Category Archives: Touring

From the Land of the Gods: Izumo to Kyoto

 

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From the home of the Shinto deities, Izumo Taisha, through 400 miles of roads less travelled to finish in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. Riding craggy windswept coastlines, snow-capped mountain passes and criss-crossing some of Japan’s richest highland farming country, luminous with lush green paddy fields.

Izumo Taisha is probably Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine, standing on the north west coast of Shimane prefecture. For seven days every Autumn the tens of thousands of spirits from around Japan leave their trees and their streams, their pastures and their rice fields, their roadside and their mountain shrines… and they gather in Izumo, so the legend goes.

It is a long way from anywhere really; I don’t know how the Gods travel there, but for me the best approach was the Sunrise Izumo, Japan’s last surviving night train, departing Tokyo station at 10pm on a Friday night and arriving twelve and a half hours later in Izumo city. It is not a place you visit on the spur of the moment; in fact you are unlikely to visit Shimane prefecture at all.

So all the more reason to start from here. Myth or otherwise, I often feel I’m never quite alone on these isolated Japanese mountain roads – this way I could let them know I’m coming.

Matsue Revisited

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A sense of boyish excitement swept over me as I waited on the platform for the Sunrise Izumo to pull in. It was the first night train I had been on since my trip up to Tohoku in 2009, for my “Spine of the North” ride, and sadly, this was now the last scheduled night train remaining in Japan – I wonder how long before this one is retired ? It took a few practised limbo dancing manoeuvres to squeeze into my berth but once inside it was quite comfortable and the bed lay almost along the full length of the window. I could comfortably flash at any number of people waiting on countryside station platforms as the Sunrise Izumo sped through non-stop.

I’d finished a book by the time we arrived next morning – I can’t remember when I’d last had the luxury of time to do something like this. A short 10km ride to the shrine and I joined the lines of people making their way through the main gates – I thought it pertinent to don a pair of regular shorts over the lycra ones. Lines of people were queued up at the various shrines making offerings and prayers… I made a cursory stroll round the grounds, enjoyed a couple of the gardens, but I was itching to get back on the bike and start towards Matsue, as it was already well after midday.

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Up until the west shore of Lake Shinjiko lake I could take a combination of quiet roads and deserted cycle paths, past homesteads that looked like they were floating on the water of the surrounding paddy fields. The croaking of a thousand frogs, and hoots, tweets, chirps and cries of a whole menagerie of birds and herons made me realise that by golly it was Spring and I was on holiday!

The main road to Matsue was busy with holiday traffic but more than manageable; the lake was on my right and thick foliage and earth ramparts on the left – behind these modest natural barriers was another world, a green oasis of small farms and fields sloping up to a low mountain range which separated the inland plains from the sea, on the other side. And above these the earlier cloudy skies of the morning was clearing to reveal pristine blue skies behind.

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Nearing Matsue I veered off north, heading to the coast for some spectacular scenery of the Japan Sea coastline, joining a local basset hound lazing on a rock to admire the views. I would have liked to circle around the entire headland but there was a hard day coming up tomorrow, and I reluctantly turned back inland after 10km… save it for another day. An enjoyable climb past flower-fringed farmhouses sat at impossible heights on impossibly steep valley sides and a long descent into the city of Matsue.

I had last visited Matsue many years ago in the days of film camera and asking real people for directions, and it stuck in my memory for it’s serene park, castle grounds and a pleasant old town area… I had always wanted to return. Sadly I only had time to visit the castle this time but I can think of worse places to be stuck for a couple days. Ah, next time.

 

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Mt Daisen

Poles of Koinobori commanded the gardens of hundreds of homes and long lines of them were stretched across rivers… put in place for Childers’s Day, these rows of cotton carp fluttering in the wind are synonymous with Golden Week, especially for me as I have usually spent this time cycling somewhere in Japan (though perhaps less so in recent years, now I have a boy of my own.)

Incense wafted across my path from unseen shrines and I rode rolling hills across quiet valleys, passing dozens of ancestral tombs high up in the hills or stood right in the middle of the plains. The rice fields were high with water and I saw my reflection in their green speckled surface as I cycled next to them; there were so many interesting roads curving up into forests and out of sight and I wish I had time to explore them all; I cycled through countless small hamlets of magnificent traditional houses, owned by old moneyed families.

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The locals

Today my route was to take me to Mt Daisen, the largest mountain in the Chugoku region, and through the early morning haze I could already see the silhouette of it’s perfect volcanic cone 50km away, dominating the landscape, taunting me. And it was indeed a brutal climb, almost a kilometre of elevation gain in one long straight ascent, with all but no shade. Oh my, but it was worth it. The descent – and another ascent – was my favourite kind of riding… winding forest roads. The icy saw-toothed peaks of Daisen made a spectacular backdrop as I descended at speed, trying to maintain a decent line against some tremendous cross-winds. There was still snow up here, and – surreally – I passed a couple of kids having a snowball fight on the side of he road. The views to the Japan Sea would have been fantastic but for the heavy haze today.

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01GW - 69In Misasa onsen I found a room available and decided to stay here to heal my tired legs. The onsen in the ryokan was extremely hot and I had to take cold showers in between brief dips, trying to to relieve the pain of my aching muscles with the pain of submerging sunburnt flesh into hot sulphuric water. It seemed to work. I caught the last night of the town’s golden week firework display over the river before I retired to bed, the explosion of the pyrotechnics echoing from the slopes of the valley like an ariel bombardment.

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Choices choices…

 

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Cape Fear

Still somewhat sore and tired when I got up (I never sleep well in hotels), there was a 500 metre climb to welcome me right out of the door. The early morning sun illuminated the flooded rice fields, long shadows forming a myriad of geometric patterns as ducks flitted playfully across the surface and bull frogs let loose their occasional huge belches. At the top of the pass, I sat down and leisurely finished an onigiri, actually taking the time to appreciate the serenity of my surroundings, deep in the mountains – all too often I cycle on. Any feelings of lethargy I might have had were now quite conclusively banished.

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It was a fantastic morning of climbs and descents across valleys full of paddy fields as I was serenaded by a chorus of hoots, whistles, chirps, tweets and the occasional unknown grunt of some unknown creature deep in the undergrowth (ironically, what some of the locals probably say of me). My original route through the mountains was thwarted by one road closed, and another seemingly not existing, so I had to ride down to the coast and through the city of Tottori. Central Tottori was unpleasant but I could navigate most of it through backroads and a river path.

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Coming this way meant I could see Tottori’s most famous sight, the “Tottori Sakkyu” – the giant sand dunes. I’d been here before on another bike trip (Yamaguchi to Tottori) but it was still quite an impressive sight, though I didn’t bother climbing them this time around. Cold blasts of wind buffeted me along this stretch of coastline and for the first time this year I heard the chirp of cicadas.

There are very very few foreigners stuck out in Tottori, but I met two of them.The first one just plain ignored my “gaijin nod” in the 7-11 and walked past me, whilst the next one coming towards me on his “mamachari” actually stopped when he caught sight of me, a look of upset on his face, turned around and took off in the direction he’d come from, setting a helluva pace on his shopping bike and seemingly disturbed by the possibility of conversation.

In contrast, an old Japanese man got up from his lunch and stared at me so hard and so long I had to look around to see if there wasn’t some murder happening behind me.

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This was some of the best coastal scenery I had ever seen, from hidden sandy coves, through to towering jagged cliffs, foaming waves breaking against rocky outcrops, and the ocean a beautiful aquamarine blue. And there was nobody here! The road I was following, route 178, was designated a “kokudo” or national highway, but for the most part had no traffic and was barely the width of a car in some places as it went up and down like a rollercoaster ride, hugging the cliffs like a lovers last embrace. I love it that I can still discover roads like this in Japan.

The seafood lunch I had was a work of culinary art – for only 800 yen. Sun, sea and er, seafood… after all, isn’t that what a holiday’s all about ?

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Then I decided to turn off onto an enticing sleepy looking road edging round one of the more isolated promontories. The amazing views were paid for with every pedal revolution through savagely steep climbs and descents along this twisting ribbon of a road. After a while I realised I had left the last fishing port and even a stretch of tea-fields behind me some time ago; the barriers had disappeared from the edge of the road and the only sounds I was hearing were the rustling of the snakes at the side of the road and the crashing of the waves against rocks far far below.

 

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But I carried on, steering carefully around the numerous rock slides – this was the last place I’d want to get a puncture. It was hot, I was running low on water and I had no idea how much further to go and how much more climbing to suffer. But still I carried on. My legs were fried from all the climbing and my nerves shattered from the descents but I still saw no sign of this bloody thing ending. I’d stopped receiving a phone signal a long time back and there was no sign that anyone actually used this road clinging so precariously to the cliff face. What if something happened to me ? Who would know about it ? How much further is there – do I continue or do I turn back ? Oh Jeyzus I don’t think I had enough energy to tackle all that climbing again – I was now out of food.

It was just after I’d started softly crying to myself that I spotted a lighthouse, and finding it on my map knew that I had at last crossed over to the eastern side of the cape and this whole ordeal would soon be over. After a long careful descent I eventually joined back up with the main road – I never thought I would be so happy to see so much traffic!

This little diversion had put me behind schedule and I looked for a place in Kasumi (now in Hyogo prefecture), a nondescript fishing village with no obvious tourist attractions that had well over a dozen minshuku (B&B) and apparently none of them having any available rooms. Maybe it’s the lycra. Anyhow, after 30 minutes of knocking on doors I found one place which could put me up and drive me to a local fish restaurant for dinner.

What a day.

 

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Kyoto by the Sea

The sky was dark with clouds threatening rain this morning so I decided to make a half-day of it and dash for Amanohashidate, famous for the narrow sandbar that crosses it’s bay, and it’s appearance of a “bridge to heaven” when viewed from the surrounding mountains.

The dark clouds and feisty waves crashing against the cliffs lent an edge to the morning’s ride, which I rather enjoyed as a contrast to the blue skies and temperate weather I’d be fortunate to experience so far. There was a string of villages and ports along the coast and I savoured the many small climbs and descents between each of them, and the occasional forays inland. There are some beautiful backroads here and for the first time I am starting to see more and more bamboo groves lining my route.

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I saw a group of junior high school students coming towards me all on identical bicycles each with a huge wing mirror. “Ohayo Gozaimasu” they all greeted me in chorus as I passed. Later in the afternoon a class of pre-schoolers were being led up a hill by their teachers and each and every one of them screamed an excited “konnichi wa” to me.

Originally I had planned to stay in Kinosaki last night, and when I cycled through it now I realised it was probably best that I hadn’t pinned my hopes on finding a place here. Plush ryokan of rich deep wood and carefully manicured gardens, elaborately decorated public baths, kimono-clad tourists strolling the narrow main street and trying not to get run over by the traffic…Kinosaki was the Knightsbridge of onsen towns, and if my lycra clad appearance had seemingly put off the locals in Kasumi, I’ve no doubt they would have run me out of town with a pitchfork if I enquired about lodgings here.

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After the town of Kyotango I deviated from policy, and decided to take the more direct main road, route 312, rather than being stuck up some minor mountain pass if it started pouring down with rain. For a “kokudo” it was actually rather nice: wide with a decent path for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as a generous verge – and very few trucks. The dedicated cycling path through the tunnels was wider than most of the roads I’d been on so far. I found a few interesting roads – some blocked by landslides – to take me a few miles north of the bay so I could cycle across the sandbar into Amanohashidate town proper.

At over two miles long and covered with thousands of tall pine trees the sandbar is impressive; the town is promoted as “Kyoto by the Sea” and although it is nothing like Kyoto it is indeed pleasant with a temple, coffee shops and boat ride and such. I treated myself to a ryokan with a view over the bay and spent a lazy afternoon dozing.

 

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Steve by the Onsen

A great palaver in the morning involving a broken valve on my spare tube, the hotel’s tool-box and a couple of sturdy rubber gloves meant that I left the hotel much later than planned. I didn’t want to risk being stranded in the mountains due to any mechanical incidents, especially as the forecast was rain for this afternoon again. However, any bad mood I might have had was soon fixed by the first climb of the day: I said goodbye to the Japan Sea and turned directly south.

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Route 45 took me through a narrow valley of small well kept homesteads of a few paddy fields each, and colourful local shrines lining the road. It was clear the villages here took pride in their appearance. I was determined to avoid the main road south and busy with trucks, and as I went cross-country across the valleys I found some back roads roads that took me through dark hollows of thick bamboo; the air was heavy with moisture – the rain would surely start any moment now – and I had to concentrate to stay upright on the climbs as my rear wheel slipped on the steep, damp, moss covered surface; but it was wonderful, and birds of all kinds kept me company with their tunes as I made my way slowly down the valley.

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Originally I had planned to head eastwards to the mountains and call ahead for a room in youth hostel I’d found on the map. It had started raining lightly and I thought I could still make it. But in the space of half an hour it went from spitting to full on chucking-it-down and I made my way down to the main road finding shelter under a gas station forecourt while I wondered what to do. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this all afternoon, so as soon as there was a break in the weather I tuned around and headed in the other direction to the previous town, Ayabe, about 12km back.

And what a good decision that was ! I found a cheap hotel next to a great onsen where I spent the afternoon treating myself to the various baths, jacuzzi and rotemburo (outdoor baths) there, while I watched a few determined kayakers potter up and down the river in the drizzle outside.

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Into Kyoto

Awake at 2am, unable to sleep again, and looked out the window; the rain had stopped, a full moon was high in the sky, and a wall of mist was rolling it’s way slowly and deliberately down from the mountains towards the river… I knew this would be a perfect day.

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I left early, and the mist still lay heavy over the valley and the sun was a weak orb of light glowing behind. I was cycling through another world as the sun slowly burnt off the last of the mist leaving fields and trees that were a vibrant and luminous green from the overnight rain, while a cacophony of hoots and other noises started up from the undergrowth and the cries from eagles echoed off the valley sides.

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It was an incredible route and I promised myself I would be back again to explore more of northern Kyoto prefecture. Route 12, a quiet hilly road for the most part following the course of the river led onto route 38, taking me up to the mountains proper. There were more and more “kayabuki” appearing now (straw thatched farmhouses), most with their tall steep roofs covered against the elements, but many with the thatch exposed. There was even a village of them, the straw roofed houses lined up behind each other like straw dominos up the hillside, and what struck me was that these were regular working farmhouses; I had been to similar villages in Japan before but their business had invariably been tourism, and every other house was a restaurant or “omiyage” shop. There was none of that here – in fact I felt rather self conscious taking a photograph.

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The road was gorgeous and eagles soared overhead as I climbed steadily higher. After the last village there were only the occasional hamlet of two or three houses, seemingly deserted, on the way to the main climb. At the top of the pass I was greeted with a flourish of “yamazakura” trees, the pink blossoms falling lazily from their branches forming pools of pink leaves on the ground, and a line of them running down the other side of the pass like a bridal procession for a mountain god.

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I was very low on water by the time I’d got over the pass and it had been a long long time since I’d passed any vending machine. The farmhouses I passed were eerily quiet, and only occasionally would I see someone working the fields. Any taps I saw were fed from the streams – I filled my bottle with water from one of them but it seemed to me that the cloudy brew swirling around was not suitable for drinking. I found a farmhouse off the road with a few people sitting idly on the veranda and asked one of them if they could spare me some water. “There’s no drinking water here” he said gruffly, and barked some unintelligible directions at me before heading indoors.

After that, I didn’t feel like approaching any more farmhouses. I came across a forest worker and he told me of a restaurant a few miles further on (as I eyed his bottle of tea enviously…) and sure enough fifteen minutes of downhill later I found a small rustic restaurant, right here, deep in the middle of the mountains! And it was the best bowl of soba I can remember.

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This road had been a classic and I resigned myself to the fact that things couldn’t get better than this; but these mountains kept on giving ! The jagged lines of route 477 south on the map hinted that it might be interesting and the climb up to the pass was pleasantly lined by small villages and standalone farmhouses, almost right up to the top. And then, on the other side… oh my oh my oh my.

It was a tightly winding descent through a lush sea of deep pine forest, the trees spaced far enough apart that I could see the road wind down several turns below me; the scent of pine as I slowly descended was intoxicating. The road was badly potholed in places (it would make a much better climb) but slowing down just gave me even more time to appreciate it. I came out of the pine forest into Kurama Onsen, with it’s classic winding narrow street through the pines, with temples and shops and a smattering of tourists. A little further and I was on the outskirts of Kyoto city.

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I headed to the station via Higashiyama and Gion, a little perturbed by the tide of tourists, but with a very satisfied grin on my face. Cycling is the secret to travel in Japan… I just hope that none of these other people find out…

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I’ll be back!

Notes:

Full photos here:

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Stats:
Sat 6th May: Matsue. 80km / 600m
Sun 7th May: Misasa Onsen, 120k / 2200m
Mon 8th May: Kasumi, 115km / 2000m
Tues 9th May: Amanohashidate, 100k / 1200m
Wed 10th May: Ayabe, 80k / 1000m
Wed 11th May: Kyoto, 130k / 1600m

GPS tracks:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728278845
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728278897
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279014
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279060
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279097
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279140

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Tokyo to Nagoya

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It has been well over a month of travel, colds, and cancelled weekend passes leaving me yearning for the mountains, as the muscles in my legs shrivel away and the remaining strength in my lungs support nothing more than the occasional left-over hacking cough into the face of some grim looking commuter on the packed early morning express.

If I’m not riding my bike then a poor methadone substitute is to read about it, and write about it – and the latter is long overdue. So let’s go back to the end of April, my short Golden Week mini-trip of Tokyo to Nagoya. Nagoya is where the in-laws live and whilst my wife and son were conventionally going by train (two hours) I decided to go by bike (three days).

The roads I’d chosen were certainly not direct, but most definitely scenic. Although I said Tokyo, I decided to start in Chichibu – usually a 70km ride from home, but having ridden this section many dozens of times over the years I felt no need to do this again so settled for a train there. Close enough.

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Day 1: Chichibu to Uminokuchi

IMG_6237The last leg of the early morning train into Chichibu unveiled vistas of lush tea terraces, shaded forests and high mountain peaks framed by deep blue sky. It was a gorgeous day and I was impatient to arrive and get my journey underway. But it was lucky foresight that I took a few more minutes to stock up with onigiri at a 7-11 near the station – this would be the last store I would see until the following morning.

Crossing west over the river, a twenty minute climb took me up and over the ridge of the hilltop park, a more pleasant alternative to following Route 299 through the suburbs of the city, and proved a harder than expected shock for my legs. The day was warm, hot even under the direct glare of the sun, but the heat was perfectly tempered by a cool breeze, and the side roads I’d chosen were devoid of traffic as they finally led me to Route 299: by now not much more than a single lane road, and just as quiet as the lanes I’d taken to get here (and on a Saturday no less!).The road wound purposefully upwards to my first pass of the day, to Shigazaka Toge, sheltering me under a dark canopy of trees, the views opening up here and there on my left over the Chichibu valley. I don’t think I’d climbed the pass from this side before and it was a wonderful discovery. It had been hiding under my Toge radar for far too long.

IMG_6262uBeyond Shigazaka, and the descent into the next valley, Route 299 would rise higher still up to Jikkoku Toge, a 1500 metre plus monster that would take me into the northern reaches of the Saku valley. But there was a bigger monster, Budou Toge, at over 1600 metres and a kilometre of straight elevation gain on a minor road shooting off south west. This has got to be good, I thought, filled up with water and settled in for a long hard slog. With just the very occasional car and two cyclists over the next 30km it was lonely, and not in the way that makes you think how lucky you are to be able to get away from everything. On the left the road skirted a reinforced concrete mountain side for the most part, and over to my right the views were uninspiring; no sleepy hamlets, and whatever trees there were, were thin and ungenerous in their cover. There was just no intimacy with this mountain.

IMG_6264There were a few smaller passes to cross, and the last one of the day was a narrow track winding leftwards up and beyond a tunnel in front of me. The late afternoon sun glittered promisingly through the trees, and this little broken track tempted me off the main road despite it’s gradient. I climbed out of the saddle under boughs of trees and had to carefully control the bike over a path strewn increasingly with huge rocks and rotting timber – it was clear nobody had been this way for a long time. Then the clouds rolled in and it didn’t seem quite the pleasant diversion it first looked; in fact it felt downright sinister. I’d invested too much energy to go back now and the decent soon started. But it was extremely steep, taken very gingerly and seemingly never ending – by now I was convinced the boulders and fallen branches suspended across the path were conspiring to keep me there, an offering for their malevolent mountain god, and when at last I saw a small farm tucked in a recess of the mountain sides below me, I cried out aloud with relief, and joined a lane that took me eventually down to the main road.

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There was a warm welcome from the old lady at the hotel in Uminokuchi (relieved that the mountain spirits had not abducted her guest that evening) and my room looked out over the garden with no thankfully no view of the ominous hills I’d passed over earlier.

Day 2: Uminokuchi to Iida

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IMG_6290uI had to first descend to a convenience store to get some supplies and quite a way past my turn off for Mugisaka Toge, already extending today’s climbing before it had even bloody started. It was a straight 1200m gain in elevation over a desolate 22 kilometres – not that steep but certainly persistent and with a wind that screamed like a turbine. It was a grey day, threatening with rain at some points, and the cloud shrouded icy peaks of the Southern Alps to my left did not make for cheery company.

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At long last, at around the 1700m mark, I came cross a single restaurant – closed or abandoned, I wasn’t sure which – and here there was the turnoff west onto the final stretch, a further 450m of climbing to go to the top. As wind howled around me and I looked for a place where I could lay my bike without it getting blown down the slopes, I really thought about packing it in. The pass had only been open a week after it’s long winter closure and right now it felt rather daunting – this is not what a fun “golden week” ride is all about ! Before long a couple of motorcyclists came past and headed upwards, and buoyed by the fact that I wasn’t the only one going up there, set off for the top, passing still snowy verges and the bare white trunks of trees, branches still devoid of leaves – it would be some time before Spring visited this place..

IMG_6298uThe decent was long, cold and bumpy – the seasons do not treat these roads with much care. I emptied the contents of my overnight bag and put on everything I had, as well opening all the “kairo” (hot pads) I had and fixing them to my toes and hands so the decent became bearable, enjoyable even. There were some spectacular “besso”, or holiday lodges, on the lower slopes looking out over some truly royal views. I looked longingly at the more luxurious ones with chimneys, imagining an alternative morning spent in front of a roaring log fire.

IMG_6311uEventually the road took me down to the plains and I arrived in Chino, a large town that lies in the centre of a large basin surrounded by mountains and ridges of various hues. It took an age to get warmth back into my body and I found it incomprehensible that people were walking around in T-shirts while I had my hands cupped desperately around a hot cup of coffee trying to get some feeling back into my fingers. Yet, ninety minutes later, after struggling to find my way to find the right road based on my mis-functioning GPS, and eventually climbing south on Rt 152 up to Tsuetsuki Toge, I had to take an emergency sit down in an air conditioned cafe to avoid succumbing to heat-stroke. It was a funny day.

IMG_6325uThe rest of the afternoon was hazy, into a strong headwind – at times I was having to peddle down 5% gradients just to keep my speed. It was wearing me down, and although I’d planned to follow the Akiba Kaito south (Rt 152) before turning west to Iida for the night, I’d done this route before and turned off earlier instead to Rt 18, hoping that I might find more shelter from the wind. And what a find this was ! Initially a little sterile looking it took me up one nice pass with a wonderful winding descent through rice terraces, and then – careful to take the old Rt18 rather than the new one – a narrow road, sheltered under trees that hugged the winding river south, ending the day on a high.

Day 3: Iida to Mizunami

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The advantages to staying in a hotel five yards from a level crossing is that’s it’s easy to wake up for an early start… a hot day today (reached 29 degrees later in the afternoon) and an initial straight-as-an-arrow ascent up a narrow road out of the town turned a corner and I was suddenly in a paradise of narrow leafy switchbacks alternating with slowly ascending curves squeezed between the mountain on my right and the expanding valley on my left. Birdsong enveloped me, and the mountain sides revealed a multitude of benevolent “jizo” statues looking down on me.

IMG_6373There was only one way – UP! – but it was well signposted, and the constantly changing grade kept it interesting. Freshly painted shrines greeted me on corners while rows of well tended flowers lined the side of the road; and although there were monkeys eyeing the bananas in my back pocket they generously left me alone to enjoy the ride. This was clearly a mountain that was loved and cared for, and it emanated goodwill in return. When I finally reached Iida Toge at 1100 odd metres I almost wished I had more to go.
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And it just so happened that I did. There was a graciously winding descent to a narrow sanctuary of just a few hectares of flat land, walled in by the surrounding forests, with a old buildings between elegant decay and more recent renovation. The road dropped me down into this hidden dell, and a few hundred yards later took me out of it again, back up, following a stream for a while until I crested Odaira Toge at over 1200 metres. These twin passes were now easily my favourite Toge, and the highlight my my trip.

IMG_6393After a long descent I arrived in Tsumago, a famous old post town on the ancient Nakasendo route, a picture postcard town with a long street of restored wooden buildings – I first found this on one of my early bike trips many years ago just by chance, and I felt like I had stepped back in time. Maybe it was the season, or the lateness of the hour, but all those years ago this was a magical place with just a few people wandering the streets in their geta (clogs) and yukata (summer kimono). Today there were already a fair number of tourists milling around and I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time. A pleasant climb took me over to the next post town, Magome, a single cobbled street descending a steep hillside for a mile or two. Visually spectacular, but far more tourist orientated that even Tsumago, and loads of Chinese tour groups, something that I didn’t see ten years ago. I walked down the street dutifully but then hopped on my bike to get away.

IMG_6381It was a great long descent from the mountains which ended unfortunately on the apocalypsal route 20 intersection of Nakatsugawa, a huge highway of twelve lanes cutting it’s way through the surrounding hills. Determined to avoid this monstrosity I found myself by mistake on the old pedestrian way of the Nakasendo, on a 30% incline so steep that I had no option but to commit to finishing it, scaring me senseless on the accompanying descent and hurting my legs so badly that I couldn’t face any more climbing for the rest of the day.

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IMG_6417uWith afternoon of long diversions, I headed north into the Gifu countryside in order to avoid the traffic magnet of busy roads around Nakatsugawa and was surprised at just how pleasant it was: rolling roads with short climbs and descents, many curves, lined by trees or generous views over green fields and pasture; the villages were pretty and well kemp, a sense of old moneyed families and extensive farms, and even a community pride. Usually you get the extremes of towering wild mountains or flat avenues of concrete in Japan – this was quite unusual and I promised myself to explore Gifu properly sometime.

IMG_6410

My only mistake was to then head to Route 66, it’s leafy verges belied the fact that it was maniac driver infested trunk road to Nagoya, with all sorts of traffic zooming by very closely and at speed: I valued my life more than an arbitrary goal of finishing within the city limits so stopped in the next town of Mizunami, one of Nagoya’s outer suburbs, and picked up a train from there. With 245km and 7200m of climbing I wasn’t too disappointed.

IMG_6398

Routes:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671170
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671220
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671269

Pink Surprise

Izu 035 day 1

Holidays are here

Sakura petals were sprinkled liberally over the road, like we were following in the tail of an eighty mile bridal procession, whilst the hills up on our left and across the bays and inlets on our right were painted in creams, purples and pinks. I never thought this weekend ride through the Izu peninsula would be about the cherry blossoms but once we started there was barely a stretch of road where there was not at least some flourish of pink among the trees, and often complete avenues of it. A perfect Japan spring ride, albeit discovered somewhat accidentally.

Izu 010 day 1
We’d started from Numazu, the initial traffic unavoidable but quickly tailing off once we’d turned onto Route 17 which would take us down along the craggy western coastline. Leg and arm warmers to start with, the temperature still brisk until mid-morning when it warmed up, and the hazy sunshine set a lazy holiday vibe to the day, just as it should be. This is what it’s all about!

Izu 110 day 1The constant up-down terrain of the west coast was quite unlike the long alpine-like climbs and descents of the Okutama and Yamanashi mountains, or the fast flat riverside paths of the Arakawa… it really takes it out of you. But the sparkling ocean off to our right relieved any flagging spirits, as did the generous sushi lunch we had in Toi onsen. But after Toi, the traffic thickened and we slowed down, scanning our map and our phones for side roads that could avoid the tunnels and the trucks, taking us through the narrow steep streets of sleepy fishing villages, up and down steps, and once or twice a spiraling swear-inducing 23% climb. But with a bit more planning we could avoided the worst of the traffic – a lesson for next time.

The highlight was our last stretch for the day, when we turned off for route 121, a meandering climb from sea-level to the modest 350m Jaishi Pass, ushering us into the beautiful inland hills of southern Izu, tea-fields surround us in the late afternoon light, a mysterious exquisite silence, but for the purr of our chain and the quiet murmur of our thoughts.
Izu 045 day 1
Day two, and we awoke to a morning darkly overcast and the wind violently shaking the glass panes in their window frames. An explosion of Sakura trees in bloom provided a canopy over the river-side path down to the coast road, until the colour was inevitably washed away by the monochrome blue and grey of the sea and the coast, and we were now buffeted by it’s strong gales. In a word, it was… perfect. We were primed for the empty lonely ribbon of road ahead of us for the remaining 40km to Matsuzaki, nothing to pull our attention away from the short snappy climbs and descents, adding up to a kilometre’s worth of climbing and descending in this short distance.

Izu 140 day 2
At Matsuzaki, crossing the same intersection we crossing yesterday, we veered inland again this time on Route 59, cutting a north-east path to the centre of the peninsula. It was 22km to Nishina Pass, at 900m above us. A fast and flat 5km approach hardened gradually into a proper climb. Tunnels of trees, crumbling cliff walls, wide open views to the ocean… it had it all.

Izu 080 day 1

The road turned up and turned down, the subtle changes in grade keeping it interesting, and there were views of far-away paddy fields lined up on either side of the wavering silver line of a stream, a couple miles away down in the valley bottom. It kept our attention on which was, no mistake, a very long climb. And then, past the cattle ranches squeezed onto the plateau at the top, a celebratory photo, and a very long technical descent.

Izu 170 day 2

Through pine forests and narrow roads still covered with the debris of a recent storm, wet and mossy patches and the odd car coming round the next bend… we had to keep our wits about us. In the lower valley we freewheeled through idyllic hamlets, but also past decrepit mining operations, long deserted and gated off. The open sores on the landscape are hidden on the lower slopes of many a climb in Japan.

Izu 055 day 1Our original plan was to cross over the main route 414 and tackle a couple more, lesser, climbs up to Atami. But it was already lunchtime, we still had to get a train back to Tokyo and there was of course, work the next morning. Excuses excuses. Ah, this was good enough ! Some tiring climbs but no “epic” bragging rights, no hardship, no drama… just a very pleasant and highly repeatable route. One and a half days had given us the highlights of Izu, in just the right season.

I’ll be back next year. And next year I will finish in Atami…

Izu 160 day 2

Day 1 Route: 9th April 2016 (needs slight modification to avoid tunnels)
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1121737401
Day 2 Route: 10th April 2016 (Garmin ran out of battery early on…)
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1121737461

The Perfect Road

Escape

Escape

Why the hell was doing this to myself. This – the cycling thing. A year of disappointment (silver week trip cancelled due to illness), frustration (an age waiting for a new frame while my fitness whittled away) and even some danger, when I was hit by a car (off the bike for a month and yet more frustration). Was I enjoying it anymore ?

005 Towards Manza

The days I did ride were unseasonably rainy, or the rides unavoidably short. The heyday of 270k rides with 3.5k of climbing were a distant memory, whilst the aching, tired body after every decent ride was an ever present reality. I still recognized the instants of pleasure, snatched moments in the mountains where you hear only your breathing, the green comforting embrace of dark forest roads, even the honest pain of a hill-climb done well… but I no longer reveled in it. What had happened to that passion I once had ?

045 Towards Shibu Toge
I had to do something. It was time to take the bull by the horns, or the bike by the handlebars if you like, get away for a couple days proper riding, like I used to do, and understand if the coals were still simmering deep below the weight of this melancholy, just needing a little oxygen to ignite once more, or if I should just give the whole bloody thing up and start playing golf.

Zenkoji, Nagano

Zenkoji, Nagano

In what seemed like an age (it was), both the weather and my constitution cooperated and I alighted at Nagano station, with a plan to circle back to Nagano via Shibu Toge, and head cross-county towards Matsumoto and Ueda, and possibly Utsugushigahara and Lake Suwako. In my state of mind I had imagined freezing winds and frost, but it was warm – perfect actually – and I congratulated myself on a rare good decision, to leave my warm autumn jacket at home.

A little unpleasant traffic out of the city but I was soon on the long, the very long, climb up to Manza Onsen. 24km said the sign but I knew from a distant hazy memory that the first 20km was uphill. I didn’t recall the exact elevation but a sign ahead informed me I had 99 hairpin turns to go (and I would continue to be reminded, on every damned bend). Turns out I had 1500m of straight climbing, in addition to the 300m I’d already climbed since leaving the station: almost two vertical kilometers without a horizontal break.

My road

My road

The cool shady boughs of trees over the rising winding road I recalled from the same hazy memory was somewhat correct but only for about half of it – the other half was right in the sun, on steep exposed slopes and surprisingly hot. My enjoyment of the amazing scenery and the golden orange and reds of autumn was somewhat tempered by the brutal climb ahead and the fear – correct as it turned out – that there would not be a single place to refill my water bottle over the next 24 kilometers. I rationed myself to a couple of gulps with each 100m climbed.

050 Shiga Kogen

Manza Onsen was two closed hotels and it took me a while to find the only one that was open, a sprawling complex with the voices of a few unseen staff, and I found a dining room only through wandering down empty dark corridors of guest rooms and up a semi-hidden staircase.

Shiga Plateau

Shiga Plateau

The last 500 metres of climbing was hard, and difficult to get into any kind of rhythm because of the many photo-stops I found hard to resist, including the obligatory selfie at the 2172m Shibu Pass… my fourth or fifth time doing this. It was chilly, and I layered up for a descent, with a luxurious break in the restaurant of a ski-lodge restaurant where I had freshly baked bread and hot cocoa in front of a roaring fireplace… oh I really didn’t want to leave this!

100 Shiga Kogen

The descent was… otherworldly; there were a few minor climbs and I dropped suddenly through thick swirling cloud, and then darkly shadowed roads bordered with avenues of trees in various states of colour… it seemed to take forever to drop below 2000 metres. Both my ears popped at the same time and all of a sudden the sound of the wind rushing past was hugely amplified… I was quite lost in the whole experience, and when I realised I was not going to make Nagano before dusk I gladly took the option of stopping at Yudanaka onsen on the lower slopes of the mountain, finding an old cosy ryokan, Kameya (“the house of turtles”) run by a harried and friendly old lady, where images of turtles were carved into the woodwork and adorned the softly lit lanterns – and a couple of ceramic siblings watched me as I relaxed in the wooden bath in the garden. It was a welcome retreat from the modernity and conformity of all too many hotels nowadays.

Streets of Yudanaka

Streets of Yudanaka

After my bath, and quite possibly the biggest meal I have ever had, I took to the narrow streets dressed in “yukata”, my “geta” clacking loudly on the paving stones and echoing with those of other couples and small groups similarly out for a nighttime stroll: the dark entrance to steep uneven moss-covered steps up to a forest shrine… shadows that flickered fleetingly behind a Shoji covered window as someone moved across a room… men old enough to know better with young lithe companions on their arms, as they visited a few of the small baths open for private bathing. Magic that I’d almost forgotton existed.

125 Zenkoji in Nagano

I didn’t sleep well that night – I never do in an unfamiliar place. The next morning was chilly, I was tired and my legs heavy, and I just couldn’t get my heart rate up. It was slow-going getting through Nagano and out to the countryside on the other side, and I stopped to check my map many many times. The road I had planned to take was busy with cars and trucks – I really should have known this by looking at the map – the lines of the road were far too smooth to discourage much traffic. I looked across at the valley walls on my left, and spotted a road veering up and above this trunk road. That could be a plan.

175 Nagano Mountains

Looking at the map, route 401 looked like it had been scribbled by my three-year old son on our dining room table, sharp random angles up and down and side to side… I knew this would be tough. And I also knew it would be amazing. I stopped by the side of the road to eat, and and a car slowed while the driver threw me a huge apple: yes, this was going to be another good day.

140 Nagano City

The road ahead was alternately shaded and sunny, up and down, and it pulled me irresistibly over each summit and around every corner, skirting glistening forest streams, fields of harvested rice, enveloped by birdsong… and all under a clear deep blue sky. And on a Monday ! Jeez. I could’t wipe the smile off my face even if I tried. This was the perfect road, I said to myself, again and again, the perfect road.

The Life

The Life

135 Nagano CityA heavy lunch of rice and lamb and the long climb up to route 12. This maneuvered itself across the top of a long mountain range and across shallow valleys, never dropping below 650m and rarely going about 850m. Never the less, the climbs had me out of my saddle and the descents had me digging my heels deep into the corners. I rode past small hamlets, golden fields of bales of hay, isolated farmhouses, through woods alive with the colours of autumn and all the time – all the time – rivetting views of the snow-capped Northern Alps to the west. This was a living, vibrant road, deep in the mountains, not an old abandoned track, or a sterile unpopulated skyline highway built just for high-speed views.

It was the perfect road.

041 Towards Shibu Toge

In the end I had to get back to Tokyo that evening, but as I raced towards Ueda station in encroaching darkness I felt strangely  content, and knew that a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. The magic was still here.

Easy

Easy

Route Day 1:
https://connect.garmin.com/activity/934832801

Route Day 2:
https://connect.garmin.com/activity/934832723

The Lows & Highs: Noto and The Alps

IMG_2056

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

IMG_2174u

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:

14SW 005 north from Hakui

Moments Part I

Of late my creative juices have been clinically mopped up and wrung out by a shirt, suit. and tie. And a hungry/angry/not-sure-what toddler’s tears in the middle of the night dilutes what little remains. But although my cycling adventures may be increasingly as void as the dark rings under my eyes, there is still some sparkle deep in those eyes. A picture tells a thousand words, but I don’t have a thousand words to give right now, only… moments….

Zenkou-ji Temple in Nagano: this was the starting point for my first overnight bike trip in a year, during a mid September weekend. The morning was glorious sunshine and the sun warm enough to make me sweat, but not hot enough to make me swear.Zenkou-ji
Lake Nokojiri East: what a find. A beautiful lake north of Nagano city, practically deserted, reached through rolling hills past terraced rice paddies, gentle climbs through apple orchards, and the  tunnels of trees around the eastern shore – as quiet and sacred as the cloisters of an abbey. The aroma of wood stoves and the sharp shadows lying across semi-hidden roadside shrines reminded me we had taken our first steps into Autumn.

Nokojiri
A brief soiree into Niigata via some obscure road east of Nojiriko. I live for these type of roads; in the mountain prefectures of Japan you can always find the an old road taking you directly over the mountains into the next prefecture.

Hidden Roads
Yudanaka Onsen: the poor cousin to the popular hot spring town of Shibu Onsen just up the road. I stayed in a friendly but worn hotel where the Japanese owner gave me a business card which indicated his name was Wayne. He had spent two years in university in the US thirty years ago. He explained he had to suddenly come home halfway through his studies to take over the family business after a family illness. And he had never gone back, he sighed tiredly, with infinite sadness. The level of his English made me realize he probably had not spoken it much in the three decades since.

Yudanaka Onsen

Shibu Toge: an unrelenting 1600m elevation gain, starting just after dawn, chilled to my core as I got higher and higher. Aggressive monkeys half way up and only one place to find water, at a deserted ski station. But some nice views.

Shiga Kogen North
This is at least the third time I’ve climbed this pass. The first time was one of my first trips by bike – ever – at least a dozen years younger than I am now and the timing was perfect… the whole panorama below me had exploded in to fabulous Autumn colours. It was in the days of “regular” photos, and they are hidden away in a forgotten shoebox somewhere in an attic in the UK. I have never been able to time it as good as I did then and still yearn to recapture those colours again.

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Descending the south side of Shibu Pass: sweeping views of luminous slopes and crisp high altitude air.  I regret not staging one of my trademark solo-action-shots  but the sky was changing rapidly and I hurried on in case the weather turned nasty.

Shibu Toge South

It’s a long thrilling descent from the top of Shibu Toge down into Kusatsu Onsen town, with long winding curves and little need to use the brakes. I do love these descents but the only inhabitation occasionally lining the road are somewhat sterile ski hotels and ski-lifts – pretty much the only thing going at this altitude. I much prefer the rural mountain roads, with real villages, real people and a cultivated landscape. Mind you, it is much easier to hit 70kmh + on slopes like these …

Shibu Descent

Nagano Day 1:  http://connect.garmin.com/activity/379476824

Nagano Day 2: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/379476689

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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