Overview     Blog     Shop     About      ︎


The Universal Language of Movement: Cycling in Rural Japan


Whereas some know Japan for sprawling neon cityscapes, robot restaurants and Harajuku girls, there is a lesser known side to this mysterious archipelago. With over two-thirds of the country made up of mountains and countryside, it’s no surprise that the rural areas are where the real magic happens. Ancient shrines sit alongside volcanic hot springs and remote villages steeped in tradition; an abundance of stories to be told. Follow me as I set off for a weekend of hiking, cycling, kayaking and eating my way through Shikoku’s Kochi Prefecture.

I moved to Japan in late 2019, with a couple of suitcases, my camera and an open mind. In the first few weeks I was fortunate to meet plenty of like-minded creative folk, each time introducing me to another friend and I was soon able to feel a small part of a newly formed creative community.

One of those people was Lucas B.B., founder of lifestyle and travel magazine, Papersky. We were introduced by a mutual friend and immediately bonded over a shared love of cycling, the outdoors and our favourite Japanese travel mags. Founded in 2002, Papersky was created around the concept of being a door to the world and a way to travel within oneself. As well as a bi-annual print magazine, Lucas and team run an apparel store, gallery space, and hold events including the annual Tour De Nippon – a weekend long cycling trip aimed at discovering Japan’s rural districts, their inhabitants, nature, culture and food.

After a year of much working from home and a lack of international travel, the Papersky Tour de Nippon couldn’t have come at a better time. This was my first time in Kochi Prefecture, and after a short flight from Tokyo I had arrived in Japan’s greenest prefecture. Over 80% of Kochi is covered in thick green forest, more than any other of Japan’s 47 prefectures – I would soon discover this to be the first of many accolades of my new home for the weekend.

After a good rest at the hotel and a few hours spent exploring Kochi City’s landmark castle and palm tree-lined streets, it was time to meet up with my comrades; a mix-match group of all ages hailing from all across Japan. Language barriers were firmly in place, but this wouldn’t matter as we would quickly become friends, communicating via a universal language of movement, and simply living in the moment, totally immersed in a culture so different from my own.

“The people here have a deep love for their area. It never feels like bragging, but a true sense of humble pride and a desire to share with anyone who is fortunate enough to visit.”

The first leg of the journey was a hike along Shikoku’s Ohenro Pilgrimage route, a trail of 88 temples along the circumference of the island, a total 6-week trek on foot. We would walk around a 5km stretch, and along the way Hori and I talked about how the Japanese countryside compares to back home in the UK. As much as I could think back to the joys of my childhood years spent playing in the forest and fields around my home, it was worlds apart from the magic we were currently experiencing. The landscape here feels nostalgic, jizo statues guide the way through the trees, and the glistening afternoon sun does the rest.

Next up was a jaunt around Makino Tomitaro’s Botanical Gardens for a dose of shinrinyoku, followed by a bento box lunch packed with ‘yasai’ (vegetable) sushi and other local flavours, and some of Kochi’s famous Tosa Cha – mountain-grown tea that is some of the best tasting in Japan.

We were blessed with more delights from Kurumi Arimoto’s kitchen that evening for another locally sourced feast. It was here I was introduced to the most citrussy citrus in all of Japan, the Tosa Buntan. We were served these citrus fruits with such pride and excitement that I even brought a couple back to Tokyo with me. This particular moment stuck with me for the rest of the trip. The biggest and best botanical gardens, the clearest river, the best tasting fruit, it’s all part of Kochi’s charm. The people here have a deep love for their area, and it never feels like bragging but a true sense of humble pride and a desire to share with anyone who is fortunate enough to visit.

For day 2 of our Kochi adventure we took a short train to our meeting point, ready to seek out the best spots along Japan’s clearest and bluest river, the Niyodo River. After a group stretch, we donned our helmets and hopped on our bikes, our goal for the day to ride across the famous ‘Chinka Bridges’ (浅尾沈下橋), known for their lack of railings for when the floods come. We pedalled through quaint villages, like we were moving further back in time, gradually finding ourselves absorbed into Kochi’s picturesque landscapes.

At one point we were greeted by two obāchan (grandmothers) who, happy to see the new guests in their village, waved us on with genuine warmth, no questions asked, just as content at being as we were. We rode off with smiles and a refreshed sense of local pride, as if we needed anymore.

We came across the first bridge, no boundaries, nothing between us and the water but the tarmac beneath our wheels. We had made it and were able to witness Niyodo’s stunning blue colour, the crystal water glistening in the midday sun. We stopped off for group photos and to revel in our success, but we knew this wasn’t the end, this trip was about the journey and by no means the final destination.

A few more miles and some twists and turns later, we stopped for Tosa Jiro green tea ice cream and a packed lunch at Snow Peak’s new Niyodo River Campground. We approached the final leg of our journey and swapped the helmets for life jackets and the bikes for kayaks. Another group warm-up and a walk down to the edge of the water and we set off for the final stretch, the perfect way to end the weekend and get up close and personal with the river itself.

A short train ride back to Kochi City, it was here we said our goodbyes and parted ways to our respective prefectures; Osaka, Tokyo, Kyushu and more. As a group we had bonded and been energised by Kochi’s magic. We had been inspired by local pride and for 72 hours, we had belonged.

Thank you to Papersky and to Kochi Prefecture for organising the trip. For more information on upcoming events please head to papersky.jp/en
Also featured on wemove.world

Photography & words by Ben Richards