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Tour de Minami Satsuma 2009

By Bo Causert
cycling in Jjapan
Satsuma? What Tour is that? Aren’t Satsuma those little oranges you get at Christmas? They’re really yummy, but what on earth do they have to do with women’s cycling in Canada?

I’m an ex-pat and I’ve lived in southern Japan for 11 years now. When I started cycling here there was precious little online in English to help me out. The Women’s Cycling newsletter has been a nice taste of ‘home’ that has also given me some great riding tips, and much needed encouragement. I thought it was time to give something back,  so I decided to share some of my cycling experiences as a Canadian woman cyclist in Japan.

So what about those little oranges? Satsuma is actually the old name for the region where Europe first started importing its Christmas oranges from. They grow here like zucchini in a southern Ontario summer. Satsuma is the western half of the prefecture of Kagoshima, located at the very tip of the southern island of Kyushu. Tokyoites call it the end of the world. It’s beautiful beyond belief, sub-tropical, with palm trees and coral reefs and tropical fish. Minami means south, and our ride took us from the white dot above the first character in the big red word at the bottom of the map to the thing that looks like a ship’s wheel on the left, and back again.

This year the Tour De Minami Satsuma was held on September 23rd. Last year’s tour was an event in the Japan Senior’s Olympics, so this year’s tour had a big turnout. It’s not a race, just a cycling event for anyone who wants to join in. You don’t even need a bike and helmet; they’ll rent you a mountain bike and helmet when you get there. Little kids, octogenarians, athletic types, and basically people of all shapes and sizes come out to ride. There was even a pasty white Canadian woman!

This year as usual I opted for the 60km route. The Tour De Minami Satsuma is the first big ride after summer, which is usually too hot to do much training in. With nighttime temperatures of 33 degrees celsius and daytime highs of 36, all before humidex readings, (and trust me, even if you’ve been to Mexico or Florida, you don’t know humid) it’s not just uncomfortable to ride, but downright dangerous. My husband, who also cycles, bounces out of bed at 4:30 am to ride in the summer, but I don’t do mornings. So I stayed with the 60 km course. It’s got some good hills but leaves out three killer mountains that are part of the 100km course.

It was drizzling when I got dragged out of bed at 6 am after a night of hot sweats and snoring husband that kept me up until about 2:30 am. Fortunately, the PB sandwiches and thermos of coffee were waiting in the car, so I could wake up slowly as we drove down. It was still drizzling when we got there, and several times I thought about pulling out. Once I was out on the road I was having way too much fun to think about quitting. The drizzle stopped before the ride started, and by the mid point we were under the scorching sun again. My husband went off on the 100km course, which has the same turnaround/snack point as the 60km course. We always meet up there and ride back together.Cycling tour de Satsuma

The route followed the coast for a while before heading for the hills. When I first started cycling, I didn’t do hills either. Hills were just obstacles that brought misery, painfully blocking the road to my destination: the top of the hill, which is where the fun starts as you fly down. So the first time I rode the Minami Satsuma course, I walked up most of the hills. It was frustrating having old guys and little kids ride on past me. How the heck did they do it? How come I couldn’t?

But after that first tour I decided to practise hill climbs every day, on my commute to work. It was no fun at first, but then I started to learn things as I went up, about balance and gears and position. By doing the short climb to work every day I thought about the road, my body, my bike, and how the three interact. Climbing hills started to get interesting, in a very bike-nerd, technical way. This year at the tour, with a whole lot more riding under my belt, I practically felt like a pro. At least the kiddies weren’t passing me.

There was one really long hill before we jetted down into the turnaround-pit stop where we could refill our water bottles, and munch on free homemade rice balls, pickled plums, onions, and daikon, sugar cane cake and candied kumquats. Talk about sweet and sour. Then it was time to pedal back.

The route back goes through some pretty little villages populated almost entirely by ancient women, who sat on their garden walls and clapped as we rode by. As I cycled down a road of stone lanterns, I was reminded that the reason there are so many ancient women and so few ancient men has little to do with genetics.

Kamikaze-memorial-lanterns.jpgIn this part of the world, 90 is still young, but this is also where Japan had its Kamikaze training and launch bases in WW2. Kamikaze means “god’s wind” and it was here that hundreds of 16 and 17 year old boys were sent to their deaths as suicide pilots after the Japanese ran short of bombs during the war. There is a museum nearby with letters the boys wrote to their mothers and sisters the day before they died, some believing they were the wind of god, others perhaps not quite as convinced, but without any choice in the matter.

Along the roads, for miles in some places, these stone lanterns have been erected, one for each of the boys who were lost, who didn’t come back to become ancient men sitting on their garden wall cheering on a group of weekend cyclists. It was a sobering moment, but our cheerleaders were cheering us on so enthusiastically that we were soon celebrating life again.

We got back to the start point shortly after noon, and got our free lunch, Japanese cycling event lunchwhich was rice with a pickled plum, bitter melon, fried chicken, omelet, mackerel, shrimp, carrot, tofu, devil’s tongue jelly, taro, eggplant, rice noodle salad, and carrot, burdock and sesame salad. The variety’s great and if you’re a picky eater like me there’s still plenty to eat if you leave out the stuff you don’t like. We gobbled our bentos down before joining in the cycle parade.

Tour De Minani Satsuma paradeAnyone who wanted to joined the throng as we made our way into town. For two blocks, the streets were lined with street vendors selling balloon animals, octopus dumplings, fortunes, and all the usual festival fare. Half the town was out to see our rag-tag group of cyclists. We rode down the street, turned around and rode back, and the parade was over. I felt a little badly for the families lining the streets just to see us, but they appeared to be having the time of their lives. And why not? It’s why we’re all here, on bikes—to have the time of our lives.

Article and photos by Bo Causert; lantern road photo by Naotake Miyahara


Bo Hi, my name’s Bo Causer. My bike has been like an extra appendage since I first learned to ride when I was 5, but I’ve only been doing cycling events for about four years. I’ve lived in Kagoshima, Japan since 1998, teaching English, of course. Before that I lived in Newmarket, Guelph and Regina. I ride both road and MTB events, as well as getting my daily dose of adrenalin commuting to and from work, how else? by bike.

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