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Globetrotting Hamburg photographer, BMX rider and f-stop Ambassador, Carlos Fernández Laser is used to life on the road – but nothing prepared him for the highs and lows of epic 2400km bike race The Japanese Odyssey. Join
Behind the all-too-perfect social media snapshots of adventure, there is a tougher reality of the journey. Join Carlos in this article, as he takes you through the highs and lows of his epic trip through Japan - from being caught out in torrential downpours and having the police called, to the unexpected kindness of strangers...
Words and photos by Carlos Fernandez Laser:
How it began
It happened on 30 June 2016. I remember exactly when they called. It was Timo from Pelago Bicycles in Finland: “Hey Carlos, I really like your bicycle photography and this year I’m supporting the Japanese Odyssey. I’d like you to take some pictures.” I assumed I’d sit in a car following a rider. Then he said: “Okay, I’ll send the bike in three weeks.” What bike? The longest ride I’d done until this point was roughly 200km with no altitude, and the Japanese Odyssey had 11 checkpoints – every one on a mountaintop!
A suitable companion
Timo told me I could take a friend and I thought my good buddy Philipp [Lee Heidrich], a badass videographer, would be the perfect match. He could make the clips, I could take the pictures, and we’d have a lot of fun. Plus he was 10 years younger than me, and had never done a big trip like that, so would offer a totally different perspective. We flew into Tokyo on 13 September, four days before the Odyssey, and cycled about, enjoying the city and its nightlife.
When you sign up for the Japanese Odyssey, four weeks before you fly you get 11 GPS coordinates, which are the checkpoints. So you know your starting point [Tokyo], you know the finish [Osaka], and you know the checkpoints. Then you figure out the route you want to do. This was the Japan Odyssey’s second year and on 18 September, 22 of us met at kilometre zero at 5am. For the first kilometre everybody was together, but then we all spread out. We’d decided to head straight up to the Japan Alps.
When it rains, it pours
The first day was super nice, brilliant weather, actually a little bit too warm. That night we slept behind a 7/11 because we couldn’t find a decent place to stay. I looked at my phone with the Wi-Fi from the convenience store and it said it might start raining at 10pm. At ten past it started, and didn’t stop for the next eight and a half days. We saw nothing of the most beautiful places in Japan – just grey. We started laughing at some point; we couldn’t believe it.
The second night we slept in a two-by-three metre room. They called it a bungalow, but I’d call it a shoebox because there was nothing in it except a carpet. The next five or six nights we stopped earlier just to find some place dry, and on the eighth we slept on a mountaintop in a ladies’ public bathroom because there was nothing else around and it was one in the morning. We took off our clothes and blocked the door for the night with a stick we found.
One day we randomly met this guy in a convenience store. He was cycling from Spain to Tokyo, and he’d been on the road for two and half years. We asked him how much he’d cycled and he said: “I don’t know, 12,000 km?” When we slept in the toilet, at around 6.30am somebody knocked on the door. It was an assistant park ranger. We expected trouble but he asked us to come next door for breakfast – he had hot soup, bread, tea and bananas.
On a high
On the fifth day there was this really tough mountain, Mount Ontake. It was 38km uphill: 600m altitude to 2900m. I’d had a fever and now it was night and cold. I’d never suffered that much, or felt so lost, because I’d also lost Philipp. I felt that I’d black out, but I was still cycling, my legs kept moving. Philipp said at one point, “Carlos, the only barrier is your mind, because your body always keeps going.” It was the craziest moment and the nicest – just so, so intense.
We ended up on a road – first gravel, then normal, then gravel, then signs we couldn’t read. But there was no roadblock so we figured it was a construction site and we could cycle round. We kept on riding but the road got worse – all rocks and branches. Then there was this big rock and I didn’t see it. I hit my derailleur and it ripped to pieces. Without it the chain won’t stay where it’s supposed to stay. I thought okay, I can’t cycle anymore. I’ll have to push.
Out of the wild
We came down from this little mountain before checkpoint 10 and an older Japanese couple was walking by. I have tattoos, long hair, and a full beard. We were smelly and came from nowhere. I said: “We need help!” They ran away. Eventually the husband called his daughter who came with her kids in pyjamas. Then they called the cops and six officers surrounded us. A Japanese guy in his mid-20s appeared and told us we could stay at his place. We got food, beer, a warm shower and a place to stay. We were like, okay, that’s the official end.
An inner odyssey
There were three days left until the finish at Osaka and initially I was really bummed out. I’d wanted to make the 14-day challenge. But because we had so many good experiences on the road – especially the ending – the whole thing shifted. It wasn’t about a physical challenge, but about diving headfirst into a foreign culture. At first we were totally lost in translation. Everything was so weird. And then we went deeper and deeper in and it was just mind-blowing.
Days on the road: 11
Total ascents: >30,000m
Distance cycled before disaster: 1508km
Favourite 7/11 purchase: dumplings and coffee
Bike: Pelago - Sibbo
Camera: Leica M240 with Leica Elmarit-M 28mm
Total no. of photos taken: 1705