway and commercial neighborhoods. The entire route is mostly flat. However, the 331 narrows down to a small rural route near the park and has some small climbs.

Once at the park, I took advantage of the refreshment stands and bathrooms. I was able to ride most of it, however bicycles are not allowed in the memorial proper. The park and memorial were the brainchild of Masahide Ota, a former governor and survivor of the Battle of Okinawa. The memorial at the park sits on a cliff above the coast. The view looking southeast is breathtaking. However, it is also here where the names of the many Okinawans, Japanese, and Americans are memorialized. It is a stark reminder that the most horrible things can happen in the most beautiful places.

Nakagusku Castle Loop Ride

The view looking north towards the end of the Nakagusku visitor’s route.

Nakagusuku Castle is approximately 15 mi/24 km from Naha Main Place with the entire loop being 25.4 mi/40.8 km. I began my ride going north on highway 330. The highway has a designated pedestrian/bicycle pathway on the shoulder so it was not necessary to ride in the street the whole way. Until I made my way to highway 146, there wasn’t much to see besides a tunnel and some shiisaa.

The transition to the 146 was a bit trying, and I definitely needed to ride in the street at this point. There is a smaller street which shoots off the 330 through a neighborhood that leads to a overpass intersection with the 146. There were small on-ramps to ride and steps to walk down…I chose the steps to avoid cars as the roads in this area are pretty narrow. See the map above for reference. Once on the 146, I headed west towards the castle. There was a steep climb of about 524 ft/160 m over a short 1.75 mi/2.8 km stretch of winding, narrow road. I stuck to the left-side pedestrian shoulder to avoid traffic. Once I arrived at the castle admissions booth, I purchased a ticket and left my bike in the designated area as they are not allowed on the castle grounds.

Nakagusuku is one of many castles built by the Kingdom of Ryukyu in the 13th century. It is made of coral blocks and contains three main wards. The best thing about this site is that one can see both the east and west coast of the island from here. It is an amazing view and well worth the ride. The other benefit of riding at this time of year meant that there were very few tourists so I had the place almost to myself. It was so quiet, I could hear children playing at the school across the valley.

Getting back to Naha Main Place is easy since it is mostly downhill. I wanted to pay a visit to Taira Cycle on my way back. Continuing the loop, I had to get around Futenma Air Base. The 146 takes you west to the 81 and shortly thereafter, back on the 330. From there, I went north until I exited west for a short ride on the 130 to connect to the famous highway 58 heading south. Taira Cycle is on a street off the 58 to the right about 0.75 mi/1.2 km from the intersection (see map above).

Yoshihiro Taira runs his small shop in the Chatan District of Okinawa, across the highway from Futenma Air Base. He carries mostly Surly and Tokyobike. His shop is full of really awesome made-in-the-USA products as well as Japanese brands like SimWorks. Yoshi stopped working for a few minutes to chat and take pictures of my bike. Definitely worth a visit!

Yours Truly at Taira Cycle in Chatan, Okinawa.

Getting back to Naha Main Place was a simple matter of continuing south along the 58 until a connection on highway 222 took me back to the 330. One note to always remember: highway 58 is the busiest road on the island. It is extremely dangerous. It seemed that I was playing a deadly version of leapfrog with the city buses the whole way south.

Overall, the rides in Okinawa were great. I wish I had spent more time exploring the more rural sections of the island to avoid traffic. But since it was my first time riding a bike there, I wanted to stick to the major roads. If I had any advice it would be to make sure you respect the people who live and work on Okinawa. Okinawan motorists are generally non-aggressive and unlikely to use their horns. So be courteous, smile, and enjoy yourself. There is a lot to see on this island, and going by bike is definitely recommended.


Riding in Circles: a Pilgrimage to Nagoya

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

It’s been almost three months since my visit to Nagoya. I have been letting a lot of memories from the trip sink in deeper so that I may better process them for writing this post. I had a good time there. I need to get it on paper. It’s time…

I was over in Japan on what some may call business. It was a vacation from my regular job but I was traveling for a specific reasons completely unrelated to cycling. Japan is a great place to visit. It’s so different from the States and there’s lots of awesome stuff to see. But I had been there for a while and none of what I was doing was keeping me near a bicycle. I decided that a dedicated side trip to a particular bike shop was in order. After all, I have been following some of these shops for years now on social media, and through the travels and articles of others.

One such shop was Circles in Nagoya. I had finally been able to set aside a full day to travel from Kyoto where I was staying to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. I had a rental car and it took us about 2 hours to travel the 130 km (about 80 miles) to make the journey. Travel by car in Japan is a lot slower than here in the US. The speed limits on the highways are a lot lower (80km/h or about 50mph), and there are toll booths everywhere. The drive was beautiful but expensive. But it was a pilgrimage of sorts. After about 30 dollars’ worth of tolls, we made it to Nagoya hungry and excited.

Let me  take a moment to explain something here: For a lot of people, there are always places that they feel drawn to. For some, there are religious destinations, for others, national parks or mountains to climb. In all cases, the importance of the destination is relative to the person’s personal experience. Cycling is a lifestyle, in all the forms and disciplines that it manifests itself. For me, it’s visiting other bike shops. Whether I stumble across one, or make it a point to go, it’s a compulsion.

So we arrived in Nagoya. A few minutes of finding the shop and parking a few blocks away, we arrived at a place that, honestly, I never thought I would get to.
Before we ventured inside, I took a few pictures of the facade. As I pressed the shutter button on my phone for the tenth or twentieth time, I realized that I should eat. I didn’t want to go into Circles on an empty stomach, risking passing out from all the excitement. So we went to Early Birds Breakfast which occupies the opposite corner and adjoins Circles’ repair shop. The small cafe and Circles have a mutually beneficial relationship with both businesses promoting each other. Cyclists love for coffee and breakfast food helps too, of course. Having had nothing but Japanese food (big surprise) for two weeks, it was an easy decision to set upon some western-style breakfast food. After loading up on coffee and sausages, we went into the bike shop.

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Upon first impression, Circles is like many bike shops in Japan. Specializing in road, bikepacking, adventure cycling and commuting, it is stuffed with bikes and accessories, with every corner being used to effectively draw your eye towards whatever is there. The shelving and racks are all wood and done in sort of a DIY style that makes you feel like you are in your best friend’s very well-organized garage. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. Even though the space is filled with things I have seen before, I can’t help moving from shelf to shelf, staring and taking everything in. The ceiling was crammed with all sorts of frames from Surly, Fairdale, and All-City. And that was just the bottom floor.

Circles is organized into two floors, each with a separate purpose. The street level has complete bikes, frames and components. The repair shop and most bike sales take place there. Even though it is awesome, it is the regular shop. The [place where if you were stopping in for tubes, tires, a rack, or even a complete bike. The upstairs, on the other hand, is the high-end custom shop. There you can get your premium bike builds and all the primo kit you could ever want. The ceiling in there was crammed full of Chris King Cielo frames (more than I have ever seen in one place). There, the shelves were stocked with messenger bags, bike packing supplies and winter cycling apparel.

It was upstairs that I met one of the store managers, Shige. Being the only foreigners in the shop at the time, he walked right up and greeted us in English. Unlike some other bike shops I have been to in the past, you could tell that the staffers at Circles really love bicycles. They seem to treat everyone, no matter what kind of cycling they are into, exactly the same. As I looked around, I noticed that every staff member was really into the conversations they were having with their customers. I could chalk that up to Japanese retail culture (sometimes a breath of fresh air compared to the States), but I think it was more than that. These folks really enjoyed their jobs.

Since I was a little different (my glorious mustache tends to set me apart in Asia), Shige didn’t hesitate to make me feel like I belonged. I think he genuinely wanted to know why I chose Circles as a destination as if he had no idea that this shop wasn’t at all popular. He seemed very happy that after I told him I came to Nagoya just to see his shop. Just as I was about to ask him if there was more to all of this, he suggested I stop for lunch at the Pine Fields Market in another part of the city. I paid for the only thing I could think to buy there, a Circles 10th Anniversary edition Chris King headset and we said our goodbyes to Shige and his crew.

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

We arrived at Circles’ other operation, a DIY bike shop called Culture Club. It shares a space with the market and, interestingly enough, SimWorks headquarters, which is a smaller office on the upper floor. This shop was something that I wish we had here in Santa Barbara. Imagine a space where you can get new and used bike parts to build your dream bike. It is not a warehouse full of a bunch of dirty old frames and parts. It is a well-organized bike shop where a person can get excited about building something that they could never get off the shelf. Used parts were sorted and labeled in a way that made them look new. If I wanted a 9-speed Ultegra rear derailleur, I would find it it a bin, close to the 9-speed STI shifters. The staff at Culture Club, like Circles, was very friendly and seemed very interested in the projects of their customers.

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

It was about that time where we had to leave to get back to Kyoto. Before we did, we went around the back of the shop to have a bite to eat at the Pine Fields Market. The coffee was good and the baked goods were even better. Like at the main store, these two businesses are mutually beneficial. It’s a sort of co-op atmosphere. The staff, again no surprise, was awesome. But it was winter and there were reports that it may snow. Being from Southern California, I was worried about driving back to Kyoto without snow tires on the rental car. So we left Nagoya 3 p.m. to hit the road.

The drive back was filled with my friends and I talking about nothing but bikes. There was talk of starting my own shop with a similar style to Circles. But it soon became clear that Circles couldn’t exist anywhere else. Other bikes shops can try, but it the people that work there and the customers who buy there define that shop. One cannot exist without the other. But that doesn’t mean I cannot apply some of the things I learned from my short visit should I ever try. If you want a genuinely awesome bike shop experience, I urge you to do the same and look up Circles next time you find yourself within a hundred miles of Nagoya. It’s worth the 30 bucks in highway tolls.

Naha Monorail Station

A bicycle sits alone at the Furujima Station in Naha, Okinawa.

A bicycle sits alone at the Furujima Station in Naha, Okinawa.

While assisting on a graduate research project, shooting lots of interviews, I had little time to go looking for bicycles to photograph.There is no shortage of bicycles in Okinawa. Like the rest of Japan, gas and cars are expensive. Most of the bikes here are mamachari, step-through-framed Dutch-style bikes that have a basket and an integrated lock on the rear wheel, or really really really cheap mountain bikes. They are usually pretty poorly made as you can buy them for about $99.00 US at stores located in the same mall you buy your groceries in. I can totally understand why folks would want to buy a bike that is so cheap. With the weather in Okinawa being hot, humid and ready to rust anything (like your chain or cables), having a cheap bike is a plus. If you want a nice bike, you had better pay attention to the weather report and keep your bike inside when you are not using it.

The bike pictured below is left alone well after rush hour as its owner probably hasn’t arrived at the Furujima monorail station yet. Symmetry, lines and shapes are everywhere and this little yellow guy was sitting right in the middle of it.

Okinawa

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If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are in Okinawa. We will be here for the next 23 days. Posts will be few and far between, but I will try my best to bring you plenty of bike photos.
I am here filming a research project for F. so my efforts will be focused elsewhere. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t try my best.