Through a collaboration with Apidura and 7Mesh, James Robertson was dispatched to ride and document the Japanese Odyssey. A photographer from Scotland, James spent 10 days riding around Japan and returned with a new camera, many rolls of film, and an interesting story to tell about his adventure. In addition to the story you're going to read here, Apidura is hosting more words and images from James. You can find that here.
I’m writing this having just watched the Ritchey Outback I was generously lent leave in the cab of a lorry: as if the courier instinctively new despite its shabby well traveled cardboard box that it deserved special treatment. I like to think I’m not the kind of person that gets emotionally attached to material objects and yet I clearly have. I’ve dragged it through airport after airport; assembled it in tiny hotel pods; squeezed it onto bullet trains and its not once complained.
I was in a hotel in Greece on my way back from photographing the Transcontinental race when I found out about Detour: Apidura, 7mesh and Ritchey’s project to find an artist to ride and document the Japanese Odyssey: a self-supported, long distance ride in a similar vein to the TCR but with much less focus on racing and more on the exploration round Japan - or at least as much as is possible while riding 260km/day.
The idea of riding and shooting an endurance event, with no commercial pressure cut through three weeks worth of fatigue from travelling and long days chasing and shooting riders. I had been lusting after a niche medium format rangefinder camera, but it knew it was pretty impractical and a rare find in good condition locally. Tokyo, however, where the JPO starts is renowned for its used camera shops and the Fuji GSW690 I was after has a particular affinity with the country having been used to photograph tour groups in front of landmarks.
It’s not ideal for bikepacking: the camera and film added a good couple of kilograms to my setup and it required a more considered and slower approach to shooting. But this was essentially my pitch: digital is easy and easy isn’t always the best way, and anyway these rides aren’t really about easy. I wanted to make my photography an intrinsic part of the ride, not something tagged on the end or squeezed in when I had a spare moment.
Arriving in Tokyo I had only a day and a half to find a camera - not so easy when it feels like some of the shops are actively hiding from you several floors up in an innocuous building. Finally a few hours before the briefing I found what I was looking for. I loaded up on as much film as I thought I’d be able to carry and headed back to my hotel to repack my kit adding all the spare Apidura bags I had brought with me.
The journey begins at kilometer zero, a bridge hidden under layers of Tokyo flanked either side by newer, larger bridges and with a motorway flyover running parallel to the river. Tokyo is both densely packed and sprawling and as we rode out towards Mount Fuji we quickly spread out onto different routes with riders sporadically criss-crossing each other.
I definitely started feeling overpacked - Tokyo was warm by Scottish standards - but by the evening of the first night I had every layer, glove and buff on as the temperatures dropped below freezing. I rode from convenience store to convenience store on the way into Chino, warming my hands with regular coffee stops and passing fellow riders, before taking up residence in the lobby of a hotel with rooms but no manager.
By day three I had reached Hongu - a small town surrounded by the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes - and completely mismanaged my battery charging. With darkness setting in and all my lights and cache batteries empty I booked into a hostel: eating, charging, sleeping and confusing fellow tourists by heading off again at 1am. By the morning I had covered 100km of remote riding and reached the coast, rolling up to a familymart for breakfast I spotted the unmistakable bikes of two other riders.
I spent my last few yen on a coffee - knowing I would come across a 7-Eleven soon (the only reliable place to withdraw money with a international card) - drinking it as Rasmus and Matt sorted themselves out after their longer break and then I joined them as they set off, hoping the camaraderie would keep me going through the rest of the day. In fact for the next few days we would ride together on and off. The undulating coastal road and hills beyond benefited greatly from a more consistent rider setting the pace. Much of my routing had been poor, combined with my natural insecurity over the pace I was making, had caused me to punch up hills too quickly until then.
By the time we reached Matsuyama and the ferry back to Japan’s main island I knew I was going to stop. My journey had always been as much about photography as covering distance and with Hiroshima a short detour the potential for more experiences easily won; although I was in no way prepared for the emotions that would come along with stopping.
Sitting in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with the enormity of the Atomic Bomb Dome and everything it represented in front of me my doubts about stopping ebbed away and were replaced by a sense of the enormity, power and heinousness of what happened there.
Then it was on to the epitome of Japanese modernity, the Shinkansen, back to Tokyo with each hour taking me further than I had in my longest day on the bike. Fortunately bikes are allowed on all Japanese trains as long as they are in a rinko bag (there’s an awesome trip to be had combining a bike, a bag and a week long train pass), and for me at the end of the journey it summed up the way in which Japan seems to accommodate everything you want to do yet leaves you feeling slightly out of place for doing it - dirty lyrca contrasts massively against a uniformity of smart suits!
Back in Toyko I went about hunting down a photolab to process my films - eventually a trip out to the middle-class suburbs proved successful and I was able to get my rolls developed: an hour spent in a small bar eating what I think was chicken skin on a stick and I was able to see the first orangey glimpse of the potential my negatives held. A reunion the next day of all the riders at Nihonbashi Bridge, and an unladen blast around Tokyo on my Outback, brought the trip to a conclusion.
The simplicity of travelling by bike gives way to cardboard, bubble-wrap, parcel tape and heavy laden slogs through subway stations and while my next big ride might not involve as heavy a camera I want, my next photography commission to take something from this journey. Looking in from the outside it’s easy to focus on the challenges of long distance events: the punctures, the navigational problems, the race and the mental anguish that goes with it, but from the inside it’s the moments of simplicity where, even if a hill is steep and your legs are empty, all you have to do is ride your bike.