Covid-19 in Japan: Where are the experts?

America has Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, who provide scientific information at White House press conferences.

Germany has Prof. Dr. Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute, who speaks at biweekly press briefings. Dr Christian Drosten, chief virologist at the Charité hospital in Berlin, has provided frequent commentary to the public.

Where are these experts in Japan? The briefings I have watched in Japan primarily involved Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Governer of Tokyo Koike Yuriko.

Yes, individuals scientists have been interviewed by the “wide shows” entertainment programs, but why are they not given a prominent official role in shaping public responses to the epidemic? Yes, the declaration of emergency is supposed to be based on the discussions of a circle of experts, but we don’t directly hear from them. It’s only the government that consults with them.

The impression this creates is that the decisions being made are ultimately driven by political and economic considerations, which take priority over any medical interpretation of the situation.

As Son Masayoshi of Softbank pointed out in a recent tweet, it is strange that in Japan Covid-19 policy is spearheaded by the Minister of Economic Revitalization instead of a health expert such as Dr. Fauci in the US. That tells you all you need to know about the priorities of the Abe government.

Covid-19: Fleeing to the countryside

Following the “not a lockdown” in Tokyo and 6 other prefectures, the summer resort town of Karuizawa has reportedly experienced an influx of cars with Tokyo license plates as Tokyo residents with second homes (bessō) in the area are flocking to the town in Nagano that is not yet subject to the restrictions.

I would expect a similar pattern to unfold in resort areas around Yamanakako and Izu (in Yamanashi and Shizuoka, also not among the 7 prefectures).

Not only does this exodus from the city risk the spread of infections to prefectures that currently still have a lower incidence of Covid-19, it could also have infected bessō owners take up rural hospital beds then no longer available for the local population after they also get infected.

Other countries have clear policies that discourage people from dashing to second homes, which earned Prince Charles some criticism for self-quarantining in Scotland and cost Scotland’s chief medical officer her job. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s selfish and against the spirit of sheltering in place. Why should others stay put in their tiny Tokyo apartments when some can drive across the country?

While it can be said that refugees from the city will spread the load on the health care system between urban and rural hospitals, that is something the national government should be thinking about, not something only those rich enough to own two or more homes to take advantage of.

Covid-19: Japan to declare state of emergency

Quoting a government official, the local media (both English and Japanese-language) are predicting the government wil declare a state of emergency from as early as Tue, April 7 in big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, to initially last until May 6 (Golden Week).

“The move would give governors in hard-hit regions legal authority to ask people to stay home and businesses to close, but not to impose the kind of lockdowns seen in other countries. In most cases, there are no penalties for ignoring requests, although public compliance would likely increase with an emergency declaration.” (Japan Times)

The number of confirmed infections with the SARS-CoV-2 virus have doubled in a week or less in Tokyo, Osaka, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba.

Here are the numbers on April 1 and April 6 and the corresponding doubling time in days:

  • Tokyo: 527 => 1033 (5.1d)
  • Kanagawa: 120 => 265 (4.4d)
  • Saitama: 98 => 185 (5.5d)
  • Chiba: 164 => 260 (7.5d)
  • Osaka: 245 => 408 (6.8d)
  • Hyogo: 147 => 203 (10.7d)
  • Aichi: 176 => 228 (13.4d)
  • Hokkaido: 177 => 194 (38d)

The growth rate in Tokyo and its neighbour prefectures Kanagawa and Saitama is similar now to growth in the US over the past couple of days (12-14% daily increase of total confirmed cases). The US expects daily deaths to peak at a rate of about double the current date rate in about 10 days if everybody follows social distancing rules.

Italy experienced similar growth levels around March 17, i.e. 20 days ago after it had been in shutdown for the first week. Over the next two weeks of total shutdown, Italy’s growth rate gradually dropped from 12-14% to 4% where it’s been stable for about a week now. It was only this weekend that the number of ICU beds in use slightly dropped, the first time since the beginning of the crisis in Italy.

I can see how the government would want to avoid hurting the economy in prefectures whose official case numbers are still low and therefore restricts the shutdown to only the worst-hit urban centers, but with no closed political borders it remains to be seen how effective a partial shutdown will be. Rural Japan has a much bigger elderly population than the cities. Will families in cities refrain from visiting their rural relatives? And will the population in the rest of Japan understand the severity of the situation when their prefecture is excluded from the shutdown?

Stories I have heard from friends of friends make me wonder.

One is invited to a wedding and the couple isn’t sure whether to go ahead, as there would be a huge cancellation fee to the hotel they booked. If the the government took action, this would no longer be a question.

Another was sick with a fever and breathing problems (i.e. symptoms matching Covid-19), yet the employer insisted he still come to work. I think that’s insane and outrageous.

A Japanese acquaintance I recently happened to meet still wanted to shake my hand when he saw me.

People who have been quarantined in Europe and North America have changed their thinking. In Japan this change of attitude was delayed by attempts to keep the Tokyo 2020 on course and now it will take time to turn the ship around.


Covid-19 mortality in Germany

There have been many comments on the relatively low mortality in Germany relative to the number of confirmed cases. The median age of infected persons in Germany is 47 compared to 64 years in Italy. Many Germans were infected while skiing in Austria or northern Italy (the same is true for Norway and Iceland, which also imported the problem this way) and these younger, healthier patients have a lower risk of severe outcomes.

Germany has relied heavily on PCR testing from an early stage. Because of this the total number of confirmed cases includes many light cases that might otherwise have remained undetected. Last week about 350,000 PCR tests were performed in Germany, an average of 50,000 a day. This compares to 28,000 people in total who have been tested in Japan so far. Japan’s population is about 50% larger than Germany’s.

By tracing these mostly mild cases with large scale PCR testing, the authorities have prevented the spread to other more at risk groups of the population.

The youngest person in Germany to die from Covid-19 so far was 28 years old and had a pre-existing condition.

There is a distinct gender bias in fatality. 84% of the 31 persons under 60 to die were male (26m, 5f). 73% of the 44 persons between 60-69 were male (32m, 12f). In the 70-79 bracket, 78% of the 130 who died were male (102m, 28f). For 80-89, the largest age group with 305 deaths, the ratio is 61% male (185m, 120f) even though far fewer men reach this age than women. Even in the 90 and above bracket (71 deaths), male deaths still outnumber female deaths (38m, 33f).

On March 30, the number of new infections in Germany dropped close to the number of fresh recoveries (4,450 vs. 4,289), which recently increased. Combined with 104 deaths this meant that the number of active cases (total confirmed infections – deaths – recoveries) only climbed by 57 or 0.1%. This is the lowest rate of increase since the start of the epidemic, which if it continues gives reason to be hopeful.

COVID-19 Growth Rate Trends

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased by this much daily (most recent three days average) in the following countries:

1) Korea: 1%
2) Japan: 5%
3) Italy: 14.2%
4) Spain: 22.8%
5) Germany: 26.8%
6) USA: 29.6%

Korea seems to be getting close to getting the epidemic under control. Patients who have officially recovered now outnumber new infections day by day. That is very encouraging.

Due to geographic proximity and economic relations with China, Japan was also one of the countries with early cases, many of them visitors to China. It crossed the 100 confirmed case threshold on February 22, one day before Italy, yet the outcome could not have been more different. Since then the case number doubled three times in Japan (about every 8 days on average) versus 8 times in Italy (about every 3 days). Confirmed case numbers can not always be taken at face value as they can be quite dependent on the amount of testing and most mild cases will most likely never be counted. There could easily be an order of magnitude more cases than listed in the official statistics. However, 28 deaths in Japan vs 2,503 in Italy (i.e. about 90 times more) suggests that there were actually hugely different outcomes in these two countries. Japanese infection case numbers have increased about 9 times since they were below 100 whereas in Italy they increased about 400-fold since that threshold. One would expect higher mortality in Italy once the medical system was stressed to limit and beyond. Quite plausibly Japan and Italy have been counting a similar percentage of actual cases, but case numbers have been growing much slower in Japan (9% daily average over 24 days) than in Italy (28% daily average over 23 days) and with less stress to the medical system, outcomes have been less lethal on top of numbers being smaller. With intensifying efforts at social distancing, Japan may be next at halting the spread for now. It will still be a difficult road.

Italy and Spain
In Italy the absolute number of daily new infections has been more or less flat for the last 4 days. As a percentage of existing cases it is now half of what it was about week ago, but as total numbers still tripled, the new cases are still at a peak, even if steady. In Spain too the daily increase as a percentage has slowed but like in Italy it has some way to go before it comes close to zero.

Germany and US
Neither in Germany nor in the US is there a clear drop in the daily case growth percentage yet. They are still in exponential growth. Hopefully self-isolation measures will bite soon.

Other numbers
Germany has 5 times as many respirators as France (25,000 vs 5,000).

Italy now has about half as many infections per million inhabitants (~500) than Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, had at the peak of the local outbreak (1,100 per million).


Test-driving a Tesla Model 3 in Tokyo

Recently my son Shintaro and I went to the Tesla showroom in Aoyama, Tokyo to take a Tesla Model 3 for a test drive. I wanted to see for myself how this electric vehicle compared to my almost 12 year old Prius hybrid and to be able to compare it to future EVs from other brands that we may eventually consider.

I’d noticed an increasing number of Teslas around Tokyo, though they’re still far rarer than around the San Francisco bay area. Given that much of Japan is densely populated, range anxiety (an often cited reason for slow electrification) should be less of an issue here compared to the US, particularly with cars that already have over 400 km of range.

I love the practicality of the rear hatch of my Prius that allows me to carry two road bikes without disassembly by simply folding the rear seats. The Tesla Model 3 has a much less accessible trunk, which pretty much rules it out for me. The Model Y will be more practical, but is also even bigger. Apparently it won’t be available in Japan until a year or two after it starts shipping in the US this month (March 2020).

Tesla’s models are quite large by Japanese standards, with implications for parking and for driving on narrow back streets. For example, these are the dimensions of the Tesla Model 3 vs. the current generation Toyota Prius (XW50):

Length: 4690 / 4570 (+120 mm)
Width: 1850 / 1760 (+90 mm)
Height: 1440 / 1470 (-30 mm)

Exact numbers for the Model Y aren’t available yet, but it’s expected to be about the same width but about 1600 mm tall (160 mm taller than the Prius).

The test drive was an unusual experience by Japanese standards. Somebody had mentioned that the dealer experience with Tesla is more like visiting an Apple store than a traditional dealer showroom. I’d say the difference was even greater.

Customer service expectations in Japan are incredibly high and that is probably one factor for Tesla’s relatively sluggish sales here, see a recent Japan Times article.

Shintaro had tried to make the reservation online and was promised a callback within 48 hours, but that never happened so he had to call again to fix up an appointment.

Even when I take my Prius to an oil change at a local gas station, I’ll be served a cup of coffee while I wait. By contrast, when we visited the Tesla showroom to evaluate a JPY 5,100,000 (USD 48,000) car, all we received was a business card of the sales person. They don’t even give you paper brochures. You can look it all up on the website, right?

Before the test drive they took photo copies of our drivers licenses. We were instructed not to take any pictures and to follow the rules of the road. We would be liable for any incidental damage to the car during the test drive. Then we got into the car parked by the roadside outside the showroom, first as passengers, then later taking turns driving it around Akasaka.

I liked the seats, which were nice and firm. The acceleration when you put your foot down is amazing. It feels like a big car but with enough power for its weight. Getting back into the Prius later, it felt quite light by comparison, by which I don’t mean acceleration but it simply feels like a lot less metal being moved around. It tips the scales at about 280 kg less than the base Model 3 (1335 kg vs. 1612 kg).

Some of the controls took some getting used to, such as the lever action of the indicator stalk (which is on the left unlike in Japanese cars) or putting the car into park or into drive with the right stalk. Much of the demonstration involved showing the use of the center screen and its user interface. Many of the functions of the car, such as the electrically assisted steering or the regenerative breaking can be tweaked there, to change the feel of the car.

Headroom in the Tesla was good but personally I don’t much care for the glass roof. In a roll-over accident I would feel safer with a steel roof, but maybe those are not so likely with the low center of gravity afforded by the floor-based battery. The car interior felt overheated when we got into it and no fan was blowing, but I only asked about fan control towards the end of my driving portion. In any other car I would have easily figured it out on my own.

Checking out the trunk and the “frunk” (front trunk) after we got out of the car, the limited access for bulky luggage from the rear was quite a contrast to our Prius, in which we regularly move large items from a DIY center or bicycles for cycling tours far from Tokyo. The Model Y will address that, but it’s also 160 mm taller than the Prius on top of being 90 mm wider like the Model 3. That’s more air resistance and more kWh used to overcome it. That’s one thing I love about the Prius, it offers all this interior space despite being compact and efficient on the outside. 🙂

The width would already make a Model 3 or Model Y a very tight fit in our driveway. We would also have to figure out if there’s enough clearance around the car to plug in the charging cable for overnight charging.

In summary, Tesla’s range of cars is not an easy sell for me as a Japanese customer. While they have great technology, some of the design choices are not a good fit for Japan and the customer experience when dealing with the company (especially given the price range) will not match a lot of cultural expectations.

UPDATE (2020-03-19):

Size information has finally been released for the Model Y. These are the exterior dimensions compared to my current Prius:

Length: 4751 / 4570 (+181 mm)
Width: 1921 / 1760 (+161 mm)
Height: 1624 / 1470 (+154 mm)

Given the width and height it looks like it has roughly 20% more frontal area than the Prius which will impact its air resistance and hence energy usage at freeway speeds.

The train to Galápagos

If you have read my previous article about the route of the Japanese Chuo Shinkansen, you will know that I am both interested in and sceptical of the high speed Maglev train route now under construction between Tokyo and Nagoya, later to be extended until Osaka.

I recently came across an insightful article by German train expert Sven Andersen in which he highlighted some serious drawbacks of the superconducting magnetic levitation technology to be used for the project. As he pointed out, despite its exorbitant cost the new line will only add about 25% of the capacity of the existing Nozomi trains and 19% of the capacity of the Kodama and Hikari trains (the former only stop at major stations while the latter also stop at intermediate stations).

The mix of different train classes on either rail and wheel based or maglev routes means that (without two separate tracks in either direction) faster trains will have to pass slower trains while those are stopped at stations, with a need for switches to direct them to alternative track sections around each station. A new type of switch had to be developed for maglev trains which did not even exist yet when JR Central already decided on maglev as the technology for the new line: A lengthy piece of concrete track with embedded magnets is push sideways using hydraulic pistons, which takes considerable time. This slow operation of switches limits how closely different classes of trains can follow each other or how closely spaced they can arrive at different platforms at a head station (Tokyo Shinagawa and Nagoya or Osaka).

The two main reasons given for building the new Chuo Shinkansen line were 1) to provide more passenger capacity as the Tokaido Shinkansen line is running at capacity and 2) to provide an alternative route in case the Tokaido Shinkansen is hit by a natural disaster.

If the new maglev line can only provide a quarter or a fifth of the capacity of the existing line then it will not really be able to live up to either objective.

Andersen therefore strongly favours rethinking the plans by going for a rail and wheel-based approach on the new line. Though it would limit top speeds to 350 km/h instead of 500 km/h, it would allow many more trains to be run per hour, which dramatically increase capacity. It would also make it possible for trains operating on the new line to interconnect with the existing rail network, e.g. on to Hiroshima, Kyoto and other parts of Japan, instead of passengers having to get off one train with their luggage, ride 10 floors of escalators and then board a different train to get to their ultimate destination.

Like the German Transrapid Maglev system that was a commercial flop, the Chuo Shinkansen without wheels and rails will be an island within the rail network of an island – an amazing technical feat, but not really a solution for the needs of passengers in Japan and elsewhere.

The Runway to Hell

Even four years after the Paris climate agreement, politicians, businesses and consumers are still in denial what this means for our future and what we must do today. At best, we’re all paying lip service while trying to postpone making real changes.

Two examples: Narita airport is planning for a major expansion in flight capacity in the 2020s and Tepco and Chubu Electric Power are trying to open a new coal fired power station in 2023.

One of the greatest concerns behind climate change goals are climate feedback loops, where any amount of additional global warming triggers new causes of global warming. A few examples:

  • If arctic temperatures rise enough for the ground in permafrost regions to thaw in the summer this will lead to CO2 and methane releases from frozen ancient organic matter that starts to rot and decay.
  • Warming oceans may release methane trapped in icy slush as methane clathrate on the sea bed.
  • If summer air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet rise enough to melt snow during daytime before freezing again, it changes the albedo of the frozen surface to absorb more sunlight and melt again more easily.

So if we want to avoid runaway global warming, we have a very tight CO2 budget that we can still release before the world has to run on 100% non-fossil energy sources.

What we would need is a moonshot-like project, with our brightest minds and financial resources focused on switching all power generation to non-fossil energy, expanding it to take over from other uses of oil and gas such as transport while minimizing release of CO2 outside of power generation. That means not just electric cars and trucks but also fewer cars, less air travel, no more deforestation, minimal consumption of cement and steel and more recycling.

While the Japanese government has formally committed itself to fighting climate change, the reality looks different. Last year the Narita International Airport Corp., government ministries and local government agreed to a plan to increase annual takeoff and landing slots from 300,000 to 500,000. To this purpose, a 2,500 m runway will be extended to 3,500 m to handle bigger planes and a third runway of 3,500 m will be built in the 2020s. Currently, there is no practical alternative to kerosene-based jet fuel. More flights and bigger aircraft mean more CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. Instead of making it possible for more people to fly more often, we should be looking for ways to discourage and avoid flying wherever possible.

JERA, a joint venture between Tepco and Chubu Electric Power is trying to build a coal-fired power station at Kurihama near Yokosuka, with plans to start operating in 2023. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels. One kWh generated by burning coal even in the most advanced coal-fired thermal power stations releases about twice as much CO2 as the same amount of electricity generated from a combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power station running on natural gas. With a limited carbon budget it makes no sense to burn any coal if we still have gas. If we really still must expand fossil fuel power generation (and we probably don’t in Japan), coal is by far the worst choice of all fossil fuels available!

Instead of expanding airports and building coal power stations, we should expand offshore wind power and geothermal energy while raising taxes on air travel, for example by taxes on jet fuel. A recent International Energy Agency report estimated the worldwide potential for wind energy production at 11 times the annual electricity consumption of the world. Japan has almost completely blocked offshore wind power. It has a huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), yet in 2018 Britain’s installed offshore wind power base was over 120 times that of Japan, Germany’s about 100 times and China 70 times. Even Belgium which controls only 0.5% of the North Sea had 20 times more installed offshore wind power capacity than Japan in 2018.

Some air travel can be shifted to trains or to less energy intensive ships. Eventually we will develop technology to fly airplanes with non-fossil fuel, such as methane produced from CO2 with renewable electricity in reverse fuel cells though that won’t be cheap or particularly energy-efficient. But until then we need to make hard choices that take us closer to our goals, not further away from them.

Future generations will struggle as coastal land where hundreds of millions of people worldwide currently live or where they grow food will disappear in the sea as warming oceans expand and glaciers melt. They will have to deal with it.

Whole countries will disappear in the next couple of centuries, including the Netherlands and Bangladesh. The same will happen to most of the ten largest cities in the world. The sea level rises projected until 2100 are by no means the end of the story: Sea level rises for several centuries to come are already locked in with the emissions of the last 200 years. The last time this planet had more than 400 ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere (as opposed to 280 ppm before the industrial revolution) was 3 million years ago, when sea levels where 20 m higher than today. So that’s going to happen again, even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today. But because we are still going to keep doing that for a number of years or decades, the ultimate sea levels will be even higher than they were then.

Maybe in some ways it’s easier to speak truth if you’re a 16 year old school kid, not a politician who wants to get campaign finance from friendly businesses or to get reelected by voters who still want to fly on vacation to Thailand, or a business leader trying to please shareholders instead of saving the planet. But reality is reality, even if we look away. We, or our children and their children, will have to face it eventually and it will be what we make it today.

My First Flèche Ride (366 km in 24 hours as a team)

On Saturday/Sunday April 20/21, 2019 I rode the Flèche ride I had signed up for in December. This will probably remain my biggest ride for the year.

The objective in a Flèche is to cover as much distance as possible in 24 hours as a team, with a minimum of 360 km. You can not stop at any place for more than 2 hours and you have to cover at least 25 km in the final two hours of the ride. Teams consist of 3-5 members, with tandems counting as one member. At least three members who have ridden the entire route together have to reach the goal. Traditionally Flèche rides are held on the Easter weekend in France. In other countries dates may differ because of the climate, but the Audax-Randonneur Nihonbashi Flèche did coincide with Easter. I was part of Team NishiTokyo and the ride started from Machida.

There were supposed to be 5 of us, but one person did not make it to start, so only the 4 of us took off at 07:00 on Saturday. The three others were seasoned randonneurs. Ride leader Mr O. participated in Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015. In fact he was wearing the hi-viz vest from that event. I had first met him at a 600 km brevet. Last year Mrs N. won the Audax Japan “Randonneur of the Year” award: She completed a 2400 km brevet around the coast of Hokkaido, i.e. twice the distance of PBP. Mr D. organises brevets for AJ NishiTokyo.

I had little doubt that I was going to be the weakest rider in the team but it was going to be a team effort in which we would always ride within sight of each other, not even WATT on climbs but climbing together.

I rode to Machida the evening before to spend the night at a cheap hotel (Toyoko Inn Fuchinobe, under 5,000 yen per night). Trying to minimize luggage this time and with no rain forecast, I opted for shorts, a short sleeve jersey, a light wind breaker and a t-shirt to wear as a base layer for when it was colder. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be enough. I was the only one in bare knees and my ride mates wore long sleeve jerseys, but it worked out temperature-wise and I never felt too cold while we were in motion. At the Nishi Izu brevet on March 30 I was also the lightest dressed participant.

Mr D. had prepared a cue sheet with average speeds between all the turns and major landmarks. Besides the PCs (points de controle) for which we needed to collect receipts to document that we passed there, he had also picked three Japanese restaurants for 30 minute meal stops. Normally on long distance rides and brevets I only eat food I buy at convenience stores or dried fruit I buy before, as it saves time. So I knew we would have to be riding considerably faster in between the stops. We also cut out all photo stops. All pictures I took we either stopped for a different reason (PCs, traffic lights, etc) or I took shots while in motion. We didn’t even stop at Yamanaka-ko for a group picture with Mt Fuji.

Mr O. had only slept for a few hours before the ride, but he led the group for almost the entire ride. His speed was very consistent. Mr D. was in second place, then me, with the rear covered by Mrs N. who made sure we stayed together. Sometimes she would suggest for me to speed up “if possible” to close a gap with Mr D.

After we crossed from Kanagawa into Yamanashi on Doshi-michi (Rt413), Mr D. started having problems with his knee. He had already abandoned a 300 km brevet the weekend before because of knee problems, which he didn’t want to exacerbate. We traded places, me moving up to Mr O. and him being followed by Mrs N. Even if he had to drop out of the Flèche we could have completed as a team because we still had three people, but I was also worried about Mr. O.’ s lack of pre-ride sleep.

At Michi-no-eki Doshi we had a short break. Like on my training ride to Yamanaka-ko two weeks earlier there were lots of motorcycles about. There were fewer bicycles than I expected. A new cycling base shop had opened not far from the road station, no doubt trying to capitalise on the increasing interest in Doshi road from the 2020 Olympic road race course.

We made it to the Doshi-michi Yamabushi-toge tunnel 10 minutes ahead of schedule, about 60 km from the start and at 1130 m elevation. I expected we’d be OK time-wise if we made it there on time since that first 1/6 of the course had almost half of the elevation gain. The legs got a short respite on the descent to Yamanaka-ko. the cherries were in bloom along the lake but we kept our pace towards PC1, where we only stopped briefly to collect receipts. A few km after that we pulled into the parking lot of a noodle shop. The food was served quickly. We used the toilet after ordering to minimize time.

Along Kawaguchi-ko Fuji was not as clearly visible as before and we picked up a head wind. Via Saiko we climbed to the main road and then Rt71 through the Aokigahara forest. We didn’t stop for the view of Motosu-ko at the pass but headed for the descent towards Shibakawa on the Fuji river. On the west side is was colder and Fuji was totally obscured by haze or clouds. I did put on my wind breaker for the 30+ km descent. We made it to the Familiymart at PC3 almost an hour ahead of schedule. It was now the middle of the afternoon.

We turned east at the Fuji river bridge towards Numazu. First there were a lot of traffic lights but then there were longer stretches in this urban area where we could just keep on going. Everybody had a story to tell where someone had slept by the roadside around here on some brevet or other. For the first time Mr O. slowed down a bit as he was getting sleepy. We turned south into Izu and 35 km after PC3, stopped for another restaurant. While we waited for the food, everyone was sending out pictures from Yamanaka-ko, to let others know we were OK.

Evening approached as we headed into the center of Izu, past Shuzenji and up into the mountains. Mr D.’s knee problems became worse and he had to call for a break. Mr O. probed his leg muscles with his fingers and it seemed to help. We climbed to the pass in the dark, now considerably slower to help out Mr D. but it also made it a lot easier for me. At the top I put on my wind breaker again for the descent towards Ito. We had used up some of our time savings but still reached PC4 ahead of schedule.

We saw fireworks light up above the Izu east coast. Between Toi and Odawara there were 4 climbs of various sizes, the biggest one at Manazuru, where we used prefectural road 740 high above the main road. The pace was relatively slow there as most of us were getting sleepy. Before Odawara we rejoined the main road and the course became mostly flat. 264 km from the start we stopped at a Denny’s restaurant for a meal and a turbo-nap. It was hard to believe we still had another 100 km to go.

Meanwhile the BRM421 300 km Fuji brevet by AJ NishiTokyo had started in Machida at 22:00. I was wondering if or where we would meet participants heading towards Odawara from Enoshima, for their clockwise loop around Mt Fuji. Indeed we came across the staff car parked by the side of the road, waiting for the fastest rider of that event to pass through and to take pictures. The staff members welcomed us with big cheers, took our pictures and we actually witnessed the first rider coming through soon after. As we rode east towards Enoshima we passed all the participants of BRM421 and shouted out encouragement towards them across the highway.

The nap at the restaurant seemed to have helped Mr O. and the flat route was better for Mr. D.’s knee. It became harder again for me to maintain the pace, but that was a good thing because it meant we could finish it as a team. We blazed down the west coast of Miura past Enoshima, Kamakura, Zushi and Hayama. Then we turned away from the coast towards Miura-Kaigan station for PC5, a 7-11.

The first birds could already be heard in the night as the morning approached. A mere 8 km from PC5 we collected another receipt at PC6, a Familymart in Yokosuka, to document we didn’t take any shortcuts. The more important next destination was a Jonathan restaurant in Yokosuka at km 337 where we arrived before 04:00. This was our designated 22 hour spot. We would eat and rest here until 05:00, 2 hours before the ride closing time, before our last ride segment of at least 25 km. The designated minimum goal was the Familymart at Yamashita-koen in Yokohama, just south of Minato Mirai, which was 26 km, for a total distance of 362.4 km.

We had just over an hour at the Jonathan restaurant. After having some food we all took a nap, until awoken by the alarm clock set for 04:50. We paid individually at 05:00, took our receipts and set off for the goal. We had almost 2 hours left to cover 26 km. There were traffic lights but not that much traffic. In between traffic lights Mr O. pulled us again at 28-30 km/h. As we got closer and closer we had an ever increasing margin against bad luck, such as a last minute puncture that could have screwed everything up. When we got close to Yamashita-koen, Mrs N. suggested not stopping there to collect receipts to prove we covered the minimum distance but continuing on towards Tokyo since the spirit of the Flèche is to ride as far as possible in those 24 hours. So we continued on past Minato Mirai and on to Rt15 as the clock moved towards 07:00. We would only get credit for the shortest distance from the last PC (Jonathan) to the 24 hour point, so not all the distance we rode counted towards the result. We all had coffee at a conbini on Rt15, where the 24 hours expired.

After that we collected and sorted our receipts and filled in the PC times on the brevet cards. Then we got back on our bikes again and rode another 27 km to Hibiya-koen in Tokyo, now without any clock ticking but still not much slower. We handed in our brevet cards with receipts for checking at the reception desk. There were teams that had cycled here from Sendai, Niigata or Nagoya. I met several randonneurs I knew from other events. The chairman of Audax Japan was also there. All the teams were called up on stage one by one, to briefly introduce themselves, with the team’s route projected on a screen behind them.

And there we were, all four of us, with a certified distance of 366 km in 24 hours (and over 3,000 m of elevation gain):

The ride home alone from the event seemed like the hardest part. All the adrenaline must have dissipated and the smallest climbs seemed painful. At home I went to bed and slept for 4 hours until dinner.

On Monday the legs were still complaining on the shallowest of grades. The next day they felt almost normal. The third day I felt fine again.

Dekopon, Cherry Blossoms and Some Rain: BRM330 200 Km in West Izu

The dekopon season will be coming to an end soon, but to compensate the shorts-and-short-sleeves season has started! I enjoyed both on Saturday, buying local dekopon (4 big juicy ones for 300 yen) in West Izu. The roadside stand worked on the honour principle: I dropped my coins into the collection box and took one bag of fruits.

I was the only rider in shorts at the start of the 2019BRM330 200 km brevet in Mishima, out of 13 who had shown up, out of 30 who had signed up, the others having been put off by a weather forecast that predicted a high chance of rain in the evening.

I drove to Mishima on Friday night with the Elephant Bikes NFE in the back of my Prius and parked the car in a coin parking lot (700 yen for 24h). I stayed at the Toyoko Inn, which was also going to be the goal of the 203 km ride which started at Mishima station. There were 2 courses, the hilly Matsuzaki course and the insanely hilly Darumayama course. I had tried and DNFed the latter in 2017, so it was Matsuzaki again for me.

Before the 08:00 start I loaded up the course on my GPS unit, but hit an unexpected snag when it reported a file system error that required a factory reset of the unit, meaning I’d lose my stored breadcrumb trail for navigation that I normally use. So I had little alternative but using my phone and the paper cue sheets for navigation. However, I had not brought my usual plastic cover for the phone to protect it on the handle bars in case of rain, nor had I weather proofed the cue sheets. The map bag of my front bag is not totally waterproof.

I used RWGPS to load the course and map and it gave me verbal directions in English throughout the ride. I kept the phone connected to a 10,000 mAh USB battery in my front bag until the goal. I have two USB batteries and two phones. There’s always a plan B and sometimes a plan C! 🙂

When the rain started to come down on the way back near Toi, I covered the phone with a plastic shower cap from a hotel stay which I secured it with rubber bands. I always keep one shower cap in the front bag as an emergency cover for the leather saddle or whatever. When my wet fingers made the touch screen difficult to operate, I used spare dry socks that I also kept in the same bag to wipe the screen dry again.

During a brevet on February 10, 2019 organized by Audax Kinki, a participant was sadly hit from behind and killed by a car in a tunnel. Brevet participants are required to wear reflective vests throughout the ride, but sometimes they wear a backpack which could partly obscure the reflective vest. Thus we were asked to wear the vest on top of any backpack. I actually brought two reflective vests, one to wear and one for my light string backpack (for spare clothes) to “wear”, which made getting changed quicker. I had bought the second at a brevet reception when I had forgotten the original one at home.

Most of the starter group did not spread out much until we turned the NW corner of Izu and the bigger climbs started. I took some pictures of the others and the scenery, but it was too hazy to see anything of Mt Fuji or even much of the mainland coast of Shizuoka on the other side of the bay. Mt Fuji remained totally hidden for the entire day.

As it got warmer towards noon I started fading a bit. I would have been really uncomfortable in long pants and thermal jacket. I was now riding on my own but comfortable in the knowledge that I was 50 minutes ahead of minimum pace at that point, which should normally ensure that I would complete the ride under the time limit.

There were a fair number of cherry trees, but most of them weren’t in full bloom yet, many quite sparse at the top still, so I didn’t take too many pictures of them.

There were only two timed controls on this course between the start and the goal, with 161 km in between. Near the southernmost point of the ride there was a photo check: We had to take a picture of a viewing platform on a mountain road together with our brevet card to prove we passed there. I climbed the mountain road together with a young couple. They had already suffered a puncture in NW Izu that had cost them time, while I frequently stopped for pictures.

From there I enjoyed a long descent to Kumomi Onsen. I had visited there in December and then climbed Mt Eboshi, which offers a breathtaking scenery of the coast. We passed Iwachi Onsen, where I had often visited by car when our children were still little.

I was trying to make it to near Heda village by sunset, where a staff member was taking pictures of all of us as we passed, but my own pictures took priority. At the last conbini in Toi before the wilderness it started raining and I put on my rain gear. On the descents I had to be a lot more careful. The wet asphalt soaked up all the light.

The rain became quite intense and I couldn’t help thinking of the 17 non-starters who had listened to the weather forecast… but with my time buffer I expected I’d still make it in time, unless I had bad navigation problems in the last 20 km. The phone became difficult to use when its touch screen got wet. Once, the RWGPS app somehow ended up back on the route selection and I had to restart the Navigation, which seemed to have cost me my downloaded maps 🙁 Now I could only use the turn by turn instructions to follow the course, but no map view. Fortunately, those turn by turn instructions worked flawlessly, even if the sound volume wasn’t always high enough to be clearly audible. Worst case I had to check the screen. Twice I went off-course but it soon let me know and it recovered when I backtracked to the wrong turn.

After more than 3 hours of riding in the dark I finally got close to Mishima station. When I stopped at the traffic light across from the Toyoko Inn, a staff member waved at me and handed me a note with the finishing time after I crossed. It was 21:19, only 11 minutes under the cut-off time. At the goal reception I presented my brevet card, the receipts from PC1 and PC2 (both 7-11 stores) and showed a photograph of the viewing platform. I had successfully completed! The young couple also made it. They arrived a mere 2 minutes before closing time. Another cyclist who had punctured on the last part of the ride in the rain was over the time limit.

On the drive back to Tokyo I stopped twice at Tomei expressway service areas for some rest, as I was too sleepy. When I got home I unloaded the car, took a shower and went to bed at 02:00. Two more weekends before the 360+ km Fleche ride for which I’m preparing.