Teddy Bears Picnic

sep-nagano-two-days-46

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-11

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-22

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-23

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-25

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-30

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-32
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.

sep-nagano-two-days-50

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!

sep-nagano-two-days-37

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!

sep-nagano-two-days-36

—–

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.

sep-nagano-two-days-49

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…

sep-nagano-two-days-38

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

IMG_6224

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.

IMG_6229

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.

IMG_6275

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

IMG_6286

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.

IMG_6307u

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

IMG_6407

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.
IMG_6387u

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.

IMG_6409u

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.

IMG_6410

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.

IMG_6398

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

The Perfect Road

Escape

Escape

Why the hell was doing this to myself. This – the cycling thing. A year of disappointment (silver week trip cancelled due to illness), frustration (an age waiting for a new frame while my fitness whittled away) and even some danger, when I was hit by a car (off the bike for a month and yet more frustration). Was I enjoying it anymore ?

005 Towards Manza

The days I did ride were unseasonably rainy, or the rides unavoidably short. The heyday of 270k rides with 3.5k of climbing were a distant memory, whilst the aching, tired body after every decent ride was an ever present reality. I still recognized the instants of pleasure, snatched moments in the mountains where you hear only your breathing, the green comforting embrace of dark forest roads, even the honest pain of a hill-climb done well… but I no longer reveled in it. What had happened to that passion I once had ?

045 Towards Shibu Toge
I had to do something. It was time to take the bull by the horns, or the bike by the handlebars if you like, get away for a couple days proper riding, like I used to do, and understand if the coals were still simmering deep below the weight of this melancholy, just needing a little oxygen to ignite once more, or if I should just give the whole bloody thing up and start playing golf.

Zenkoji, Nagano

Zenkoji, Nagano

In what seemed like an age (it was), both the weather and my constitution cooperated and I alighted at Nagano station, with a plan to circle back to Nagano via Shibu Toge, and head cross-county towards Matsumoto and Ueda, and possibly Utsugushigahara and Lake Suwako. In my state of mind I had imagined freezing winds and frost, but it was warm – perfect actually – and I congratulated myself on a rare good decision, to leave my warm autumn jacket at home.

A little unpleasant traffic out of the city but I was soon on the long, the very long, climb up to Manza Onsen. 24km said the sign but I knew from a distant hazy memory that the first 20km was uphill. I didn’t recall the exact elevation but a sign ahead informed me I had 99 hairpin turns to go (and I would continue to be reminded, on every damned bend). Turns out I had 1500m of straight climbing, in addition to the 300m I’d already climbed since leaving the station: almost two vertical kilometers without a horizontal break.

My road

My road

The cool shady boughs of trees over the rising winding road I recalled from the same hazy memory was somewhat correct but only for about half of it – the other half was right in the sun, on steep exposed slopes and surprisingly hot. My enjoyment of the amazing scenery and the golden orange and reds of autumn was somewhat tempered by the brutal climb ahead and the fear – correct as it turned out – that there would not be a single place to refill my water bottle over the next 24 kilometers. I rationed myself to a couple of gulps with each 100m climbed.

050 Shiga Kogen

Manza Onsen was two closed hotels and it took me a while to find the only one that was open, a sprawling complex with the voices of a few unseen staff, and I found a dining room only through wandering down empty dark corridors of guest rooms and up a semi-hidden staircase.

Shiga Plateau

Shiga Plateau

The last 500 metres of climbing was hard, and difficult to get into any kind of rhythm because of the many photo-stops I found hard to resist, including the obligatory selfie at the 2172m Shibu Pass… my fourth or fifth time doing this. It was chilly, and I layered up for a descent, with a luxurious break in the restaurant of a ski-lodge restaurant where I had freshly baked bread and hot cocoa in front of a roaring fireplace… oh I really didn’t want to leave this!

100 Shiga Kogen

The descent was… otherworldly; there were a few minor climbs and I dropped suddenly through thick swirling cloud, and then darkly shadowed roads bordered with avenues of trees in various states of colour… it seemed to take forever to drop below 2000 metres. Both my ears popped at the same time and all of a sudden the sound of the wind rushing past was hugely amplified… I was quite lost in the whole experience, and when I realised I was not going to make Nagano before dusk I gladly took the option of stopping at Yudanaka onsen on the lower slopes of the mountain, finding an old cosy ryokan, Kameya (“the house of turtles”) run by a harried and friendly old lady, where images of turtles were carved into the woodwork and adorned the softly lit lanterns – and a couple of ceramic siblings watched me as I relaxed in the wooden bath in the garden. It was a welcome retreat from the modernity and conformity of all too many hotels nowadays.

Streets of Yudanaka

Streets of Yudanaka

After my bath, and quite possibly the biggest meal I have ever had, I took to the narrow streets dressed in “yukata”, my “geta” clacking loudly on the paving stones and echoing with those of other couples and small groups similarly out for a nighttime stroll: the dark entrance to steep uneven moss-covered steps up to a forest shrine… shadows that flickered fleetingly behind a Shoji covered window as someone moved across a room… men old enough to know better with young lithe companions on their arms, as they visited a few of the small baths open for private bathing. Magic that I’d almost forgotton existed.

125 Zenkoji in Nagano

I didn’t sleep well that night – I never do in an unfamiliar place. The next morning was chilly, I was tired and my legs heavy, and I just couldn’t get my heart rate up. It was slow-going getting through Nagano and out to the countryside on the other side, and I stopped to check my map many many times. The road I had planned to take was busy with cars and trucks – I really should have known this by looking at the map – the lines of the road were far too smooth to discourage much traffic. I looked across at the valley walls on my left, and spotted a road veering up and above this trunk road. That could be a plan.

175 Nagano Mountains

Looking at the map, route 401 looked like it had been scribbled by my three-year old son on our dining room table, sharp random angles up and down and side to side… I knew this would be tough. And I also knew it would be amazing. I stopped by the side of the road to eat, and and a car slowed while the driver threw me a huge apple: yes, this was going to be another good day.

140 Nagano City

The road ahead was alternately shaded and sunny, up and down, and it pulled me irresistibly over each summit and around every corner, skirting glistening forest streams, fields of harvested rice, enveloped by birdsong… and all under a clear deep blue sky. And on a Monday ! Jeez. I could’t wipe the smile off my face even if I tried. This was the perfect road, I said to myself, again and again, the perfect road.

The Life

The Life

135 Nagano CityA heavy lunch of rice and lamb and the long climb up to route 12. This maneuvered itself across the top of a long mountain range and across shallow valleys, never dropping below 650m and rarely going about 850m. Never the less, the climbs had me out of my saddle and the descents had me digging my heels deep into the corners. I rode past small hamlets, golden fields of bales of hay, isolated farmhouses, through woods alive with the colours of autumn and all the time – all the time – rivetting views of the snow-capped Northern Alps to the west. This was a living, vibrant road, deep in the mountains, not an old abandoned track, or a sterile unpopulated skyline highway built just for high-speed views.

It was the perfect road.

041 Towards Shibu Toge

In the end I had to get back to Tokyo that evening, but as I raced towards Ueda station in encroaching darkness I felt strangely  content, and knew that a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. The magic was still here.

Easy

Easy

Route Day 1:
https://connect.garmin.com/activity/934832801

Route Day 2:
https://connect.garmin.com/activity/934832723

Two steps forward, One (painful) step back

A machine

A machine and a machine

Spring is the time to be cycling in Japan – the few weeks on either side of Golden Week are glorious, the sharp morning chill of Spring turning into generous warmth in the afternoon; and the mountains are green, greener than anything you’ve seen, the trees and the flowers pulsating with their new found colour and vibrancy. And I missed it all.

Road with a view

Road with a view

The note I had made to myself on my last ride: “Today I was, quite simply, amazing.” Yes indeed, I was back on form at long last! So pleased that I thought I would give my bike a decent clean … and it was then I noticed the crack in my titanium frame. The Horror. The Absolute Horror.

It would be two months before I’d got a replacement frame delivered and built up again, with business trips, Easter, and then Golden Week thrown in my way to thwart me. I cursed every fine weekend with blue skies and perfect temperatures, and rejoiced in weekends of rain.

Reunited

Reunited

The new bike built up, and a few more weeks of getting back some fitness and getting the fit right on the new frame. It wasn’t easy. Ride one: odd noises from the bottom bracket and two and half hours back at the bike shop to track that down… fixed! Next was lower back pain (a first for me in 15 years of cycling) – three rides to track that down, alter my fit and build up my core… fixed ! It was hard, but I was back on the passes I loved: Yamabushi, Nokogiri, Ireyama, Kazahari, Imagawa, Arima (what a beauty – Arima Toge!), Sadamine… and even Yanagisawa, over 1500m of constant climbing. I even did my 100km Urban River Loop in record time, a 29.4km/h average speed through city and bike paths, back home by 8:15am in the morning – much better than me at my peak even. Wow, was I was rocking or what ?!

Rocking'

Rockin’

Out and about

Out and about

My last climb, my nemesis Kazahari Rindo, the toge what put my lower back into spasms a few weeks earlier, the long super steep climbs, exposed to the heat of the sun, and very very little respite from the gradient until it’s 1150m top… I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it. The long weekend rides and the midweek early morning pre-work training sessions had paid off: it felt good to be strong again!

Perfection

Perfection

Well, that’s how I felt last Sunday, at 9:20AM.

At 9:45 I was lying dazed on a mountain road.

A truck coming from the other direction had suddenly pulled sharply across my path, looking to get into a parking place on the left, the idiot driver unaware of me coming down the road. I braked but it was just too close, almost meaningless; I swerved hard to the right in an effort to avoid going right into it … now I was lying in the road, confused, and not able to get to my feet.

It seems I had crossed the centre line and collided into the side of the car waiting behind it, leaving a large dent, and then flung back out onto the road. Probably a good thing – the aluminum panels of the car took the brunt of the impact, before the road got to me.

Man down

Man down

A long ambulance ride, police, road rash, bruising, cuts, twisted ankle, banged up shoulder and an assortment of other minor injuries… but thank goodness no broken bones. I was lucky. A few days on crutches, a fair bit of pain, a lot of hassle and a week later I feel I’m on the mend. Really lucky. The truck driver will be prosecuted – dangerous driving – but it seems he has minimal insurance, enough to cover my medical bills, but nothing for the bike, or the time off work, or compensation. I might need to lawyer up for that. More hassles.

And I need to be patient, wait to get mended and … start it all over again.

But not for long...

Me, soon