Hop off train, onto bike for simple solo traveling

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Yomiuri Shimbun staff writer rides a folding bike in front of the Inubosaki Lighthouse.

The fall leisure season is now in full swing, but for many, the prospect of crowds can make travel lose some of its shine. If this is true for you, why not try some carefree solo cycling? I had heard there was a new trend of traveling to a destination by train with one’s folding bike and pedaling around. So I asked an expert on the subject if I could ride along with him.

On a sunny day last month, I had an opportunity to accompany Hiroshi Tamura on a “rinko” journey. The 51-year-old bicycle magazine editor takes many such trips, where someone travels with a bike on public transport. Folding bikes are perfect for such rinko trips.

Our destination was the city of Choshi at the easternmost tip of Chiba Prefecture. The city features many sightseeing spots within a roughly five-kilometer radius. Folding bikes are not suitable for long-distance cycling, but they are good for stop-and-go riding to visit tourist spots.

“Bicycles are fundamentally a tool to be enjoyed alone,” Tamura said. It’s a pleasure to decide on one’s destination, route and equipment all by oneself. And if you’re into activities such as fishing or camping, your foldable two-wheeler will complement them nicely.

A folding bike can be found for as low as ¥10,000 at online retailers. But for this ride, I rented one through a subscription service whose monthly fee is ¥3,190. It weighed about eight kilograms.

Bikes ride for free

On the day of the ride, we rendezvoused at Tokyo Station at 7:30 a.m. and took the JR Shiosai express train to Choshi. Under East Japan Railway Co.’s regulations, a folding bike or a regular bike with the wheels taken off can be carried onto a train free of charge if it is put in a special bag, measures a combined 250 centimeters or less for all three dimensions and weighs 30 kilograms or less. On Shiosai trains, there is a space behind the seats at the very back of the cars where a bike bag can be placed. I placed my bike there.

The term rinko may still be unfamiliar to many, but the latest edition of the authoritative Kojien Japanese dictionary includes the word, with the second entry defining it as traveling via public transport while carrying a bike in order to reach a destination for cycling. This term has also been adopted by some bike enthusiasts in English. The rinko custom is said to have been started by riders of keirin bicycle races, as they have to travel between keirin tracks across the country.

Ready at a moment’s notice

It took us about three hours, including connecting time at Choshi Station, to arrive at Tokawa Station, the last stop on the Choshi Electric Railway Co.’s local line. The wooden station building there possesses a quaint charm.

Tamura took out his bike from its bag and unfolded it in an instant. “This ease of use is what’s good about folding bikes,” Tamura said.

We rode along a prefectural road with the scent of the sea in the air. After about 15 minutes of smooth riding, we arrived at our first stop, the scenic Byobugaura cliffs, which are about 10 kilometers long and as high as 60 meters. The cliffs’ geological strata, deposited as far back as 3 million years ago, have been eroded by rough Pacific ocean waves to reveal their layers as horizontal stripes.

Then we turned around and headed for the Inubosaki Lighthouse, the easternmost lighthouse in the Kanto region. As I struggled to follow Tamura, who was easily managing an uphill stretch, he suddenly stopped, hoisted his bike up on his shoulder and began walking up steps on the side of the road. “With a bike, you can easily switch to walking,” Tamura said.

The Inubosaki Lighthouse is one of the 16 lighthouses nationwide that the public can enter. After paying the ¥300 entrance fee, visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse, about 30 meters up. I did just this, and was greeted by a beautiful view of the vast blue ocean. The strong sea breeze cooled my body, which was hot and sweaty from climbing the spiral staircase — designed to have 99 steps to tie it to the name of the nearby coastline, “Kujukurihama,” which includes the kanji characters for “99.”

Beware of ‘the wall’

Eating is another great pleasure of travel. We grew hungry and so dropped into a restaurant near the lighthouse. Tamura ordered ramen topped with a broiled sardine, a Choshi specialty. I ordered a rice bowl topped with seafood, the most popular dish on the restaurant’s menu.

In cycling, riders must be careful not to “hit the wall.” This refers to a condition where one depletes all of one’s energy without ever having felt any hunger or thirst. This is why it is important to eat frequently even before one senses any hunger.

“Local specialties are of course something to enjoy, but cyclists should carry supplementary foods when riding even for a short distance if it’s their first time in an area,” Tamura said.

After lunch, we rode our bikes by farms and homes as we headed back to Choshi Station along the Choshi Electric Railway line. On the way to Tokawa Station in the morning, the scenery flew past in the train window. But now I was able to enjoy the views at my leisure. “This route can be enjoyed both by train and by bike,” Tamura said. “It kills two birds with one stone.”

From Tokawa Station to Choshi Station, the ride was about 15 kilometers. It took about four hours, including our lunch time.

“Once you have mastered rinko, you will have unlimited options for where to cycle,” said Tamura. Where should I go next, I wondered. I’m already excited about the thought of another rinko trip.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi Tamura stands beside his folding bike after unfolding it at Tokawa Station.

Ukyo Shibuya, 30, of Cycle House Shibuya, a bike shop in Tokyo specializing in folding bikes, says folding bikes are the perfect choice for rinko, and for riding around urban areas and hitting tourist spots.

“It takes only about three minutes, even for beginners, to place a folding bike in a bike bag,” Shibuya said. “It takes 10 to 15 minutes for a road bike because you have to take off the wheels and things like that.”

According to Shibuya, the distance traveled per pedal stroke on a folding bike, despite their typically small wheels, is the same as on an ordinary bike. “The maximum speed is slower than other bikes. But they are good for urban rides where there are many stops and starts at traffic lights, and for cycling between tourist destinations since they require less power to start pedaling.”

Shibuya recommends that people choose a bike that fits their body size. He also advises people to study their planned route in advance, for example to see whether the course is flat or hilly.