“Shinto is not so much a religion as a culture. It says that God is in everything around us, from the trees to the water…it is everywhere.” Our Japanese guide’s voice was firm with conviction as she explained the spirituality that most of her country’s population subscribes to. After spending 12 days immersed in the ancient culture of Japan, I may not be a convert, but I’m definitely a believer.
Our mission was simple: take Sam Pilgrim—a top rider on the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour—to Japan to assess the state of the sport there and to spread some of his love of mountain biking culture to the far reaches of the globe. Currently, the FMB World Tour travels to The USA, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Italy, The UK, The Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and Spain. An impressive list, to be sure, but one that is remarkably devoid of any Asian nations. The reason for this is simple: there just isn’t much mountain biking—let alone freeride mountain biking—in Asia. We wanted to find out why.
We arrived to the bustling urban sprawl that is Tokyo. From our 33rd story hotel window, we had a panoramic view of a cityscape that seemed to go on for eternity, only coming to an end when our eyes weren’t powerful enough to see further. With it’s bright lights, loud noises and mulling crowds, Tokyo was every bit as Blade Runner-esque as we imagined. For one day, at least, we thought that this place was pretty much what we expected.
The wake up call came at 5:30am Tokyo time –1:30pm for my California-based internal clock, 9:30pm for Sam’s London-based one. We were all sorts of messed up. Nevertheless, we were herded into a van and had hit the road within an hour. I dozed off approximately two minutes into the drive, lulled to sleep by the flowing sea of gray and neon that is downtown Tokyo.
I woke up in a different world. Gray had been replaced by green, skyscrapers by towering evergreens.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Japan,” our driver, Paul, answered. It was all he had to say.
Over the next eleven days, we made our way around a small part of the 78% of Japan that is mountainous, green, sparsely inhabited and decidedly not like Tokyo. As we traveled, we learned about a people and a culture that has a unique bond with nature that is unlike any other highly developed country in the world. Shinto shrines dotted the landscape in every small town we visited, outnumbered only by the ubiquitous rice paddies that seem to cover the country like a thin veil of gold. And we found riders. Downhill riders, BMX riders, cross country riders…even some guys sniffing around the edges of freeride. Not a huge number of them, but enough to start a movement.
We met Yuta, a BMX rider who, fed up by the lack of big air dirt jumps in the Nagano area, decided to create his own dirt jump park. He personally negotiated rights to a plot of land, chopped trees and moved earth. To get all the dirt he needed, he talked to a construction foreman who was building a road a couple miles away, who agreed to let him haul away all the dirt he needed. He built the biggest dirt jumps in Japan, knowing full well that only he and a couple other riders in the country could even ride them.
We also met Hanyu, who spent the better part of five years meticulously building and grooming the Delight Club Field Jump Park with a few dedicated volunteers. The jumps weren’t huge, but by all accounts (including Sam’s), the park was fun as hell. When Sam hit the park, Hanyu had his parent shut down their noodle shop in town so they could come and watch. Dedication to the sport is not lacking here.
With over 500 ski resorts in the country, Japan is a veritable dreamland for mountain biking that has as of yet gone completely untapped. But the fuel for a mountain bike craze is there. A population steeped in the values of Shinto and with an ingrained love of nature, and evangelists like Yuta and Hanyu are all the country needs to become the next bastion of freeride. As Sam says: “the potential here for any mountain biking is massive, really.” Call me crazy, but I’d say that’s an understatement.
—by Lucas Martinez