Monthly Archives: August 2020

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!