Off-Course: Bikepacking Doesn’t Get Any Easier As You Get Older

From the editor: travel writer Melanie Chambers reached out to us a few months ago with an idea: To bike pack 1700 kilometres across Japan. We immediately leapt on board, and during her trip we will be staying in touch, hosting her blog posts, and sharing pictures from the trip.—ML 

words & photos :: Melanie Chambers

For my first overseas trip in 1996, I didn’t have a plan, just a piss load of energy, guile, and a strong desire to ride my bike through Europe.

I was clueless about how to travel, but after cycling 3,000 kms from Holland to Spain, I learned a heap about touring, and myself.

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But things have changed: twenty three years ago, travel was completely unplugged. I remember calling my mom collect from a phone booth outside of Paris. Email was just emerging so internet cafes were expensive and hard to find. ATM’s? Nada. I brought travellers’ cheques and had to wait for siesta to finish to cash the cheques! And music? Well, I recall holding my CD player in my hand like a tray so it wouldn’t skip. I switched between Counting Crows and Black Box—over and over.

Packing for bikepacking
How to pack for three months on a bike? Lay it all out, then cut it in half. Priority: coffee.


Arriving at the Amsterdam airport, I unpacked my hybrid beater from the cardboard box, and began blissfully riding away like Mary Poppins. But when my pedal fell off, and I didn’t have the right wrench, my balloon-of-joy deflated. I stopped at the first building for help—a  McDonald’s. And, wouldn’t you know it, the pimply-faced employee had a wrench!

Now, 23 years later, after having travelled the globe as a travel writer, I am doing a similar trip, bike touring for three months through Korea and Japan, and camping along the way. Alone.

You may wonder: why did it take 23 years to do it again? When I began researching Japan and Korea, I kept hearing about how bike friendly it is, and that the best way to see it is on two wheels. It’s almost as if the country forced me into touring.

But camping? Does this old girl still have the chops to go full dirtbag? People tell me you get stuffier in your old age. You like your comforts. We’ll see. But what makes camping in Japan so wonderful are the onsen—natural hot springs. Imagine after a day in the saddle, parking the bike, and getting naked in a steamy bath. Done!

There has also been a change in my life that makes this trip a little more, interesting? Neurotic?  ‘The change’ is menopause- yes, ‘the change’ was a euphemism during the 60s. As if once a month for most of one’s adult life isn’t enough.  Suffice to say that cycling and exercising has always helped me before, but this is different.  It’s a whole new kind of crazy.  It’s a raging inferno inside that makes me want to kill my partner whenever there’s one dish left in the sink.  It’s irrational and it doesn’t make sense but there you have it. Cycling and exercise has always been my relief and outlet.  Maybe cycling 3000 kms will be the cure for this shit storm of emotions— maybe this is all women will need to feel normal again.  I’ll let you know at the end.

Sweat and steam aside, what I love the most about touring is streamlining my life: everything I need is on this bike. From coffee to my favourite earrings, I’m set. I often get overwhelmed easily at home these days  – choosing what to wear in the morning makes me anxious. To which friends suggest downloading a mindful APP on my phone. Oh, please.

For the next three months, I will wake up in my tent, drink coffee, write, pack up my tent, and then ride. Then, if all goes well, I will pedal along listening to music – a friend created an endless playlist of new tunes for me.

I don’t need no freaking mindful APP. This is it.

However, this time around, I am plugged into technology and people, and that has made all the difference in the world.

Cyclists on Facebook Groups such as Japan Cycling Navigator, and Seoul to Busan and Beyond have done similar trips, and in some cases, more than once. Their pictures, routes, tunnels and advice are invaluable. I never had this kind of help 23 years ago. And, it was from reading others’ stories of cycling Japan and Seoul that I thought, ‘hell yeah, I can ride the length of Japan!’

To start, I’ve got three days in Seoul, chilling out at a jimjilbang (Korean bath house) before riding south to Busan along one path called the 4 Rivers Trail (you can get ‘passport’ stamps along the route!) It’s a flat 600 kms ride to Busan, where I take a ferry to southern Japan and start cycling north to Kyushu, called the Hawaii of Japan.


Marin Mountain Bike Touring Bike
I call her Frankenbike. Marin mountain bike circa 1996, transformed into my touring bike.


Last night I had a beer with a friend-of-a-friend who did a similar trip—she is loaning me her Rinko bike bag, mandatory for bringing your bike on trains (who knew?). I’m pretty much recreating her voyage, but longer. She also told me about Warm Showers — an organization whereby you can arrange to stay with fellow cyclists. So far, I’m staying at a farmer’s house in Kyushu, and another place near Onomichi, which is at the end of the Shimanami Kaido, a 60-kilometre toll road that traverses six islands connecting Shikoku with mainland Honshu.

Between camping and staying in local’s homes, I’m covered.

Ok, now I’m getting excited. I’ve got three months of riding and adventures ahead. The weirder the better. Stay tuned and write often—Melanie.

Travel Tips:

Here’s a few things this old gal learned.

  • GigSky is an international SIM card that is good for over 190 countries—just load it up with data when you arrive.
  • All my routes are on my GPS thanks to the site, Mapometer.
  • Must-have IPhone APPs: Google Translate, and a campsite locator.