I am a mapaholic. I can spend days poring over maps, planning imaginary journeys, measuring, annotating, dreaming. I wouldn’t consider going anywhere without first exploring it as thoroughly as I can through reading about it as well as studying maps.
Some people regard this as taking the adventure out of a journey, I tend to think of it as becoming familiar with the terrain so I can pay more attention to the detail. Whatever the rationale it’s the way I am so there’s no point in worrying about it.
I have the luxury of living in one of the best mapped countries in the world, the only problem for a British mapaholic is how to limit your consumption. If you bought the full national set of maps published by Ordnance Survey in the popular 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scales you would have 600 maps and spend around UK4000. For cyclists and walkers they provide every miniscule piece of information you need. Want to know exactly where you are, what you are looking at, and how high, how steep, how wet it is, where the nearest pub, phone box or ancient burial site is? OS maps have it all in minute detail.
So a trip to Japan is a major challenge – are there maps? how good are they and how do I get them? The road maps on sale in the UK and on the net don’t seem to be detailed enough for a cyclist but trawling the web for travellers tales brought up several references to the Shobunsa road atlas, which appears to provide very detailed large-scale topographical mapping of the whole of Japan. It is quite expensive and the only sources appeared to be web-based suppliers in the USA. I tracked down a reference to it being available in the Japan Centre Bookshop in London and, as I was visiting London I made a visit to have a look.
Unfortunately they didn’t have one in stock and by that time I was too late to order one online. Meanwhile I had discovered the excellent on-line mapping provided by the Japan National Tourist Organisation and that provided me with a source of large-scale topographic maps (also supplied by Shobunsa). Downloading maps in small sections was a rather long-winded way to to do it but I ended up with a very detailed map of the various areas where I wanted to cycle (or so I thought). Unfortunately when I was on Sado-ga-shima I found that the maps were probably accurate in what they showed but there were enough minor roads not shown on the map to leave you completely lost if you go off the major roads.
At one point, trying to work out the correct direction to follow at a junction, I approached a teacher and class of boys playing baseball (all had cycled there in identical uniforms and white cycle helmets). I was very amused to find that none of them, including the teacher, seemed to have any idea where they were on the map, despite being close to a large lake which should be enough to orient anybody who knows their own territory.
So in the centre of the island, where there was a dense network of minor roads, I tended to stick to the main numbered roads until I had my bearings, by the coast and in the mountains where there were fewer roads this wasn’t a problem.
One strange feature of these maps is that they were very detailed in showing roads, railways and geographical features but told you nothing about the towns (not even what they were called) apart from the location of a few public buildings such as town halls and schools. Extremely odd.
So my advice to anybody thinking of cycling in Japan is to get hold of the Shobunsa Road Atlas, despite the cost, as it seems to be the best (only suitable?) resource available. I was told that it could be bought in the bookshop at Narita airport but I had a train to catch so I didn’t check, and I don’t think you can rely on waiting till you arrive in the country.
Rail travel is much easier to plan. If you buy a Japan Rail Pass ask for a timetable which is a very detailed old-fashioned booklet with a map of main routes and gives you everything you need for travel on the longer distance lines. The online Japan Rail Timetable will help in planning more complex or obscure routes, like mine from Narita to Tsuchiura. It’s much more useful than the equivalent UK service since it provides a variety of ways to view and printout the information you need, right up to a detailed timetable for each route you might use.
Ferry information is more variable and for a long time I could not find any information about the ferries from Niigata to Sado-ga-shima. Eventually I found the online Sado guide which includes ferry timetables. The Sado guide is an excellent local resource, there is also a paper version available at the ferry.
The guidebook I used was a rather old Lonely Planet Guide. It is useful in Tokyo and generally helpful and reliable. However Lonely Planet is written by people with a particular experience of the world. I don’t get the impression that they have children and they don’t know a lot about cycling. For that reason I would rely on them for hard facts but treat opinions with care.
For example the Lonely Planet view on cycling in Japan is that you need relatively flat terrain (boring and often very tiring if there is a head wind) and that nobody in their right mind would cycle in Tokyo (absolutely untrue and I met several enthusiastic Gaijin cyclists there, including a friend who had just moved to Tokyo from California. He had not cycled for years but had just bought a bike because it was such a pleasure and convenience to ride around the city)
My big omission was not having a decent aid to dealing with language. Lonely Planet provides a rudimentary guide but I really needed a much more serious source. I had counted on picking something up on the way and when I found a large old-fashioned bookshop in Kuala Lumpur Airport I made a beeline for the language section. They had phrase books and dictionaries for every language under the sun but nothing in Japanese.
Because the written language (outside the main cities) is so different for westerners it’s vital to make some preparation. Having spent my first few days in the international conference setting of Tsukuba – where everybody was speaking English and Japanese participants were outnumbered – it was a big shift to arrive in the rural backwater of Sado where Romaji was non-existent. apart from the odd road sign and Coca Cola machine.