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The deep red of the wooden torii – the gateway to the shrine – stood in a forest grove behind which the shrine itself was draped in shadow: according to tradition, I threw a 5-yen coin in through the wooden slats. For an offering to the local deity, it’s a good deal, and with a yank of a thickly knotted and scraggly old rope, I rang the bell and made my wish – much better than disc brakes or a bright reflective jacket, a blessing from the local gods goes a long way on these winding mountain roads.

Recently it seems that on almost every ride I do, there is some shrine at which I have to stop and make an offering. What used to be an occasional distraction has, over time, become a fully-fledged ritual – after all, you need every bit of luck you can get, especially nowadays. And although the komainu – the “lion-dogs” that guard the entrance – are no less menacing for being frozen in stone, at least I think they recognise me by now.

Road to Somewhere

There is one more thing – an omamori, or lucky charm. Mine is a little metal keyring I carry, a figurine of a pilgrim with a staff and conical hat, and inscription of kotsu anzen engraved on the back. Roughly translated it means “road safety”, and he has been with me since my very first bike trip. That was over twenty years ago when I rediscovered an old mountain bike rusting away on the balcony. I cleaned it up, piled on a load of random belongings and boarded a ferry to the island of Shikoku to travel it’s ancient 88 temple Buddhist pilgrimage route. 

The figurine is of Kobo Daishi, the Japanese monk who established this pilgrimage some 1,200 years ago. I bought him at the first temple and carried him with me for the three weeks it took to complete the thousand-mile circuit. This was, admittedly, after an initial false start when my Japanese skills let me down, and I mistakenly purchased a lucky charm promising me a baby boy within the year. I had to beg the temple to take it back.

My regular stop

Since then, he has accompanied me on probably all of my cycling trips, including the eight months it took me cycle from the UK to Japan across Europe, Central Asia and China. For that one he kept company with St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, a medallion given to me as I departed, by my distraught mother. Friends and family also bequeathed me a number of other lucky charms for that particular expedition, and they gathered in the corners of my pockets and panniers, waiting their turn for some prayer (or some blasphemy). After all, I needed plenty of good fortune to get through that whole thing alive.

And in those last few months, I even had a collection of lucky rocks, gathered initially to ward off attacks from wild dogs lurking at the edge of my field of vision during a sandstorm. As soon as I picked them up the storm abated, and the dogs vanished. I revered those rocks, and transported them from the floor of the Gobi Desert all the way through to Tokyo. They are still somewhere at the bottom of a crate of belongings from that trip. 

A Torii, somewhere shadowy

I am pretty ambivalent about the number 13, and whenever I see a black cat crossing the road, I see … a black cat crossing the road. But cycling is different. In Japan you need to pay your respects to the kami, the gods living in these mountains, in the streams, in the trees, in the rocks… There are eight million of them, so those 5-yen coins can add up. 

My Kobo Daishi lucky key ring is pretty worn by now. The original chain is broken, the conical hat loose and his paint is flaking off, but you can still make out the Japanese characters for “road safety”. I try not to get too obsessed with talismans anymore, but I am careful not to leave this one lying neglected on some shelf or in some drawer. The last time did that, I really did get hit by a car.

So, I keep visiting these lonely shrines when I can, hoping a little bit of company and some modest pocket money will encourage the mountain gods to look out for me. And the little guy, of course – I make sure he never misses another ride.

You first, I insist…

Yosaka Shrine

Teddy Bears Picnic


It was cold arriving on Shinkansen platform of Nagano station at 7:40AM – despite the tights, two thermal tops, jerseys, hat and various other accessories I’d packed in my heavier-than-hoped-for saddle bag (you’ve got to curse all that room) I was back to my sweaty wheezy self on the first climb out of the city – in just shorts and a short sleeved jersey.


My plan for the first day was to first repeat a route up to Lake Nojiriko which I’d done three years ago, and then head south-west for the first time towards Hakuba and Lake Aoki. I remembered to turn off on the old road before the series of tunnels, taking me up through the hills and clutches of two or three farmhouses in many small hamlets. No cars, just the sound of birdsong and the self-satisfied labour of my breathing… happy, actually ecstatic that I was out here and nowhere near the bloody office. The last few thoughts of work swirled away like dirty water down a plug hole, the bike and the steady climbing like a hot bath for the soul.


A lot of map-checking to navigate these back-roads but I found the road eventually – I really love this lake!  The narrow winding forest roads that circle it, the quiet abandoned Catholic school on the shore (nature slowing reclaiming the old wooden buildings), the ripple on the deep blue surface twinkling the reflection of the sun through the trees… I concentrated on the rhythm of riding, leaning in and out of the many curves, stealing the occasional glance to my left to catch a view of the lake, correcting myself rather suddenly more than once to avoid ending up in it. Traffic was almost non-existent, apart from a short convoy of classic cars, adding more to the feeling that I’d been transported to another, less complicated, time.


Instead of taking the road north east – a steep climb out of this caldera – I carried on round the north of the lake, to complete a full circle before heading to the mountains. There were wakeboard and kayak shops, a few small hotels and B&Bs, and restaurants – the very minimum of activity, especially considering this amazing early Autumn weather. I can’t understand the lack of visitors – better buy my holiday home now before word gets out.


I had faffed around here for far too long, including a leisurely lunch, and it was one o’clock before I got back on the road. I was behind schedule, but I didn’t yet appreciate just how far behind I was. A brief image flashed across my mind from out of nowhere – the grizzly tearing up Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. I pushed it away. Plenty of time before dark in these mountains, plenty.

Route 31 was wide but the tall trees lining the road offered the perfect canopy of shade. Surprizingly little traffic and relatively gentle gradients until I approached the top when the road tweaked up a little more cruelly, and an increase in cars and coaches started crawling up the road. There was a huge camping complex and further up the pass a string of gift shops and restaurants – up here at over 1100 metres !  It was an ideal centre for hiking – the views to the north west offered majestic views of the Kita Alps – and further along was apparently the main attraction, Togakushi Shrine, deep in the forest, with a string of pilgrims milling around. It felt like a holiday weekend, and I perhaps again lingered longer than I should have done and oh my goodness it was already 3 o’clock. Only a couple hours before dusk and now I was heading towards bear country.


There were man-eaters in the news two months ago, bears getting a taste for human flesh, a semi-devoured hiker found in the belly of one of them. Hmmm. These roads are quiet, surely too quiet for cars to scare away the wildlife. No escape routes or nearby train stations either, just the stark black-on-yellow signs, “Beware of the Bears”. And – running low on food. Oh. Oh Sweet Jezus! I scrambled in my saddle-bag to get the new bear-bell out. Shit, not very loud is it. My sobbing was much louder.

I had completely miscalculated the elevation today, and saw there was still a load of climbing left to do. Despondent, I turned around and descended a short way into yet another climb, realised there really was nowhere else to go and turned back up the slope, cursing the wasted effort on retracing my steps. Oh what amazing views! What fantastic scenes of the Alps under this blue sky! Only wish I could enjoy it. No time for any photo stops now. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains now and it was starting to get dark. I was spat out on the main road, Rt 31, somewhat relieved with a 10km straight gentle climb ahead of me, but more traffic that I was expecting.


Then just as I was starting to complain about the cars and trucks the main road veered acutely off north, and in the fading light I saw my road to the lake – a mossy broken-asphalted goat-track dipping briefly before soaring up into stillness of the gloomy woods above. It was all so quiet, even the birds had deserted me… please traffic, come back!


12%, 14%, 16%… it was never-ending, each rise I saw ahead giving me false hope that it was over. I could only think about bears, big black vicious ones like I’d just seen on the warning sign down at the entrance to this road. I was starving, legs running on empty, but it was getting dark, and I was imagining lots of ominous noises in the undergrowth. The last thing I wanted to do was to stop and take out something to eat.

The road topped out near a closed ski lift, and I saw the indigo bowl of the lake below. 2700 metres of climbing for the day with a heavy bike-pack. I was saved!



That night I dreamt of  a dystopian future where road-cyclists were routinely rounded up by police, beaten, and then thrown in prison pending execution by firing squad. We shared the same cells with dissident readers of Home & Garden, which was far more disturbing.


It was a chilly morning but very pleasant riding the narrow roads skirting the lakes. My original plan for 3000m climbing was on reflection perhaps a bit ambitious, and tomorrow was a work day after all. I shelved it for an alternative backroad jaunt across a number of small valleys across to the Chikuma river, giving me some short steep climbs, sketchy descents and a final long fast winding drop to the Chikuma Valley. The bear bell went on early today but none of the roads felt as ominous as the one last night. It was a half day, just under 1000m of climbing, and I felt fresh when I got on the train. And perhaps, even, a little lucky…





The Monster’s Pants

Nov 1 05 Arima

I may have been saved by the Monster’s Pants.

Recently my cycling prowess has been somewhat magically restored and I do believe it’s  down to these Pants. Are they perhaps the latest Rapha bib-shorts ? No. Is it maybe  a pseudonym for a special performance enhancing cocktail of steroids and amphetamines ? Hmmm… wrong. Could it be a specially crafted training regime, or the nom d’guerre of some extraordinary secret coach ? Nope, none of these – it’s a simple Japanese nursery rhyme that my 3 year old son insists I sing before his evening bath. And I just can’t get the thing out of my head.

“The Monster’s Pants are brilliant pants, they’re super strong, they’re super strong…”

Nov 7 10 Nokogiri

A loop from my home out to the reaches of Chichibu and a ferociously steep back route up to Nihongi Pass, sustained slopes of 14 to 19%, another couple of climbs and the long ride back, naturally, into a headwind… over 200 kilometres and 2300 metres of climbing under a stunning blue sky and witness to a fabulous urban sunset from the banks of the Arakawa river. I had’t done a ride like this since my last Tokyo-Itoigawa race way back in 2012. I must be getting my endurance back !

“These pants are made of tiger fur, they’re really warm, they’re really warm…”

Nov 7 25 Kazahari

Nokogiri, the craggy rock-strewn often-closed mountain road linking Okutama to Akiruno via a barely used pass just a touch below a thousand metres elevation. A steady 9% grade with potholes, landslides and even a few small streams running down the middle of the broken asphalt to negotiate. A favourite. The last three times I’ve gone all out on this, around 45 minutes on the first attempt I timed myself, and just under 41 minutes on the last attempt in summer. My goal was sub-40, my result… 37 min 48 sec ! Was I on a roll or what ?

“Wear them five years, they’ll never tear…”
“Wear them ten years, they’ll never wear…”

Nov 7 35 Kazahari

Nov 13 15 Shomaru

That would have been enough and I could have honorably peddled to the station and got a train home. But what the heck, I was in the vicinity of the beautiful albeit dreaded Kazahari Toge. Grueling at the best of times, this was always the first mountain pass on the agenda – and it would often be the last as well. The long steep unforgiving slopes are renowned among climbing aficionados and you need fresh legs to approach this beast. Stop once, and you’ll rarely be able to clip back in again to continue.

Ah, so what. After my record-breaking success on Nokogiri let’s try out these legs a bit more, eh. It was… exquisitely painful, oh yes, by the Gods that hurt. But I did it!

“You, Me, You, Me, and Everybody…”
“Let’s grab the Monster’s Pants and put them on…”
“Let’s grab the Monster’s Pants and put them on…!”

The Monster’s Pants. They rock.

Nov 21 05 Arakawa

Purple Haze



A friend of mine, living in Paris many years ago, once topped off a thundering season of romantic success with two beautiful sisters, two nights in a row, and then a legendary move on their mother the following weekend: that was his purple patch.
A couple of months ago, my titanium frame cracked beyond repair and I was forced to temporarily make my old purple aluminum Klein bike roadworthy to get at least some riding in: heavy, and a harder ride than my Enigma, but more enjoyable than I thought it would be – and at least on the flat, fast. That was MY purple patch !

Hmmm. I’m pretty sure that my friend in France does not live vicariously though my stories.

Arakawa posing

Arakawa posing

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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The Up Yours *** Ride

Early Morning at the Tamako Lakes

Early Morning at the Tamako Lakes

Today I felt pain. But not, for once, the dark dog-tired pain of despair, that chronic viral pounding that seems to emerge every Monday morning, and feeds voraciously on the grey cadaver of crushed hope and promise right through to Friday. No, not this. It was something cleaner, something unsullied and uncorrupted. Something pure & physical… the sharp, sentient pain of intervals.

This is a pain that takes you by the scruff of the neck and bangs your face repeatedly into a wall of hurt to let you know you are ALIVE ! It started as my usual Sunday morning ride out to the Tamako lakes and back along the Irumagawa and Arakawa rivers, a perfect 100k loop that sees me back in Tokyo by mid-morning. I’d perfected this route over the winter; the desire to spend time with my nine month old son compelling me to apply a moratorium on my usual long distance mountain rides. It was usually a pedestrian affair.

But today something snapped from deep inside; I accelerated up the hills, time-trialled the straights, and chased other cyclists down, urging my heart rate higher than any time in the last six months, grunting and bellowing obscenities as the pain hit me in waves. The winter colours around me were more luminous than the summer; the birds more musical and the tarmac smoother than I’d ever remembered it to be. My lungs were burning, spasms of pain pinched my lower back and my legs felt they had been sliced open and the veins ripped out.

A systematic punishment of the body… but a panacea for the soul.


Holiday time at the Satanic Mills

Work was, at long last, finished for the year, and as this was my last chance for a ride in 2012, I wanted to make it count. A pre-dawn departure in the pitch black, an hour riding with lights, and a brief but glorious blanket of deep orange, illuminating the houses, parks and fields around me, before being invaded by tranches of deep dark cloud as I caught first sight of the mountains.

The cold, the cold ....

The cold, the cold ….

I was getting used to these very early mornings; as a new father of barely six months, the ultra long all-day rides were now inevitably becoming a thing of the past. Nowadays I had to fit a a hundred kilometers and a mile of climbing into a single morning, rush back for a shower and lunch, and then go out with the family. It was a punishing regime.

The clouds roll in

The clouds roll in

And today it was icy cold – the coldest day so far, and the temperature remained below zero for most of the day. There had been no rain or snow for a week, but fat fingers of ice splayed the road where a drain had overflowed or where a roadside waterfall had run off onto the tarmac. Deadly, but avoidable. After the climb up to Kobu Tunnel I took the undulating mountain road to Otsuki, enjoying the lack of traffic, careful to keep my pace steady – this was no weather to be stood around waiting to get one’s breath back. I willed the aroma of wood burning stoves from the passing cottages trick me into feeling it was warmer than it really was.

Keep your eyes on the road

Keep your eyes on the road

Suzugane Pass was deserted, as always, and as the road turned into a narrow track and the trees closed in around me I instinctively started singing, in case of any errant wildlife waiting around the next bend. As I descended the final stretch out of the trees and past the first farmhouse, there were still no boars or bears, but there was a beagle – catching sight of me, he visibly wavered in his intentions but gave up the idea of chasing me once he heard my singing, and dived into the nearby bushes in understandable fright.

The owner at the soba shop where I’d stopped for lunch had warned me of the weather forecast: snow from late afternoon. I climbed passed the Maglev train testing complex, a task that always seems to take forever, and once through the tunnel upped my speed and heart rate, to beat the approaching turn of weather… this was no place to get stuck.

When I arrived at Sagamiko station, ready to board my train home, I actually felt good. Usually at this point, lack of sleep and my declining fitness would put me borderline close to a coma. Yet today, not only did I feel I could do it again, my GPS records showed I had ridden further and climbed higher than any day since early summer. The reflection in the train window still showed the dark shadows under my eyes, betraying six months of accumulated sleep deprivation, so what was new ?

There was a smile in that reflection. I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow…nor the day after that… in fact, thanks to the Japanese new year holiday season I didn’t have to go to work for the next nine days. I sat down and for once didn’t fall asleep – I was already mapping out my next ride.


The Shrine at Saruhashi

The Shrine at Saruhashi