Every golden week it is time to dig out the old steel touring bike, load it up with moldy camping gear still damp from the previous year, and chose an area of Japan to cycle for six or seven days. The more remote the better, and there is one basic rule I must follow: no main roads. Tunnels would be avoided if at all possible (use those overgrown old roads that go over the mountain, rather than through it…) and weather permitting, camp whenever I could. Wear the same clothes, unwashed for days on end, forget personal hygiene, relieve myself in public, many many times. Go wild for a week.
This has been a tradition for the last six years now, and for the last three of them, there has been another angle to it: training for the Tokyo to Itoigawa road race, held end of May – perfect timing to toughen me up before tackling those 308km to the Japan sea coast. No carefully planned training schedule, set intervals, heart rate monitor… none of that. Like Rocky Balboa training to beat Drago in Rocky IV I had no need of high tech training apparatus and sports science. Rocky hauled logs and climbed frozen rock faces in raging blizzards wearing nothing but an oily overall and a strong dose of patriotic grit; I was peddling 45kg of bike and kit up mountain trails and unpaved roads. Basically the same. Old school methods which paid off – he beat the crap out of the Russian and I went from the top 20% times in 2010, to top 10% in 2011 and close to the top 5% last year.
Although this year there was no race to train for – a ten month old baby put a stop to that kind of frivolity – I would follow the same principle to guide me in a plan to cycle from Nara heading down the central mountains of the Kii Hanto, then up the eastern coast and again through some of the interior to finish at Toba on the far east coast.
This time I was on a strict schedule – I would meet my wife and baby son there exactly six days later. But I had not anticipated heavy rockfalls and washed out roads, the enduring result of heavy typhoons in 2011. And I had not foreseen that the rules which had made me, would now break me…
The Slaughtered Boar
I’d shipped my bike to the nearest Takkyubin depot to pick up, assemble, load up my panniers and ride away – this time the start point was Nara and, resisting the temptation to view the temples, it wasn’t long before I was in countryside, taking a rural road east, climbing many small passes. It was good to settle into my old Brookes leather saddle and stand up and lean heavily on the handlebars whenever the gradient got harsh. There was very little traffic and the patchwork of rice paddies on either side of me turned into steep slopes of tea plantations as I got closer to the top of each pass, and the loud chorus of frog song would temporarily subside. I flashed my legs at the occasional farm dog relaxing by the side of the road, confident in the knowledge that in Japan 99% of the time they don’t spring from their leash and try to rip your ankle off.
However I did not do the same with a 4 foot long snake that was blocking my path in one of the small forest roads I took. He was relaxing in the sun and posed for a picture. It was a “mamushi”, a Japanese pit viper, responsible for 20 deaths a year in Japan.
The hazy sunshine turned quickly into dark clouds and I could smell rain in the air – I made it to the next town, Nabari, just in time for day to turn temporarily into night and heavy thunder and lightening to hit. I shivered under the entrance roof of an ugly disused hotel while I waited an hour for the storm to pass, and the air turned crisp and clear, and late afternoon sunshine bathed the road ahead in a gentle orange glow. Greenery returned almost immediately out of the town limits and the road started to rise to a lake: I followed the line of the shore, tightly hemmed in by cliffs either side, and rose further into a narrow ravine. Quiet, beautiful… it got darker as light was squeezed from the deep gorge and old shops and restaurants, abandoned many years ago, occasionally filled dark recesses in the cliff walls.
Ominous clouds had rolled back in by the time I had reached the steep turn off for tonights camp site – the map showed an onsen part of the same grounds and that was the sole aim of staying here for the night. I struggled in the smallest gear sweating and swearing up a long mountain road, but turn after turn revealed nothing – maybe the map was wrong, and I descended, both brakes screaming in the deathly quiet dusk of the mountains. I checked the map again – no, it had to be here – and I swore louder as I climbed it again. A sign post and lane led off from the next corner I had given up on the first time round. The pictures of the rotemburo – outside bath – looked irresistible and despite the inclement weather I knew I needed this bath.
That was until I was told the price: “4500 yen for one person”. I looked at the waterlogged ground outside, and the absolute lack of other guests – but that doesn’t matter, this being Japan, rules are rules. It was too much I told him, and as you will not negotiate is there a cheap minshuku – B&B – around here I can stay instead, I asked. And this being Japan, he said, yes, let me guide you to it in my car.
There was a lonely looking minshuku near the foot of the climb, simple, friendly. Other people’s old hair floated in the tepid bath water while I tried to imagine the views from the open air onsen back up the mountain. Dinner was generous, boar stew, and although I heard no one or saw no one else the owner was busy preparing dish after dish of food and taking it to a mysteriously quiet room next door. I looked outside and saw the clouds briefly part: it was a full moon tonight.
The Haunted Tunnel
It had rained all night and I woke up to temperatures barely above freezing – I wasn’t really prepared for this and started the morning wearing almost everything I had with me. It was a day of little used forest roads and long gorgeous descents through tunnels of trees. The clouds cleared as he morning wore on, and the sun’s warmth started to permeate my bones, helped by the sweet aroma of burning pine with every timber mill I passed.
Heading south west I reached Yoshino around noon and stocked up with a day’s worth of food from a convenience store – luckily enough, as it was the last shop I’d see for the next 24 hours. A large bag of supplies on the back of the bike made no perceptible difference to it’s handling, nor the speed of the next big climb up Yoshinoyama… an indisputable advantages of having an already overloaded bike is that a few tins of sardines, pasta sauce and various stacks can be easily absorbed into the overall weight of the machine. In the past I may also have added a couple of bottles of nice Belgium beer if I’d been fortunate enough to come across some.
It’s not my first time up Yoshinoyama – I did it three years ago, and it is a wonderful climb though pine forests, past temples and eventually along it’s long steep street of souvenir shops and restaurants. The trick is to find the right turn off into the next valley… last time I descended half the way before realizing I’d got the wrong road (and had to climb back); this time I continued almost up to summit of the mountain, only questioning the possible error in my navigation when I found myself threading a tentative path through groups of hikers. This always hurts, as I know I have a weekly elevation limit in my legs, and every wasted climb brings me closer to breaking it. But a long long descent on another wonderful dusty forest trail brought me out to a southbound road which would take me to a high pass and then to a campsite and onsen in Tenkawa for the night.
And this is where things started to go wrong. A sign appeared … the road was unpassable. I carried on up the narrow ravine, deep in shade now and more signs appeared – it was the tunnel at the top which was blocked. It was still a steep 5km to go to the tunnel, marked as “unlit and frightening” on my map – I now recalled that I had been through it once before, three years ago, and indeed it was: very narrow, roughly hewn rock walls and an uneven rocky surface, and odd otherworldly echoes the further I ventured into the pitch blackness, a third of a mile long. It felt like a tomb and was the scariest tunnel I had ever been through. A hunter I had met on the road up there informed me it was hand-built over a hundred years ago, and I shuddered to think of the number of souls who may have lost their lives building it.
I checked with a local man tending his garden and a post office delivery guy on his scooter, “impossible to get through”. That was it – I wasn’t risking a 5km climb for nothing. There was a campsite not too far away and an onsen nearby – I would try the longer route around it in the morning.
My Way or the Highway
A freaking cold night but it turned into a beautiful clear morning. Set off early from the campsite, headed west, with the intention of avoiding 6km of busy main road tunnels by taking a series of linked forest roads that took me high over them. Stocked up with half a dozen freshly baked “manju” from a small bakery and filled up both my water bottles ready for the challenge ahead. Beautiful climbing, with views over the valley and the peaceful early morning quiet you only get in the mountains.
Time passed, elevation was gained and I saw only one other person, a motorcyclist on an off-road motorbike. He waved as he overtook me. The first fork in the road was preceded by a tunnel, long, unlit and inevitably eerie. I met the motorcyclist who had passed me thirty minutes earlier waiting at it’s entrance, pleased to see me: “no way am I going in that thing alone” he explained.
We survived it, and I headed left, for a much larger climb that should take me south east and eventually drop me in Tenkawa. There was another unlit tunnel, this time managed without the aid of the motorcyclist’s head-lights, and I had to rely on my tiny blinking front light to at least try and keep me from hitting the walls in the dank darkness. There was a road-closed sign at it’s exit but I didn’t see any obvious obstacles so I dodged around the barrier and started a long descent… I should be in Tenkawa easily within the hour !
But this road really WAS closed – it had been completely washed away and there was a large gaping muddy crevace in it’s place, and a considerable drop into the valley below. Which meant that I now had to climb back up all the way I had come (and go through that bloody tunnel AGAIN). I took the other fork, which after a long descent through tree lined trails planted me out on the main road, between two huge, busy tunnels, no side walk, and cars and lorries speeding like maniacs. It was crazy to think of riding my bike into either one of those gaping black holes, and I couldn’t face climbing back up the way I’d come … there was one last option, a narrow road hidden behind a bridge. I took that.
And what a find ! One of these magical little narrow valleys that went on for miles and miles. Old wooden houses squeezed between the river and the road, or between the road and the valley sides, and where there were no houses trees and bushes tried to crowd on to the narrow road. Delivery men on Honda Cubs were busy going round the little villages and I was happy to see that people actually lived here – I’ve seen too many wonderful places in Japan where the community has all but disappeared.
When it ended, I came out on to the main road south to Totsukawa. Now I was further west than I had ever anticipated, much further away from my goal and time was running out. But if I took this road south I would have one last chance to cut across the bottom of the peninsula and make up time by cutting out some of the coast. Although busy, it was an amazing road, climbing high up through the lush green valley… but after a few miles I saw the mouth of a tunnel up ahead. A kilometre long according to my map and no sidewalk – I would have to battle for space with the onslaught of traffic, speeding into and out of it like bullets. It was narrow and it was uphill: I debated for twenty minutes whether to risk it before I saw sense – “no main roads” – and I turned my bike around and headed north. I would take an unlit haunted forest tunnel over one of these deathtraps any day.
So goodbye Tenkawa, it was not meant to be; I would have to retrace some of my route and head east across the top of the peninsula instead – there were new roads to be discovered there as well. By mid-afternoon it was warm enough for shorts and T-shirt and I took an alternative route past Yoshino, leisurely skirting a lake and enjoyed the alternating shade of the trees and the warm sunshine reflected off the water. By the time I rejoined the original road I had come in on yesterday, shadows were lengthening, and there was now a vividness in the all colours around me that were not there before – the trees, the sky, the river… even the red borders of the tiny roadside shrines that dot the side of the road. And all was silent, but for the sound of rapids on the river, the birdsong in the trees and my laboured breathing. Moments like this make it all worthwhile.
Tomorrow I would head east towards Toba, but for now I turned off and headed up a side valley of Higashi Yoshino to “Furusato mura” – another pleasing discovery. Located at an elevation of 800m it was the trailhead for a hike to some waterfalls and had a beautiful old wooden schoolhouse turned into dormitories and a restaurant, a place for camping and an onsen. I was the only one in the vast restaurant, and I looked out at the trees and river outside while I enjoyed a meal and a beer, exhausted and happy. Simple pleasures become surreal after a day on the bike.
Escape from Toba
Just what the feck had I been thinking ?! Toba ?! It had seemed like such a pleasant destination, stuck out in the east side of Mie prefecture, the campsite and onsen marked close to each other on my map, on a cosy little peninsula nearby. I’d had an image of a quaint fishing town with quiet coastal scenery, a pleasant place to finish up my trip and wait for my wife and baby boy to arrive to spend another day enjoying the sights together. I had no idea of the real horror of the place, the multi-lane highway into it’s cold concrete heart, a coast raped by heavy industry and rusting tankers. It was monstrous, and the only upside to the place was the fact that I’d got here in one day, covering almost 150km in the process, leaving me just enough time to ring the wife – “cancel all reservations !” – pack up my bike, and get a late train the hell out of there.
But I guess that’s the way I like it, the uncertainty of it all.
The day had started well – the hypnotic sound of the river had allowed me a half decent sleep in the tent, and eagles soared above me as I descended the valley back to the main road. It was a “national highway”, the roads I usually avoid like the plague, but the traffic was quiet, almost non-existent, and the wide alpine views were staggering. I met a young fit-looking French touring cyclist coming the other way who had been traveling the area for two weeks: “I thought I could manage 100km a day before I came” he said, but had underestimated the amount of climbing, “I manage 60km a day at best…”. Yesterday I had managed 95km and I smiled somewhat smugly to myself – yep, I’ve still got it.
Pine covered slopes stretched as far as the eye could see and straight wide roads followed a determined river on the right, violent with rapids and whirlpools. There was the occasional isolated house here and there and I thought: what on earth do these people do ? It was all rather isolated and reminded me a bit of the Canadian Rockies, on a smaller scale. There were no camp sites marked on my map if I continued along this road so I turned south east onto a lovely wooded climb, heading in the direction of the coast to find a camp site for the night. There was once a time when I would choose any patch of ground to pitch a tent, and cook my dinner in the solitude of the forest. But not now – these mountains held too many mischievous spirits and I was far too superstitious nowadays.
The first pass invigorated me, preceding a long dusty run alongside a wide river, and a puncture. The second climb exhausted me. The third climb took everything I had and more, and spat me out into a vicious headwind, with huge and unpredictable gusts. I knew then that I couldn’t face the fourth and fifth climb of my chosen route and, with surprisingly little regret, admitted defeat and took the next turning left – north east – away from the coast and on towards the shrine town of Ise, now not sure of my new destination for the day. The scenery changed from mountains, to sprawling fields of tea, to villages and to towns, almost imperceptibly and I didn’t stop. Something was driving me on; I sped straight through Ise, out into the hills and continued on to Toba. I had covered the last 60km in two and a half hours.
The promise of a beach to pitch my tent, and a rustic onsen next door overlooking the ocean had been cruelly broken by the reality that is Toba. But I did find evidence of a previous campsite in the encroaching darkness – the signs were crooked and the pitches overgrown with weeds. It was now an overflow carpark for the onsen next door, a huge ostentatious building of plastic chandeliers and fake marble floors…
Sometimes you just don’t find what you’re looking for. But then again, maybe that’s the point.
Full route here:
Full photos here: