From the home of the Shinto deities, Izumo Taisha, through 400 miles of roads less travelled to finish in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. Riding craggy windswept coastlines, snow-capped mountain passes and criss-crossing some of Japan’s richest highland farming country, luminous with lush green paddy fields.
Izumo Taisha is probably Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine, standing on the north west coast of Shimane prefecture. For seven days every Autumn the tens of thousands of spirits from around Japan leave their trees and their streams, their pastures and their rice fields, their roadside and their mountain shrines… and they gather in Izumo, so the legend goes.
It is a long way from anywhere really; I don’t know how the Gods travel there, but for me the best approach was the Sunrise Izumo, Japan’s last surviving night train, departing Tokyo station at 10pm on a Friday night and arriving twelve and a half hours later in Izumo city. It is not a place you visit on the spur of the moment; in fact you are unlikely to visit Shimane prefecture at all.
So all the more reason to start from here. Myth or otherwise, I often feel I’m never quite alone on these isolated Japanese mountain roads – this way I could let them know I’m coming.
A sense of boyish excitement swept over me as I waited on the platform for the Sunrise Izumo to pull in. It was the first night train I had been on since my trip up to Tohoku in 2009, for my “Spine of the North” ride, and sadly, this was now the last scheduled night train remaining in Japan – I wonder how long before this one is retired ? It took a few practised limbo dancing manoeuvres to squeeze into my berth but once inside it was quite comfortable and the bed lay almost along the full length of the window. I could comfortably flash at any number of people waiting on countryside station platforms as the Sunrise Izumo sped through non-stop.
I’d finished a book by the time we arrived next morning – I can’t remember when I’d last had the luxury of time to do something like this. A short 10km ride to the shrine and I joined the lines of people making their way through the main gates – I thought it pertinent to don a pair of regular shorts over the lycra ones. Lines of people were queued up at the various shrines making offerings and prayers… I made a cursory stroll round the grounds, enjoyed a couple of the gardens, but I was itching to get back on the bike and start towards Matsue, as it was already well after midday.
Up until the west shore of Lake Shinjiko lake I could take a combination of quiet roads and deserted cycle paths, past homesteads that looked like they were floating on the water of the surrounding paddy fields. The croaking of a thousand frogs, and hoots, tweets, chirps and cries of a whole menagerie of birds and herons made me realise that by golly it was Spring and I was on holiday!
The main road to Matsue was busy with holiday traffic but more than manageable; the lake was on my right and thick foliage and earth ramparts on the left – behind these modest natural barriers was another world, a green oasis of small farms and fields sloping up to a low mountain range which separated the inland plains from the sea, on the other side. And above these the earlier cloudy skies of the morning was clearing to reveal pristine blue skies behind.
Nearing Matsue I veered off north, heading to the coast for some spectacular scenery of the Japan Sea coastline, joining a local basset hound lazing on a rock to admire the views. I would have liked to circle around the entire headland but there was a hard day coming up tomorrow, and I reluctantly turned back inland after 10km… save it for another day. An enjoyable climb past flower-fringed farmhouses sat at impossible heights on impossibly steep valley sides and a long descent into the city of Matsue.
I had last visited Matsue many years ago in the days of film camera and asking real people for directions, and it stuck in my memory for it’s serene park, castle grounds and a pleasant old town area… I had always wanted to return. Sadly I only had time to visit the castle this time but I can think of worse places to be stuck for a couple days. Ah, next time.
Poles of Koinobori commanded the gardens of hundreds of homes and long lines of them were stretched across rivers… put in place for Childers’s Day, these rows of cotton carp fluttering in the wind are synonymous with Golden Week, especially for me as I have usually spent this time cycling somewhere in Japan (though perhaps less so in recent years, now I have a boy of my own.)
Incense wafted across my path from unseen shrines and I rode rolling hills across quiet valleys, passing dozens of ancestral tombs high up in the hills or stood right in the middle of the plains. The rice fields were high with water and I saw my reflection in their green speckled surface as I cycled next to them; there were so many interesting roads curving up into forests and out of sight and I wish I had time to explore them all; I cycled through countless small hamlets of magnificent traditional houses, owned by old moneyed families.
Today my route was to take me to Mt Daisen, the largest mountain in the Chugoku region, and through the early morning haze I could already see the silhouette of it’s perfect volcanic cone 50km away, dominating the landscape, taunting me. And it was indeed a brutal climb, almost a kilometre of elevation gain in one long straight ascent, with all but no shade. Oh my, but it was worth it. The descent – and another ascent – was my favourite kind of riding… winding forest roads. The icy saw-toothed peaks of Daisen made a spectacular backdrop as I descended at speed, trying to maintain a decent line against some tremendous cross-winds. There was still snow up here, and – surreally – I passed a couple of kids having a snowball fight on the side of he road. The views to the Japan Sea would have been fantastic but for the heavy haze today.
In Misasa onsen I found a room available and decided to stay here to heal my tired legs. The onsen in the ryokan was extremely hot and I had to take cold showers in between brief dips, trying to to relieve the pain of my aching muscles with the pain of submerging sunburnt flesh into hot sulphuric water. It seemed to work. I caught the last night of the town’s golden week firework display over the river before I retired to bed, the explosion of the pyrotechnics echoing from the slopes of the valley like an ariel bombardment.
Still somewhat sore and tired when I got up (I never sleep well in hotels), there was a 500 metre climb to welcome me right out of the door. The early morning sun illuminated the flooded rice fields, long shadows forming a myriad of geometric patterns as ducks flitted playfully across the surface and bull frogs let loose their occasional huge belches. At the top of the pass, I sat down and leisurely finished an onigiri, actually taking the time to appreciate the serenity of my surroundings, deep in the mountains – all too often I cycle on. Any feelings of lethargy I might have had were now quite conclusively banished.
It was a fantastic morning of climbs and descents across valleys full of paddy fields as I was serenaded by a chorus of hoots, whistles, chirps, tweets and the occasional unknown grunt of some unknown creature deep in the undergrowth (ironically, what some of the locals probably say of me). My original route through the mountains was thwarted by one road closed, and another seemingly not existing, so I had to ride down to the coast and through the city of Tottori. Central Tottori was unpleasant but I could navigate most of it through backroads and a river path.
Coming this way meant I could see Tottori’s most famous sight, the “Tottori Sakkyu” – the giant sand dunes. I’d been here before on another bike trip (Yamaguchi to Tottori) but it was still quite an impressive sight, though I didn’t bother climbing them this time around. Cold blasts of wind buffeted me along this stretch of coastline and for the first time this year I heard the chirp of cicadas.
There are very very few foreigners stuck out in Tottori, but I met two of them.The first one just plain ignored my “gaijin nod” in the 7-11 and walked past me, whilst the next one coming towards me on his “mamachari” actually stopped when he caught sight of me, a look of upset on his face, turned around and took off in the direction he’d come from, setting a helluva pace on his shopping bike and seemingly disturbed by the possibility of conversation.
In contrast, an old Japanese man got up from his lunch and stared at me so hard and so long I had to look around to see if there wasn’t some murder happening behind me.
This was some of the best coastal scenery I had ever seen, from hidden sandy coves, through to towering jagged cliffs, foaming waves breaking against rocky outcrops, and the ocean a beautiful aquamarine blue. And there was nobody here! The road I was following, route 178, was designated a “kokudo” or national highway, but for the most part had no traffic and was barely the width of a car in some places as it went up and down like a rollercoaster ride, hugging the cliffs like a lovers last embrace. I love it that I can still discover roads like this in Japan.
The seafood lunch I had was a work of culinary art – for only 800 yen. Sun, sea and er, seafood… after all, isn’t that what a holiday’s all about ?
Then I decided to turn off onto an enticing sleepy looking road edging round one of the more isolated promontories. The amazing views were paid for with every pedal revolution through savagely steep climbs and descents along this twisting ribbon of a road. After a while I realised I had left the last fishing port and even a stretch of tea-fields behind me some time ago; the barriers had disappeared from the edge of the road and the only sounds I was hearing were the rustling of the snakes at the side of the road and the crashing of the waves against rocks far far below.
But I carried on, steering carefully around the numerous rock slides – this was the last place I’d want to get a puncture. It was hot, I was running low on water and I had no idea how much further to go and how much more climbing to suffer. But still I carried on. My legs were fried from all the climbing and my nerves shattered from the descents but I still saw no sign of this bloody thing ending. I’d stopped receiving a phone signal a long time back and there was no sign that anyone actually used this road clinging so precariously to the cliff face. What if something happened to me ? Who would know about it ? How much further is there – do I continue or do I turn back ? Oh Jeyzus I don’t think I had enough energy to tackle all that climbing again – I was now out of food.
It was just after I’d started softly crying to myself that I spotted a lighthouse, and finding it on my map knew that I had at last crossed over to the eastern side of the cape and this whole ordeal would soon be over. After a long careful descent I eventually joined back up with the main road – I never thought I would be so happy to see so much traffic!
This little diversion had put me behind schedule and I looked for a place in Kasumi (now in Hyogo prefecture), a nondescript fishing village with no obvious tourist attractions that had well over a dozen minshuku (B&B) and apparently none of them having any available rooms. Maybe it’s the lycra. Anyhow, after 30 minutes of knocking on doors I found one place which could put me up and drive me to a local fish restaurant for dinner.
What a day.
Kyoto by the Sea
The sky was dark with clouds threatening rain this morning so I decided to make a half-day of it and dash for Amanohashidate, famous for the narrow sandbar that crosses it’s bay, and it’s appearance of a “bridge to heaven” when viewed from the surrounding mountains.
The dark clouds and feisty waves crashing against the cliffs lent an edge to the morning’s ride, which I rather enjoyed as a contrast to the blue skies and temperate weather I’d be fortunate to experience so far. There was a string of villages and ports along the coast and I savoured the many small climbs and descents between each of them, and the occasional forays inland. There are some beautiful backroads here and for the first time I am starting to see more and more bamboo groves lining my route.
I saw a group of junior high school students coming towards me all on identical bicycles each with a huge wing mirror. “Ohayo Gozaimasu” they all greeted me in chorus as I passed. Later in the afternoon a class of pre-schoolers were being led up a hill by their teachers and each and every one of them screamed an excited “konnichi wa” to me.
Originally I had planned to stay in Kinosaki last night, and when I cycled through it now I realised it was probably best that I hadn’t pinned my hopes on finding a place here. Plush ryokan of rich deep wood and carefully manicured gardens, elaborately decorated public baths, kimono-clad tourists strolling the narrow main street and trying not to get run over by the traffic…Kinosaki was the Knightsbridge of onsen towns, and if my lycra clad appearance had seemingly put off the locals in Kasumi, I’ve no doubt they would have run me out of town with a pitchfork if I enquired about lodgings here.
After the town of Kyotango I deviated from policy, and decided to take the more direct main road, route 312, rather than being stuck up some minor mountain pass if it started pouring down with rain. For a “kokudo” it was actually rather nice: wide with a decent path for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as a generous verge – and very few trucks. The dedicated cycling path through the tunnels was wider than most of the roads I’d been on so far. I found a few interesting roads – some blocked by landslides – to take me a few miles north of the bay so I could cycle across the sandbar into Amanohashidate town proper.
At over two miles long and covered with thousands of tall pine trees the sandbar is impressive; the town is promoted as “Kyoto by the Sea” and although it is nothing like Kyoto it is indeed pleasant with a temple, coffee shops and boat ride and such. I treated myself to a ryokan with a view over the bay and spent a lazy afternoon dozing.
Steve by the Onsen
A great palaver in the morning involving a broken valve on my spare tube, the hotel’s tool-box and a couple of sturdy rubber gloves meant that I left the hotel much later than planned. I didn’t want to risk being stranded in the mountains due to any mechanical incidents, especially as the forecast was rain for this afternoon again. However, any bad mood I might have had was soon fixed by the first climb of the day: I said goodbye to the Japan Sea and turned directly south.
Route 45 took me through a narrow valley of small well kept homesteads of a few paddy fields each, and colourful local shrines lining the road. It was clear the villages here took pride in their appearance. I was determined to avoid the main road south and busy with trucks, and as I went cross-country across the valleys I found some back roads roads that took me through dark hollows of thick bamboo; the air was heavy with moisture – the rain would surely start any moment now – and I had to concentrate to stay upright on the climbs as my rear wheel slipped on the steep, damp, moss covered surface; but it was wonderful, and birds of all kinds kept me company with their tunes as I made my way slowly down the valley.
Originally I had planned to head eastwards to the mountains and call ahead for a room in youth hostel I’d found on the map. It had started raining lightly and I thought I could still make it. But in the space of half an hour it went from spitting to full on chucking-it-down and I made my way down to the main road finding shelter under a gas station forecourt while I wondered what to do. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this all afternoon, so as soon as there was a break in the weather I tuned around and headed in the other direction to the previous town, Ayabe, about 12km back.
And what a good decision that was ! I found a cheap hotel next to a great onsen where I spent the afternoon treating myself to the various baths, jacuzzi and rotemburo (outdoor baths) there, while I watched a few determined kayakers potter up and down the river in the drizzle outside.
Awake at 2am, unable to sleep again, and looked out the window; the rain had stopped, a full moon was high in the sky, and a wall of mist was rolling it’s way slowly and deliberately down from the mountains towards the river… I knew this would be a perfect day.
I left early, and the mist still lay heavy over the valley and the sun was a weak orb of light glowing behind. I was cycling through another world as the sun slowly burnt off the last of the mist leaving fields and trees that were a vibrant and luminous green from the overnight rain, while a cacophony of hoots and other noises started up from the undergrowth and the cries from eagles echoed off the valley sides.
It was an incredible route and I promised myself I would be back again to explore more of northern Kyoto prefecture. Route 12, a quiet hilly road for the most part following the course of the river led onto route 38, taking me up to the mountains proper. There were more and more “kayabuki” appearing now (straw thatched farmhouses), most with their tall steep roofs covered against the elements, but many with the thatch exposed. There was even a village of them, the straw roofed houses lined up behind each other like straw dominos up the hillside, and what struck me was that these were regular working farmhouses; I had been to similar villages in Japan before but their business had invariably been tourism, and every other house was a restaurant or “omiyage” shop. There was none of that here – in fact I felt rather self conscious taking a photograph.
The road was gorgeous and eagles soared overhead as I climbed steadily higher. After the last village there were only the occasional hamlet of two or three houses, seemingly deserted, on the way to the main climb. At the top of the pass I was greeted with a flourish of “yamazakura” trees, the pink blossoms falling lazily from their branches forming pools of pink leaves on the ground, and a line of them running down the other side of the pass like a bridal procession for a mountain god.
I was very low on water by the time I’d got over the pass and it had been a long long time since I’d passed any vending machine. The farmhouses I passed were eerily quiet, and only occasionally would I see someone working the fields. Any taps I saw were fed from the streams – I filled my bottle with water from one of them but it seemed to me that the cloudy brew swirling around was not suitable for drinking. I found a farmhouse off the road with a few people sitting idly on the veranda and asked one of them if they could spare me some water. “There’s no drinking water here” he said gruffly, and barked some unintelligible directions at me before heading indoors.
After that, I didn’t feel like approaching any more farmhouses. I came across a forest worker and he told me of a restaurant a few miles further on (as I eyed his bottle of tea enviously…) and sure enough fifteen minutes of downhill later I found a small rustic restaurant, right here, deep in the middle of the mountains! And it was the best bowl of soba I can remember.
This road had been a classic and I resigned myself to the fact that things couldn’t get better than this; but these mountains kept on giving ! The jagged lines of route 477 south on the map hinted that it might be interesting and the climb up to the pass was pleasantly lined by small villages and standalone farmhouses, almost right up to the top. And then, on the other side… oh my oh my oh my.
It was a tightly winding descent through a lush sea of deep pine forest, the trees spaced far enough apart that I could see the road wind down several turns below me; the scent of pine as I slowly descended was intoxicating. The road was badly potholed in places (it would make a much better climb) but slowing down just gave me even more time to appreciate it. I came out of the pine forest into Kurama Onsen, with it’s classic winding narrow street through the pines, with temples and shops and a smattering of tourists. A little further and I was on the outskirts of Kyoto city.
I headed to the station via Higashiyama and Gion, a little perturbed by the tide of tourists, but with a very satisfied grin on my face. Cycling is the secret to travel in Japan… I just hope that none of these other people find out…
I’ll be back!
Full photos here:
Sat 6th May: Matsue. 80km / 600m
Sun 7th May: Misasa Onsen, 120k / 2200m
Mon 8th May: Kasumi, 115km / 2000m
Tues 9th May: Amanohashidate, 100k / 1200m
Wed 10th May: Ayabe, 80k / 1000m
Wed 11th May: Kyoto, 130k / 1600m