In Search of the Higurashi

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Some moments stay with you a long time, imprinted on your memory, hardwired into your psyche.  I once cycled from the UK to Japan, eight intense months of sensory overload that have forged a unique place in my consciousness, molding my hopes, and perhaps my fears. But you don’t need to camp alone in the Gobi desert or dine with Uzbeki gangsters to be enchanted by ride… cycling in and around Japan has made good work of my bucket list in itself.

A Tokushima mountain road in early morning, sunlight filtering through the trees above as I tried to get my bearings for Temple #13 on the Shikoku pilgrimage route… the lone metallic screech of my brakes on a steep and winding descent through a darkening forest on the Kii Peninsula … a mountaintop village onsen in Aomori, shared with a half dozen giggling octogenarian ladies…

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But one of my most enduring memories is that of the haunting cry of the Higurashi, the “evening cicada”, serenading me at dusk as I climbed my way slowly up towards the mile high Yanagisawa toge one summer. In fading light, halfway up this isolated valley that cuts through the thick range of mountains spanning Okutama to Yamanashi, the melancholy song of this tiny, tragic creature touched something inside me. A sound synonymous with late summer and – for me at least – a sense of rural Japan, unperturbed and untouched by the pace of modern life outside it’s mystical borders. A brief glimpse into my own shangri-la perhaps.

So I set off late one recent saturday, timing my ride to end up in a similar mountain setting as the light dimmed, hoping to recreate the magic of that moment so many years ago. At my usual hour of 5am the roads are empty and the air cool and clear… but today, at midday winding my way through traffic to the Arakawa, I breathed fumes of diesel with just a hint of ocean, carried by the wind upriver. On the river path, at speed, I swallowed mouthfuls of small flies, the hundreds of survivors clinging to my face and arms, swimming around my eyeballs, and I remembered why I wouldn’t usually start a ride at this stupid hour.

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The floodplain was a lush tropical green, impenetrable in places but for the cycle path, aggressive foliage whipping my legs into order as I cycled past. On my left, beyond the levee, grimy office blocks and warehouses gradually gave way to farmhouses and rice fields, sometimes home to an ancestral tomb or modest shrine to the local deity.

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A cacophony of insect sounds surrounded me; the high-pitched buzz of the regular cicada rising above all else in waves of tinny percussion whenever I might pass a likely looking thicket of trees… but still no sign of the Higurashi. Heading up the Naguri valley the shadows were now getting longer and I disturbed half a dozen purple butterflies, each the size of my hand, from a mossy hollow in the road. They fluttered lazily up into the trees, but the only sound I heard was the gurgle of the roadside stream as the water gushed over rocks and swirled in eddies. There was still no sign of the Higurashi.

It gets dark early in these mountains and I was almost at the top of the narrow Amamezasu Toge, thinking I should start turning back while there was still daylight, stamping my pedals and forcing the bike around another switchback, when I heard it from deep in the forest ahead: the clear “kana-kana-kana” cry of the Higurashi, echoing from tree to tree, before silence fell again. It didn’t sound a second time.

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The Higurashi spends seven or more years patiently underground before it emerges for a few short weeks at the end of summer; this melody is it’s one chance to attract a mate before death overcomes it. I hoped this little fella would get lucky and find some insect lovin’ before his demise. Me, I had got what I come for, heard the Higurashi as I wanted to, on a deserted forest road deep in the mountains at dusk. But it wasn’t the same; it wasn’t the same at all.

See, you can’t stage these things, I realised, they happen once and that’s about it: that is the magic. It isn’t a movie, a gourmet meal or page seventeen of the Kama Sutra (alas…) – you don’t get to repeat it. Savour the moment when it happens – and happily ride on.

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From the Land of the Gods: Izumo to Kyoto

 

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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.

Matsue Revisited

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Mt Daisen

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.

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The locals

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.

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01GW - 69In 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.

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Choices choices…

 

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Cape Fear

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ?

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Into Kyoto

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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I’ll be back!

Notes:

Full photos here:

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Stats:
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

GPS tracks:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728278845
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728278897
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279014
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279060
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279097
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279140

Teddy Bears Picnic

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It was cold arriving on Shinkansen platform of Nagano station at 7:40AM – despite the tights, two thermal tops, jerseys, hat and various other accessories I’d packed in my heavier-than-hoped-for saddle bag (you’ve got to curse all that room) I was back to my sweaty wheezy self on the first climb out of the city – in just shorts and a short sleeved jersey.

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My plan for the first day was to first repeat a route up to Lake Nojiriko which I’d done three years ago, and then head south-west for the first time towards Hakuba and Lake Aoki. I remembered to turn off on the old road before the series of tunnels, taking me up through the hills and clutches of two or three farmhouses in many small hamlets. No cars, just the sound of birdsong and the self-satisfied labour of my breathing… happy, actually ecstatic that I was out here and nowhere near the bloody office. The last few thoughts of work swirled away like dirty water down a plug hole, the bike and the steady climbing like a hot bath for the soul.

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A lot of map-checking to navigate these back-roads but I found the road eventually – I really love this lake!  The narrow winding forest roads that circle it, the quiet abandoned Catholic school on the shore (nature slowing reclaiming the old wooden buildings), the ripple on the deep blue surface twinkling the reflection of the sun through the trees… I concentrated on the rhythm of riding, leaning in and out of the many curves, stealing the occasional glance to my left to catch a view of the lake, correcting myself rather suddenly more than once to avoid ending up in it. Traffic was almost non-existent, apart from a short convoy of classic cars, adding more to the feeling that I’d been transported to another, less complicated, time.

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Instead of taking the road north east – a steep climb out of this caldera – I carried on round the north of the lake, to complete a full circle before heading to the mountains. There were wakeboard and kayak shops, a few small hotels and B&Bs, and restaurants – the very minimum of activity, especially considering this amazing early Autumn weather. I can’t understand the lack of visitors – better buy my holiday home now before word gets out.

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I had faffed around here for far too long, including a leisurely lunch, and it was one o’clock before I got back on the road. I was behind schedule, but I didn’t yet appreciate just how far behind I was. A brief image flashed across my mind from out of nowhere – the grizzly tearing up Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. I pushed it away. Plenty of time before dark in these mountains, plenty.

Route 31 was wide but the tall trees lining the road offered the perfect canopy of shade. Surprizingly little traffic and relatively gentle gradients until I approached the top when the road tweaked up a little more cruelly, and an increase in cars and coaches started crawling up the road. There was a huge camping complex and further up the pass a string of gift shops and restaurants – up here at over 1100 metres !  It was an ideal centre for hiking – the views to the north west offered majestic views of the Kita Alps – and further along was apparently the main attraction, Togakushi Shrine, deep in the forest, with a string of pilgrims milling around. It felt like a holiday weekend, and I perhaps again lingered longer than I should have done and oh my goodness it was already 3 o’clock. Only a couple hours before dusk and now I was heading towards bear country.

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There were man-eaters in the news two months ago, bears getting a taste for human flesh, a semi-devoured hiker found in the belly of one of them. Hmmm. These roads are quiet, surely too quiet for cars to scare away the wildlife. No escape routes or nearby train stations either, just the stark black-on-yellow signs, “Beware of the Bears”. And – running low on food. Oh. Oh Sweet Jezus! I scrambled in my saddle-bag to get the new bear-bell out. Shit, not very loud is it. My sobbing was much louder.

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I had completely miscalculated the elevation today, and saw there was still a load of climbing left to do. Despondent, I turned around and descended a short way into yet another climb, realised there really was nowhere else to go and turned back up the slope, cursing the wasted effort on retracing my steps. Oh what amazing views! What fantastic scenes of the Alps under this blue sky! Only wish I could enjoy it. No time for any photo stops now. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains now and it was starting to get dark. I was spat out on the main road, Rt 31, somewhat relieved with a 10km straight gentle climb ahead of me, but more traffic that I was expecting.

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Then just as I was starting to complain about the cars and trucks the main road veered acutely off north, and in the fading light I saw my road to the lake – a mossy broken-asphalted goat-track dipping briefly before soaring up into stillness of the gloomy woods above. It was all so quiet, even the birds had deserted me… please traffic, come back!

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12%, 14%, 16%… it was never-ending, each rise I saw ahead giving me false hope that it was over. I could only think about bears, big black vicious ones like I’d just seen on the warning sign down at the entrance to this road. I was starving, legs running on empty, but it was getting dark, and I was imagining lots of ominous noises in the undergrowth. The last thing I wanted to do was to stop and take out something to eat.

The road topped out near a closed ski lift, and I saw the indigo bowl of the lake below. 2700 metres of climbing for the day with a heavy bike-pack. I was saved!

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—–

That night I dreamt of  a dystopian future where road-cyclists were routinely rounded up by police, beaten, and then thrown in prison pending execution by firing squad. We shared the same cells with dissident readers of Home & Garden, which was far more disturbing.

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It was a chilly morning but very pleasant riding the narrow roads skirting the lakes. My original plan for 3000m climbing was on reflection perhaps a bit ambitious, and tomorrow was a work day after all. I shelved it for an alternative backroad jaunt across a number of small valleys across to the Chikuma river, giving me some short steep climbs, sketchy descents and a final long fast winding drop to the Chikuma Valley. The bear bell went on early today but none of the roads felt as ominous as the one last night. It was a half day, just under 1000m of climbing, and I felt fresh when I got on the train. And perhaps, even, a little lucky…

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Day1
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1416438154

Day2
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1416438172

Lodgings:
http://www.janis.or.jp/users/p_alpha/

Tokyo to Nagoya

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It has been well over a month of travel, colds, and cancelled weekend passes leaving me yearning for the mountains, as the muscles in my legs shrivel away and the remaining strength in my lungs support nothing more than the occasional left-over hacking cough into the face of some grim looking commuter on the packed early morning express.

If I’m not riding my bike then a poor methadone substitute is to read about it, and write about it – and the latter is long overdue. So let’s go back to the end of April, my short Golden Week mini-trip of Tokyo to Nagoya. Nagoya is where the in-laws live and whilst my wife and son were conventionally going by train (two hours) I decided to go by bike (three days).

The roads I’d chosen were certainly not direct, but most definitely scenic. Although I said Tokyo, I decided to start in Chichibu – usually a 70km ride from home, but having ridden this section many dozens of times over the years I felt no need to do this again so settled for a train there. Close enough.

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Day 1: Chichibu to Uminokuchi

IMG_6237The last leg of the early morning train into Chichibu unveiled vistas of lush tea terraces, shaded forests and high mountain peaks framed by deep blue sky. It was a gorgeous day and I was impatient to arrive and get my journey underway. But it was lucky foresight that I took a few more minutes to stock up with onigiri at a 7-11 near the station – this would be the last store I would see until the following morning.

Crossing west over the river, a twenty minute climb took me up and over the ridge of the hilltop park, a more pleasant alternative to following Route 299 through the suburbs of the city, and proved a harder than expected shock for my legs. The day was warm, hot even under the direct glare of the sun, but the heat was perfectly tempered by a cool breeze, and the side roads I’d chosen were devoid of traffic as they finally led me to Route 299: by now not much more than a single lane road, and just as quiet as the lanes I’d taken to get here (and on a Saturday no less!).The road wound purposefully upwards to my first pass of the day, to Shigazaka Toge, sheltering me under a dark canopy of trees, the views opening up here and there on my left over the Chichibu valley. I don’t think I’d climbed the pass from this side before and it was a wonderful discovery. It had been hiding under my Toge radar for far too long.

IMG_6262uBeyond Shigazaka, and the descent into the next valley, Route 299 would rise higher still up to Jikkoku Toge, a 1500 metre plus monster that would take me into the northern reaches of the Saku valley. But there was a bigger monster, Budou Toge, at over 1600 metres and a kilometre of straight elevation gain on a minor road shooting off south west. This has got to be good, I thought, filled up with water and settled in for a long hard slog. With just the very occasional car and two cyclists over the next 30km it was lonely, and not in the way that makes you think how lucky you are to be able to get away from everything. On the left the road skirted a reinforced concrete mountain side for the most part, and over to my right the views were uninspiring; no sleepy hamlets, and whatever trees there were, were thin and ungenerous in their cover. There was just no intimacy with this mountain.

IMG_6264There were a few smaller passes to cross, and the last one of the day was a narrow track winding leftwards up and beyond a tunnel in front of me. The late afternoon sun glittered promisingly through the trees, and this little broken track tempted me off the main road despite it’s gradient. I climbed out of the saddle under boughs of trees and had to carefully control the bike over a path strewn increasingly with huge rocks and rotting timber – it was clear nobody had been this way for a long time. Then the clouds rolled in and it didn’t seem quite the pleasant diversion it first looked; in fact it felt downright sinister. I’d invested too much energy to go back now and the decent soon started. But it was extremely steep, taken very gingerly and seemingly never ending – by now I was convinced the boulders and fallen branches suspended across the path were conspiring to keep me there, an offering for their malevolent mountain god, and when at last I saw a small farm tucked in a recess of the mountain sides below me, I cried out aloud with relief, and joined a lane that took me eventually down to the main road.

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There was a warm welcome from the old lady at the hotel in Uminokuchi (relieved that the mountain spirits had not abducted her guest that evening) and my room looked out over the garden with no thankfully no view of the ominous hills I’d passed over earlier.

Day 2: Uminokuchi to Iida

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IMG_6290uI had to first descend to a convenience store to get some supplies and quite a way past my turn off for Mugisaka Toge, already extending today’s climbing before it had even bloody started. It was a straight 1200m gain in elevation over a desolate 22 kilometres – not that steep but certainly persistent and with a wind that screamed like a turbine. It was a grey day, threatening with rain at some points, and the cloud shrouded icy peaks of the Southern Alps to my left did not make for cheery company.

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At long last, at around the 1700m mark, I came cross a single restaurant – closed or abandoned, I wasn’t sure which – and here there was the turnoff west onto the final stretch, a further 450m of climbing to go to the top. As wind howled around me and I looked for a place where I could lay my bike without it getting blown down the slopes, I really thought about packing it in. The pass had only been open a week after it’s long winter closure and right now it felt rather daunting – this is not what a fun “golden week” ride is all about ! Before long a couple of motorcyclists came past and headed upwards, and buoyed by the fact that I wasn’t the only one going up there, set off for the top, passing still snowy verges and the bare white trunks of trees, branches still devoid of leaves – it would be some time before Spring visited this place..

IMG_6298uThe decent was long, cold and bumpy – the seasons do not treat these roads with much care. I emptied the contents of my overnight bag and put on everything I had, as well opening all the “kairo” (hot pads) I had and fixing them to my toes and hands so the decent became bearable, enjoyable even. There were some spectacular “besso”, or holiday lodges, on the lower slopes looking out over some truly royal views. I looked longingly at the more luxurious ones with chimneys, imagining an alternative morning spent in front of a roaring log fire.

IMG_6311uEventually the road took me down to the plains and I arrived in Chino, a large town that lies in the centre of a large basin surrounded by mountains and ridges of various hues. It took an age to get warmth back into my body and I found it incomprehensible that people were walking around in T-shirts while I had my hands cupped desperately around a hot cup of coffee trying to get some feeling back into my fingers. Yet, ninety minutes later, after struggling to find my way to find the right road based on my mis-functioning GPS, and eventually climbing south on Rt 152 up to Tsuetsuki Toge, I had to take an emergency sit down in an air conditioned cafe to avoid succumbing to heat-stroke. It was a funny day.

IMG_6325uThe rest of the afternoon was hazy, into a strong headwind – at times I was having to peddle down 5% gradients just to keep my speed. It was wearing me down, and although I’d planned to follow the Akiba Kaito south (Rt 152) before turning west to Iida for the night, I’d done this route before and turned off earlier instead to Rt 18, hoping that I might find more shelter from the wind. And what a find this was ! Initially a little sterile looking it took me up one nice pass with a wonderful winding descent through rice terraces, and then – careful to take the old Rt18 rather than the new one – a narrow road, sheltered under trees that hugged the winding river south, ending the day on a high.

Day 3: Iida to Mizunami

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The advantages to staying in a hotel five yards from a level crossing is that’s it’s easy to wake up for an early start… a hot day today (reached 29 degrees later in the afternoon) and an initial straight-as-an-arrow ascent up a narrow road out of the town turned a corner and I was suddenly in a paradise of narrow leafy switchbacks alternating with slowly ascending curves squeezed between the mountain on my right and the expanding valley on my left. Birdsong enveloped me, and the mountain sides revealed a multitude of benevolent “jizo” statues looking down on me.

IMG_6373There was only one way – UP! – but it was well signposted, and the constantly changing grade kept it interesting. Freshly painted shrines greeted me on corners while rows of well tended flowers lined the side of the road; and although there were monkeys eyeing the bananas in my back pocket they generously left me alone to enjoy the ride. This was clearly a mountain that was loved and cared for, and it emanated goodwill in return. When I finally reached Iida Toge at 1100 odd metres I almost wished I had more to go.
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And it just so happened that I did. There was a graciously winding descent to a narrow sanctuary of just a few hectares of flat land, walled in by the surrounding forests, with a old buildings between elegant decay and more recent renovation. The road dropped me down into this hidden dell, and a few hundred yards later took me out of it again, back up, following a stream for a while until I crested Odaira Toge at over 1200 metres. These twin passes were now easily my favourite Toge, and the highlight my my trip.

IMG_6393After a long descent I arrived in Tsumago, a famous old post town on the ancient Nakasendo route, a picture postcard town with a long street of restored wooden buildings – I first found this on one of my early bike trips many years ago just by chance, and I felt like I had stepped back in time. Maybe it was the season, or the lateness of the hour, but all those years ago this was a magical place with just a few people wandering the streets in their geta (clogs) and yukata (summer kimono). Today there were already a fair number of tourists milling around and I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time. A pleasant climb took me over to the next post town, Magome, a single cobbled street descending a steep hillside for a mile or two. Visually spectacular, but far more tourist orientated that even Tsumago, and loads of Chinese tour groups, something that I didn’t see ten years ago. I walked down the street dutifully but then hopped on my bike to get away.

IMG_6381It was a great long descent from the mountains which ended unfortunately on the apocalypsal route 20 intersection of Nakatsugawa, a huge highway of twelve lanes cutting it’s way through the surrounding hills. Determined to avoid this monstrosity I found myself by mistake on the old pedestrian way of the Nakasendo, on a 30% incline so steep that I had no option but to commit to finishing it, scaring me senseless on the accompanying descent and hurting my legs so badly that I couldn’t face any more climbing for the rest of the day.

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IMG_6417uWith afternoon of long diversions, I headed north into the Gifu countryside in order to avoid the traffic magnet of busy roads around Nakatsugawa and was surprised at just how pleasant it was: rolling roads with short climbs and descents, many curves, lined by trees or generous views over green fields and pasture; the villages were pretty and well kemp, a sense of old moneyed families and extensive farms, and even a community pride. Usually you get the extremes of towering wild mountains or flat avenues of concrete in Japan – this was quite unusual and I promised myself to explore Gifu properly sometime.

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My only mistake was to then head to Route 66, it’s leafy verges belied the fact that it was maniac driver infested trunk road to Nagoya, with all sorts of traffic zooming by very closely and at speed: I valued my life more than an arbitrary goal of finishing within the city limits so stopped in the next town of Mizunami, one of Nagoya’s outer suburbs, and picked up a train from there. With 245km and 7200m of climbing I wasn’t too disappointed.

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Routes:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671170
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671220
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671269

Pink Surprise

Izu 035 day 1

Holidays are here

Sakura petals were sprinkled liberally over the road, like we were following in the tail of an eighty mile bridal procession, whilst the hills up on our left and across the bays and inlets on our right were painted in creams, purples and pinks. I never thought this weekend ride through the Izu peninsula would be about the cherry blossoms but once we started there was barely a stretch of road where there was not at least some flourish of pink among the trees, and often complete avenues of it. A perfect Japan spring ride, albeit discovered somewhat accidentally.

Izu 010 day 1
We’d started from Numazu, the initial traffic unavoidable but quickly tailing off once we’d turned onto Route 17 which would take us down along the craggy western coastline. Leg and arm warmers to start with, the temperature still brisk until mid-morning when it warmed up, and the hazy sunshine set a lazy holiday vibe to the day, just as it should be. This is what it’s all about!

Izu 110 day 1The constant up-down terrain of the west coast was quite unlike the long alpine-like climbs and descents of the Okutama and Yamanashi mountains, or the fast flat riverside paths of the Arakawa… it really takes it out of you. But the sparkling ocean off to our right relieved any flagging spirits, as did the generous sushi lunch we had in Toi onsen. But after Toi, the traffic thickened and we slowed down, scanning our map and our phones for side roads that could avoid the tunnels and the trucks, taking us through the narrow steep streets of sleepy fishing villages, up and down steps, and once or twice a spiraling swear-inducing 23% climb. But with a bit more planning we could avoided the worst of the traffic – a lesson for next time.

The highlight was our last stretch for the day, when we turned off for route 121, a meandering climb from sea-level to the modest 350m Jaishi Pass, ushering us into the beautiful inland hills of southern Izu, tea-fields surround us in the late afternoon light, a mysterious exquisite silence, but for the purr of our chain and the quiet murmur of our thoughts.
Izu 045 day 1
Day two, and we awoke to a morning darkly overcast and the wind violently shaking the glass panes in their window frames. An explosion of Sakura trees in bloom provided a canopy over the river-side path down to the coast road, until the colour was inevitably washed away by the monochrome blue and grey of the sea and the coast, and we were now buffeted by it’s strong gales. In a word, it was… perfect. We were primed for the empty lonely ribbon of road ahead of us for the remaining 40km to Matsuzaki, nothing to pull our attention away from the short snappy climbs and descents, adding up to a kilometre’s worth of climbing and descending in this short distance.

Izu 140 day 2
At Matsuzaki, crossing the same intersection we crossing yesterday, we veered inland again this time on Route 59, cutting a north-east path to the centre of the peninsula. It was 22km to Nishina Pass, at 900m above us. A fast and flat 5km approach hardened gradually into a proper climb. Tunnels of trees, crumbling cliff walls, wide open views to the ocean… it had it all.

Izu 080 day 1

The road turned up and turned down, the subtle changes in grade keeping it interesting, and there were views of far-away paddy fields lined up on either side of the wavering silver line of a stream, a couple miles away down in the valley bottom. It kept our attention on which was, no mistake, a very long climb. And then, past the cattle ranches squeezed onto the plateau at the top, a celebratory photo, and a very long technical descent.

Izu 170 day 2

Through pine forests and narrow roads still covered with the debris of a recent storm, wet and mossy patches and the odd car coming round the next bend… we had to keep our wits about us. In the lower valley we freewheeled through idyllic hamlets, but also past decrepit mining operations, long deserted and gated off. The open sores on the landscape are hidden on the lower slopes of many a climb in Japan.

Izu 055 day 1Our original plan was to cross over the main route 414 and tackle a couple more, lesser, climbs up to Atami. But it was already lunchtime, we still had to get a train back to Tokyo and there was of course, work the next morning. Excuses excuses. Ah, this was good enough ! Some tiring climbs but no “epic” bragging rights, no hardship, no drama… just a very pleasant and highly repeatable route. One and a half days had given us the highlights of Izu, in just the right season.

I’ll be back next year. And next year I will finish in Atami…

Izu 160 day 2

Day 1 Route: 9th April 2016 (needs slight modification to avoid tunnels)
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1121737401
Day 2 Route: 10th April 2016 (Garmin ran out of battery early on…)
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1121737461

Matsuhime

Mar 20 05 Matsuhime Ascent 3

The road to Matsuhime

Mar 20 09 Okutama 2

Rough Ride

We hadn’t planned it, hadn’t dared even to imagine it, so it was a surprise to us both as we thought the same thought at the same time, turned our bikes away from the promise of a hilly verdant green route beyond the small post town of Saruhashi, and instead pointed them northwards towards Matsuhime Toge. It had been a very pleasant ride so far, sunshine warming our backs, early cherry blossoms illuminating the road side, Spring all around us, but now, as we turned to face 1300 vertical metres of mountain ahead, dark clouds gathered ominously in the peaks above and a chill north wind rushed down the slopes at us. Getting out here we may have convinced ourselves that winter was truly over – ha! – but this mountain doesn’t allow you to entertain such fantasies.

Mar 20 01 Route 30

Spring in the air

They’d completed construction of the new tunnel since I’d been here last, many years of pork barrel spending in this quiet car-free area to punch a sacrilegious hole through the mountainside… but we veered off left, up what was now the “old” road, over a barrier, through the now unlit tunnels and onto the start of the mountain road proper, looking down on the dam and valley below.

Mar 20 04 Matsuhime Ascent 2

Road Closed for a reason

Those lush colours of the morning were now usurped by the naked limbs of leafless trees, yellowed flora and the occasional tired dull green of a lonely pine. We ascended on the narrow switchbacks, negotiating rocks and ducking under fallen branches suspended across the road… “thou shalt not pass” they groaned, swaying in the wind. We were the only ones there, the birdsong of the lowlands had long ceased and even the crows had deserted us. The lack of foliage gave us a clear view of what lay ahead: miles of steep road snaking up and up and up to the pass above. It was increasingly magnificent looking down, seeing the narrow fracture of the road where it had started in the valley – and it was horrifying to look up and clearly see how far we still had to go. But the silence, the embrace of the peaks around us, and of course, the promise of a long downhill made it worthwhile.

Mar 20 07 Matsuhime Hailstorm

Our icy reward

But it was cold at the top of the pass, icy cold in fact, and barely had we pulled ourselves over the gate, when Matsuhime orchestrated her surprise – a hail storm, quickly escalating from a few harmless white flecks on the asphalt to a full-blown onslaught of large icy stones, stinging our exposed flesh as we ran for cover.
“Do we descend right now?” we asked aloud, maybe to each other, more possibly to the mountain, “or risk this turning in a full snow storm..?”. We were alone, a brief rustle in the undergrowth had confirmed that – the only other creature up here had the right idea and decided to get the hell out of it. So we did the same, a low, gingerly descent over hail-coated roads, turning to freezing rain as we lost elevation far too slowly. Around rocks and timber, on a seemingly endless teeth-chattering, bastard-freezing, soaking-wet cold ride to the lower slopes and the nearest soba shop.

We warmed our insides with some ramen, wrapped our numb fingers around cups of hot green tea and, bit by bit, let the grimace turn into a huge grin, a smile creeping wider and wider across our faces. Matsuhime – she knows how to hurt you alright, but by the Gods, she knows how to pleasure you as well.

Mar 20 06 Matsuhime Ascent Lee

Pained and Pleasured I

Mar 20 08 Okutama 1

Pained and Pleasured II

Ride data:

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1093313588

 

 

The Monster’s Pants

Nov 1 05 Arima

I may have been saved by the Monster’s Pants.

Recently my cycling prowess has been somewhat magically restored and I do believe it’s  down to these Pants. Are they perhaps the latest Rapha bib-shorts ? No. Is it maybe  a pseudonym for a special performance enhancing cocktail of steroids and amphetamines ? Hmmm… wrong. Could it be a specially crafted training regime, or the nom d’guerre of some extraordinary secret coach ? Nope, none of these – it’s a simple Japanese nursery rhyme that my 3 year old son insists I sing before his evening bath. And I just can’t get the thing out of my head.

“The Monster’s Pants are brilliant pants, they’re super strong, they’re super strong…”

Nov 7 10 Nokogiri

A loop from my home out to the reaches of Chichibu and a ferociously steep back route up to Nihongi Pass, sustained slopes of 14 to 19%, another couple of climbs and the long ride back, naturally, into a headwind… over 200 kilometres and 2300 metres of climbing under a stunning blue sky and witness to a fabulous urban sunset from the banks of the Arakawa river. I had’t done a ride like this since my last Tokyo-Itoigawa race way back in 2012. I must be getting my endurance back !

“These pants are made of tiger fur, they’re really warm, they’re really warm…”

Nov 7 25 Kazahari

Nokogiri, the craggy rock-strewn often-closed mountain road linking Okutama to Akiruno via a barely used pass just a touch below a thousand metres elevation. A steady 9% grade with potholes, landslides and even a few small streams running down the middle of the broken asphalt to negotiate. A favourite. The last three times I’ve gone all out on this, around 45 minutes on the first attempt I timed myself, and just under 41 minutes on the last attempt in summer. My goal was sub-40, my result… 37 min 48 sec ! Was I on a roll or what ?

“Wear them five years, they’ll never tear…”
“Wear them ten years, they’ll never wear…”

Nov 7 35 Kazahari

Nov 13 15 Shomaru

That would have been enough and I could have honorably peddled to the station and got a train home. But what the heck, I was in the vicinity of the beautiful albeit dreaded Kazahari Toge. Grueling at the best of times, this was always the first mountain pass on the agenda – and it would often be the last as well. The long steep unforgiving slopes are renowned among climbing aficionados and you need fresh legs to approach this beast. Stop once, and you’ll rarely be able to clip back in again to continue.

Ah, so what. After my record-breaking success on Nokogiri let’s try out these legs a bit more, eh. It was… exquisitely painful, oh yes, by the Gods that hurt. But I did it!

“You, Me, You, Me, and Everybody…”
“Let’s grab the Monster’s Pants and put them on…”
“Let’s grab the Monster’s Pants and put them on…!”

The Monster’s Pants. They rock.

Nov 21 05 Arakawa