It was a very different summer than usual this year; I imagine it's been the same for all of us. No long-distance travel, just staying close to home. This summer was especially, shall we say, fascinating here in Japan, what with our — as it turned out — highly temporary leader Suga telling everyone we need to strictly enforce social distancing and restrictions, while simultaneously allowing the largest sporting event on the planet to go right ahead. Oh, and we should absolutely spend money at restaurants and shops, but not actually go there and spread any vidus. Without belabouring the point, let's just say the official response to the pandemic has been less than wholly coherent, thought-out or guided by research and knowledge.
We decided to rent an Air-BnB house in Yomitan over the Olympics, fairly close to OIST where I work, and blessedly far away from cities and crowds in general. But it wasn't just to get away from people; we also wanted to experience what it's like to live in an Okinawan concrete house, and what it's like to live in a semi-rural area like this.
One big combined living room, kitchen and tatami room, then a couple of bedrooms off to the side. Not actually that big but it feels open and roomy inside.
A terrace and a view overlooking the ocean. Could be worse.
This area is a mix of concrete homes and small apartments, with the occasional traditional house sprinkled among them. Very bucolic.
The house itself was a great experience, and it has made us reconsider living in a rented apartment. Yomitan was — as we thought — a bit too rural for our taste. It's beautiful and quiet, but you need a car even just to get to the supermarket.
Not every building is as picturesque of course.
Walk a couple of blocks, turn a corner and now you're out in the Okinawan countryside. Nothing around but you, fields full of sugarcane and the occasional snake. City life it isn't.
Just your typical rooster on your typical castle ruin. Going running in Yomitan is never boring.
While Yomitan is rural, it's not some screaming, hollow wilderness. It's a village of 40 000 people after all so there's lots of good places to eat around there. This is Oasis Thai, one of the better Thai restaurants I've been to in Japan.
One fun thing was that the central parts of the island became accessible to us. It was quick and easy to go visit the Nakama, Henoko or Nago areas that are usually just too far for us to go all the way from Naha. We're absolutely going to take another roadtrip or two up that way this winter.
While we were there, I still went to work most days. But now, with only about 12 km to work, I could take my electric bicycle. Back in 2019 I wrote about my experience with rental ebikes in Naha. I loved them enough that I finally bought one for myself: the Tern Vektron S10.
The Tern Vektron
The Tern Vektron S10 looking all suave and dashing under an overpass in Naha.
This is a folding bicycle with a motor and battery package from Bosch. Why folding? Because we have no place to store a regular bicycle indoors, and on Okinawa anything left outdoors will rust within months. With a folding bike I can take it up the elevator and stash it in a corner of our entrance. I got it at Ebike Okinawa, a specialty store in Naha.
This is a great bicycle, and, I think, the best vehicle I've ever owned of any kind. Folding bicycles are always a compromise between being good at being a bicycle on one hand, and being good at folding small on the other. The Vektron is very much towards the good bicycle end of that range. It's comfortable and it rides very smoothly even on rough terrain on the wide tires, and it's stable and responsive at any speed I've managed to take it (38km/h according to the speedometer). It doesn't feel like a folding bike at all.
It's not a sport bike of any kind but it is unsurpassed for commuting, running errands and exploring. The frame and components are strengthened to handle the extra power and weight from the motor assist. With the rear rack, a side bag and a basket I can easily bring my backpack, camera and a bag full of groceries. People use these bikes (or the non-motorized Verge model) for week-long bike touring trips.
Japanese rules for electric assist bicycles are simple and — I feel — very well thought out. The motor can give you up to 200% of the power you produce up to 10km/h. That maximum percentage drops as you speed up until it reaches 0% at 24km/h, at which point you need to pedal entirely on your own to go faster.
This makes all kinds of sense. An electric assist bicycle is supposed to be a bicycle after all. This way you get plenty of power at low speed to help you get started, to get you up hills, and to push against a strong headwind. As you get up to cruising speed the assist drops, and when you want to go fast you do it completely on your own power.
It fits neatly into our hallway with room to spare. But again, it's a chunky piece of gear; we'd have trouble fitting two of them here.
The Bosch system is really smooth. The motor is completely quiet — I can't recall ever hearing it — and the assist is so well done you don't actually notice it activate at the lower power settings. The lowest "Eco" mode only helps you get started, then compensate slightly for the drag of the mid-mounted motor (the pedals still have to spin the motor when it's turned off). The bike just feels like a regular bicycle that's unusually easy to get rolling.
The "Tour" mode is the normal mode on the bike. Getting started is easy, hills are smooth and the bike feels quick and light. With the "Sport" mode you start to notice the assist; it reacts fast enough to your input that you feel the assist kicking in, and steep hills become easy. The "Turbo" mode gives you maximum assist.
Waiting for the rain to stop, somewhere in Naha.
In practice I spend 95% of the time in Eco or Tour. The motor is connected to the pedals so it benefits from switching to lower, slower gears just like you do, and Tour is plenty even for hilly roads. I use "Sport" only for really steep hills, and that's sufficient even for hills so steep I start to worry I might tip over. You gear down to the first or second gear and slowly but steadily climb it with very little effort. I never use Turbo in practice.
You can use the bicycle with the motor turned off. It's a good bicycle on its own, but the battery and motor does make it heavy, and you have a certain amount of dynamic drag from the motor as you pedal. At higher speeds you don't notice but at low speeds you do. If I wished for any one thing, it would be a way to physically disconnect the motor from the pedals when needed.
A view of the eastern side of the island, from a tiny gravel road at the top of a steep ridge. There is no way I'd find myself here either by normal bicycle or by car.
A couple of other minor issues is that while the matte black paint is really cool it does scratch easily. Also, it's not very nimble when folded. The folding process itself is simple once you get the hang of it, but it's fairly bulky with the weight and the relatively large wheels. Rolling it into the apartment or loading it into the car is OK, but I would not want to roll it over any longer distance. I'd never take it on the subway or anything like that.
Ice coffee and an affogato at Pipeline Coffee in Ginowan.
This bicycle has been a game-changer for me. I don't necessarily go very far, but it's so easy and convenient to take the bike instead of the car when I run errands, and it's a great vehicle for exploring areas in Okinawa. For destinations within 8-10 km it's frequently faster than the car, and that's before you spend time looking for a parking space when you arrive. Buying his bike has been one of the best things I've done.