Road Cycling

Ticket to ride: Shizuoka Prefecture shifts gear on turning Izu Peninsula into Japan’s cycling mecca – The Japan Times

From Fukinosan-Hozoin Temple, a trail snakes its way through the upper reaches of Mount Fukino, passing moss-mantled stone statues that lurk beneath cedar, cypress and mountain blossoms like impish spirits plotting to startle passersby.

During the Edo Period (1603–1868), colliers from the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture plied this route, felling hardwood trees for charcoal to sell at markets as far as Edo, present-day Tokyo, 200 kilometers away.

Further back, when the temple was established in the western Izu town of Matsuzaki 1,200 years ago by revered Buddhist monk and scholar Kukai, aka Kobo Daishi (774–835), mountain mystics called yamabushi roamed this sylvan way in their sedulous search for enlightenment.

Clues to the highway’s past are found in the remnants of charcoal kilns and the stone idols, among them the Bato Kannon, guardian of horses and warriors and protector against calamity, who is often depicted as a horse with a pious-looking figure mounted on its back.

Cycling enthusiasts take part in a ride co-organized by the Izu Development Association and Suruga Bank. | COURTESY OF THE IZU DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATION

Today, the deity is charged with the safe passage of pilgrims straddling a more contemporary vehicle as they traverse this ancient highway, which lay neglected and all but forgotten for over half a century.

Matsuzaki resident Keitaro Heima first heard about it as a child from his grandfather, and in 2013 joined forces with a group of likeminded outdoors enthusiasts eager to restore the route, this time as a mountain-bike trail.

“Its history means it offers a little more than your average mountain-bike trail,” says Heima, who conducts a variety of guided tours along a 46-kilometer portion of the trail, the toughest “Epic Ride” starting from Fukinosan-Hozoin, 550 meters above sea level. “Izu is a magnet for cyclists, and this adds something unique to the mix.”

Yamabushi Trail Tours is among a range of cycling courses on the peninsula that have been augmented with essential infrastructure by municipalities in a quest to make Izu Japan’s cycling mecca.

There’s stiff competition, notably Ehime Prefecture’s 1,300-kilometer “complete cycling route,” which includes the Shimanami Kaido, a 75-kilometer journey that hops its way over some of the hundreds of islands that dot the Seto Inland Sea via a series of bridges.

The Kurushima Kaikyo Ohashi — at 6.4 kilometers in length, the world’s longest suspension bridge structure and entranceway to the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido cycling route — near the city of Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, in November 2017 | ROB GILHOOLY

The Shimanami, which links Ehime and Hiroshima prefectures, has garnered significant attention since being selected by one travel website as being among the world’s best seven cycling routes.

Izu arguably offers a more varied cycling experience, and a pedigree that adds weight to its ambitious goal.

In 1965, on the back of the 1961 Sports Promotion Law and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — which triggered a domestic cycling boom — the Japan Cycling Sports Center (CSC) opened in the Shuzenji hot-spring resort, part of today’s Izu City, combining cycling-themed amusement park rides with road (and later mountain bike) courses.

Three years on, Japan’s only keirin school was inaugurated close by and, in 2011, the nation’s first velodrome was unveiled within the CSC grounds, which are set amid lush woodland with iconic Mount Fuji forming a majestic backdrop. A second velodrome was added to the keirin school in 2019.

Keirin riders in training on an outdoor track that culminates in a steep hill at Japan’s only keirin school in the city of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in August 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

The 2000s saw a surge of cycling-related initiatives in the area. In 2002, the Continental Cycling Center Shuzenji was established by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) as one of eight elite cycling centers worldwide charged with training cyclists from each continent to compete in global events such as the Olympics and UCI World Championships.

In 2005, meanwhile, the Izu stage was added to the UCI-sanctioned Tour of Japan, the nation’s biggest professional road race.

Izu’s inclusion in the tour spawned other events, including the Cycle Festival Izu, which runs in tandem with the tour and offers a variety of cycling-themed activities at multiple locations on the peninsula.

It was, however, the addition of Izu as a 2020 Olympics host venue that shifted the ambitious project into an entirely different gear, says Yasuo Goto, a cycling guide and manager of Izu Velo, a bicycle rental service located outside Shuzenji Station.

“Izu has long been known as a holiday resort, and cycling a sort of niche side attraction,” he says. “Being chosen for the Olympics changed that.”

Mount Fuji forms a backdrop to the Izu Velodrome in the city of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture. | COURTESY OF JAPAN PARALYMPICS

Izu initially caught the eye of Tokyo Olympics organizers, when, faced with escalating costs, they were pressed by the International Olympic Committee to find alternative venues to those initially earmarked for Japan’s capital, among them a new, nonpermanent velodrome.

Located less than two hours from Tokyo, Izu Velodrome was a shoo-in solution. Since completion a decade ago, countless competitions have been held on its internationally approved 250-meter track, according to CSC’s Kazuhiro Sato. More importantly, it would save almost ¥11 billion in construction costs.

Not that Izu Velodrome was a freebie. In 2018, it underwent significant upgrades, including a doubling of its original seating capacity to 3,600 — still well short of the 6,750-seater Lee Valley Velopark built for the 2012 London Olympics, or the 5,000-capacity Velodromo Municipal do Rio constructed for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

A new elevator and other adjustments to improve accessibility were also implemented, part of a city-wide effort to ramp up inclusivity and diversity programs, which included the passing of legislation in 2019 that made signing for people with hearing difficulties an official language.

Izu City was also selected to host mountain biking events, though here, too, a facelift to a pre-existing course within CSC was required to bring it up to Games standards.

A keirin rider cycles around the bend of the velodrome inside Japan’s only keirin school in the city of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in August 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

Costs for those mostly temporary upgrades alone were reportedly close to ¥7 billion, though the initial postponement of the Games and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — overall countermeasures for which were estimated at ¥100 billion — inflated that figure.

While the announcement in March that no international visitors would be allowed to attend the Olympics was certainly a blow, local authorities remained optimistic about the long-term benefits.

In 2019, Shizuoka Prefecture set up a review committee to look into the legacy of Tokyo 2020, in particular how sites such as the CSC and the Fuji Speedway, which hosted the final stage of the road race, could be exploited in the quest to become Japan’s cycling hub.

Central among the four subcommittees established was one charged with expanding cycle tourism and another tackling cycling-related infrastructure development.

What became clear was that the Izu area was already speeding ahead in those two areas.

In addition to supporting four rental cycle startups, including Izu Velo, municipalities have unveiled dozens of courses of varying levels, each introduced via comprehensive cycling maps and indicated by a system of chevrons on the sides of roads.

Cyclists gather at Suruga Bank’s cycle station before heading off on a 90-kilometer ride co-organized by the bank and the Izu Development Association in Izu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, in August 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

Meanwhile, around 200 “bicycle pits” at public facilities, parks and businesses — including convenience stores, cafes and restaurants — offer cycle racks, pumps and repair kits, while vending machines stock inner tubes and other cycling essentials, says Shigenori Watanabe of the Izu Development Association, a regional tourism association also charged with bringing together public and private entities to develop new initiatives.

“Some buses and trains feeding the area sport bicycle racks, and local taxi companies have retrofitted their fleets to similarly assist cyclists, even in an emergency,” he says.

Indeed, an increasing number of local entities are jumping onboard, he adds, with some cyclist-friendly cafes and restaurants becoming information exchange hubs for domestic cyclists and others from overseas who visit or train at the keirin school, though the COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably led to a fall in numbers.

Another gathering spot is the cavernous X Base in Izunokuni City, which offers cycling tours and workshops and bike rental from renowned Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer Merida’s extensive lineup.

“There was a fall in visitors after the state of emergency was announced, but conversely the proportion of those renting and wanting to give road cycling a try has grown, especially since emergency measures have been eased,” says Masahiro Shinagawa, manager of X Base, which also offers changing and hot-spring bathing facilities. “The infrastructure and cycling culture that has developed here makes Izu a great place to start.”

The rooms at Kona Stay hotel in the city of Izunokuni, Shizuoka Prefecture, have a storage space for bicycles. | ROB GILHOOLY

Also in Izunokuni, Kona Stay is one of four accommodations on the peninsula catering to cyclists. Stylishly converted from a traditional ryokan inn, Kona Stay features a bicycle repair space, rental area and bicycle racks in each room.

Before the emergence of COVID-19, the inn had been welcoming an increasing number of overseas visitors and, in recent months, foreign residents have started to emerge among the guests from within the prefecture who are returning to the area, says Kona Stay’s Emi Suzuki.

Many who visit specifically for cycling bring along their own bicycles and test their mettle in the 240-kilometer Izu Isshu (Izu Circuit), Suzuki adds.

Of the peninsula’s varied lineup of courses, the circuit is high on many a cycling enthusiast’s bucket list. It features a total ascent greater than Mount Fuji’s 3,776-meter elevation and an officially estimated completion time of 10 hours — an “irresistible challenge” for many riders, she says.

While some take up the gauntlet, others prefer a more measured approach, breaking along the way at places such as Kona Stay and sampling some of the local delights, including fresh seafood, golden beaches and a plethora of hot springs for a muscle-soothing post-cycle soak.

This has been a popular approach during Izu Ichi, an annual two-day cycling bonanza and one of numerous cycling events co-organized by the Izu Development Association and the Shizuoka-headquartered Suruga Bank. The circuit course is undoubtedly the showpiece, but a truncated 60-kilometer iteration is also offered.

Cyclists ride along the Kano River in Izu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, in August 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

Both are introduced via the recently launched Cycleball mobile app that includes numerous other shorter rides, such as the leisurely 50-kilometer coastal course starting from historic Shimoda. Each takes in some of the best of Izu’s seductive scenery, from the beaches of the southeast and dramatic coastal rock formations of the west to the lush mountain scenery, cascading waterfalls and eroded volcanoes of the interior.

The prime objective of the Izu Development Association and Suruga Bank venture is to bolster efforts to promote and develop cycling tourism on the peninsula under the IDA-initiated “Cycling Resort Izu” banner, says Suruga Bank’s cycling project captain, Toshiaki Fukada.

“Izu has a reputation as a place for rest and recreation, especially for stressed-out urbanites,” said Fukada as he greeted participants in the 90-kilometer “West Izu Ride,” which kicks off from one of three “cycle stations” in Izu City, this one a renovated Suruga Bank branch that boasts a kitchen, sitting area and changing rooms.

“The health benefits of cycling, both physical and mental, are well documented, and cycling outdoors amid natural surroundings such as those offered on the peninsula only enhances those benefits,” he says.

Most participants in the non-competitive events come from fast-paced business hubs in and around the Tokyo metropolitan area, although local enthusiasts are increasingly clicking their cleats.

Illustrator Yoko Iwamoto leads a group of cyclists up a steep hill in the city of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, during a 90-kilometer ride co-organized by Suruga Bank and the Izu Development Association in August 2019. | ROB GILHOOLY

On this occasion they included local illustrator Yoko Iwamoto, who has developed a unique perspective for her art, thanks to a chance encounter with the globe’s most prestigious road race 20 years ago.

“The first thing I noticed when I started road cycling was the wonderful scenery and local culture, which I had previously taken for granted,” says Iwamoto, whose interest in cycling was piqued during a study year in Paris when she happened upon a Tour de France-related event. “What I saw from the saddle seemed to make a longer-lasting impression.”

She devised a compact illustrator’s kit consisting of a small sketchbook, retractable brushes and watercolors squashed into an old makeup box that would neatly fit into her saddlebag. She soon became a familiar sight around Izu, earning her the nickname “the cycling illustrator.”

The scenes she painted became an integral element of Iwamoto’s art, culminating in a colorful and playful collection of works in her 2018 book “Jitensha de Meguru Shizuoka Sukechi-cho” (“Sketchbook of Travels Around Shizuoka by Bicycle”).

“Up until Paris, I was like many people in the area for whom bikes were just a means to get from A to B,” says Iwamoto, who currently has an exhibition in Hamaoka, Shizuoka Prefecture, featuring 200 of her works. “What I saw on the Champs-Elysees was a ‘cycling for all’ event where people of all ages were simply enjoying themselves. It completely altered my perspective.”

An illustration by Yoko Iwamoto titled “The Melon Trail,” which depicts the illustrator on her cycling travels having visited a local melon farmer near her hometown in Shizuoka Prefecture. | COURTESY OF YOKO IWAMOTO

While parts of Izu are hilly and demanding and better suited to more seasoned cyclists such as Iwamoto, officials are keen to highlight the peninsula’s own “cycling for all” potential.

An increasingly popular area for casual riders is the Kano River, which boasts a dozen cycling courses ranging from 8 kilometers to 94 kilometers in length, the longest running the entire length of the river from Shuzenji to Numazu at the northwest gateway to the peninsula.

Strapping on helmets and switching on e-bikes, a group of daytrippers follows Izu Velo’s Goto on one of the tours, which takes in lush, mountain-backed scenery, wasabi paddies and fishermen thigh-deep in the Kano River casting their lines for ayu sweet fish.

Further on we stop at a bend in the river where, on a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji — one of more than 30 views of Japan’s sacred symbol in this part of the Izu Peninsula. Apart from a few gentle rises, the route is as flat as the shimmering Kano River.

Despite its relatively small land mass, Izu is replete with natural, cultural and historical attractions, says Goto, 72, as we return to base in Shuzenji for a well-deserved dip in one of its hot springs, which, legend says, were magicked into existence by Kobo Daishi to help a filial son cure his ailing father.

“Much of it can be enjoyed from the saddle of a bike,” he says. “That’s a big reason I think Izu can achieve its goal and become Japan’s cycling mecca.”

The interior of the Izu Velo rental cycle facility outside Shuzenji Station in Izu City, Shizuoka Prefecture | ROB GILHOOLY

The availability of e-bikes at rental stores and retrofitted buses covering some of the region’s hillier parts means even those who visit without really intending to go cycling can give it a go, he adds.

According to Kona Stay’s Suzuki such riders have been on the rise in recent months, largely thanks to a prefectural campaign encouraging local residents to travel.

“Consequently many rent out bicycles to explore the area,” she says.

There is even a hope that an increase in casual cyclists will help redress an ironic anomaly. According to a national census, only 2% of Izu residents use bicycles, says Izu City official Yuji Umehara, who headed up a division promoting Izu’s Olympics and Paralympics events.

“Residents don’t consider bicycles a means of getting around,” Umehara says, adding that the area’s hilly terrain is the main contributing factor.

There’s hope that the likes of Izu Velo will not only attract casual visitors, but also become a place where locals, too, try their hand at cycling, he says. “The core idea is to make Izu cyclist friendly to visitors and locals alike.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.