Two cold days in Nasu and Nikko areas to catch the Autumn colours; twice I found myself trying to outrun snowflakes, and more times than that I had to wear by bicycle bag as a final layer of defense against bitterly cold winds. It was my annual Autumn Leaves mini bike trip; it was also my first cycling overnighter since I became a dad just over four months ago, and the usual sense of liberation and freedom that comes with traveling solo on my bike was tinged with a little guilt (sorry Kellan, daddy promises not to do this too often!)
The previous year, on this exact same weekend I had managed three days in the Nagano Southern Alps in shorts and light jerseys, climbing to elevations over 2000m. I knew I had softened up somewhat since becoming a dad, so for this years’s trip I had flung in a pair of leg warmers as well, but left the winter gear at home. Stupid stupid stupid ! I’d forgotten my pipe & slippers.
Starting at Nasu Shiobara I climbed slowly up into the highlands, sharing the road with seemingly half of Kanto; they had the same intention of catching the Autumn colours. A murderous truck driver brushed my shoulder twice and I was thankful that I had packed my lucky charm, a keyring metal figure of a monk – this little guy had travelled with me on all my bike adventures, over twenty countries by now. The views would be quite spectacular, but for the clouds and drizzle which drained the colour from the valley sides; and the constant line of overtaking cars reminded me that I was anything but alone. I made a mental note – next time choose an isolated mountain road to get up here.
It took some discipline to ride pass the invitingly warm onsen baths and instead turn upwards onto the “Momiji” (Maple) Line, deeper into the clouds and light rain. I couldn’t stop for more than a minute – it was too bloody cold – and I dreaded reaching the top of the pass, knowing the long descent that awaited. Tendrils of cloud pushed their way through the leaves and an occasional gap in the blanket of cloud would allow the sun to briefly throw a sheet of light onto the trees, painting everything in a spectacular, if brief, glow of orange, yellow and gold.
There was nowhere nearby to eat and once I had descended I had to cycle up the valley to Kawaji Onen to find a place for lunch. It was warm inside, sat next to an old paraffin heater and I spent longer than I should have. A hazy sun provided some warmth as I turned west into a long valley north of the Nikko area, and cars stopped at the side of the road, people marveling at the Autumn leaves. But my eye was on a dark mass of cloud moving in from the West, heading in the direction of the area of homesteads up in the mountains that I would have to pass, a climb to over 1000m, and a deserted road that descended to about 10km east of Nikko. It was dark by the time I arrived at my lodgings for the night, a B&B in the hills above Nikko. But there was an onsen nearby, and I soothed myself in it’s 42 degree waters for an hour. It made it all worthwhile.
I didn’t have the willpower for a pre-dawn start and when I got down into Nikko town the sun was already shining brightly – the sun ! I kicked myself for not leaving earlier and joined the long lines of weekend traffic moving slowly it’s ways slowly up the valley. I zoomed past the traffic jams – it was far too cold to obey the lights. There is a famous climb, Irohazaka, that takes you from the valley floor up to Lake Chuzenjiko – over 30 steep curves that takes you from 500m elevation to over 1200m. After half a dozen curves I’d emerged from the shadows to some spectacular views. Two lanes of traffic laboured their way up the road, no place to stop, while I could pull to the side whenever it pleased me and absorb the Autumn vistas below me, in a stunning albeit brief backdrop of blue skies and white meringue clouds.
The short descent to the lake changed everything – now I knew how cold things could get. After two hot drinks, application of some heat pads to my hands and feet, and a scarf wrapped around my face I cycled the length of the lake, heading west – my plan was to pass the Senjogahara plateau at 1400m and cross over into Gunma prefecture through the tunnel near the top of the pass; at 1850m high, I expected it would be cold. But as I got closer I saw what looked like storms at play already above and even exposed icy cliffs through the clouds. There were a few flakes of snow in the air but when I noticed that the cars coming down from the pass had snow on them I knew it was time to cut my losses and turn back.
Senjogahara is a vast marshland where legend has it that the god of Mt Nantai and Mt Akagi fought over Lake Chuzenji. It went on for miles, and clumps of eerie silver birch trees dotted the plains, adding an otherworldly feel to the place. The storm was moving slowly down from the higher reaches of the mountains but for now it was a clear blue sky, and on the descent down to Lake Chuzenji and further down to the flats the views were superb. I’d find out later than in a few hours these roads would be treacherously covered in snow and ice.
It was time to start thinking of home. Rather than coast down to Nikko town I took a cross country road south east; looking behind me Nikko was nestled below two mountain ranges; I crested the top of the pass and it was gone. Ahead of me was a narrow, fantastic fairytale-like road winding down through deep dark forest and onto a valley floor, following the path of a wide river bed skirting stretches of alpine hills. A magical secret valley; I didn’t want it to end.
After a generously long descent I followed a few local roads to Kanuma, tired, and boarded a train for home. The best thing of all: it was warm…
All photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stantopia/sets/72157631925183664/