Category Archives: Heavy Touring

The Lows & Highs: Noto and The Alps

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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
(40km)

My way, not the highway...

My way, not the highway…

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”.

Not my commute

Not my regular commute

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 pot of gold… my tent

The pot of gold… my tent

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
115km

The Noto West Coast

The Noto West Coast

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.

Senmaida Rice Fields

Senmaida Rice Fields

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.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy backroads

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.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy villages

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.

IMG_1959There 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
100km

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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…

Roadside Guardians

Roadside Guardians

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.

This is the life ...

This is the life …

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 ?

Non-risque onsen photo

Non-risque onsen photo


Day 4: Beware the Hotel Proprietors
125km

Glorious Escapes

Glorious Escapes

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.

Beware of the Bears

Beware of the Bears

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.

Liquor store

Liquor store

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.

Beware of the … Werewolf ??

Beware of the … Werewolf ??

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.

A ryokan at last

A ryokan at last

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.

Yokamachi storefronts

Yokamachi storefronts

 

Day 5: Beware of the… Tourists ?
75km

Into the mountains...

Into the mountains…

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.

Gassho-Zukkuri

A “Gassho-Zukkuri”

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…

Re-thatching a roof

Re-thatching a roof

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 !”.

A lot of these

A lot of these…

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.

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go

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.

Ferocious wildlife

More ferocious wildlife

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.

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Day 6: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
70km

Lower slopes of Amo Toge

Lower slopes of Amo Toge

Into the clouds...

Into the clouds…

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.

Waterfall, Amo Toge

Waterfall, Amo Toge

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.

My kinda road

My kinda road

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.

IMG_2318Takayama 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.

Takayama at night

Takayama at night


Day 7: It’s not what you do, It’s the way that you do it…

65km

Descending Kuraiyama

Descending Kuraiyama

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.

Autumn in the air...

Autumn 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.

Cow country

Cow country

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 ?

Gero: clouds closing in...

Gero: clouds closing in…

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!)
http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/552834374

All photos are here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/stantopia/sets/72157647975738369/

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Spine o’ the North (Flashback: 2008)

Bikes, Shrines & Inclines

First in my “Flashback” series of documenting old bike trips to this blog. If you like mountains, deep valleys and old rustic onsen, you won’t do much better than the Tohoku region. I did this twelve day tour in September of 2008,  following the mountains north to south, the very “spine of the north”.  


Misty Mountains

The Departure 

After riding nothing but my twitchy and temperamental road bike for the last three months, it felt remarkably comfortable to be cycling on my loaded touring bike, cycling through the Friday evening Tokyo traffic – the solid steel frame and heavy panniers soaking up the bumps in the road, and the well-worn Brookes leather saddle feeling like a familiar armchair. I was to catch the “Akebono” night-train from Ueno station heading to the Tsugaru coast, Tohoku, and the bike practically steered herself to the station. I was treating the ol’ girl to…

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Trials, Tribulations and Toba

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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.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild

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…

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Somewhere in Nara ken


The Slaughtered Boar

A "short cut"

A “short cut”

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.

Not alone...

Not quite alone…

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.

Up close & personal

Up close & personal

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.

IMG_6704There 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.

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My kind of road

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.

Guardian of the mountain

Guardian of the mountain

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.

IMG_6790And 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.

At last, somebody else on this road...

At last, somebody else on this road…


My Way or the Highway

IMG_6794A 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.

The lair of orcs and demons

The lair of orcs and demons

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 !

I guess "road closed" really means something in these parts...

I guess “road closed” actually means something …

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.

My road

My road

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.

Lost ? Me ??

Lost ? Me ??

IMG_6833So 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.

Onsen Action

Onsen Action

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.

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My bathroom…


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.

My kind of road ...

My kind of road …

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.

My sensitive side

My sensitive side

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.

IMG_6926The 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 Japan Rockies

The Japan Rockies

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:
http://ridewithgps.com/routes/2438183

Full photos here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stantopia/sets/72157633412981566/

Spine o’ the North (Flashback: 2008)

First in my “Flashback” series of documenting old bike trips to this blog.  If you like mountains, deep valleys and old rustic onsen, you won’t do much better than the Tohoku region. I did this twelve day tour in September of 2008,  following the mountains north to south, the very “spine of the north”.  


Misty Mountains

The Departure 

After riding nothing but my twitchy and temperamental road bike for the last three months, it felt remarkably comfortable to be cycling on my loaded touring bike, cycling through the Friday evening Tokyo traffic – the solid steel frame and heavy panniers soaking up the bumps in the road, and the well-worn Brookes leather saddle feeling like a familiar armchair. I was to catch the “Akebono” night-train from Ueno station heading to the Tsugaru coast, Tohoku, and the bike practically steered herself to the station. I was treating the ol’ girl to two weeks of touring and we reminisced over the good times and the bad times we’d had together over the years, as only a bloke and an inanimate object can really do. And she behaved perfectly as I stripped her, bagged her and boarded the train to the Japan north east.

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Day 1: Finding Santa

After a change of train at Higashi Noshiro got off at Omagoshi on the Japan Sea coastline, the smallest station I have ever seen – a shed. 10km further up the road was a turn off inland for “Juniko Lakes”, famous for a dozen small lakes and ponds of various hues, and this made for a pleasant hike.

Lillies

Lillies

The region, Shirakami, is a UNESCO world heritage site due to it’s swathes of old beech forest, and the road to the lake, unexpectedly steep, cut through a small part of it. The “Blue Lake” and it’s luminosity was actually stunning.

The Blue Lake

The Blue Lake

The obasan at the restaurant I’d stopped in for lunch was very cheery and perceptive (“Ah yes, I knew you were from England – you are so handsome”) and gave me a huge meal. She introduced me to her attractive daughter, joking how I should take her with me, little knowing how I was already entertaining a similar (if not quite exactly the same) fantasy.

Unhappy Christmas

Unhappy Christmas

It was turning into a dark overcast day, threatening to rain at any moment, and on the way down from the lakes, attracted by mysterious chimes of Christmas songs heard though the trees, I found myself in “Santa-Land”.  A few cabins, tired looking tinsel covered climbing frame and the soiled and chipped faces of Father Christmas and assorted elves and reindeer surrounded an empty car-park, the music still chiming at full volume throughout the deserted complex. It was quite possibly the saddest thing I have ever seen.

I was back on the coast-road and the stretches of coast that had not been disfigured by concrete tetrapods were craggy and quite scenic; some coastal caves held old weathered carvings of some unusual multi-armed creatures, which didn’t seem particularly Buddist nor Shinto to me. Furoufushi Onsen (Spa of Eternal Youth?) was practically in the sea and I spent an hour soaking in it, watching the sea cormorants pacing the rocks a couple metres away, and trying not to worry the other naked bathers too much as I took pictures liberally of the whole scene.

Primal Entertainment

Primal Entertainment

Pushed on over over a predominately flat road, sometimes next to the sea, sometimes through hills on the headlands. Resting at the top of one pass a tough old lady of about a hundred came down out of the trees pushing her squeaking shopping bike, piled high with fresh vegetables, negotiating a steep precarious trail joining the main road. She greeted me in a thick local accent, mentioned that it should take only another twenty minutes to Ajigasawa (my goal for the day) before leaping on her bike and riding down the hill.

It took me 45 minutes.


Day 2: Onsen in the Clouds

Waved goodbye to the quirky landlady at the minshuku (B&B), who had got drunk and slept on the sofa in the lobby all night. It was a grim looking day, and the breakfast television reported torrential rain and landslides throughout the region, and had warned of more to come.

Memories

Memories

Started with a gentle climb through a wide valley with overbearing mountains close to my right and paddy fields on my left; one side of the road was lined with carefully sculpted scarecrows, mimicking everything from Astroboy, Godzilla and Thomas the Tank Engine: according to the labels, they were part of a crafts competition from a nearby retirement home. Judging by one of the entries – a paper-mache sculpture of a woman in a red mini-shirt and huge breasts – some of these old folks still had a few years of life left in them yet I thought.

Turning off into the mountains the road narrowed, green foliage flowed into the road from the verge and the dark skies added an edge to the atmosphere. It had turned to rain by the time I’d arrived in Hirosaki and I killed a lot of time in the castle park, waiting for it to stop. With waning enthusiasm, and in a light drizzle I continued on, a little later taking the road towards Hakkota-san, my spirits temporarily buoyed by a sky that had returned to a regular grey.

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It was a lonely road, very green and some potentially nice views if it wasn’t for the clouds and mist. Some steep climbs, and surprisingly no facilities for most of the two hours it took me to climb up to my lodgings for the night, Sukayu Onsen. The last few miles were particularly wet but I could already detect the rotten-egg smell of the onsen several hairpins before I’d arrived, and when I did turn the last corner and saw the lone sprawling old wooden ryokan through the mist, I just knew it had been worth it…

Sukayu Onsen

Sukayu Onsen

Sukayu Onsen is a beautiful structure, rambling creaking corridors, old dusty hunting trophies buried in shadow and small, modest tatami rooms. The onsen itself, a “senninburo” is a huge indoor bath of rich dark wood and milky blue water, the product of skilled carpentry and lovingly crafted workmanship. It’s a “konyoku” (mixed), men on the left and women on the right, but the low-lit lamps and steam seem to cover most of one’s modesty, and the lazy trickling of water, and muffled echos of low voices lull you off into a daydream in any case.

Mind you, I was slightly perturbed by one of the bathers nearby, who had the most unusual tan line. His torso was pale and white – but from the waist down he was completely brown…


Day 3: Naked Introductions

I saw two non-Japanese women in the baths this morning, which I thought was quite unusual in this remote neck of the woods. Furthermore, it was “konyoku” time – mixed bathing – which usually means that any female under the age of 70 stays well clear of the baths until it becomes “women only” again on the timetable. But, as they wandered closer to the mens’s area, it was quite apparent that thee two ladies were were young, attractive and, er, rather voluptuous. I really didn’t know where I should look… we kind of nodded a shy acknowledgement from afar, but that was it – I was a little worried that strolling over to introduce myself naked might be stretching some social boundaries.

Rain What Rain

Rain, what rain ?

I lounged in the onsen a some time, waiting for the rain to slow down and eventually set off up the road in a heavy mist and light drizzle. It didn’t take too long to get to the top of pass, at 1040m, but by now it was so wet and misty I couldn’t even see the tops of the trees. The muck and spray from the road was horrible, so much so that I decided to retire to another hidden onsen for the rest of the morning – Yachi Onsen.

Provocative Posing

Provocative Posing

The rain had stopped and the spray reduced when I ventured out again and long stretches of the road were breathtaking, with the boughs of tall brightly green trees cradling the road in an eerie fog. The road eventually descended to Oirase stream, the pretty stream that flows from LakeTowadako, the fast water causing all kinds of brooks and eddies, and the moss & lichen covered rocks and overhanging trees quite the fairy tale picture.

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Lunch at the tourist-bare lake: the restaurant owner had two small soft toys stapled to his tie, maybe in a symbolic sacrifice to the Gods to send us some decent bloody weather. Towadako is enclosed by mountains, almost right up to the shore barring the road that runs around it, and it is very pleasant running through the avenues of greenery. Towada the town was quite nice, with many wooden buildings and grass and trees – so sadly lacking in many Japanese tourist towns. But there were very few visitors around today and the swan-boats lying idle on the quay looked eminently lonely.

Loneliness

Loneliness

Oirase Valley

Oirase Valley

The road leading up south from the lake was steep and offered some fine views from the pass, the surface of the water actually an aqua-marine blue in places, surrounded by clouds running between the mountain tops.

The descent down the other side was phenomenal: for fifteen minutes I was alone in this world, trees hemming me in on either side, and the gradient and corners just acute enough that if you took the very best line on all the curves you could just about make it down without braking. And the sun had come out ! I cruised the last few miles through verdant Tohoku countryside and into the small onsen town of Oyu.

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In the sento that evening, it was rather “local”. I really couldn’t believe that what they was speaking was Japanese.


Day 4: The Highs of Hachimantai to the Lows of Karaoke

Got up before dawn because I’d seen the weather report and I knew that this is what cycling is all about ! Deep blue sky, a cool breeze, and the soft dawn rays of the sun. I followed a quiet minor valley parallel to the main one, hyper-green forests and fields, light sparkling off gurgling streams, dragonflies criss-crossing the air in front of me…absolute bliss.

Paddies, early morning

Paddies, early morning

After an hour or so I hit the main road, a little hotter but still mercifully devoid of traffic and climbing steadily upwards turned off again towards the Hachimantai plateau – at this point it became very steep, but shaded, as the narrow road twisted up and up. I finally saw the visitor’s centre over the prow on a stretch of straight road that I believed was the top – I was already at 1000m, knackered and overheated.

Green, Greener, Greenest

Green, Greener, Greenest

I asked the bloke at the information desk of the visitor’s centre if this was indeed the top of the pass – “just another 700 metres”, he said – and it took me a few seconds to realise that he was talking about frigging elevation, not distance. This final climb was the middle of a ridge, completely without shade and views until the top of the pass. And at the top, 1560m, it had become too hazy to see anything anyway, apart from the lower slopes of Iwate-san.

Easy

Easy

The descent was fast and dangerous – a dragonfly splattered into a messy hundred pieces on my sunglasses at 70km/h – and I couldn’t really appreciate the scenery, but the lower reaches seemed quite desolate. I passed a lonely youth hostel at the end of a row of large shuttered hotels and boarded up onsen. Grim. For 10km I had no choice but to join the abysmally busy 282 trunk road south, fearing for my life as trucks skimmed past me. Out of desperation I headed off briefly into the mountains with a vague notion to find an onsen and a campground but it was an upward climb, it was getting dark, and there was no guarantee I’d find food. And rain was in the air.

So it was back to another busy road as it got dark and I laboured to find a place to stay, finding myself on a pitch black road leading to Tsunagi Onsen, which I’d found on the map, modestly fronting the lakeside on the other side of a bridge. Sanctuary !

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The owner of a luxury onsen hotel toom pity and gave me the suite for 5000 Yen and I had the rooftop onsen to myself. Dinner was a dozen sticks of yakitori in a local bar, and the centre of some god-awful singing by a old toothless drunk bloke who of course kept insisting that I sing The Beatles with him. All along he was encouraged by the mama-san who kept clapping and shouting “Umai! Umai!” at appropriate moments. How can she live with herself ?


Day 5: Alone, but not Alone

Woke at 5:30AM, saw the rain and went back to bed. Ventured out a little after 8AM, splashing through puddles. I knew this would turn out to be a terrible day. The enticing looking diagonal road running almost unnoticed south west across the map had me imagining a sleepy tee-lined lane, densely forested hamlets, and perhaps a smokestack here and there, but the reality was a bit of an anti-climax, with farms and light agricultural industries lining a reasonably busy road. The sun made a brief appearance, but didn’t really turn my mood.

Rain, what rain ?

Rain, what rain ?

In Hottogaya I sheltered in a visitor’s centre in the middle of an electrical storm and watched a deluge of torrential rain attack the small town. I took Route 107 west and sheltered in a cosy deserted railway station for the next shower to pass. The 107 was dangerous with trucks so I was glad to get onto a steep mountain road south connecting to Route 40, which would take high up into the clouds and over the prefectural boundary from Akita-ken to Iwate-ken.

The lower 10km were lined by small farms and it started to rain heavily – there wasn’t much shelter and I was drenched and cold pretty quickly anyway. Up and up. Wetter and wetter. The road narrowed, the farmhouses disappeared and after some time I found myself in front of a locked gate barring further progress. The red sign seemed to indicate that the road has been washed away but every cyclist knows that the first gate at least must be climbed and ignored. And I was already so wet it didn’t really matter.

Once over the gate and back on the bike, I did deliberate over my decision though: nobody knew I was here, there was no cellphone reception, it was very wet and slippery, and it was also getting late. The weather could change for the worse at any minute, and judging by the rocks and branches littering the path in front of me, I’d say nobody had been this way for quite some time. But the alternative was a long descent back where I’d come from and an indirect route following some rather nasty trunk roads.

Misty roads ...

Misty roads …

It was getting creepy, fog filled the valley below me and I could hear, but not identify, noises from the forest. Trees peeked from the mist and the road twisted up so steeply that I had to dismount and push. The road was narrow and crooked, but there was still no sign of the landslide. But I’d come this far, and round the next corner I spotted the shape of a house only a few more hundred metres up the road. But it turned to out to be deserted, shifted from it’s foundations and the debris of a few broken chairs and plates on the floor visible through it’s wrecked doorway. Visible on the other side of the road in the distance, through a large patch of overgrown grass was a huge black gash into the mountain side, an old mine entrance.

But the road carried on ahead of me and then turned round sharply to the right and led upwards, hugging the mountain side on the other side of the valley. It disappeared into clouds the colour of coal, hundreds of metres above me, and I stared at the menacing black sky beyond. I started humming “Full Moon” quietly… yes, it was best if I turned back.

Rain Damage

Rain Damage

A miserably wet hour of descent to the main road, my feet destroyed and the sense of defeat stinging more than the needles of rain in my face. Curious, I asked a policeman if that road really was impassable. “Oh yes, destroyed by the earthquake in June”, he said, “On the other side of that pass, there’s just nothing there anymore”. Well that made me feel better.


Day 6: Fire & Brimstone

The sun struggled feebly behind the clouds before giving up. From Route 108 I settled into Route 398, which climbed very gently, a quiet narrow road lined by old-fashioned shops and wooden houses, hemmed in by trees behind. A group of young school-kids bowed and chimed “ohayo gozaimasu” to me, instead of a more typically smug “hallo!” and running away. This was the Japan of another era, and towards the top of the mountain, signs of life became thinner, and only the occasional old lady, bent double, could be seen patiently tending her vegetable patch.

Guardian of the Vending machine

Guardian of the Vending machine

I turned off onto Route 51, a deserted road sweeping graciously up to Route 310, which my map showed as 20km of jagged edges along a mountain ridge; the tunnel of trees that led into it had me worrying that this road too might lead to nowhere, so I only entered after checking some local knowledge at a nearby onsen sanatorium, of flaking white paint and empty tiled corridors (why are all these places so deserted ?).

... to where ...?

… to where …?

This was a wonderful forest road, trees thick on either side, but quite incredibly steep: I took to shouting and grunting through the ups and downs. After around 5km of forest the road descended briefly through clouds of sulfurous steam into a desolate grey basin, housing a half-dozen simple wooden ryokan scattered around the road, a few and occasional jets of boiling water coming from the ground. I’d been told there was an onsen here, and I couldn’t imagine anything more eerie than this place at night.

Sulphur warning ...

Sulphur warning …

On the steep climb out of the basin there were now signs warning of poison gas and after a few more hairpin turns I was faced with a luminous white mountain of volcanic ash in front of me, surrounded here and there by yellow rocks and pools of steaming sulphur. I cycled past, upwards, the road disappearing above the cloud line.

A superb descent took me back to Route 108 – this would be a wonderful road through rural Tohoku, undulating through thick forest and green valleys, if it wasn’t for the trucks roaring past me every twenty seconds, and a series of long tunnels. There had been a wild alternative mountain road, clinging to the cliff face on the other side of the valley, but this had been closed and blocked off due to the earthquakes. In fact all the roads I rode today seemed to have taken a beating. I ended up in Naruko Onsen, a popular onsen town, and the cheapest lodging there – I hesitate to use the word “hotel” over “doss house” – was actually not very cheap at all.

And my arse was now sore. Very sore, an experience made all the more painful by having to articulate the symptoms in some detail to an attractive young woman behind the counter of the pharmacy.


Day 7: Not all that Glitters

The ointment I’d got for my nether regions seemed to have worked a treat after a good night’s rest but I was feeling drained of energy as soon as I got up. The morning started out cloudy, eventually turning into sunshine. I had originally planned to head to Route 458, the fabled “kokudo” (highway) that turns into a dirt trail, but first stopping by Ginzan Onsen, a quaint looking onsen village in Yamagata-ken that often featured on the cover of various hot-spring publications.

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I turned off onto a wonderful mountain road, lined by tall cool pines and then, in order to avoid a tunnel, took a steeper road up into the mountains that was no wider than a footpath, covered with moss in places, and looked more like a hiking trail. In fact, a sign at the bottom indicated that it was indeed an old path through the mountains many years ago, before the road and tunnel was built. By the time I made it to Ginzan onsen, I realised I was in no state to be going much further today.

Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen

The village was indeed very pretty, with a number of old ryokan and shops lining both sides of a narrow stream, and the whole picture looking quite beautiful – but… I wasn’t getting a good feel for the place. While resting outside one of the “omiyage” (souvenir) stores, the owner awkwardly engaged me in conversation, “pretty hot, eh?” she said without enthusiasm, before adding, after a few seconds pause, “so I guess you’ll be leaving soon, then ?”. I replied that I was planning to have lunch here and now, with some enthusiasm, she suggested a restaurant at the top of the street around the corner, “…and there’s plenty of space to put your, er, bike”. It only occurred to me later, as I walked past the two restaurants immediately next to her shop and trudged upwards to the edge of town, that she just wanted me and my bike out of her way.

Meanwhile, two men were working in the stream, one younger guy in slacks, sports shirt and a tight “punch perm”, the hallmark of the small town Japanese gangster. He sat on a rock to the side of the stream, smoking cigarettes and shouting orders to the other guy, a harried-looking old man up to his knees in water, shoveling soil and moving rocks from one place to another under the hot glare of the sun. I spent a couple of hours in Ginzan Onsen, mainly making use of the free public “foot bath” and all the time this young lout was ordering around this poor old guy. So, undoubtedly a very attractive onsen village, but something just not quite right with the place.

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I took a minor farm road to Lake Tokurako which was absolutely beautiful, a gentle descent down through a wide valley surrounded by rice paddies and mountains, the sun gleaming. The lake itself was initially a little sad under the harsh sunlight but dissipated into a pleasant orange glow as the sun got lower. I camped nearby, hoping a leisurely dip in a nearby onsen would rehabilitate me, and that hopefully I wouldn’t get attacked during the night some of the extreme wildlife, which included moths the size of birds, and stick insects at least the length of my forearm….


Day 8: Route 458

Massive biting ants crawling over my tent – it was a terrifying night. The lake looked quite surreal in the dawn light and I reached the fabled Route 458, after a 35km warm-up of lakeside lanes and minor passes. A lot of greenery and some steep sections but nothing to suggest it was anything other than a normal road – there were even, of course, a few vending machines. After another short climb, the descent ended in a T-junction: to the right the road headed for an onsen, to the left was a hiking path into the woods. Oh, hang on, this was actually Highway 458 ! Even more than I expected…

Spot Route 458

Spot Route 458

From this point I knew I was committed – the map showed over 40km of tortuous up and downs, with no escape routes. It was one jagged line punching it’s way south; the only road for many miles around, the map showing only an expanse of bare white to the east and to the west of it – just unchartered mountains.

Route 458

Route 458

Sure enough, after a few turns in the forest, this road, or perhaps more accurately – this path – was clinging to the side of the mountain, bare rock and trees to my left, and a sheer drop into a jungle clad valley to my right. And no guard rail to protect me. After this twisty hanging path continued for a few more miles the tarmac turned into dirt, gravel and rock, and for the first time since I’d cycled through Western China I was having to swing my whole body above the bike trying to keep traction and balance as the road wound upwards. I couldn’t believe that they let traffic on this at all, never mind label it a bleedin’ “highway” !

I didn’t really take in the significance of a cute-looking bee sign at the entrance to the road until I noticed a swarm of bees would start pestering me whenever I stopped – which meant I soon gave up the idea of stopping. And now it was late morning and the exposed sections were painfully painfully hot, and I was worried about running out of water (and bee attacks, and bear attacks) – after all, very few cars passed this way.

Route 458

Route 458

At midday, now close to passing out, and paranoid that the damned bees were still following me I finally struggled to the top of the pass. A brief period of asphalt turned back into dirt, and a car struggling up the opposite way stopped; “Gambatte!” encouraged the driver, “Only another 10km to the top!”. What the f****??… As I was digesting this unexpected news, and they saw the hurt and confusion gradually appear in my face, they quickly handed me a bottle of water and sped off, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

It wasn’t pretty, but I made the next pass sometime around 1pm, pleased that my wheels had held up under the punishment. We’d done it (the bike and me), we’d beaten the 458 ! The descent was fast, and just as hard as the climb during the dirt sections, and the road was quite eerie towards the bottom, lined by decrepit buildings, long deserted, and steep rocky paths heading off into small valleys or just blocked off.

Joining the main road, I spent 45 minutes looking for a restaurant that wasn’t a ramen shop. I failed. Afterwards, Route 287 was busy in places but a sizable part of it pleasantly followed the Mogami river, leading me eventually into the town of Nagai. For dinner, ramen.


Day 9: Rain stops Play

I felt old and battered from yesterday’s rigors of the road, and when I saw the rain pouring down outside I didn’t rush to get ready. It did turn to sunshine long enough to cycle through some pleasant country lanes, arriving in Yonezawa by late morning. The rain returned, turning into a ferocious thunder and lightening show while I sheltered in the museum through to the afternoon. A brief break in the weather gave me the chance to find a cheap business hotel where I could spend the rest of the day moping around in misery.


Day 10: Lake Inashiroko and it’s Hidden Enclaves

In complete contrast to yesterday – it doesn’t get much better than this ! Woke up to blue skies and a direct path to the mountains, initially through the pleasant outskirts of Yonezawa in the early morning light (it wasn’t yet 7am) and then the beginnings of a gentle climb with open farmland on my left and mountains towering over to me on my immediate right. Then before I knew it, I was in a forest, tall pines on either side keeping me cool, if not actually a little chilly …

Perfect Onsen Village

Onsen Village

This road took me directly through a small onsen village, Shirabaru, with log cabin B&Bs and old a couple of old wooden ryokan with deep thatched roofs lining the steep winding street, harboured deep among the cliffs and trees, like a secret cleft into the mountain itself. This is exactly how an onsen village should look like, I thought to myself.

It was a long haul to the pass – Shirabaru Toge, at over 1400m in height – but the road soon opened out into sunlight as it edged along the valley. But despite the sun and the clear blue skies it wasn’t too hot, and the the occasional icy blast of a delicious cold breeze from the roadside waterfalls was close to ecstasy.

View from the pass

View from the pass

I lingered at the top of the pass taking in the views of the Lake Hibarako down below on the other side, in the next prefecture, Fukushima-ken. And it was still only 9:30am. After the effort expended getting up here I was reluctant to leave and after a short kip on a table, begrudgingly started the descent to the Urabandai area. A leisurely ride along the lake passing the occasional log-house, many serving as B&Bs, made for a pleasant late morning and I eventually stopped at Goshiki-numa for a hike around the luminous ponds there.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREBack on the road I hit the north shore of Lake Inashiroko and spent the next few miles on the horrendous trunk road Route 47 before it headed off inland while I continued south on a much quieter lakeside road, fighting an unbelievable cross-wind to stay upright. Now this was a real discovery – the road led down the east side of the lake, and an even quieter lane hugged the beach – in the late afternoon it was surreal how the sunlight filtered through the wooded groves by the lakeside.

Perhaps more surreal was the sight that greeted me outside one of the wood cabins – a group of twenty people facing each other in a circle, hands raised towards the sky, chanting and swaying. Once I was sure that the possibility for an orgy was minimal, I moved on.

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The narrow road took me through small sleepy villages and it was a while before I realised that there was now a mountain range between the lakeside and the main road. I couldn’t believe what a fantastic day of cycling it had been but my leisurely pace and explorations through the forest had put me behind schedule.

The road turned into a rough concrete lane, still following the lake, leading me round the base of a cliff with sheer rock on my left and water on my right, the waves actually lapping over the surface of the road.

Sinking road

Sinking road

Then – thankfully – the road rose. And rose and rose, no wider than a path through boughs of trees and ferns overhanging half the road. It descended out into an open glade with a single farmhouse in the middle of a ring of mountains, a full 360 degree view of the towering peaks around. An ancient old lady sat outside and smiled at me, “konnichi wa”.

Then I was off again, up up up into the mountains, only half-tempted to go back and see if I hadn’t dreamt the last fifteen minutes. By now I was starting to fret a little and stuffed the last of my food down me while the last rays of the setting sun dazzled me through the branches and leaves.

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Another furious descent and I was spat out to the edge of a plain, paddy fields cloaked by a semi-circle of mountains on one side, and the lake on the other. A choice of two rough gravel tracks continued ahead. A friendly farmer in a K-truck patiently obliged me and led me to a campsite by the lakeside, but by this point I had no food… “you know”, he said, “you can always stay at my place”.

So Suzuki-san took me back to his house to meet his family, and while his wife and mother-in-law prepared a banquet, he showed off his pride & joy, a Koei steel framed bike he built up himself over 30 years ago, and we talked bicycles for the rest of the evening, occasionally interrupted by curious neighbours, keen to see what this strange foreigner was doing here…


Day 11: The Thatched Houses of Ouchijuko

Like an excited schoolboy, Suzuki-san asked his wife if it was alright that he ride with me a short way – and on his bike he led me to the first pass of the day, before waving goodbye and turning back. Glorious sunshine again and a quiet forest road but a bugger of a climb first thing in the morning – 300m of elevation gain in 3km, a downhill, and then another horrible climb up again.

Aizu Wakamatsu

Aizu Wakamatsu

This effort eventually took me down into Aizu-Wakamatsu, a pleasant old castle town if only I had the time to stop and enjoy it… I wanted to finish as close to Nikko as I could today. I took the mountain road (of course!) – the old Edo-era post road south. Suzuki-san had told me not to miss Ouchijuko – a village consisting entirely of dozens of traditional “kayabuki” (thatched roof houses) in the middle of the mountains. His wife’s friend, Abe-san, lived here and she’d been told to expect a visit from me.

The road offered a phenomenal climb, a little hot now, but superb views and very very quiet. It topped out at around 800m so wasn’t too outrageous, and I could see the village of Ouchijuko quite far down below, nestled in the valley, several miles before I reached it.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIt really was very impressive – a wide long avenue lined by old thatched houses, functioning as omiyage shops, restaurants, clothes shops, grocers, etc, but almost as surprising was the large number of (Japanese) tourists, the only ones I’d really seen on this trip, infact.

I sought out Abe-san and had soba in her family’s restaurant, a beautiful old farmhouse over 400 years old. She confirmed that yes, everyone lives in these old houses and it is indeed a “regular” village (if you discount the hundreds of tourists of course…).

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I would have liked to stay longer but it was now midday and getting quite hot. Sticking to my policy of avoiding main roads whenever possible I took the minor road that ran east of the river rather than Route 121 and it was quite lovely, through fields and forests but quite a lot of climbing, and not very direct at all.

With time running out, and now in direct view of the blistering sun I crossed over the river to the west bank, back to the main road. It wasn’t too terrible and eventually I made it to a campsite about 15km north of the final pass that would take me into Tochigi-ken, and the end of my journey down the spine of the north.

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Day 12: A Final Farewell

A cold night but fantastic setting – the campsite was in the mountains and quite deep in the forest. There were scores of monkeys picking at the neighbouring apple orchard in the dawn light, and the whole field moved in a blur of furry bodies as they scampered back to the tree line once they saw me.

One climb, and then a day of mainly leisurely descents with a little up & down. The main road, Route 121 was actually really nice in the morning light, with most of it shaded from the sun by trees. A badly maintained surface, but all the same – a real find. Some parts were busy with trucks but these all turned off West onto Route 23, after which the traffic calmed down completely again.

RIMG0646

Instead of crossing one particularly long bridge and tunnel I took the old road round the side of one of the dams, resting at a wonderful little park that would be just perfect for camping. Found a couple of bees attached to my shiny blue cycling T-shirt, one of which stung me. Always happens.

On the descent I almost came off my bike in shock, alarmed at seeing one road-worker sporting an outrageously indecent handlebar moustache, a rarity for a Japanese man to sport such a monster.

Cutting across the hills north of Nikko I decided to climb up to the temples to finish this trip off properly, and indeed they were beautiful in the warm sunlight of the late afternoon. I spent a couple of hours walking around the back lanes of the temple area, taking it in – a perfect end – before heading down to the station to disassemble my bike and pack her up before boarding the train home, rather reluctantly.

Goal !

Goal !

Walking into Nikko station, struggling with my packed up bike and luggage, I noticed two young  ladies, backpackers, heading out the opposite way. Our eyes met and we briefly paused, confused, at what seemed to be mutual familiarity. But the moment passed, and I was already on the platform before the realisation hit me… by the Gods, they were the two ladies I’d seen (rather thoroughly) in Sukayu onsen ! I was gutted, having missed the chance to genuinely utter that immortal line: “Sorry, I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on …”

The End !

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Full photos can be found here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stantopia/sets/72157607282985550/

Route Information (just in case you want to try it yourselves…)

Day 1: 85km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283346
Lodging: Minshiku opposite Ajigasawa Stn. 4000yen w/ breakfast.

Day 2: 92km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283348
Lodgings: Sukayu Onsen, 8000yen w/breakfast & dinner

Day 3: 80km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283351
Lodgings: Youth Hostel (not recommended)

Day 4: 140km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283353
Lodgings: Hotel Sansui, Tsunagi Onsen. 5000yen without meals.

Day 5: 116km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283356
Lodgings: Business hotel, nr Yokote. 5650yen without meals.

Day 6: 119km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283394
Lodgings: Kokuminshikusha, in Naruko Onsen. 6600yen w/breakfst and dinner.

Day 7: 63km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283394
Lodgings: Obanazawa campsite, Lake Tokurako.

Day 8: 147km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283400
Lodgings: “Business Hotel Nagai” in Nagai, 5000 Yen.

Day 9: 35km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283403
Lodgings: Business Hotel in Yonezawa, 2900 Yen.

Day 10: 108km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283409
Lodgings: South of Lake Inashiroko.

Day 11: 93km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283412
Lodgings: 15km north of Tochigi border, campsite 800 yen.

Day 12: 78km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283414

Total Distance: 1040km.

Misty Roads ...