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.
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.
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.
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.
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.