Unicycling South Korea and Japan

"This is it", I thought, ignoring the fishy smell in the dubious shed behind a beach restaurant I was about to take a shower in. "This is the adventure I came for." Shower might be an exaggeration. There was a hose and there was cold water coming out of it. There was no way to lock or even close the door, so I asked Gerald to guard it while I was in there. The other boys had already washed off and were sitting around a table of a restaurant at the seashore, enjoying our daily ritual of ordering something from the menu without knowing what we would be served. Today, it would turn out to be a whole, cooked chicken with fermented vegetables on the side.

South Korea—it had sounded far enough away to promise a deep dive into a culture I  could become completely lost in while being close enough to actually become a reality. With five friends, who like to live on the road and sleep under the sky, I was sure to find myself in plenty of situations I couldn't imagine if I tried.

The plan was to not have a plan; to find some good trails during the day and some food and a place to sleep during the night. Here we were, six mountain unicyclists from six countries, some of them the best riders in the world, and none to be taken seriously  for a second. Maks jokingly cursed the weight of the medals he had won at the world champs that took place in Seoul the week before—because they made his luggage noticeably heavier.

We had picked up our space wagon from the airport and filled it to the roof with six big bags, six mountain unicycles, ourselves and a plastic bag of bananas, toast and peanut butter each. "So where are we going?" I asked from my seat in the very back of the car where I could barely move. "Yeah, let's at least figure out the rough direction," Gerald said from behind the steering wheel. We really had no idea. And we loved it.

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You could call it ignorant to travel to a country with a culture distinctly different from your own without doing any research, and I would probably agree. But you could also call it fun. This is as close to a real adventure as it gets in a world with mobile internet, google earth and GPS tracks.

I would even argue that you can experience more of a place, in all it's rawness if you come less prepared. Three of us did not bring any camping gear whatsoever. The first night, Jakob, Matej and Maksym intended to sleep on a table at a campground, when all of a sudden we saw a tent walking towards us. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It turned out to be the campground owner who wanted to save us from the mosquitoes and gave us one of the tents he sold in his shop for the night. He explained that in Korean, smiling, and we answered in English, returning the smiles. Sometimes that's all you need to understand.

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Once, while we all attempted to sleep in the drenching hot summer night, hoping sleep would eventually come, I heard nylon fabric rustling, then something heavy falling on the ground right next to my hammock. One by one, we turned on our lights again and couldn't help but laugh out loud. Gerald had fallen out of his hammock—the fancy one that he had talked about for half the drive.

The next morning we started what quickly became our daily routine. Peanut butter and crackers for breakfast, some added canned tuna and avocado. I had already learned to appreciate the refreshing taste of some oddly small-looking cantaloupe melons. Maksym had started to wear nothing but his brightly colored speedos, which would turn out to be his preferred outfit when off the unicycle. He and Jacob found a GPS track somewhere on the internet, in some dodgy forum from 2001, and had a very deep look at google earth. An hour later we were finally packed, managed to stow all our limbs in the car and hit the road.

At the end of an overgrown dirt road, we got out of the car, started sweating out of every pore and were immediately attacked by mosquitoes. In record time, we gathered our gear and hiked up a trail through what seemed like an actual jungle, accompanied by the orchestra of a million chirping crickets. We hadn't gotten near the top of the hill when the light under the forest roof turned monochromatic and we had to be quick if we didn't want to ride in total darkness. We turned around, hopped on our wheels and pedaled down the trail, trying to avoid the sneaky rocks and roots hiding in the fading light, that would most likely make us faceplant if they hit our wheels unexpectedly.

When I think of it, there isn't any obvious reason to get into mountain unicycling. It's hard, it's exhausting, it's slower than a bike and let's be honest, it can look pretty funny if you aren't used to it. But when you manage to balance your body on a thing that's touching the ground on less than a square inch and can throw you off into any direction if you aren't one hundred percent focused, when you manage to ride on that thing over a technical trail, it is a very satisfying feeling. It can feel like tricking gravity. It can make you feel very connected to your surroundings. But mostly, it can make you feel very happy.

In the darkness, we drove around the recreational area of a smaller city to find a spot where we could crash without being too obvious. A construction site with a table and a working electric fan turned out to be our luxury accommodation for the night—until it started raining, and those of us sleeping on the table moved under it to stay dry.

Life on the road turns the world into your home. Convenience stores, roads, trails—they are all yours. But it also means that you cannot hide from the world. There comes a point around dusk when you need to find a place to put your body for the night. In a place where every street has state surveillance cameras, this can get especially tricky— Or especially adventurous, depending on your attitude. I have wild camped before, but I had never thought about sleeping on a golf course. I had never slept on the bridge of a bike park trail before, with the stars watching over me. I felt like the richest person in the world that night, very aware that this way of traveling is a privileged choice.

As the days passed, we explored the hills and trails near a temple in South Jeolla, just to hike a uni back down over hundreds of steep wooden stairs. We met up with a local mountain biker in Deagu who showed us his local hidden riding spots and offered us to take the first real shower in days at his house. We tried to play in the waves in Busan but got told by a coast guard on a jet ski to stay in knee-deep water. We snuck ourselves into said shed behind the restaurant by the sea, to wash off one by one, as our sweaty clothes were drying on our engine cowling. We asked the waitress if we could fill our water bottles and explained where we were from. Hand signs and smiles, we were sure she understood.

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After ten days and nights of living out of a car, Tom, Jacob and Matej had all caught flights to their according continents, while Gerald, Maksym and I took a flight to Japan. We could feel the cultural differences before we had even left the airport. From the train, we could spot rural houses and infrastructure that told a story of decades of industrial success. Everything seemed over-organized, and while the people we met in South Korea had seemed curious about what the day might bring, everybody here seemed to follow an agenda. Our pace changed, too. Soon after I had landed, I found myself running through a train station with two backpacks and a unicycle in one hand to buy a ticket for a train that left ten minutes later—from a track that was a good ten minutes walk away in an unknown direction. We made the train and I was able to check one item off my bucket list: ride a Shinkansen train at 300 kph.


Once in Matsumoto, we found out that the one plan we had, a two-day mountaineering uni trip, would be too dangerous with a typhoon about to hit the area. So we found ourselves crouched over maps once again, decided on a rough direction and found a way through the rice fields towards the hills we saw in the distance. Not all trails on our phone maps turned out to be trails in reality, but after some scouting through Japanese rural forest, we found a road, and we also found a hiking trail that looked like it could be a fast technical track. When the boys got caught up on a particularly technical section, I rode downwards to find a practice spot more suitable for me. Maksym caught up with me a couple of minutes later. "I'll quickly ride down to find a hospital now," he said and showed me a long cut on his calf that was bleeding. He grinned and assured he would be fine. When Gerald caught up with me, I asked what had happened. "He thought he needed to try and be faster than me," he laughed.

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Thirteen stitches later, hunched over the spiciest ramen of our lives, we decided it was time to say goodbye to life on the road. With the typhoon still lurking around the corner and Maksym being hurt, we longed to no longer have civilization be the backdrop for our adventures, but to delve into it again. Maksym would visit a friend in Kyoto, Gerald and I bought tickets for the slowest train to Tokyo and sat there, watching baseball boys, school girls and people in business dress as they embarked, sat across from us for a while and got off the train again. When the stretches of green in between the buildings outside the window became smaller and smaller and finally all we could see was buildings, I looked at Gerald: "Anything, in particular, you'd like to do in Tokyo?" "Nope. No plan at all," he replied. We grinned at each other. There were many more adventures out there, waiting. We just had to allow them to find us.

Words and photos by Stephanie Dietze.

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