From Public Toilets to Tunnels: Stories from Cycling the Length of Japan


, by Fabienne Lang

Photography by: Alex Kopp and Jana Kesenheimer

Bucket list bike packing trips don't come much better than this. When Alex Kopp and Jana Kesenheimer set off on The Japan Odyssey, little did they realize the adventures this incredible country had in store for them, as Fabienne Lang found out.

“We slept in a Japanese public toilet one night,” Alex Kopp confesses.

“They are really clean!” Jana Kesenheimer chimes in.

Hold onto your handlebars and clip into your pedals because the tales these ultra-distance cyclists share about their recent Japanese cycling adventure will have you smiling. We have to hand it to Alex and Jana, they were creative in finding a safe, dry, and warm resting place for one of their eight nights on the road. And let's not forget their strategic positioning for those midnight bathroom calls. No judgment here – we're fully aware of the sparkling cleanliness Japan's bathrooms boast. Their cycle across Japan in late October was a wild ride, both on and off the bike.

But, first, meet Alex and Jana – the unstoppable ultra-distance racing and cycling duo who took part in the Japanese Odyssey, an ultra-distance cycling event that crosses the length of Japan’s main island. Now, you'd think the Japanese Odyssey’s stats – 12 days, 1,600 miles / 2,700 km, 131,000 feet / 40,000m of elevation gain on an unsupported route through the Japanese countryside – would give them pause. But not these seasoned cyclists based in the Austrian Alps, boasting medals from ultras like the Three Peaks Bike Race and the Transpyrenees. What truly caught their attention were the delightful twists of culture and nature that awaited them. It wasn’t just about the numbers; it was about embracing the cultural and topographical rollercoaster that Japan had in store for them.

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“This was the first cycling event we did outside Europe,” explains Jana. But that’s not all: “It was also the first event we’d done that wasn’t solo and that wasn’t a race.” No winners? No problem. In the Japanese Odyssey’s non-race realm, the goal is to be a proud finisher, meaning completing the route and hitting all 15 checkpoints within the 12-day window. It’s not about racing, it’s about enjoying the journey. And that’s where this pair hit a few surprising road bumps.

Alex Kopp and Jana Kesenheimer

“Our biggest challenge was switching from the racing mindset to the fast touring one,” Jana explains. The duo came into the event armed with the relentless racing mindset they'd honed over the years: two to three hours of sleep a night, constant route tracking, and minimal pit stops. But this journey demanded a plot twist.

“Initially, we planned to cycle for the whole 12 days, and then we somehow managed to ride as fast as we usually do, but still sleep at least six hours each night” says Jana. It was a revelation – no typical sleep deprivation struggles that come with races. As Jana puts it, "This was so much more fun. I didn't even ask myself why I was doing it. I usually ask myself this by the second day of a race!"

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Alex pipes up, shedding light on their usual race mode: "Normally we are very focused on efficiency: sleep less, stop for less long, find food quickly. During races, you normally stop knowing what food you’ll buy, get back on the bike, and eat as you pedal. Getting out of this mindset was the hardest thing. We told ourselves to relax. A lot." Jana adds with a chuckle, "Yeah, we had to resist the urge to constantly check the track. It's not a race, remember?”.

“It was a little bit challenging, but we managed to get into holiday mode," explains Alex. “Holiday mode” for Jana and Alex meant completing the event three days faster than they’d initially planned. When your biggest challenge is taking things slow, you know you’re dealing with serious athletes.

What truly lit them up, though, were the Japanese intricacies they encountered. Coming face to face with snakes, gigantic spiders, red-faced monkeys, and roaming herds of deer weren’t the usual sights from back in Innsbruck. The scent of rice fields wafting through endless green paddies as they cycled will be an olfactory time machine, triggering memories at the mere sight of a rice field for years to come. The real eye-openers, though, were the cultural surprises. “As a European, you can make a lot of mistakes when you’re learning how to buy something in a supermarket or how to enter a restaurant in Japan,” says Alex. “It’s a great thing to go there, recognise what is different, and ask yourself how you can adapt.” Best of all was the delightful discovery of Japan’s huge network of convenience stores. “The food situation was awesome,” recalls Jana. “These stores are open 24/7,” explains Alex, “They are everywhere and have everything you need when cycling an ultra event, including basic food and toilets. It was the best food situation Jana and I have encountered during an ultra event.” Talk about an adventure that goes beyond the pedals.

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The reasons Alex and Jana signed up for this cross-country cycling event are as clear as the Japanese sky. It wasn’t just about discovering the enchanting landscapes of Japan, this dynamic duo saw it as a golden ticket to immerse themselves in an entirely new culture, all while having a friend by their side for the adventure. And let's be real, it wasn't all cherry blossoms and serene nature.

The network of convenience stores made excellent re-fueling points (L). A public toilet provided shelter one night (R). Photography by: Alex Kopp and Jana Kesenheimer

Jana spills the beans on a memorable hiccup when Alex hit a rock on a rugged road, puncturing his front tyre on just the second day of their journey. Patching it up proved futile, forcing them to pivot their plans and pedal into Hiroshima. Not exactly what they had in mind, considering the city's bustling traffic and rush hour chaos. But hey, desperate times call for city adventures, right? “We found a good bike shop and got a new tyre but then we had to find our way out of Hiroshima. There were so many tunnels we had to cycle through, which was really stressful.” Jana sums it up perfectly: “This is something I won’t forget.” And that's the beauty of an adventure – unexpected turns that become the unforgettable stories you share long after the journey's end.

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Of the 50 cyclists who were at the start line on the sun-soaked southern peninsula of Kagoshima, 28 pedalled across the finish line in northern Hachinohe. Among these champions were Jana and Alex, their hearts brimming with Japanese wonder and their legs undoubtedly yearning for a well-deserved break. The journey may have ended, but the excitement lingered as they unwound with a few days exploring the area. Their finish line wasn’t just an endpoint; it was a gateway to new adventures, connections, and mindsets – including sleeping in public toilets.