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.


The Militarization of the Police Bicycle

This is what cops ride in Okinawa. Mamachari.

This is what cops ride in Okinawa. Mamachari.

Having been all over Japan in the past decade or so has led me to believe that America is a land of excess. We are so used to getting what we want (and easily, at that) that we end up buying things we don’t need. Sure, if you use a bike for transportation, you don’t need an S-Works Tarmac Disc with Dura Ace Di2. But as long as we’re spending money on a bike, why not get the best possible? After all, if we settle for spending less on a lower-end ride, we may “outgrow” it. Case in point: here in the good ol’ USA, when we need to equip our police force, we make sure they only have the best. However, sometimes the best is too much. Kind of like obese people who develop diabetes on account of their excessive diets (and for some reason chefs are celebrities here). Take the Kona Safariland, for instance. It’s a short-drive-train “patrol” bike with an adventurous name Really it’s just a beefy hybrid. The thing is built like a tank and would probably be awesome for touring across the African savannahs. A quick look at the website, however reveals a more segregated market. Only cops can buy them…presumably to run over criminals trying to escape on foot. Event the website for the bike has a popup (as of this writing) that politely informs you that “The Safariland Group, holsters.com, forensicsource.com, tacticalcommandstore.com are all under one roof”. As if websites had roofs. Or holsters. But now that I am here I have been looking for a holster for my .454 Cassull revolver. I need it to crack engine blocks with extreme prejudice.

Take the image above. The Okinawan Police, like other police forces in Japan are equipped with exactly what they need. Their style of policing is such that this bike is totally adequate. If a perp escapes, he will most likely run into another set of cops two blocks away. Our cops? Who knows how they’re organized? They are truly never around when you need them. “But we are fighting a war on terror and a war on drugs!” you say. “The criminals have machine guns!” True. So do cops. However, I am willing to be that the aforementioned drug dealers don’t have overpriced, tank-like bicycles with which to deal said drugs. So if we are using the “bring a gun to a gunfight” analogy, a bike, no matter how solid and military-esque isn’t going to win any battles against a drug lord and his gang of car-driving thugs.

Oh yes. I was about to mention the cost of the above bike as compared to “patrol” bikes like the Kona Safariland. The mamachari pictured above probably cost the Okinawa Police about ¥20,000 or about US $200.00. The Safariland? Almost 10 times as much. Your taxes at work, ladies and gentlemen. A local shop even had one on display for a while (even though no one but the cops could buy it). It has Shimano Deore/SLX on it. Really. It also weighs like 29 pounds. If you are one of the select few that can buy one, be sure to get your riot gear and body armor (available on the same site)…you’re going to need it when you are doing crowd control on your giant military bicycle.

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.

Motobu

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We spent most of our time today on Ie Island, a large island off the west coast of central Okinawa. It’s very isolated as far as bikes are concerned. So after we got back to the main island, I went in search of any bicycle I could find. This far from the main city all you get is rust and disuse.

As far as bikes are concerned. Regular upkeep in Okinawa is a must. On this island, every piece of steel that is not coated or painted will immediately start to decay. In any case, it still makes for good photos.

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.