Journey in Japan: The Convenience of the Cat

There’s more to cycling in Japan is more than just spectacular landscapes, exotic cultures and varied and rich traditions. Yes of course you’ll want to go to places like Minami-boso to see unique festivals like the Ama Matsuri (more about that in the Sporra Vlog), or to Toyama to catch the famous Oware Kaze no Bon dance. I’ve also written before about the ease of getting around due to the bike-friendly facilities in the country’s extensive rail system.

Today I’m going to give another little pro tip to those planning a cycle tour in Japan, which is how to get from A to B while carrying little to no luggage. Yes – you read that right. No backpacks, frame bags, panniers or giant saddle bags hanging off past your rear wheel. With just you, your bike and whatever you stuff into your jersey pockets for a standard day ride and you could go a week and have fresh kit every day. The secret? Tap into Japan’s highly-developed logistics infrastructure.

Step 1 – Prep your Containers

Prepare 2 boxes or even durable stuff sacks, each large enough to handle 1 day’s worth of clothes and supplies. Depending on where you’ll be staying these needs can actually vary a lot. For example, if you’re staying in a hot springs hotel or pension (旅館 Ryokan) you’ll typically change into a bathrobe (浴衣 yukata) upon check-in, and many of these facilities include meal-plans as well (check your reservation!). In these cases you really might not need anything more than some basic toiletries (these are more often than not included as well) and some fresh cycling kit.

At the other extreme are those who plan to be camping it. In this case you’ll obviously need a lot more gear: tent, stove, utensils, sleeping back, food, etc.. Don’t worry, the concept is (mostly) the same, you’ll just need a bigger box.

Step 2 – Find the Cat!

This is what makes it all possible. One of the large logistics operators in Japan, Yamato Transport Co., who’s logo is a distinctive black cat with kitten set atop a yellow background, offers a service called 宅急便 (TA-QU-BIN) that let’s you send a package to and from virtually anywhere in Japan overnight. The key here is that you can send from almost any convenience store (conbini). It’s well-documented how ubiquitous these are in Japan, but you should definitely check before setting off on a multi-day journey with all your expensive (and potentially heavy) luggage. Alternatively you can drop off at one of the Yamato distribution centers.

It’s a straight-forward process. Just wander into the conbini, tell the clerk you want to use Ta-qu-bin, fill in the self-addressed waybill specifying the delivery time/date and settle up. That’s it. Next-day delivery enables you to stagger your two parcels so that one will always be waiting for you at that day’s destination while the other is en route to the next day’s location. If you’re the nervous type you’ll even get a tracking number to follow your shipment.

Step 3 – Pick Up

If you’re staying in a hotel or pension then this is done for your. The front desk will receive your package and you’ll get it upon check-in. As a courtesy I recommend calling ahead or sending a message to give the hotel a head’s up.

If you’re camping then you’ll need to pick up your package from one of the aforementioned distribution centers or sales offices. This might add a few km to the end of your route, but well worth it to not have to carry all that stuff on your back or bike IMHO.

And there you have it. Simply rinse and repeat the process each day, sending your parcel to the next day’s destination. A hotel or ryokan will almost always send the package for you (I have never encountered one that didn’t), but it’s possible you might need to send from the nearest conbini.

One word of caution: just because the combini’s are ALMOST everywhere does not mean they’re everywhere. You should always plan in advance where you will pick up/drop off each package. There are definitely areas in rural Hokkaido, for example, where you can ride a long way and see nothing.

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