We talk to Japan-based American Michaela Chatman, Founder of WheelToLive.com on her cycling tour aroundJapan.
How long have you been living in Japan?
I’ve been in Japan for 6 ½ years. I started out in Hiroshima and then I moved to Tokyo.
What do you do?
In order to cycle around Japan I quit my job and lived off of my savings.
What prompted you to cycle across Japan?
I was starting to get a little bored with my daily routine. I needed another adventure. I had quite a few Japanese friends who told me that they cycled across the country and I always thought about trying it. It wasn’t until I met Sarah Outen, she traveled from London to Japan by bike, kayak, and boat. She didn’t use anything with an engine. After meeting her, I thought, “If she can come from London, surely, I can travel around Japan”.
How well do you speak Japanese? Would your cycling travels have been harder if you spoke no Japanese?
I always say, I can communicate, but I can’t speak. I can ask for directions, about food, and the weather, but don’t ask me about my opinion. When you are on a bike you spend a lot of time alone. So, speaking wasn’t really a concern of mine. I had a map and I knew which direction I wanted to go in. If I got confused I could muddle something out that would help me be understood.
I was also fortunate to meet quite a few Japanese people who could speak English. They were great for a chat or just a friendly hello. I think being a foreigner on a bike made Japanese people who couldn’t speak English stop and talk to me all the time. Sometimes people would talk to me the entire time in Japanese, but it didn’t seem to matter. We were able to communicate.
What were your most memorable times during your cycling tour?
I had quite a few of them. I think my first time riding through bear country in Hokkaido was a real trip. I also met some great guys in Hokkaido that became lifelong friends. We still communicate with one another. I met a great friend, that I will call, Crazy Turkey. He was fantastic. It’s a long story, but I will say this. For three nights in a row Crazy Turkey and I sat up all night drinking Wild Turkey and singing karaoke tunes pretty loudly.
Which towns would you recommend?
That’s the one thing I enjoyed the most. After living in Japan for a while, I had fallen into a pattern. I think it can happen anywhere you live. You don’t go to certain places because they will always be there. Well, this trip really let me see that Japan has so much to offer. I started to regret that I chose to live in one place for so long.
First, I would definitely start out in Hokkaido. I loved Hokkaido. Go during the summer. The weather is perfect. It’s like spring in the summer. Check out some small towns like Furano and Mt. Rishiri, just north of Wakkani. If you like camping, check out Kutchan it’s about 40 minutes away from Niseko.
On mainland Japan (Honshu), I would suggest exploring Kanazawa, Shimane Prefecture, and Sakurajima.
Finally, head to Okinawa and check out Tokashiki Island. It’s very small, almost beyond rural, but there are some nice people there and the water is beautiful.
Which towns left you with weird feelings?
I don’t think I had a town that made me feel weird. I met a few weird people. I think it’s interesting how people in a mostly monolithic culture can do whatever they want without being judged.
What reactions did people have to your cycling tour?
Extremely supportive! Some Japanese people would stop their car to give me food and water. I stayed at the homes of total strangers. It was great! I think there were some members of my family who questioned my judgement. One sister asked, “Why would you want to live like that?” On the other hand, my mother just laughed and said, “When will you grow out of this?”
Would you do Japan again?
I don’t know if I would do the entire country. I would be interested in spending more time in Hokkaido. It is so big that I didn’t get a chance to cover everything. I really could have spent two months out there and wouldn’t have noticed.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning my next trip. I am thinking about some other places in Southeast Asia.
I strongly encourage anyone who wants to try cycling around to do it. You will hear people say it’s dangerous but just ignore them. There is nothing like being able to climb a 12% grade hill, get to the top and see a truly breathtaking view. If you’d like to follow along on my journey, check out my blog!