By Ciara Blount
I had a cunning plan. To save on money during my trip to Shimane, I would forego the train and cycle from the beautiful Matsue Castle to the sacred Izumo Shrine. They’re only 38 kilometers apart, after all. A true cyclist would barely notice the distance. It was brilliant, and I felt very pleased with myself.
On the morning of my trip, I packed my folding bicycle into a vinyl shoulder bag and set off for Shin-Kobe Station. Despite Japan being fairly bicycle-friendly, the prevailing rule across most of the country is that bicycles must be stored in bags when transported by train. My shoulder didn’t enjoy the experience, but I was sure to remind it occasionally that we were both saving money by doing this.
In Matsue City, I carried my bicycle bag through the station’s exit gates and put myself to work freeing my bright pink friend from captivity. To a number of curious stares, I unfolded my bicycle from its cramped travel position and locked everything into place. I checked the air pressure in the tires once more, strapped my bicycle bag to the handlebars for later, and set off for the castle.
I had a number of reasons for visiting Shimane. As someone deeply invested in Japanese history, Izumo Shrine is not only a must-see, but a must-experience. You don’t just look at Izumo Shrine. You visit the museum and learn its history, see the models of what it originally looked like with its massive staircase leading seemingly into the heavens, you walk the circumference of the grounds where – during the month of October during the great deity conference – all the gods stay in their little hotel shrines (my term, don’t bother googling until it’s caught on).
I also wanted to see Matsue Castle, because I have an ongoing mission of seeing every one of Japan’s Twelve Original Castles. At one point in history, Japan had hundreds of castles, but through regime shifts and natural disasters, many have been lost. There are only twelve whose main keeps have survived from their construction as far back as the sixteen hundreds.
I arrived at Matsue Castle and parked my bicycle around the back on the grass lot designated for bicycle parking. Then I secretly raced an old man in hiking gear up the steps (and lost) to the ticket office. Already I was impressed with the castle, and knew I’d be coming back in the future for a more in-depth visit. I didn’t have much time to spare today, for my 38 kilometer journey awaited.
By the time I had my fill of frighteningly deep storage wells and paintings of ruinous fire and stunning views from the top of the castle, I had much less time to complete my 38 kilometer journey than I’d originally intended.
Also, my bag seemed to have been taken. This was quite the event, as I’ve never had anything stolen from me in the nine years I’ve lived in Japan. (Except a bicycle or two. Various forms of bicycle theft is apparently my cross to bear in this country.)
Well. I’d just have to find a bicycle shop that sold bicycle bags, now wouldn’t I.
I set off. I’d plugged in Izumo Shrine onto my phone’s map, so I followed its directions without a hitch out of the city limits and along the gleaming plane of Lake Shinji. I remembered that I hadn’t eaten yet, so I stopped at an unagi restaurant called Ō Hakaya that turned out to be one of the most popular in the area. Well-deserved fame, too, judging by the savory deliciousness I was treated to.
The staff were impressed with my journey, but also mildly skeptical. As one, the three of us glanced out the window at the approaching dusk and I said with confidence, “It’s okay.”
On what basis was it okay, you ask?
Stomach sated and ready to tackle the last 30 kilometers, I picked up my bicycle from where I’d left it behind the restaurant and set off west.
About ten minutes later, I felt the familiar, unwelcome drag of a wheel that isn’t as well-pumped as it could be. I stopped by the side of the road and felt the front tire. Fine. Then the back tire.
Of course, like any overconfident elbow, I’d brought only a tiny toolkit that I didn’t really know how to use. No pump either, of course. That would be silly. Can you imagine if I hadn’t needed it? What a silly thing to bring.
I could have just taken the train to Izumo. Based on prior research, I knew that Shimane is one of the few places in Japan with a train that allows bicycles sans bag, so even if I had to lug my lame bicycle to the station, that was a viable option. The only trouble with that would be once I arrived at Izumo, the AirBnB I’d reserved was about an hour or so from the station on foot. I never cease to amaze myself with my cleverness. I assure you it’s constant.
My realistic options were: take the train for one hour or walk for seven hours.
Concluding that seven is longer than one, I sighed and turned for the station.
And noticed a bicycle shop.
I unlocked my phone and checked the map again. There it was. The only bicycle shop for actual dozens of kilometers in every direction.
Thank you, universe.
About twenty minutes later, the inner tube that had somehow punctured itself against the wire frame of my wheel had been removed and replaced all for the low price of 1400 yen. The shopkeeper had the opportunity to watch me return twice more to ask about a bicycle bag (not in stock) and then again to pump air into the other tire just in case. Then I set off one final time.
On the train.
Maybe next year I’ll do the journey. For now, I can say that I rode a train that allows bicycles. And that will suffice for now.