Golden fields of rice ready for the harvest, small farmsteads and newly built hamlets under a strikingly blue sky, and the enormity of the Japan Alps rising up from the plains with little warning barely a few miles beyond, crowned by a bilious spine of cumulous clouds enveloping any number of mountain towns and hot springs. I was on a train to Kanazawa, surveying what I would be climbing over, if things went to plan, in just a few days time.
But first I had to cycle around the Noto Hanto, a peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture, jutting far into the Japan sea, something I’d been meaning to do for the last decade but always putting it off over a dogmatic preference for mountains over coast. But this year, the legs are not what they used to be, and the hours spent on the bike, never mind on inclines, have been much reduced. It would be a perfect three day warm-up before the climbing began.
Day 1: Man vs Crab
I picked up my first supporter in a café near Hakui station, Ikeda-san.
“Ishikawa-ken” he announced, standing up from his chair, “is the safest place in the whole of Japan”. He was a retired policeman and had spent his entire life in this town, a small regional hub at the base of the peninsula. “You won’t find me going to Tokyo or Osaka” he added, “Far too dangerous”. But just to make sure, he insisted on being my guide for the afternoon.
He led me to the start of a bike path that followed the beach, and went off on his scooter to wait at key points ahead. The path forged a narrow thoroughfare between the sea on the left and overgrown hillside on the right; it really was lovely and I couldn’t believe there was absolutely nobody else on it, especially on a holiday weekend. A cool sea breeze gently buffered me, while I made sure to avoid the occasional crab crossing in front of me, their oversized pinchers raised towards me with a look – yes, even from a crab – that said “Don’t try anything mate”.
Every few miles, when the bike path crossed a main street, Ikeda-san would be there waiting for me at the corner, clapping and cheering at my arrival and excitedly pointing out some geological feature or a little local history. We parted ways at Togikai, about 40km north of Hakui, and even Ikeda-san’s seemingly unlimited enthusiasm seemed to falter somewhat when he felt obliged to point out that Togikai’s main attraction was the longest bench in the world – it looked like something hastily put together from Ikea. And sadly, he said, there were rumours of a longer one in China.
The beach offered the perfect combination of campsite and an onsen nearby: the campsite said it would cost an outrageous 2100 yen to stay, non-negotiable, so I pitched my tent a little further up the beach, and brought out my ancient stove (it still works!) to cook some pasta and tuna under some light showers. Every hour a van would come round to make sure I hadn’t relocated myself into their site, but I secretly used the toilet anyway, avoiding it’s headlights and imagined sirens, adding a little thrill to what would usually be a mundane task…
Day 2: Man vs Bird
I was being tailed by a bird that was cawing “Ohayo ! Ohaya !” (“Good Morning”) over and over to me; considering the rough night’s sleep I’d had, this was particularly irritating, and he seemed to know it. I don’t know if this was some special local breed that could speak Japanese, and I don’t know if it was just one individual or a group effort, but this ear-grating greeting was repeated for the next 20km.
The views, though, were wonderful, and I cycled through small laid-back hamlets perched on cliffs high over the sea, usually a narrow winding main street and a small lane leading off to a lookout or descending to the beach. There was something different about these villages and it took me some time to realize what it was… unlike most places in Japan, these places hadn’t suffered from the blight of incongruous modern homes and apartment blocks – all the houses were wooden and had retained their original tiled roofs. A genuine page from storybook Japan.
The road gradually widened, a few showers started and although the coolness was welcome the combination of coast and rain always drives me into a state of murderous depression so I took to the mountains to preempt any incidents, until the weather had cleared up and blue sky and appeared once more.
The craggy north-west coast of the Noto Pensinula is full of rolling roads, small enclaves of fishing villages and long sea-side stretches of cycling, and – apart from an odd if temporary abundance of tour busses at the famous Senmaida rice fields – very little traffic. It was simply bliss. The climb before I headed inland was magical, seemingly unending switchbacks up to a high promontory , the waves crashing against the cliffs behind me, the road bathed in shade and caressed with golden fingers of flickering sunlight from the late afternoon sun. And then the final ascent of the day, south up through the hills, a last look back at gulls soaring over the waters before I was enveloped in the forest, gulls now replaced by eagles circling above, the blue-white swell of the ocean now exchanged for the cool green quiet of the trees, and I followed this mountain road into the small town of Takojima.
There was a campsite next to the sea a few miles east, and an onsen only ten minutes walk away, where I hammered out the rivets of pain and tiredness in alternating hot and ice-cold baths…. it really doesn’t get any better than this.
Day 3: The Case of the Extra Beer
A stunning red dawn was quickly extinguished by clouds leaving the rest of the day overcast with occasional brief but violent squalls. I passed sleepy villages again of streets lined with wooden houses and small fishing boats moored to narrow inlets, but the east coast lacked the cliffs and the feeling of seclusion of the west. Every few miles there would be an elaborately decorated omikoshi (a hand-carried palanquin holding a portable shrine) parked in front of the gates of the local shrine, and as the morning wore on guys in their “happi” coats and tabi footwear would would turn up to join the preparations for the day’s festivals: today was a public holiday (Respect for the Aged day) and locals would later carry the heavy omikoshi through the streets of their village, bouncing it up and down while it swayed dangerous side to side. Clearly, 8 AM was not too early for some of these festival goers to fortify themselves with a flask or two of sake before the task ahead…
I headed inland briefly for a burst of climbing to try clear the cobwebs and some of the aches and pains I was feeling from another unexplained bad night’s sleep, but when I returned to the coast dark menacing clouds and exhaustion put a damper on most of the coastal sections, and long before the city of Nanao I turned off and took the long bridge over to Notojima island, and a quiet hilly road threading between thick trees to the south of the island, providing views across the bay and of the onsen town of Wakura, it’s tight cluster of faded high-rise hotels bunched against the beach. Although it didn’t look particularly appealing from here it was actually quite pleasant and laid-back once you got behind the wall of hotels, and it sported a wonderful (and free!) “ashi-yu” (hot-spring foot-bath) boasting unbeatable views over the ocean.
There was little guilt in forking out Y8000 for a hotel: it was a nice town, I needed to do laundry and I was hoping that the comfort of a futon on a tatami mat floor would furnish me with a solid eight hours sleep. I had a beer with my dinner and the maid kept hounding me to make sure I pay for it before I leave, every time I ran into her. “Oyasumi nasai” (“goodnight”) she said at last, as I came in from an evening walk around the town. Then: “Make sure you pay for that beer, now”. I still couldn’t sleep that night either, mysteriously waking up at 1am despite the comfort of the futon. But I got up very early as planned, hitting the road in a state of semi-collapse before I’d even started, making my way out of town in the early dawn hours.
Oh, shit, had I paid for that beer ?
Day 4: Beware the Hotel Proprietors
It looked like I had joined all of the peninsula’s traffic when I got onto route 249 out of Wakura; it was the first work day after the three day weekend and I could feel resentment emanating from every car and every truck on the road. After a few wrong turns and unnecessary climbs I found a narrow deserted road that took me over a small mountain range to rejoin east coast, rather than follow the rest of the traffic around it. An absolute jewel of a road, a luminescent green cathedral, lush shade punctuated by long beams of light from the gaps between trees… I breathed the clean air, absorbed the colours and let the quiet murmur of the forest envelop me. It was 8:30am: I realised that on any other Tuesday I would be squeezed between a dozen or so salarimen on the Chuo line, variously reeking of cigarettes, garlic and a general lack of hygiene. I smiled broadly and took my time on the descent, ignoring the urgency of a “Beware of the Bears” sign, hoping it would never end.
The coast road was not bad, running parallel right next to the sea, with gulls soaring overhead, but as the road left Ishikawa prefecture and entered Toyama, the number of trucks increased and the once wide hard-shoulder disappeared, so I headed inland on the hilly route 76, through farmland and shallow valleys, which was a pleasant if roundabout way to the city of Takaoka, from where I wanted to locate and follow the river south.
A horrible city, multilane highways, empty carparks and tired looking ferro-concrete buildings with not a speck of green to be seen. There were a multitude of bars, izakaya, and sleazy hostess clubs but nowhere to get lunch; typical of these places, the nighttime entertainment has to be overwhelming enough to blot out the misery of the daylight hours.
In an effort to clear my senses of this modern blight I successfully got loss in less trafficked roads through patchwork fields of rice under harvest, small hamlets and a wonderful riverside path taking me to a dam not too far from Yokamachi. And just when I though things had worked out for the better, the day turned me round, bent me over, and gave me one to remember.
I cycled 10km uphill, in encroaching twilight, first through route 156 and it’s multitude of tunnels, across a long narrow bridge, and then on a deserted mountain road (“Beware of the Bears!”) up to an small onsen village recommended to me by the local tourist office – Nagasaki onsen. At the first minshuku (A Japanese B&B), the owner almost fainted at the sight of me – a bedraggled-looking foreigner on a bicycle – she blustered around and said they were full (on a Tuesday and with no cars in the car-park). I knocked on the door of the second place, and called out into the hallway before a bloke reluctantly came out and said the same thing. At the last place, nobody came out to answer my calls – these ones had obviously had enough time to hide.
So back down the narrow road, across the bridge and up route 156, though more tunnels looking for a hotel marked on my twelve year old map… which was no longer there. It was a long descent back into town down route 156, in near darkness, and further away from where I wanted to go tomorrow. But I found a cheap ryokan in town, and the owner was very friendly, treating me like an old friend, because I soon realized, they thought I was indeed an old friend, an aircraft engineer from Germany by the name of Hans. But they were a friendly bunch and only thanks to them did I rescind my vow to leave Toyama-ken by the most direct route possible, never to return.
Day 5: Beware of the… Tourists ?
Woke up this morning sore from the pointless climbing yesterday evening but more disappointed at myself that I didn’t continue up that road last night and find a patch of ground to camp on instead: I was turning soft.
Now disillusioned with route 156 I headed south west, cross county to the 304 instead, a long steep climb on a wide road up to a series of tunnels. It wasn’t that busy but I did hate the open concrete drainage ditch to the side giving me no space to turn to if any truck came too close. I was knackered and low on water, so I took advantage of roadworks at the first tunnel to have the whole road to myself, planning to turn off the main road between this and the next tunnel, where my map showed an exit, and take the mountain road. The reality was a exit that had been blocked up and a view through concrete beams of a seemingly collapsed road – so I had to run the gauntlet of a 2.5km tunnel after all, terrified of the enveloping whirr and metallic scream of trucks coming up behind me.
Eventually spat out, I was determined to avoid the next tunnel no matter what, so I took a turn-off for the old road, which should take me past a ski lodge and then over it. I found the out-of-season ski lodge but spent an hour searching for the old road without success – they all seemed to go nowhere (up up up… shit !… down down down !). Even Google maps showed the road should be close to where I was standing, and only when I looked very closely the third time I saw it – a broken and overgrown gravel track, cobwebs creating a sheer door of spider silk. And I remembered the Beware of the Bears sign I had just passed.
Descending back to the main road I considered taking my chances on another road I had seen, a cracked, lonely road that seemed to descend following the line of the valley and would take me out 10km north of where I wanted to be. The entrance to this one actually had several bear notices plastered around and seemed particularly serious, warning drivers that they took this road at their own risk.
The restaurant owner last night had explained that there had been very few nuts and berries this year so the bears had been coming down from the mountains and closer to towns and villages – why, only last week one had been spotted at the end of the street !
And then I noticed I was chomping on a nut & berry cookie from Family Mart – I got back on the main road to face the tunnel…
Today a lot of time was spent visiting “gassho zukkuri”, the very steeply thatched roofed farmhouses that characterize this part of Japan, known for it’s heavy snow fall in winter. Ainokura village was so pretty it was borderline kitch, overly manicured with twenty or thirty thatched houses carefully laid out with displays, open workshops and souvenirs for sale, and half-a-dozen coach loads of tourists milling around. I hurried though, gritted my teeth while a group of OAPs insisted taking turns to take photos with me while their group leader sang God Save the Queen, and found myself on a half-hidden entrance to a back-road, winding steeply down the mountain side. It was open, but plastered with a large Beware of the Bears sign in Japanese, whilst in English next to it was a sign saying “Campsite this way !”.
It went deeper into forest, tracking the edge of a sheer gorge and a foaming river could be seen through the trees hundreds of feet below. Deserted, spooky and then downright scary when I saw a large grey-black poo on the ground in front of me, still steaming. There would be another one to join it it I didn’t get out of here immediately.
Suganuma was another village a few miles up the road and mercifully lacking the tourist hoards of Ainokura but both were purpose built, having relocated these old houses from various parts of the region, and although very charming they lacked the gritty layer of real-life use.
I had a great lunch a few miles away on the main road while I watched lunchtime TV with the other two customers, the first Japanese TV I had watched in a long time. A fresh faced Japanese speaking young American guy was being followed by a television crew around Akasaka (an old part of Tokyo popular with tourists) while an annoying “talent” sat in the studio was asking increasingly banal and condescending questions to him (“can you use chopsticks ? Oooooh, you smart guy ! “) in her atrocious broken English while eliciting a cackle of laughter from the other misfits they call celebrities. Japanese TV has not changed a bit from the last time I watched it ten years ago. It’s still got the same celebrities, though as they age they get bumped from prime weekend evening slots to midweek daytime television: at least I could take comfort in that, knowing they suffer.
I still had the Holy Grail of Gassho Zukkuri to visit, the village of Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO heritage site. I’d been here once years before in torrential rain and was frankly facing some enthusiasm issues on going there again, especially after a morning basically full of the same. But it was on my route, at the foot of a mountain pass which I knew (though not yet ready to admit to myself) was not going to happen today.
But first I had to survive route 156 again, on a stretch of road I will NEVER, EVER repeat by bicycle. My map (and google maps) once again promised detours around or over the numerous tunnels, while the reality was generally a few metres of broken tarmac disappearing into a freaking jungle of overgrowth, rusted gates and landslides. The tunnels were narrow, dark and uphill, the truck drivers angry, and my legs burned fiercely as I tried to sprint through every one. Never again.
Shirakawa-go was bustling with tourists, Japanese and overseas visitors alike, which didn’t encourage me to hang around so I bought some provisions and started to tackle the 1300m climb over to the next valley. But there was only an hour left before sunset, and my efforts were only half-hearted… I soon gave up and found a hotel instead, appalled at my lack of backbone. With regret I settled into a soothing hot bath with a view over the valley, and deeply disappointed at my ready embrace of amenities, I climbed – reluctantly – into the jacuzzi. I was still tut-tutting to myself when I ordered a beer thirty minutes later in the plush restaurant, and then when I ordered a second, remarked to myself how I was just not enjoying this.
Later in the evening once the crowds had gone, I wandered around the village, watching the lights turn on behind latticed windows, glowing softly in the velvet darkness, and I looked up and around at the silhouette of the mountains surrounding me. Now this is what it’s really about.
Day 6: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The skies were threatening rain as I headed up the lower slopes of Amotoge and as I left the last of the Gassho Zukkuri behind everything became very quiet. It was a steep and narrow road, sharp serpentine curves hacked out of the mountainside and jacked up with concrete. There was nothing up here, no farmhouses, no patches of agriculture, and not even any roadside statues of “jizo”, the protector of travelers, to see me safely on my way. There had been one workman’s truck pass me in the last 1.5 hours and it was getting very lonely, with nothing but slugs the size of eels scattered on the road to keep me company. It rained a little on the descent, though I squeezed some small enjoyment from the novelty of feeling cold after so many months of hot, humid weather.
The next pass was far nicer, taking me past a dam and up and over a valley feeding into it: there was nothing of the abject melancholy of Amotoge, and the noise of wildlife hummed in the background. At the top of the pass was a well tended simple wooden shrine, whilst the local spirit had been appeased with the customary offerings of sake and snacks.
It was a bit of a grind to Takayama, following the same direction as the main route 41 on the valley floor but sticking to the side roads; although not too bad with traffic it was a disappointing contrast to the scenery I had enjoyed in the mountains, and my bike spontaneously punctured while I was having lunch.
Takayama itself was an average unsightly small Japanese city but the three long streets of samarai lodgings and old warehouses were lovely and thronging with mainly overseas tourists. It is also promoted as the gateway to the Japan Alps and the lady at the tourist information was having trouble finding me a cheap hotel – mid-week, mid-September and the place was booked solid. I was again considering whether I should head up to the mountains to camp in the last hours of daylight in preference to the horror of getting a bunk-bed in a hostel dormitory with a dozen people half my age. Luckily she got a room in an old business hotel, walls reassuringly stained with nicotine and tired looking middle-aged blokes in stiffly starched white shirts behind the reception. That was more like it.
Day 7: It’s not what you do, It’s the way that you do it…
My last chance to make amends, one more opportunity to cycle far, hurt myself on some climbs and find an uncomfortable patch of ground to put up my tent and regain some dignity.
The early morning was cold, and the cityscape covered with a thick mist. I had to travel part-way out of the city on the busy route 41, nervous about trucks that passed too close but it wasn’t for long, as I’d chosen an alternative route via Kuraiyama, with it’s pass at 1080m, to take me most of the way to Gero Onsen. It was a long cool climb up to Kuraiyama ski resort, and I enjoyed some of the out-of-the-saddle efforts, the heavily loaded bike barely swaying beneath me. As the sun slowly burned away the last of the mist, wonderful alpine scenery appeared around me, some of it already showing signs of changing colour – Autumn was definitely in the air.
There was a long descent before the road rose again to the lake and the final narrow ascent to the pass – with the tranquility of the setting and the vista of mountains around, my legs felt none of the tiredness from this morning and the descent took me quickly through forests, cattle country and then a downhill to the narrow valley floor where I passed rice fields and old farmsteads, chatting to the occasional gruff but friendly farmer on the way.
It was still sunny when I arrived in Gero Onsen but a thick sheet of cloud was being drawn like a celestial grey blanket across the sky, and any blue was set to be squeezed towards the horizon and behind the mountains. I packed up my biked and made arrangements to ship it home, guilty than I’d decided to call a halt here, unsatisfied that I hadn’t put in a 100km+ day with more climbs and a last night in the tent.
Perhaps I had tried to mould my route too much around points of interest; in the past I had always planned these trips based on the roads, looking for interesting lines on the map and linking them together; I’d usually comes across a few sights on the way but it was generally incidental, not deliberate. I’d forgotten what every good traveller knows: it’s not about where you’re going, but how you get there and I reflected on the highlights of this trip, almost always on a minor road, barely a visible line on my map.
But it was okay – I enjoyed the strong alkaline waters of the Gero hot-spring bath which I still felt I deserved and had the most robust shoulder massage ever from the spout of a high pressure jet of water a couple metres above me. And then I got on the train – I would see my two year old son a day earlier than planned. What could be better than that ?
Route is here:
(From the train I saw Rt 41 following the same spectacular gorge as the railway, and down to Kami-Aso it was almost deserted. Recommended to try next time!)
All photos are here: