A mini-tour of Japan by bike – Gear and setup

Cheap bikes for touring

30 days in Japan on bikes we got for free (abandoned at a bike shop that Chris works in), with new 5mm tyres, a few spokes, wheel true, new cables & a good clean the bikes ended up costing us around A$50 each.

Anna’s sporting an Australian Gekko City Trail hybrid with v-brakes & 21 speed gears which weighed in at 12.5kg before adding 20kg+ panniers.  Chris has a GT Avalanche 3.0 mountain bike with disc brakes & continually breaking rear spokes.  The bike somehow weighed 17kg plus about 20kg luggage and panniers.

There were a couple of reasons for not spending more on bikes.  One, we didn’t have a lot of money but wanted to pick up some pottery, fabric etc on the way and as we were already over our weight limit for the plane the logical answer was to leave our bikes behind!  The other reason was just to see if a cheap bike could do it.  The first and last time we’d been cycle touring, from Istanbul to Singapore we had a great setup with steel frames, disc brakes and Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres and only had 1 puncture and 1 broken spoke on the whole trip – all 9,000km of it!

Yet along the way we met a Polish guy who was trying to get to Morocco via Russia by bike.  He’d walked into his local Decathlon, bought a cheap bike, crudely fixed his backpack to it and set off. Inspirational or stupid, it was the seed that got us thinking.  Can we get free/abandoned bikes in Australia and ride them all over Japan for a month or do we need serious cycle touring bikes?

Working in a bike shop, people often leave their bikes behind when they cost less to replace than to repair.  With a bit of spare time and some love we were able to take 2 such bikes and give them a new life in Japan.  Upgrades for each bike included:

Anna’s Gekko, hybrid bike


1.       True front wheel and tape over hole in rim where spoke had ripped out and couldn’t be replaced.  35 other spokes should be plenty!

2.       New front tyre – Chris has a spare 700 x 28C Mararthon tyre.  A bit narrow but better handling

3.       Front basket installed for carrying pottery, lacquer ware and other artefacts.  Made the bike difficult to park and handle when loaded but served its purpose.  Points to Xavier for spotting Anna had a basket and Garmin on her bike!

4.       Replace grips with second hand – black and pink (not sticky like the old ones)

5.       A couple of new cables and gear tune

6.       Bottle cage and bottle – only space for 1 so we picked up an 800ml bottle for $3 from Wiggle

7.       Seat post – previous owner removed this but we had a box of used posts so that was free

8.       Saddle from Anna’s road bike – Selle Italia Diva.  Was looking tatty anyway and zero cost.

9.       Mudguard set – not that we intended cycling in the rain but would protect bike components, artefacts and panniers.

10.   Pannier rack – taken off Chris’ commuter

11.   New rear tyre, 5mm thick and pretty wide for added comfort, circa 45mm

12.   Fit Anna’s spd pedals

13.   Headset cleaned and regreased

14.   Deep clean

15.   Fit Anna’s Carradice (not waterproof anymore) panniers x 2


Total time 2-3 hours.  Cost $70

Chris’ GT, mtb


1.       New 5mm thick tyre on front wheel

2.       Clean front disc and check pads – seemingly ok

3.       All new cables, brakes adjusted and gears tuned

4.       Replace stem and handlebar for something lighter – used Bontragger in the box so that’ll do.

5.       Replace grips with second hand, bolt on big surface area and also non-sticky like the old ones

6.       Seat and post missing – found second hand ones in workshop box

7.       Bolt on rear wheel with missing disc rotor taken off.  Found second hand wheel and fitted used, bent disc to.  Bent disc back, new rim tape and 5mm thick tyre.

8.       Replaced broken spokes and true

9.       Test ride felt like a vertical buckle in wheel but this turned out to be the tyre not seated properly – adjusted.

10.   Installed Anna’s ‘Old Man Mountain’ rear rack, suitable for disc brake bikes.

11.   Fit new rear mudguard.  No mounts for front and down-tube large enough to deflect some spray.

12.   Remove spd pedals from commuter and fix to GT

13.   Add 2 x new bottle cages & 800ml wiggle bottles $3 each

14.   Deep clean, lube and grease.

15.   Headset cleaned and regreased

16.   Fit Chris’ Vaude panniers x 2


Total time 3-4 hours.  Cost $50


Anna’s bike was fundamentally in pretty good condition but needed some work and checking over plus addition of fiddly mudguards etc.

Chris’ bike was a bit of a dog with missing parts, a rusty front wheel (they call it spoke cancer over in Oz) and weighed a ton.

However, both bikes pretty much fit us and didn’t cost very much.  Now we just had to figure out where to sleep!

Where to sleep – in a hammock?

Having left our touring tent in the UK but purchased cheap hammocks in Cambodia we started looking into using them in Japan.  In theory they weighed less and were easy to set up.  As long as we could find trees and work out a way to stay warm and dry we’d be sorted!

Chris setup had setup a hammock in the garden at the beginning of summer so we had a hook fixed to a wall and a tree, from which to test our new rigs.  Here’s the setup on our first night in Japan:

We’ve used 25mm polypropylene straps (with a loop tied in one end) for fixing to the pole/tree.  Straps provide better grip and don’t damage the tree.  The hammock and mosquito net ties into a climbing carabiner at either end and this clips into a knot that we tie depending on length required.  We were going to make a daisy chain but this knot works out much better, with infinite adjustment.  Chris’ hammock contains an Exped down and air filled sleeping mat, down sleeping bag, kindle, woolly hat etc.  Anna sacrified an old down sleeping bag and made it into an under-quilt.  This essentially provides a warm layer under the hammock to keep you warm.  When you lye in a sleeping bag in a hammock the insulation/down compresses and doesn’t work so you need to insulate yourself against the cold air.  Both setups had good and bad points but both seemed to work and didn’t cost more than $20 for some strapping and rope.

In addition to this we both carried a tarp each in case it rained and we couldn’t find other cover.  We did try to rig up stacked hammocks (see below) but as our hammocks had the extra height of mosquito nets, fitting a tarp above them both proved too difficult.

Through a bit of trial and error we managed to find a triangulation of trees that allowed us to hang the hammocks next to each other (top and tail worked best) and still be covered by our tarp.  Here’s one of our favourite spots on a beach by the Sea of Japan:

Its reassuring to know you’re protected from the rain and wind but its so much nicer waking up with a view of the trees above, the rising sun and your bike next to you.  We had a few inquisitive passers-by trip over the guide ropes but on the whole had no problems camping wild.

Safe as houses

Leave your bike anywhere in Japan and it’ll be safe.  Your bike could have a computer, lights, easy to open pockets with all your valuables, hammocks and panniers on it, yet leave it in Japan while you pop into an Onsen (hot spring/public bath) for a couple of hours and people will walk past them and not even look up.  At the beginning of our trip we used to tie our bikes to the loose end of our hammock webbing, lay the bike underneath us or at least in sight but we never had a problem and always felt very safe.  In fact in the last week we wanted to take some time out on a beach in Kamakura (60mins from Tokyo by train).  We simply locked out bikes together with a ‘cut it with a pair of scissors’ cable lock and walk off and left them for several hours.  They were fine.

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