In October 2018, I was somewhat relieved from my regular duties to manage Tokyo Creative’s Journey Across Japan project. The project would span two months as Youtuber Chris Broad cycled around 2,000km from Sakata in Yamagata to Kagoshima.
As project manager, my main duties were to:
- offer Chris support and administer a steady intake of coffee into him.
- ensure that we stuck to a strict route itinerary.
- ensure the ever-changing team members were picked up/dropped off accordingly.
- ensure that all equipment was accounted for at all times.
- not crash the van.
- pay for things and keep receipts to get paid back.
- ensure the safety of all team members.
- book hotel rooms for the team.
- find unique and interesting places that would make great content along the route.
Read on to discover how I failed spectacularly on the majority of these, but also, what I learned along the way!
Tokyo -> Sendai -> Yamagata -> Niigata
Arriving bright and early at the garage under the Tokyo Creative office, I made one final tug to the straps attaching our newly acquired bike rack to our newly acquired rental van and as it didn’t budge too much, I figured we were good to go.
I had picked up the van a day earlier and with the help of Shiori and her husband Kurt, managed to get the bike rack fastened. Its packaging indicated that it could be removed and re-attached in 1 minute, it took us an hour and a half and even then I don’t think we were fully convinced it was on properly.
Upon hitting the road, my first stop was a short drive over to our studio in Shibuya to pick up TC’s Chief Media Officer, Wenbin. Wenbin would be responsible for cutting hours of daily footage down to bite-sized chunk, to help make Chris’ daily editing process a lot easier.
After loading up the camera equipment and Wenbin’s carry on sized suitcase, our final stop before leaving Tokyo and heading up to meet Chris Broad in Sendai was to pick up TC’s very own CEO and trip cameraman Chris Okano (‘Okano’ from here on, to avoid confusion) close by in Ebisu.
The trip would go on to have an ever changing cast of members (with the exception of Chris and myself) and space in the van was at an absolute premium. Whilst technically, it was an 8 seater, the storage space was such that the entire back row of 3 seats were needed to house everyone’s belongings.
While Wenbin had taken notice of my luggage allowance emails, Okano clearly hadn’t, loading, along with his suitcase, yoga blocks, weights, resistance bands and various other training accessories. A quick rethink and reshuffle and we were finally on our way out of Tokyo.
After a fairly uneventful 6 hour, 375km drive straight up Highway 6, made more interesting by Okano testing out our pocket wifi’s capabilities by live streaming the McGregor/Habib fight. We were about 15 minutes away from Chris’ house when we hit an absolute spaghetti junction of an interchange where I took the first left instead of the second, putting us firmly back in the direction we’d just come from.
After a frustrating 7 hour, 450km drive made more interesting by my rubbish driving, we finally arrived in Sendai, an hour late to pick up Chris. A quick re-tightening of the bike rack (which had now shifted about 6 inches to the right) allowed us to load on Chris’ bike, then all that was left to do was take a quick group photo before setting off towards Journey Across Japan’s starting point, Sagata, Yamagata.
Upon arriving, I quickly realized that I had actually forgotten the one thing that I needed to bring (aside from the van), Tokyo Creative’s ‘Gatcha Gatcha’ machine, to be used when
It was now close to 7pm and we needed to act quickly. We had dinner plans from 20:30, but we desperately needed some kind of random challenge picker for filming which would commence at 9am the following morning. I knew there was only one thing that could potentially save this situation and it came in the shape of a fat blue penguin.
One thing that I’ve come to realize during my eight and a half years of living in Japan, is that no matter how bleak a situation may look, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against you, you must never, ever, write off the wonder that is ‘Donki’.
If you’ve ever been to Japan, chances are, you’re familiar with this chain of humongous stores which generally either sell exactly what you’re looking
Wenbin and I dropped off Chris and Okano with Natsuki for the former to get a haircut while we high tailed through 15km of pitch black back roads towards our hopeful saviour. Lit up like a beacon in the dark Yamagata countryside, we actually saw the store a good 10 minutes before arriving.
Bundling out of the van, Wenbin and I immediately split off in separate directions to see what we could find and the initial results weren’t particularly favourable.
We found a couple of varieties of bingo machines, which would work at a push, but ideally we wanted something that allowed us to put written challenges inside it. Other considerations included a magnet fishing game (still not entirely sure how that would’ve worked) and making an offer on Donki’s own Gatcha Gatcha machines (they weren’t for sale).
As I dejectedly called Okano to relay our slim findings to a Chris in mid-haircut, I heard the unmistakable sound of an excited Wenbin two aisles over, ‘Ian! I’ve found it!!’ And found ‘it’ he most certainly had.
The beam across his face immediately told me that he had something special. I followed the direction of his outstretched pointed hand to a box on top of the highest shelf in the infant’s toy section, revealing this magnificent bastard ….. Donki I was wrong to ever doubt you.
Anpanman in tow, we rushed back to Sagata to meet up with everyone at Chris and Natsuki’s favorite izakaya, where we were treated to a brilliant atmosphere, amazing food, and without doubt, the greatest soundbite of the entire trip!
The next morning we assembled in the hotel’s car park to give all equipment a final once over and to film the first video’s opening scene. After confirming the day’s route, Chris and Natsuki headed off in the direction of Miyazawa beach as we drove ahead, stopping at a few spots along the way in order to let them pass and check that everything was ok.
Once we had all arrived, a quick convenience store lunch was in order before filming a scene on the beach. We bid farewell to Natsuki who we’d planned to meet up with again later that evening and filmed our first drone shot as Chris rode alone to the day’s final destination,
Unfortunately Natsuki had the unpleasant experience of having to deal with a boiler explosion so couldn’t join us at the Ryokan that evening, but to our delight, made the herculean effort to drive 60km at a ridiculous hour of the morning to be waiting for us in the lobby when we awoke.
After filming the day’s intro (complete with cherry hat), we set off with Chris in hot pursuit only for the heavens to open and to make the route suddenly incredibly dangerous by bicycle. Panicking a little after driving through winding costal roads to our first meeting point, we turned back to see if we could find him and offer some shelter while it passed, but it turned out he’d found his own.
With a fruitless search and unable to get phone reception, we headed back to the designated meeting point and waited. It was at this point where I made the rookie mistake of turning off the engine whilst Wenbin furiously hacked away at the previous day’s raw footage, laptop charger still attached, resulting in a completely flat battery.
After the rain subsided, Chris arrived
To seem less intimidating, Okano and Wenbin returned to the sanctuary of the van while I continued my attempt to entice oncoming cars. After realizing that my ‘wave’ approach was being
Along the road to Murakami we befriended a gang of drone enamoured bikers and Chris was able to capture the beauty of the coast. With there not being a great number of eating options in the area, we had our second convenience store meal of the day before finally arriving at our hotel in Murakami.
Day four’s route from Murakami Station to Niigata turned out to be one of the most baron on the entire trip. As with previous days, we drove ahead in 15km intervals and waited for Chris to catch us up before heading onto the next.
During the down time whilst Chris was cycling, we often waited in countryside convenience store car parks where Okano would hone his drone skills, I looked for things of interest in the vicinity or updated tokyocreative.com and Wenbin edited and questioned the local flora.
When Chris arrived at our first meeting spot he told us about the seemingly nice lady who gave him biscuits when spotting him cycling alone and proceeded to invited him to her house. Although I’m sure this was just a really friendly person being nice, it was a little alarming to hear that she was also covertly filming the entire exchange herself.
It’s probably for the best that he decided not to take her up on her offer as she may well have tried to add him to her taxidermy collection, still though, a little disappointing as it would have made great content. After another 20km stretch of road, we met at our penultimate convenience store for a quick bite to eat (you may notice a theme developing here) before heading off again to reach the first city of the journey, Niigata.
For the vast majority of the trip, we would travel approximately 60km each day. However, when we hit a city we would dedicate a full day to exploring and filming it, with the bikes nowhere in sight. When initially planning the trip, this decision was made to adequately capture the unique aspects and quirks each city presented. In reality, these days were absolutely essential in allowing everyone to recover from the pressure of constantly being on the move and for Chris’ legs, which at points resembled linguini, to somewhat recover. As the trip went on, it was amazing how much two nights in the same hotel could lift everyone both physically and mentally.
We met up with Chris’ friend Roy, a Niigata native who couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. Roy had informed us beforehand that he had a sight for us to visit that would make great content. With the pressure firmly off of Chris and myself to find something of interest, Chris jumped
At 10am, we arrived at ‘Koushi’, a restaurant famed for making ginormous portions of food. Upon entering we were welcomed by the owner who promptly ushered us back out of the store and to an entrance at the side of the building which lead to a private room, set up especially for us.
As we sat down and got comfortable, there was a slightly confused look exchanged by the whole group before Okano said what everyone else was thinking …. ‘Did anyone else notice that girl at the back of the restaurant? The one with the film crew?’
Suddenly, the shōji door to our room slid open and the owner proceeded to hand out warm hand towels to everybody. Probably sensing three sets of eyes on him, Roy took the initiative and enquired about what we all had just seen.
‘Oh! That’s Aya, Niigata’s current eating champion, she’s filming for a national TV feature’.
With all of our eyes widening, Roy asked if the owner thought it would be ok for us to talk to her and after working his charm, we moved back into the restaurant to witness one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen.
The photos above really do not do what was concocted justice. That my friends was a 7 kilogram mountain of fried noodles, fried chicken, rice and potato salad, topped off with prawn crackers. We watched in awe as the owner delivered it to Aya’s table, his knees surely close to buckling under the weight.
In a little over 50
‘What’s your most you’ve ever eaten?’ enquired Chris.
‘123 bananas, one sitting’.
‘Did you starve yourself for the last couple of days in preparation for today?’ I asked.
‘Just two cup noodles for breakfast’.
‘How big must your shits be!?’ Questioned a wide-eyed Okano.
I sighed and headed back to the car park to bring the van around.
I’m happy to be able to announce that despite our lack of tact, we have maintained a great relationship with Aya, and she recently came to visit us in Tokyo, eating everything in our local McDonalds along the way.
After spending the rest of the afternoon with Roy, we bid him farewell and returned back to our hotel. Whilst Chris and Wenbin were busy editing, Okano and I relaxed for a bit before heading back out to pick up our first guest cyclist, Joey, who was arriving at Niigata station at 8pm.
What should have been a fairly routine 30 minute trip actually evolved into quite possibly one of the most stressful nights of my life, so much so that even looking back at it now and attempting to relay it in text makes me shudder.
Over the course of the trip, I got a lot better at attaching the bikes to the back of the van, however in the first week, the way I had tried to arrange them to balance out their weight meant that on one side, their tyres overshot the side of the van by about a foot.
Forgetting this admittedly quite valuable information, Okano and I both turned to look at each other as we heard a faint noise as I reversed, mid 3-point turn. As I slowly shifted into drive, the soul destroying sound of glass shattering echoed throughout the car park.
In the photo above, that I had to send to the rental car’s insurance company (who after a number of back and forths finally concluded that broken windows weren’t included in their ‘full’ coverage), you can see the point on the random electrical cabinet where one of the bike’s front wheel’s touched. It was just that, literally a touch, but with the weight of the two bikes and a rack that had a single point of contact on the back window, that’s all it took to potentially derail the whole trip.
It’s at this point I have to fully credit Okano. As my boss, it was relieving that he was with my when this happened, so that I didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t in fact doing doughnuts at the time, but more importantly as a friend, who, after seeing how mortified I must have looked, did the best and most supportive thing he possibly could have done, he burst out laughing.
‘Stay here, I’ll jump in a cab and get Joey, and don’t worry, it’s going to be fine, we snapped a wheel on the Odigo 47 trip, this is nothing.’ As comforting as it was that he didn’t fly off the handle, I knew that I had to attempt to sort this mess out and didn’t have time to waste.
In the weeks building up to the trip, I’d made some rules for myself, one of which was to always have hotels booked for the team at least a week in advance. I felt that a week was flexible enough that if our route was to change we could accommodate it, but fixed enough that we were always guaranteed somewhere to stay. I figured that one of the worst possible things that could happen would be turning up at a location with 5/6/7 people and everything being booked out.
We had hotels booked and paid for the next week, so staying in Niigata really wasn’t an option, also we only had Joey for a few days too, so wasting any time while he was with us would have been a massive shame. For the entire trip, we had a cushion of two potential days where we could over stay at a location, but I certainly didn’t want to use any of them this early into the trip. Sticking to the trip itinerary no matter what was essential not just for logistic purposes, but for the morale of the team, this was the first (there would be a couple more to come …) situation that really tested that mentality.
As the typhoon’s rain (yep, a typhoon hit that evening) came down, I picked up all the of luggage that was getting soaked and moved it to the hotel lobby, where I rang for Wenbin. I concluded that the first call of action would be to find a new van for the next day and after calling numbers on a few rental car brochures at the hotel, we had one booked for 8am the next morning.
The next step was to call T-man, my horrified co-worker who relayed what had happened to the equally horrified car rental company back in Tokyo. He was also able to assure me, unequivocally, that it is absolutely illegal to drive in Japan with a missing back windscreen.
After that, my focus turned to the situation awaiting us in the car park. Wenbin and I concluded that we needed to get some kind of plastic sheet to build a make-shift cover for the back windscreen so I went out in search of a convenience store while he surveyed just how damaged the van was.
Our hotel that evening was on the outskirts of Niigata, a deliberate selection in order to make for a smooth getaway in the morning. The downside of this choice, a very industrial
Putting my convenience store snobbery aside, I set out and promptly purchased a pack of the largest bin liners I could find, some duct tape and a pair of rubber gloves to help in picking out the glass now residing across the back row of seats.
When leaving the store, I noticed a huge Honda dealership/garage in the distance with its lights on. A quick Google search would reveal that it closed at 8pm, the time now was 19:50. I placed my newly purchased items into my inner jacket pocket, zipped it up, rolled my eyes and ran as fast as I could.
Bursting into the dealership at 19:58, and probably resembling something akin to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I struggled for breath before apologising for dripping all over their pristine floor. Noticing that I was a little flustered, the really kind (quite possibly terrified) staff took me aside to an area where I could sit down, drink some tea and regain my breath.
I explained the whole situation to the manager, who to my delight confirmed that they could probably order and fit the back windscreen within 72 hours, however due to the time, he wouldn’t be able to confirm until the next morning. I put him in touch with the super helpful T-Man to work out the finer details, and suddenly things were starting to look a bit brighter than they had 30 minutes earlier.
By 10am the next morning, we had our new wheels, I had delivered our original van to the garage for repair and the show was back on the road. I had a bit of explaining to do when Chris asked why our vehicle had changed colour.
After filming the opening scene, we headed for our first meet up spot of the day, Kiraranishi Park. Okano and I stayed in the car to catch up on some work while Chris, Joey and Wenbin filmed inside. Having now seen the footage of the big bouncy ground thing, this was a decision I’ve come to regret.
We stopped for a couple of drone shots along the route before heading off to our second meet up spot, a cave that Joey had recommended in Kakudayama. Although only a 100 or so metre walk from the roadside, the air became noticeably cooler as we got closer to its entrance and the number of these impressive spiders below began to grow exponentially, until they were quite literally covering entire bushes.
We stopped close by for lunch and then set off to the second of Joey’s suggestions, an abandoned road tunnel in the town of Maze. Considering the route was mainly uphill, Chris and Joey did incredibly well to arrive only about 10 minutes behind us.
There was a little confusion as to where the tunnel actually was, but after a little stumbling around we were able to find the overgrown pathway which lead up to it. As creepy as the tunnel was (yes there actually was a mark on the inside that looked uncannily like Joey), the one thing that I found most bizarre was that if you waved close to any of the flies on leaves by the entrance, they didn’t fly away.
I’m not sure what prompted me to start randomly swiping at flies, but the fact that these guys had experienced things that left them numb to the threat of human kind suggested that we probably shouldn’t get too comfortable there. After around 30 minutes of filming we all set off for Tsubame Sanjo, our final destination of the day, where we met up with TC’s Media and Marketing manager Omar, who was to relieve the Tokyo bound Okano from camera duty.
With the day’s challenge set, I did a little research into finding somewhere en route that would offer a nice assortment of ridiculous trinkets for the guys to attach to their bikes. With a Donki seemingly nowhere to be found, I was mightily comforted to see the words ‘HARD OFF’ pop up when scrolling through the local area on Google Maps.
When we arrived, things went from great to spectacular when we realized that not only was there a HARD OFF, but also an OFF HOUSE too. With an equally annoying theme tune as Donki, that also plays on a tortuous loop until you either buy something or run out screaming, the ‘OFF’ brand differs in that it just sells second hand goods (HARD OFF being electronics and OFF HOUSE pretty much everything else), so it’s an absolute mixed bag as to what you may find.
I felt like a proud, overly pampering grandparent as I gave Chris and Joey ¥10,000 each and told them not to spend it all at once. After excitedly scampering off in their own directions, trying to out ‘pimp’ each other, Chris’ return after 5 minutes to double check that I had given him money, which confirmed that he had instantly lost it. We spent the next thirty minutes scouring HARD OFF looking for it, unfortunately to no avail (he did very kindly pay me back from his own money though!).
As well as the things shown in the video, some of the other offerings of note were a brilliant little plush kiwi fella, a baseball cap from Simon Pegg’s first tv show ‘Spaced’ and an LP with the greatest cover ever.
After meeting at several points along the coast to take advantage of the beautiful weather by getting extra B-roll and drone shots, we arrived at a spectacular viewing area which overlooked the coastline of Kashiwazaki. As everyone went down to the beach to film the now infamous beer dance, I stayed up on the cliff and called home for the first time since the trip started.
‘How’s things so far?’ Asked my mum.
‘Yeah, brilliant, I crashed the car though’, a sentence she’s unfortunately heard from me twice before.
‘No one got hurt, did they!?’
‘Ah well, not ideal but sounds like you’ve got it under control. By the way, do you know Sharla? I like her!