Bad Backs and KGB Agents

When you train, you should train as if on the battlefield

This was a typical quote from my newly purchased Russian Kettlebell manual. What had started as a cursory glance at some conditioning exercise in an old cycling magazine had, far too quickly, escalated me to buying a series of kettlebells – basically iron cannonballs with a handle – as a kind of alternative to joining a gym. I tried them for size, and according to the manual, I had come up lacking. So my aim: to achieve a rating of “Average Strength Lady”.

Why, for my first post in a year, I hear you ask, am I talking about some fad weight-training regime and not about cycling? Well, I reflect miserably, looking outside at the glorious weekend sunshine and first springtime temperatures of 2022… that’s because I can’t. The Russian manual, goading me with more weight and faster progression, pushed me too far. 

Do not be a sissy, keep your warmup short” it said, “Do not hold back. This is hard style”. 

Maybe that was the reason.

Treat your kettlebell as if it is always loaded” it said. 

Definitely should have listened.

There is no way to advance to the next kettlebell other than dominating the previous one

Shit, that’s right! The thing just looked back at me blankly, like some cold KGB contract killer. I certainly didn’t dominate it. It dominated me.

And that is what put my back out.

That was two weeks ago, and a few things have happened since then, but I still ain’t back on the bike.

I did a hike the next day (foolish), a hard session on the bike trainer (more foolhardiness) and a few days later hauled my bike to Shibuya for my long awaited interview with NHK Japan (yeah, bet you didn’t see that coming. I’ll write about my upcoming documentary in another post)

I also visited a Japanese doctor. And that, as most residents know full well, is more hit or miss than any of all this.

My first experience with a local doctor was my first year in Japan, and I had woke up simultaneously with flu, tonsillitis, and a terrifying hangover (in those younger, stupider days, I would of course try first to address all ailments with huge amounts of alcohol). I found a so-called English-speaking doctor next to the “secret encounters” section of the Tokyo Classifieds and made an appointment. The diagnosis was quick and concise (“ah you not good, you not good, no?!”) and he gave me a large condom-like thing to pack with ice and wrap around my neck. 

The treatment was not very successful. Furthermore, it has taken the last twenty years of my life to track down and destroy every remaining photograph of that experience. 

Luckily I’ve met some good doctors as well over the years (tip: don’t go to the “English-speaking” ones). This time, the doctor was more professional, but even less talkative. He was impatient to move onto his regulars, and move me on to the various torture machines as soon as possible. He gave me a generic printout of some exercises – I noticed only later that a couple of them had been circled in red ink (did that mean do them, or avoid them? I would never know). 

As the nurse was efficiently ushering me out the room, I managed to get in a question.

“So should I just give up the kettlebells?” I asked.

“Oh?” he said, “No, this isn’t the kettlebell’s fault. It’s just shouganai”.

Shouganai – It is what It is. Or another way of putting it – That’s Life. 

And then the door was shut in my face.

As the next nurse was delightedly strapping me into the third back-stretching contraption of the morning I recalled another important maxim highlighted near the beginning of the kettlebell training manual.

Kettlebells do not hurt people. People hurt people

So was I wrong? Was swinging kettlebells around an inherently safe and superior method to build strength, mobility and flexibility? A simple and efficient alternative to supplement my cycling, instead of all the malarky around weights and stuff? Apparently then, my back would have gone anyway, with or without the kettlebell?

I don’t know, but I’m not touching those evil things again. Don’t trust kettlebells. Don’t trust Russians. And most of all don’t trust those doctors – they may be secret KGB contract killers in disguise.

Better days – life before kettlebells

Superstition

The deep red of the wooden torii – the gateway to the shrine – stood in a forest grove behind which the shrine itself was draped in shadow: according to tradition, I threw a 5-yen coin in through the wooden slats. For an offering to the local deity, it’s a good deal, and with a yank of a thickly knotted and scraggly old rope, I rang the bell and made my wish – much better than disc brakes or a bright reflective jacket, a blessing from the local gods goes a long way on these winding mountain roads.

Recently it seems that on almost every ride I do, there is some shrine at which I have to stop and make an offering. What used to be an occasional distraction has, over time, become a fully-fledged ritual – after all, you need every bit of luck you can get, especially nowadays. And although the komainu – the “lion-dogs” that guard the entrance – are no less menacing for being frozen in stone, at least I think they recognise me by now.

Road to Somewhere

There is one more thing – an omamori, or lucky charm. Mine is a little metal keyring I carry, a figurine of a pilgrim with a staff and conical hat, and inscription of kotsu anzen engraved on the back. Roughly translated it means “road safety”, and he has been with me since my very first bike trip. That was over twenty years ago when I rediscovered an old mountain bike rusting away on the balcony. I cleaned it up, piled on a load of random belongings and boarded a ferry to the island of Shikoku to travel it’s ancient 88 temple Buddhist pilgrimage route. 

The figurine is of Kobo Daishi, the Japanese monk who established this pilgrimage some 1,200 years ago. I bought him at the first temple and carried him with me for the three weeks it took to complete the thousand-mile circuit. This was, admittedly, after an initial false start when my Japanese skills let me down, and I mistakenly purchased a lucky charm promising me a baby boy within the year. I had to beg the temple to take it back.

My regular stop

Since then, he has accompanied me on probably all of my cycling trips, including the eight months it took me cycle from the UK to Japan across Europe, Central Asia and China. For that one he kept company with St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, a medallion given to me as I departed, by my distraught mother. Friends and family also bequeathed me a number of other lucky charms for that particular expedition, and they gathered in the corners of my pockets and panniers, waiting their turn for some prayer (or some blasphemy). After all, I needed plenty of good fortune to get through that whole thing alive.

And in those last few months, I even had a collection of lucky rocks, gathered initially to ward off attacks from wild dogs lurking at the edge of my field of vision during a sandstorm. As soon as I picked them up the storm abated, and the dogs vanished. I revered those rocks, and transported them from the floor of the Gobi Desert all the way through to Tokyo. They are still somewhere at the bottom of a crate of belongings from that trip. 

A Torii, somewhere shadowy

I am pretty ambivalent about the number 13, and whenever I see a black cat crossing the road, I see … a black cat crossing the road. But cycling is different. In Japan you need to pay your respects to the kami, the gods living in these mountains, in the streams, in the trees, in the rocks… There are eight million of them, so those 5-yen coins can add up. 

My Kobo Daishi lucky key ring is pretty worn by now. The original chain is broken, the conical hat loose and his paint is flaking off, but you can still make out the Japanese characters for “road safety”. I try not to get too obsessed with talismans anymore, but I am careful not to leave this one lying neglected on some shelf or in some drawer. The last time did that, I really did get hit by a car.

So, I keep visiting these lonely shrines when I can, hoping a little bit of company and some modest pocket money will encourage the mountain gods to look out for me. And the little guy, of course – I make sure he never misses another ride.

You first, I insist…

Yosaka Shrine

A Tale of Two Toge

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Toge (峠) is the Japanese for mountain pass, and considering Japan is three quarters mountains there are quite a few. The mountains offer a respite from the crowds of the plains and the coast, a place to be stopped in the middle of road by a troup of monkeys, rather than a man with a loud-speaker yelling at you. The noise of unknown critters in the undergrowth offer a hint of fear, rather than the well-known critters of the pachinko parlour, offering  a cacophony of electronic pinball noise and wafts of cigarette smoke whenever you pass by.

Sadly, a lot of Toge have been closed due to landslides of late, the roads still un-repaired from Typhoon Number 19, and others have remained out of reach for me due to my COVID-era policy of avoiding trains as much as possible. However, I have relaxed my train policy a little (allowing myself to take the empty early morning train out), and with some press-ups and sit-ups my flimsy arms are now able to hoist my bike over some of those “road closed” barriers.

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Yanagisawa

Recently I had been wanting to revisit Yanagisawa Toge, to climb it from the Yamanashi side, more than a 1000 metres of constant climbing over 18km, and a long gorgeous 50km descent to Okutama – that is what I was looking forward to. I took an early train out, knowing that the first half of the climb would be hot; this part is steep, up a heat-sink of a narrow concrete road completely absent of shade. In mid-August it becomes a funnel of intense heat, and my heart-rate was stuck worryingly high, no matter how slow I pedaled. I felt like some mobile solar panel, or the centre of some celestial magnifying glass… and I was ready to be sick and pass out by the time I reached the Udon restaurant at the half-way point.

But now at almost a thousand metres elevation the heat had become almost bearable, further helped by some cloud cover and a couple of bottles of tea from the proprietor.

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Somewhere after Imagawa

There were more bridges and tunnels than I remembered – this side of Yanagisawa was never much to shout about (unless you were descending across one of those bridges in a cross-wind, in which case it was a scream…), but the last majestic turn to the final approach to the top of the pass is now cut off by some monstrous tunnel, and the old road was being ravaged by trucks and diggers. The acrid smell of recent tarmac hung heavy in the air.

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Backroads, Okutama

In the old days I used to be in awe of Yanagisawa, an old rough road deep in mountains that took you to the mile-high border between Tokyo and Yamanashi prefectures. There was something about this road, a single thin red line across a map of untamed whitespace and contour lines; there was always an adventure waiting here. It should have been allowed to age gracefully. However, little by little, year by year, tunnels had been bored through Yanagisawa’s beautiful lines, and the mountain sides given a modern, grey facelift with yet more concrete supports.

There were still some surprises, still pools of the old magic in places, but it wasn’t the same. In the end it was Imagawa Toge that saved the day, a modest climb easily overlooked on the rollercoaster descent to Lake Okutamako.

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More backroads, Okutama

Quiet, steep and snaking upwards through the forest; a family of deer ran by me startled by my heavy breathing (not the first, and not the last), ending at an ancient mountain shrine on the other side, after a switchback-riddled descent. I rested on the worn wooden floorboards of the shrine for a while, looking back up at Imagawa Toge, then filled up my water bottles from the spring nearby, and set off for home. It had been a good day, after all.

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Strava:
https://www.strava.com/activities/3881590707

The Ride Home: Tsuru Toge

The Secret Valley

With a cocktail of drugs in my system, I boarded my first train in five months and got off at Takao station to absolutely gorgeous weather. A week of work stress, bad sleep and painful tonsillitis meant I wasn’t on the best of form, and the medicine was causing some dodgy digestive issues – it was with some courage that I left the last convenience store behind me and headed into the hills. But it would, of course, be so worth it.

Lake Sagamiko

Due to The Situation, I’d been avoiding all public transport recently, and with no train to carry me there and back, I had got to discover the hidden, meandering Tokyo backroads to the foot of my favorite mountains. Just like the old days, I’ve been doing century rides almost every time I clip into the pedals; unlike the old days, I need to lie down for 48 hours afterwards to get over it.

Descending Odarumi

After five exhausting months, I’ve just about visited every pass worth climbing within a 160km riding range of my house and taken every photo at every angle I can think of. It was time to compromise – take a deserted early morning train out to the mountains and then cycle back.

With my first visit to the train station after so long, it was oddly reassuring to see signs of normality – people passed out on the pavement and piss-heads hanging around the ticket barriers at 5:45AM. Don’t they realize we’re in the middle of a pandemic? At least lugging my bike bag up the escalators and swinging it dangerously around on the platform enforced some reasonable social distancing. 

On the road, I was heading to the first, relatively minor pass – Odarumi Toge. The roads were still wet but the skies were brilliant blue and there was a cool breeze teasing me almost all of the way. This climb was actually much nicer than I remembered it, the traffic was light, and climbing up Love Hotel Hill brought back wistful memories of a time long ago. Ah, far far too long ago. I noticed the car parks were almost empty in these uncertain times.

Thirsty Work

The fast winding descent was fantastic, with the view over to Lake Sagaminko on my left, and I followed some of the backroads past the lake before riding through Uenohara and towards Tsuru Toge. It’s a long climb, albeit fairly gentle (until the last couple of miles kick in) but it is exposed – I was glad that the day had clouded up somewhat. It’s very rare that I climb Tsuru from the south and I realized I’ve been missing a trick – it is beautiful, and you really feel the mountains slowly drawing you in.

Into Okutama

I took the Secret Turn to the Secret Valley, enjoying the novelty of approaching it from a different direction. For many years there used to be an old lady who lived here, apparently alone in an ancient farmhouse high above in the forest. She was always there, tending to the fields on the steep slopes below, come rain or shine, no matter what season or time of day it was. Until one day she wasn’t. These vertignous fields are unkempt and overgrown now, and the valley feels much lonelier for her absence.

Always Up

I came across the chorus of “higurashi” cicadas on a couple of solitary mountain roads. Their melancholy song always sends shivers down my spine, and I stopped the bike under the shade of the forest more than once to listen to their cries, echoing off the mountain sides. For me a Japanese summer is not complete without hearing this symphony at least once.

The Secret Bridge (unrelated to The Secret Valley)

Later on there were more shivers down my spine, albeit of a less enchanted kind, as my tyre skidded out sideways on the damp road when I tried to avoid a large snake sunbathing across my path. It was the official end of the rainy season in Kanto today, so now I’m expecting all manner of wild and dangerous creatures over the coming months, clogging up my roads.

Local landowner

Strava:
https://www.strava.com/activities/3847479015

An Explanation…

TRFJposter

It’s been a while since I last touched this blog. In fact, it’s been one and a half years. 

Don’t worry, I hadn’t given up cycling or become a triathlete or something. With only so much mental energy, and a limited pool of literary creativity to call from, I decided to devote last year to finally finishing my book: Turn Right for Japan: Cycling the the Silk Road to The Orient.

More about this in another post, but for now rest assured it’s a rip-roaring read about when I quit my job and rode my bike from London to Tokyo some fifteen years ago. 

And now – today – it’s 2nd August 2020, as I sit here on my Tokyo suburban balcony writing these words. For curiosity’s sake, I looked it up: on 2nd August 2005, I was in Central Asia pedaling through the Fergana valley, another dry day of 45+ degree heat. By this point I had survived vicious guard dogs in Serbia, debilitating disease in Azerbaijan and a life-threatening fever in Uzbekistan. And that morning I received a much needed blessing from a local iman, now worried for my onward journey to the Chinese border. 

Nowadays, I can’t promise anything quite as exotic, but I have at least rediscovered my cycling mojo, and with in, my blog. It’s alive! As am I.

Straight ahead!

Japan straight ahead!

Autumn: Going, Going… Gone!

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Autumn on the Greenline

Work, chores, injury and a six year old have so far conspired against me to get in a ride this winter. With travel about to be added to that sorry list of excuses I have no option but to do what any grumbling old codger does – look back at the good times.

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Emerging from the Shadows

But just how many good times were there in 2018 I wondered? It was already approaching Autumn before I realised that I hadn’t yet had an overnight getaway with my bike this year. No romantic cherry blossom ride, no golden week exploration, footloose and fancy free. Not even a hot and sweaty summer weekend together. The moments we made were snatched and hurried, and barely – dare I say it – mechanical in our collusion. We’d enjoyed no illicit fun together since Nagano the previous year, and 2018 was almost at an end – it was time for an Autumn Leaves Weekend.

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Climbing Sadamine

Attempt #1. Mid-October, the Venus Line, Nagano. Comically splashed from head to toe by a speeding car, it is not an auspicious start. From muddy farm lanes to a misty and lonely mountain road, cold and raining hard… something large and hairy drops from a roadside tree and disappears quickly into the undergrowth… I am only thankful that the drizzle and fog prevents me seeing more. The hotel is friendly and the onsen never felt so good, but I cut it short next morning due to weather.

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Nothing to see here…

Attempt #2. Two weeks later, same route… on paper at least. A cold and a fever mean I didn’t even make it off the couch.

So no leaves. And now it was mid-November. No chances left for any more nights away, so maybe I could find some colour on an “Autumn Leaves” day ride?

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Doushi Michi

The first was Tomin no Mori from the south – the first time in a few years – and then Imagawa. The climb up Tomin provided some reasonable colours but it didn’t matter – just climbing this road was glorious! Blue sky, minimal traffic, and – unusually for a weekend – none of those bloody motorbikes. Imagawa from the south was, as always, much harder and steeper than I anticipate – not much in the way of Autumn colours but the climb itself is a classic. 3 out of 5 for the leaves, but 5 out of 5 for the the sweet potato on the way back to Oume. Good – but could do better.

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A glimpse of Fuji-san (Doushi Michi)

The next ride I hadn’t done for a few years: the Doushi michi. Never willing to battle it out with the weekend holiday traffic, I took a Friday off work – these weekday rides are, of course, already a winner. Some nice Autumn views heading out (but maybe a little late?), and Mount Fuji was … stunning. Quiet backroads mesmerised me on the return and I thought I was the only soul out there – I remembdered what it is I love about cycling. 2 out of 5 for leaves. But 5 out of 5 for Fuji-san.

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More than a glimpse of Fuji-san

I was on a roll! So I did something a little left of field for me: replaced the mountains for hills… Boso Hanto. After a surprisingly enjoyable ride last year and now that it was late November I thought this would be The One – the hidden dells and valleys of the Boso peninsula combined with glorious colours! Oh but what a disappointment. It was my fault – far too early for the leaves around here, and a bad choice of return route taking me through Yorokeikoku, along with half the car and coach population of Kanto. A horrible slog back to the north of the peninsula, speeding vehicles passing far too close, angry words and the one and only road that could salvage things and take me away from this was – closed. 1 out of 5 for leaves. 5 out of 5 for surviving.

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Fuji-san local

 

So it was with low expectations when I set off on my last ride of November, another illicit Friday, taking the long train to Ogawamachi. My heart was not in it, feeling the cold and already tired with the first turn of the pedals. I almost gave up, ready to east to head to the Arakawa and a flat ride home rather than the mountains of Chichibu – but I am so glad I didn’t. Sadamine and the Greenline – I had forgotten just how much I love the ascent of Sadamine from the east! No holiday traffic, just the birds, the river and the rustling of leaves in the wind… or just plain silence. And at last – golden light doused me under a glorious canopy of yellow, orange and red! It was just what I had been looking for, it made it all worthwhile. 5 out of 5 for the ride. 5 out of 5 for the leaves!

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Boso Hanto, south coast

And 5 out of 5 for multiple creative uses of a mini-tripod!

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Shrine near Hanno

Strava:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1901483545
https://www.strava.com/activities/1957576173
https://www.strava.com/activities/1967756940
https://www.strava.com/activities/1980371447
https://www.strava.com/activities/1993432150

When we were Heroes

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There’s something wonderfully illicit about taking a day off work just to go cycling, a paid holiday used up for some selfish pleasure, but of the hundreds of rides I’ve done over the years it’s these that I remember the most. I don’t mean a long weekend of cycling or a week or two with the tent – but just a regular route, there and back in a day, something that can just as easily be done on a Saturday or Sunday. But then you wouldn’t feel the joy of knowing that – as the sun burned your back, the trees creaked in the wind and the deafening cries of the cicadas enveloped you climbing an empty, winding road – knowing that you have escaped, albeit for only a day, escaped from the drudgery of another ten hours in the office.

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This route was something I hadn’t done for a decade (I looked it up later – ten years exactly – so it was somewhat of an anniversary ride), not long after I’d got my first road bike and started to explore the mountains to the west of Tokyo. There were three of us then and as such, the pace was fast, the climbing brutally competitive and at least one roadside verge soiled with the contents of my stomach – in those days, hard nights were untempered by the prospect of a hard ride the next morning. Fast forward to today and I am in bed, sober and asleep by ten.

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From Enzan station I started the long climb to Kamihikawa, 1200 metres gained in all, the first half on the narrow road that ran parallel to Route 411. The sky was an achingly clear blue and the heat of this unshaded climb seemed oddly only to invigorate me. A group of four labourers huddled at the side of the road beneath the ungenerous shade of a persimmon tree, drinking canned coffee and the road took me past small farmhouses and workshops; further up the road an old man sat in his garden trimming a bonsai tree. As it rose and took me through thick forest the sleepy sounds of rural life were usurped by a raged chorus of cicadas, screeching down from the tall trees, a hundred different pitches, and more than once I thought I caught the sorrowful cry of my favourite, the Higurashi.

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Turning east onto the approach to Kamihikawa and the initial steep climb, I stopped and walked up the first few steps of the temple high up in a thick copse of pines lining the road – I’d never really noticed this before, crunched over the handlebars as I was, hanging on for dear life. Buddhist headstones, weathered over hundreds of years, lay between the roots on the forest floor. Still a long way to go yet though, and switchback after switchback eased me back up through the trees, sun, shade, sun, shade, the branches hanging over me like a natural strobe light, cicadas playing to me like an orchestra. Only one vehicle – a dump truck – passed me the whole time. It was hypnotising, focused on the moment and nothing else, how cycling should be. Not once did I think of my colleagues at work, huddled in a cubicle, fighting with pile of email, arguing into a speakerphone… I didn’t need to, for I was smiling already…

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Lunch at an onsen a few miles over the pass – “people come from all over the world to study our insects” – and after a long, sometimes bumpy descent I touched Route 20 briefly for a torrid few hundred yards before starting the ascent up Sasago Toge. Sasago has always been a gem, a mildly-graded green-clad climb on a deserted road but it was so bloody far from anywhere and it had been many years since I had last come this way. The alternative to the 1600 metre Kamihikawa Toge was a long ride up Route 20 – and it was rare I had the stomach for that. Birdsong serenaded me as the sun sparkled from the flooded paddy fields of the lower slopes and I made my way slowly up to the tunnel at the top.

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When we had done this ten years ago, the tunnel was under construction, blocked by diggers and dump trucks, and we instead had to go over the top of the thing – we found an overgrown hiking path which we clambered up with our bikes, helping each other thread gingerly across the narrow slippery track until a steep muddy descent on the other side. I got lost at one point, trying to scout the right path down I couldn’t find the way back up again to join my companions. I would be stuck forever on this mountain, I thought, with nothing but the company of the ghost that was rumoured to haunt the tunnel below.

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20180609_161204This time the tunnel was clear but I found the path we had used a decade ago – and I was glad I wouldn’t be climbing that thing today. Sasago was as magical as I remembered it and I saw not one car or even a person the whole time – never had I felt so far away from the stresses of life as I did right now. When I eventually emerged onto the main road I looked back up to the mountains behind. Had I just dreamt that?

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The next pass on this route – the third – was what I call the Monkey Pass, because the two times I had done this before there were monkeys everywhere. It was there just to avoid Route 20, and took me to over 1100 metres elevation. The road was gated, the asphalt littered with rocks and branches and the cliffside almost completely rebuilt in concrete. It was climbing just for the sake of climbing, and descending with extreme caution. The mountain spirits had long deserted this place, as so now it seems had the monkeys. A six-foot long snake laid casually across the road and eyed me with insolence as I stopped a couple yards beyond – it made no attempt to slither off into the undergrowth and I remembered the much smaller snake I had accidently run over a few miles before, afraid I had come across his older brother, looking for for some justice. I was relieved to eventually get down from this road, which meandered up and down next to the concrete cliff for far too long before I headed to Route 35 and past the Maglev station to take me to Tsuru tunnel and the final pass of the day. It was an hour or so before dusk, my favourite time of day, and quiet rice paddies volunteered reflections of the surrounding hills and hedgerows of flowers that house-proud owners had installed in their gardens.

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It had been a long day, an amazing day, taken leisurely (with a camera and tripod for some…vanity shots) and it was reassuring in this hyper-connected world that it was still possible to spend extended amounts of time without a signal on my phone. The aches and pains came soon enough but the wonder remained, with a tinge of disbelief – that pre-family and ten years younger I used to do this (and much more) every single weekend. One thing I didn’t doubt though – I would be taking a whole lot more days off from now on…

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Route:
https://www.strava.com/activities/1624670742

 

Nagano Reloaded

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What I saw was autumn, but the wind told me winter was here already. For the first couple of hours as I climbed out of sight of Nagano city I thought I’d packed too much, and listened unduly to those naysayers who told me it was surely too cold to be galavanting around the mountains of Nagano prefecture mid-November on a bicycle… while here I was sweating at almost every exertion. But I would indeed need every single layer in the end; the wind cut deeper and deeper as each hour ticked by over this brief one and a half day trip.

I was following the same roads as I’d ridden a couple years ago; they were well worth repeating and I’d promised myself I would return, for once actually keeping my promise. Route 401 was the mossy staircase of an outdoor department store of pine, maple and beech, taking me higher at every uneven turn; the walls of the far valley were resplendent in oranges and reds although somewhat dulled by the overcast sky, and the horizon was aflame with white fire whenever the slopes of the Chuo Alps broke out from behind the clouds. On a high plateau a few miles away was an isolated village, cosseted in the folds of thickly wooded forest in various stages of colour, a boundary of distance and elevation discriminating this shangri-la from the rest of us. Dear God, I beseeched, whatever you have me do to live there, I will do. Sometimes the road dipped and rose through tiny hamlets, and I spent far too much time slowing down to absorb the views over the valley, and daydreaming of my mountain retreat.

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It was with a strong sense of deja-vu that I arrived in Nakajo, a small town straddling the unpleasant trunk road of Route 19, looking for something to eat, only to find everything closed. Just like last time, almost everything but the petrol station and an empty-shelved grocers was closed, and just like last time I followed my nose a few minutes beyond the town limits to find a “yakiniku” BBQ restaurant. The only place open for miles around, cold and drafty with impenetrable clouds of thick smoke, overpriced and – shockingly – packed absolutely wall to wall with people. It said more about the local attractions of Nakajo on a Sunday, than the quality of the food.

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Considerably later than I’d planned, I continued south on Route 12, overpowering smells of yakiniku wafting behind me, and I idly wondered what kind of wildlife the smell of roast lamb is likely to attract on these lonely roads. My laissez-faire approach in the morning had left me little time to appreciate the joys of Route 12, as I watched the sun get lower, felt the temperatures drop and had to focus to keep upright in a maelstrom of strong cross-winds. Oh but what a road! The impressive views of the valley to the north had transformed into magnificent views of the Southern Alps to the west. This gem of a road has not one plain straight section; it is always veering left or right, up or down, it keeps you guessing, keeps you involved, as you play on a constant dilemma: how much attention to pay to the road versus how much to soak in the scenery. Plotted on a map, my GPS looked like it had tried to find it’s way home from the pub, in the dark, after eight pints.

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It was already getting dark when I arrived in Bessho onsen, the mountains welcoming dusk somewhat quicker than the city. A perfect day, if a little rushed towards the end. The hot bath never felt better, and the dire bottles of Asahi they serve up in these places tasted almost artisan. Glad I’d booked tomorrow off… I thought.

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The early morning trudge through the outskirts of Ueda city was terrifying. It had taken me an hour and a half to cover 25 highly unpleasant kilometres. Eight o’clock on a Monday morning… is there ever a time in the week when people feel less inconsolable ? The trudge to the office, in crammed commuter trains, or bolted to a line of slow moving traffic… a long march of misery. The last thing you need is a cyclist, a recreational cyclist, overtaking you on the inside, weaving through the stalled cars and trucks. Oh the insolent poseur: doesn’t he have a job to go to? You’d teach him a lesson, cut him up, drive him into the gutter, put the frighteners on him. For his own good, innit. Ain’t safe on a bicycle…

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Climbing slowly out of the Ueda basin I looked down on the ant-like columns of traffic criss-crossing the city suburbs: never again, Ueda, never again. I reached Route 4, lined with autumn foliage and surprisingly carrying little traffic, but it was too late, too late to recover the magic. I crossed over to the almost tranquil Route 35, and frost covered pine needles sparkled in the sunlight … but all I could think of was the cold, and how precarious this descent would be a couple more weeks. Snow covered peaks provided a dramatic backdrop to the approach into Nagano city; but it was all I could do to navigate the many urban roads to the station…

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On reflection, what I should have done was to head south from Bessho, climb over the Ushigahara highlands and finish on the shore of Lake Suwako. Now that would be a classic ride.

And come Spring, what more reason do I need to try those enchanted roads from yesterday, one more time…

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Day1(partial):
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2339679758

Day2(partial):
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2339679881

Fukushima (almost) Loop

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There’s nothing quite like poring over a real map, with it’s bold colours, contour lines, it’s richness of symbols and comments… there are enough clues on what to expect, but plenty more left to the imagination. Well thumbed pages marked with coffee stains, rips, and the dried blood of a millipede that got too close to your tent one evening. Old scribbled post-it notes from some past travels… the telephone number of a long forgotten B&B ? Or maybe that young woman bowled over by your athletic efforts? Nope, definitely the B&B.

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The colour of the roads tell you the official story, red = national, green = prefectural, white = take your chances… but it’s the subtle details that reveal the truth. A straight road through a multitude of towns and intersections… not likely. A serpentine line through a wide swathe of white space… now that’s more like it!  Just make sure you have enough water and a spare tube or two, and choose the more jagged of those lines to go up, and the smoother one to go down – it’ll hurt your legs but at least you’ll more likely survive the descent. And those little hot-spring signs – bingo! They are there for a reason, because that is where you stay the night and relaaaaaaaaax..

The thing about these old printed maps, though –  they’re not always right. An inviting ocean view hotel on a long stretch of isolated coast road… now a decrepit parking lot. That luscious looking outdoor spa… actually a bathtub in someone’s backyard. Today, I find that my planned route, an intriguing road spiralling over the mountain border of Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, has actually been impassable since the great earthquake of 2011, and my almost equally alluring backup plan has more recently been washed away due to heavy rain.

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So I came back to the Fukushima outskirts and took the detour over Kosaka toge – on the map it looked a lovely climb and indeed it was. Starting from a pleasant village narrow and long – an extended row of houses clinging to the verge on each side of an incline – it ended at a rather breathtaking view of the wide valley basin below, it’s patchwork of bright yellow harvested rice fields mixed up with the grey brown of small towns beyond, while in the immediate foreground a family of three were punishing a two-litre bottle of shochu. After a late lunch at the dam further up the road, and a startled glance at the time, my leisurely time-wasting now suddenly turned into something a little more focused – let’s call it “panic” – when I realise that with only three hours of daylight left, I still had sixty mountain kilometres and any number of previously unanticipated climbs that lay between me and my hotel.

Head down, no photo-stops and I get to Kaminoyama town: I have one of those “that can’t be right” moments when I look down at the map, shuffle myself around to the direction I need to go, and then look up at a huge mountain rearing up immediately in front of me, with a dark mass of cloud building up behind. I furrow my brow – shit – it looked so much nicer on the map.

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And it seems to take forever, that last climb up to Zao, as the forest closes round me and hoots, snorts and growls of neither man nor machine emanate from the shadows and then, as it softly starts to rain – oh bugger – I raise the intensity and push down on the pedals harder and harder. I’m in a trance of sorts, and I’m not sure that it’s real, but I pass a solitary street-lamp, nestled in the darkening clasp of the forest on the apex of one of the switchbacks, and I think I may be in the land of Narnia, half expecting some cheeky bare-chested goat-legged hairy local to pop out from behind a tree.

After a dozen more of these corners I see some lights and roll in the village as the last of the daylight disappears. The room is shabby, drafty, and entirely unwelcoming, whilst the outdoor bath is luxuriant, it’s hot silky water inviting me to spend a couple hours in it’s soothing embrace, as I watch steam slowly circle up into the night sky.

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The climb the next morning lived up to expectations – neverending. There was an initial ascent and descent followed by a thousand metres of straight climbing but the gradient was forgiving, and bar the mist-shrouded peak, the sun joined me for the whole way. Somewhat prune-like in my dehydrated state from last night’s bath, I nevertheless enjoyed the rhythm of the steady grind, and was pleased that the extra layer of clothes I’d brought with me filled a useful purpose at last on the initially chilly descent.

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The eastern flank of the mountain had the feel of a bank holiday weekend, with droves of cars and motorbikes out for a drive, rubber-necking the mountain view – I was glad I was going down, and not up, seeing the state of some of some of the driving round here. Going down I could go at least as fast as everyone else and keep out of reach from most of the idiots. But despite the company I was keeping, it was a pleasant ride, stopping for drinks or ice cream on the long way down. It was only when the road eventually flattened out that the traffic built up and the cars and motorbikes started passing, too fast and too close, and it became distinctly grim.

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And it was here the map saved me, revealing a road heading south across the hills, in the direction of Shiroishi. Devoid of traffic it rolled up and down, delivering me almost to the entrance of the Shinkansen station, as if it was telling me I’d done enough, why didn’t I just get a ticket, hop on the train and head home.

So I did.

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GPS tracks:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2111373141
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2111373197

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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