Category Archives: Day Rides

In Search of the Higurashi

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Some moments stay with you a long time, imprinted on your memory, hardwired into your psyche.  I once cycled from the UK to Japan, eight intense months of sensory overload that have forged a unique place in my consciousness, molding my hopes, and perhaps my fears. But you don’t need to camp alone in the Gobi desert or dine with Uzbeki gangsters to be enchanted by ride… cycling in and around Japan has made good work of my bucket list in itself.

A Tokushima mountain road in early morning, sunlight filtering through the trees above as I tried to get my bearings for Temple #13 on the Shikoku pilgrimage route… the lone metallic screech of my brakes on a steep and winding descent through a darkening forest on the Kii Peninsula … a mountaintop village onsen in Aomori, shared with a half dozen giggling octogenarian ladies…

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But one of my most enduring memories is that of the haunting cry of the Higurashi, the “evening cicada”, serenading me at dusk as I climbed my way slowly up towards the mile high Yanagisawa toge one summer. In fading light, halfway up this isolated valley that cuts through the thick range of mountains spanning Okutama to Yamanashi, the melancholy song of this tiny, tragic creature touched something inside me. A sound synonymous with late summer and – for me at least – a sense of rural Japan, unperturbed and untouched by the pace of modern life outside it’s mystical borders. A brief glimpse into my own shangri-la perhaps.

So I set off late one recent saturday, timing my ride to end up in a similar mountain setting as the light dimmed, hoping to recreate the magic of that moment so many years ago. At my usual hour of 5am the roads are empty and the air cool and clear… but today, at midday winding my way through traffic to the Arakawa, I breathed fumes of diesel with just a hint of ocean, carried by the wind upriver. On the river path, at speed, I swallowed mouthfuls of small flies, the hundreds of survivors clinging to my face and arms, swimming around my eyeballs, and I remembered why I wouldn’t usually start a ride at this stupid hour.

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The floodplain was a lush tropical green, impenetrable in places but for the cycle path, aggressive foliage whipping my legs into order as I cycled past. On my left, beyond the levee, grimy office blocks and warehouses gradually gave way to farmhouses and rice fields, sometimes home to an ancestral tomb or modest shrine to the local deity.

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A cacophony of insect sounds surrounded me; the high-pitched buzz of the regular cicada rising above all else in waves of tinny percussion whenever I might pass a likely looking thicket of trees… but still no sign of the Higurashi. Heading up the Naguri valley the shadows were now getting longer and I disturbed half a dozen purple butterflies, each the size of my hand, from a mossy hollow in the road. They fluttered lazily up into the trees, but the only sound I heard was the gurgle of the roadside stream as the water gushed over rocks and swirled in eddies. There was still no sign of the Higurashi.

It gets dark early in these mountains and I was almost at the top of the narrow Amamezasu Toge, thinking I should start turning back while there was still daylight, stamping my pedals and forcing the bike around another switchback, when I heard it from deep in the forest ahead: the clear “kana-kana-kana” cry of the Higurashi, echoing from tree to tree, before silence fell again. It didn’t sound a second time.

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The Higurashi spends seven or more years patiently underground before it emerges for a few short weeks at the end of summer; this melody is it’s one chance to attract a mate before death overcomes it. I hoped this little fella would get lucky and find some insect lovin’ before his demise. Me, I had got what I come for, heard the Higurashi as I wanted to, on a deserted forest road deep in the mountains at dusk. But it wasn’t the same; it wasn’t the same at all.

See, you can’t stage these things, I realised, they happen once and that’s about it: that is the magic. It isn’t a movie, a gourmet meal or page seventeen of the Kama Sutra (alas…) – you don’t get to repeat it. Savour the moment when it happens – and happily ride on.

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Matsuhime

Mar 20 05 Matsuhime Ascent 3

The road to Matsuhime

Mar 20 09 Okutama 2

Rough Ride

We hadn’t planned it, hadn’t dared even to imagine it, so it was a surprise to us both as we thought the same thought at the same time, turned our bikes away from the promise of a hilly verdant green route beyond the small post town of Saruhashi, and instead pointed them northwards towards Matsuhime Toge. It had been a very pleasant ride so far, sunshine warming our backs, early cherry blossoms illuminating the road side, Spring all around us, but now, as we turned to face 1300 vertical metres of mountain ahead, dark clouds gathered ominously in the peaks above and a chill north wind rushed down the slopes at us. Getting out here we may have convinced ourselves that winter was truly over – ha! – but this mountain doesn’t allow you to entertain such fantasies.

Mar 20 01 Route 30

Spring in the air

They’d completed construction of the new tunnel since I’d been here last, many years of pork barrel spending in this quiet car-free area to punch a sacrilegious hole through the mountainside… but we veered off left, up what was now the “old” road, over a barrier, through the now unlit tunnels and onto the start of the mountain road proper, looking down on the dam and valley below.

Mar 20 04 Matsuhime Ascent 2

Road Closed for a reason

Those lush colours of the morning were now usurped by the naked limbs of leafless trees, yellowed flora and the occasional tired dull green of a lonely pine. We ascended on the narrow switchbacks, negotiating rocks and ducking under fallen branches suspended across the road… “thou shalt not pass” they groaned, swaying in the wind. We were the only ones there, the birdsong of the lowlands had long ceased and even the crows had deserted us. The lack of foliage gave us a clear view of what lay ahead: miles of steep road snaking up and up and up to the pass above. It was increasingly magnificent looking down, seeing the narrow fracture of the road where it had started in the valley – and it was horrifying to look up and clearly see how far we still had to go. But the silence, the embrace of the peaks around us, and of course, the promise of a long downhill made it worthwhile.

Mar 20 07 Matsuhime Hailstorm

Our icy reward

But it was cold at the top of the pass, icy cold in fact, and barely had we pulled ourselves over the gate, when Matsuhime orchestrated her surprise – a hail storm, quickly escalating from a few harmless white flecks on the asphalt to a full-blown onslaught of large icy stones, stinging our exposed flesh as we ran for cover.
“Do we descend right now?” we asked aloud, maybe to each other, more possibly to the mountain, “or risk this turning in a full snow storm..?”. We were alone, a brief rustle in the undergrowth had confirmed that – the only other creature up here had the right idea and decided to get the hell out of it. So we did the same, a low, gingerly descent over hail-coated roads, turning to freezing rain as we lost elevation far too slowly. Around rocks and timber, on a seemingly endless teeth-chattering, bastard-freezing, soaking-wet cold ride to the lower slopes and the nearest soba shop.

We warmed our insides with some ramen, wrapped our numb fingers around cups of hot green tea and, bit by bit, let the grimace turn into a huge grin, a smile creeping wider and wider across our faces. Matsuhime – she knows how to hurt you alright, but by the Gods, she knows how to pleasure you as well.

Mar 20 06 Matsuhime Ascent Lee

Pained and Pleasured I

Mar 20 08 Okutama 1

Pained and Pleasured II

Ride data:

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1093313588

 

 

Two steps forward, One (painful) step back

A machine

A machine and a machine

Spring is the time to be cycling in Japan – the few weeks on either side of Golden Week are glorious, the sharp morning chill of Spring turning into generous warmth in the afternoon; and the mountains are green, greener than anything you’ve seen, the trees and the flowers pulsating with their new found colour and vibrancy. And I missed it all.

Road with a view

Road with a view

The note I had made to myself on my last ride: “Today I was, quite simply, amazing.” Yes indeed, I was back on form at long last! So pleased that I thought I would give my bike a decent clean … and it was then I noticed the crack in my titanium frame. The Horror. The Absolute Horror.

It would be two months before I’d got a replacement frame delivered and built up again, with business trips, Easter, and then Golden Week thrown in my way to thwart me. I cursed every fine weekend with blue skies and perfect temperatures, and rejoiced in weekends of rain.

Reunited

Reunited

The new bike built up, and a few more weeks of getting back some fitness and getting the fit right on the new frame. It wasn’t easy. Ride one: odd noises from the bottom bracket and two and half hours back at the bike shop to track that down… fixed! Next was lower back pain (a first for me in 15 years of cycling) – three rides to track that down, alter my fit and build up my core… fixed ! It was hard, but I was back on the passes I loved: Yamabushi, Nokogiri, Ireyama, Kazahari, Imagawa, Arima (what a beauty – Arima Toge!), Sadamine… and even Yanagisawa, over 1500m of constant climbing. I even did my 100km Urban River Loop in record time, a 29.4km/h average speed through city and bike paths, back home by 8:15am in the morning – much better than me at my peak even. Wow, was I was rocking or what ?!

Rocking'

Rockin’

Out and about

Out and about

My last climb, my nemesis Kazahari Rindo, the toge what put my lower back into spasms a few weeks earlier, the long super steep climbs, exposed to the heat of the sun, and very very little respite from the gradient until it’s 1150m top… I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it. The long weekend rides and the midweek early morning pre-work training sessions had paid off: it felt good to be strong again!

Perfection

Perfection

Well, that’s how I felt last Sunday, at 9:20AM.

At 9:45 I was lying dazed on a mountain road.

A truck coming from the other direction had suddenly pulled sharply across my path, looking to get into a parking place on the left, the idiot driver unaware of me coming down the road. I braked but it was just too close, almost meaningless; I swerved hard to the right in an effort to avoid going right into it … now I was lying in the road, confused, and not able to get to my feet.

It seems I had crossed the centre line and collided into the side of the car waiting behind it, leaving a large dent, and then flung back out onto the road. Probably a good thing – the aluminum panels of the car took the brunt of the impact, before the road got to me.

Man down

Man down

A long ambulance ride, police, road rash, bruising, cuts, twisted ankle, banged up shoulder and an assortment of other minor injuries… but thank goodness no broken bones. I was lucky. A few days on crutches, a fair bit of pain, a lot of hassle and a week later I feel I’m on the mend. Really lucky. The truck driver will be prosecuted – dangerous driving – but it seems he has minimal insurance, enough to cover my medical bills, but nothing for the bike, or the time off work, or compensation. I might need to lawyer up for that. More hassles.

And I need to be patient, wait to get mended and … start it all over again.

But not for long...

Me, soon

Suburban Hymns

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A raw pre-dawn sky that turns from black to velvet to fire – briefly – and then a striking blue, where it endures for the rest of the day. Frozen puddles in the gutter and patches of black ice in the tire tracks of dump trucks and in the roadside piss of taxi drivers. I made my offering to the roadside deity, wrapped up warm by some believer against the elements – there is more than one God here, and he lives under the tarmac and along the verge, above the intersection and behind the traffic lights. It doesn’t hurt to get him on your side.

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Ahead, the frigid white-capped spines of mountains positioned like an advancing polar army, surrounding the city below. I confront the foot hills but back off from the mountains proper – no longer the confidence of old on 23mm tyres over uncertain surfaces. But close enough to feel freezing gusts of wind roll down from high, piecing my flesh like icy daggers, an exquisite reminder of why I do this, while everyone else sleeps.

Close enough ’til Spring I thought, close enough.

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The Imperial (2014)

early mornings

There hasn’t been a ride this year where I haven’t fallen short of some goal, be it distance, elevation, destination… whatever. Something has interceded to thwart my plan for almost every ride: bad weather, bad scheduling, dubious fitness and even more dubious willpower. I had finished my Noto trip much fitter than when I started, but was disgruntled that I hadn’t spent just one more night out in the wilds in my tent, rather than a warm dry hotel. So it looks like I’d failed another goal as well: toughness.

IMG_2970vI needed a plan, something to put me back into gear so to speak, some way to demonstrate I was not as washed up as I thought ! And I came up with this: The Imperial. Not exactly empire building, nothing to do with the the five star Tokyo hotel… nor the local Tandori for that matter. I had defined “The Imperial” from a simple unit of measure: whereas all my stats for climbing and distance were measured in metres and kilometers, this would be a simple goal in good old fashioned units: “imperial” miles.

As goals go, it was very modest: a hundred miles of distance with a mile of vertical climbing.

My first try was an overnight trip to Shizuoka to regain some two wheeled dignity – it resulted in two closed passes, an unsightly detour via Route 1 and several minor valleys filled with quarries and heavy industry. Plus a cracked seatpost and a broken cassette. I limped down the Doshi michi, hoping nothing else would fail before Fujino station and my train ride home.

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Barely two years ago I was knocking out century rides every other weekend, whereas this year I hadn’t managed a single one.  It was beginning to feel like this would be my annus horribilis for road biking.

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But when I thought about it, I realised that I did manage some great rides, re-visiting some of my favourite “toge”: Tomin No Mori, the Imagawa south approach (always much harder than I remember), the classic Shiraishi followed by Sadomine descent. I had ridden through eerie silent dawn mists on the Arakawa, and past crystal clear views of Fuji-san on deserted mountain roads.

15932913246_cf6147b14a_kAll wonderful rides, and I also rediscovered my temple route, an old favourite of mine taking in Yamabushi, Shomaru, and the ancient Nenogongenji shrine –  I got to appreciate the joy in riding for riding’s sake alone, trying not to worry about The Imperial.

And then, one cold early winter’s day, after completing the temple loop, there seemed a little more left in my legs than usual. Why not ride home, I thought, instead of taking the train. From the mountains to the foothills, through lightly trafficked suburbs and then the river paths of Iruma-gawa and and Arakawa.  As I got closer to home the numbers on my Garmin looked vaguely familiar, like they were trying to remind me of something. I got to my front door and took one more glance before switching the thing off:  one mile of climbing and one hundred miles of riding…

When everything's right with the world

When everything’s right with the world…

Ride details:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/646085785

Rekindled

The Green Line

Happy, despite appearances

I looked back on the weekend like a man who has just learnt to love again. The early morning ride out of the awakening city, cool shadows draped across my chosen route of quiet urban back-roads, the orchestra of birdsong building into a quiet crescendo the further I rode. This was no infatuation – been there, done that – nor some frantic physical pleasure obscured by misplaced feelings of affection. She was an old flame genuinely rekindled, and I knew this was the real thing.

Okutama views

Okutama views

It didn’t happen overnight. We’d started courting again a month or so ago, wooing each other slowly, adding numerous outings since. Fun, oh yes, but nothing serious I thought – and if truth be told it felt a little awkward, hard work even. I’d lost some flexibility since our last liaison, and positions that felt so natural six months ago felt forced and uncomfortable now. And to be fair, she’d also put on a little weight herself. That was the set of winter tyres I’d put on her of course.

 

A jet-lagged post-tendonitis ride along the Arakawa, perhaps not the most promising of beginnings; the next weekend we hit the mountains, where it had all began many years ago; Imagawa-toge from the north, and the wonderful descent from Tsuru-toge… I had the first inkling something good was going to come out of this. The climb up Tomin-no-Mori and – oh my goodness ! – our favourite hidden Nokogiriyama, so soon…it was happening all so quickly; there could be no change of heart now. But it was last weekend when everything all clicked profoundly back into place, a ride that volunteered everything, a turning point.

Nokogiriyama South

Nokogiriyama South

I’d overslept, which probably helped, allowing me a rare six plus hours sleep. And I woke up to a glorious day, deep blue skies and a luminous green, starting from the weeds outside my front door right up into to the mountainsides of Okumusashi and the hidden farmsteads perched high in the thickly wooded hills. It didn’t feel like the 27 degrees shown on the thermometer.

Heading out ...

Heading out …

On the way to Yamabushi Toge I met an old friend at the Holy Shrine where I stopped for water, and we headed up there together, taking the serpentine curves at a conversational pace.
“Still got the bug ?” he asked knowingly, and I thought back to the eight months I’d spent cycling from the UK to Japan. Oh God Yes I still had it, but the responsibilities and joys of an almost- two-year old boy at home meant that nowadays I could risk nothing more than these occasional illicit weekend affairs.

Jose continued on to Chichibu after the pass, while I turned off for the gentle climb to Shomaru Toge, stopping in the soba shop at the top to buy some drinks.
“Italia ? Italia ?” shouted a bald Japanese guy sat at the window table. He was waving at me and I told him I was British. He said he was Pantani and continued chattering on in fluent Italian, until I could extract myself and make my farewells.
“Ciao” I said
“Auf Weidersein” he said back.

Nokogiriyama North

Nokogiriyama North

Heavy boughs cradled the road in a leafy grip and we bumped over the potholed descent at a descent speed, halting occasionally to absorb the view. As soon as it was done the momentum carried us up the first five metres of the next climb to Kayabazaka on the Green Line. It would have been nice if we’d been carried me a few miles more, because this was my steepest prolonged climb for a while, and after the initial soothing image of farmhouses, flourishing gardens of springtime flowers and the deep green tea-fields in the shade of the steep valley slopes, it was a tough grind, albeit through shaded forest. The bike creaked and I groaned.
I caught sight of one road perched incredibly high up on the other side of the valley. Wow, I thought, don’t recall seeing that on my map: that was one road I certainly wouldn’t like to climb today. A beginner’s mistake of course – it was indeed the same road, another two miles further on…

Kayabazaka marked one of several forest junctions that terminated a sharp climb from the valley floor to the “Green Line” a narrow up-down road following the ridge of the mountain range from Chichibu to Hanno. Wonderfully shaded, with few vehicles, and a couple of rickety restaurants to stop for lunch over breathtaking views, it had been one of my favorite roads for a long time.

One more climb after the Green Line, and I let a red-faced hard-breathing cyclist who had been tailing me overtake. I wanted to relish the moment, the steady upwards gradient, an colonnade of trees, unending switchbacks and the music of the river below. I danced lightly on the pedals, and she rocked gently from side to side beneath me, her rear cassette purring with pleasure, forgiving my unpracticed moves and my still clumsy handling. My heart rate far higher than it should have been I’m sure, and we glided down the last descent, a huge smile of contentment fixed across my face.

Yes indeed. I was in love again.

I'll be back

I’ll be back

Route:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/510663220

Moments Part II

One day left before the new year and I am trying desperately to make the last entry for 2013. Today there is snow on the higher passes whilst the usually demure riverside paths are now dangerously iced up in places. But the photos below are of me still in shorts (admittedly, of the goosebumpity kind) as I squeezed what colour and warmth I could get from the Autumn,  now two to three months ago. Ah, but it’s nice to remember.

This one is notable as being my last century ride, 162km and 2000m odd of climbing. Climbed an ancient back route over Yaku Toge  towards Gunma, passing gorgeous old farmsteads and whitewashed samurai warehouses all the way up. But the descent to the gorge was nasty, and I got attacked by a mutant wasp, size of a sparrow, big enough and heavy enough that I could genuinely head-butt it with my helmet into state of unconsciousness, and whilst it woke up and flailed around on the ground, make my escape.

Valleys of Chichibu

Valleys of Chichibu

Hiding behind a thick semi-circle of evergreens, there is a small temple I occasionally stop at on the way to Ome. He’s getting used to me now, this sacred guardian, and his roar has softened somewhat, with nothing of the fury and malice he first greeted me with several years ago.

Guardian

Guardian

Took a Shinkansen out to Karuizawa and made my way back to Chichibu over a few passes I’d be dreaming about for some time. Stunning bright sunshine soon turned into a cloudy Autumn day which superficially dulled the colours somewhat but added an edge to the whole atmosphere of the ride.

Hidden ponds in Gunma

Hidden lakes in Gunma

A quiet shrine by the roadside – the block of wood is tied to a length of thick rope and a bell which you rattle to summon the local deity. The characters on the wood say “kotsu anzen” – a wish for safety on the roads, the speciality of this particular spirit. I donated generously, and shook vigorously.

"Road Safety"

“Road Safety”

Fujita Toge, a hard one to find, and the eerie narrow trail deep through forest turned upwards, sustaining 19 degree slopes and 26 degrees in places. The echoes of my screams broke a little of the loneliness.

Wild Wood

Wild Wood

The back route from Gunma into Chichibu over the Shiozawa pass was such a find, marked as a prefectural road, but reduced to the width of a path in many places – deserted, but a perfect steepness that let me stretch my legs, but not break them. Hairpins like this were some of the highlights.

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin...

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin…

The colour of the foliage was subdued in the cloudy conditions but sometimes grey skies add meaning to a tough ride, whilst perfect conditions make it too enjoyable, too transient.

Quiet Mountain Pass

Shiozawa Pass from Gunma into Chichibu

Nenogongen Loop (one of my favorite early AM mountain rides):

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/398485272 

Karuizawa to Gunma:

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/399687573