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

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Two steps forward, One (painful) step back

A machine

A machine and a machine

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

Road with a view

Road with a view

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

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

Reunited

Reunited

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

Rocking'

Rockin’

Out and about

Out and about

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

Perfection

Perfection

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

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

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

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

Man down

Man down

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

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

But not for long...

Me, soon

Purple Haze

Rediscovered

Rediscovered

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

Suburban Hymns

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

DSC_0022~2

DSC_0032~2

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

Close enough ’til Spring I thought, close enough.

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The Imperial (2014)

early mornings

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2951

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

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

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

When everything's right with the world

When everything’s right with the world…

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

The Lows & Highs: Noto and The Alps

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Golden fields of rice ready for the harvest, small farmsteads and newly built hamlets under a strikingly blue sky, and the enormity of the Japan Alps rising up from the plains with little warning barely a few miles beyond, crowned by a bilious spine of cumulous clouds enveloping  any number of mountain towns and hot springs. I was on a train to Kanazawa, surveying what I would be climbing over, if things went to plan, in just a few days time.

But first I had to cycle around the Noto Hanto, a peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture, jutting far into the Japan sea, something I’d been meaning to do for the last decade but always putting it off over a dogmatic preference for mountains over coast. But this year, the legs are not what they used to be, and the hours spent on the bike, never mind on inclines, have been much reduced. It would be a perfect three day warm-up before the climbing began.

Day 1: Man vs Crab
(40km)

My way, not the highway...

My way, not the highway…

I picked up my first supporter in a café near Hakui station, Ikeda-san.
“Ishikawa-ken” he announced, standing up from his chair, “is the safest place in the whole of Japan”. He was a retired policeman and had spent his entire life in this town, a small regional hub at the base of the peninsula. “You won’t find me going to Tokyo or Osaka” he added, “Far too dangerous”.  But just to make sure, he insisted on being my guide for the afternoon.

He led me to the start of a bike path that followed the beach, and went off on his scooter to wait at key points ahead. The path forged a narrow thoroughfare between the sea on the left and overgrown hillside on the right; it really was lovely and I couldn’t believe there was absolutely nobody else on it, especially on a holiday weekend. A cool sea breeze gently buffered me, while I made sure to avoid the occasional crab crossing in front of me, their oversized pinchers raised towards me with a look – yes, even from a crab – that said “Don’t try anything mate”.

Not my commute

Not my regular commute

Every few miles, when the bike path crossed a main street, Ikeda-san would be there waiting for me at the corner, clapping and cheering at my arrival and excitedly pointing out some geological feature or a little local history. We parted ways at Togikai, about 40km north of Hakui, and even Ikeda-san’s seemingly unlimited enthusiasm seemed to falter somewhat when he felt obliged to point out that Togikai’s main attraction was the longest bench in the world – it looked like something hastily put together from Ikea. And sadly, he said, there were rumours of a longer one in China.

The pot of gold… my tent

The pot of gold… my tent

The beach offered the perfect combination of campsite and an onsen nearby: the campsite said it would cost an outrageous 2100 yen to stay, non-negotiable, so I pitched my tent a little further up the beach, and brought out my ancient stove (it still works!) to cook some pasta and tuna under some light showers. Every hour a van would come round to make sure I hadn’t relocated myself into their site, but I secretly used the toilet anyway, avoiding it’s headlights and imagined sirens, adding a little thrill to what would usually be a mundane task…

 

Day 2: Man vs Bird
115km

The Noto West Coast

The Noto West Coast

I was being tailed by a bird that was cawing “Ohayo ! Ohaya !” (“Good Morning”) over and over to me; considering the rough night’s sleep I’d had, this was particularly irritating, and he seemed to know it. I don’t know if this was some special local breed that could speak Japanese, and I don’t know if it was just one individual or a group effort, but this ear-grating greeting was repeated for the next 20km.

Senmaida Rice Fields

Senmaida Rice Fields

The views, though, were wonderful, and I cycled through small laid-back hamlets perched on cliffs high over the sea, usually a narrow winding main street and a small lane leading off to a lookout or descending to the beach. There was something different about these villages and it took me some time to realize what it was… unlike most places in Japan, these places hadn’t suffered from the blight of incongruous modern homes and apartment blocks – all the houses were wooden and had retained their original tiled roofs. A genuine page from storybook Japan.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy backroads

The road gradually widened, a few showers started and although the coolness was welcome the combination of coast and rain always drives me into a state of murderous depression so I took to the mountains to preempt any incidents, until the weather had cleared up and blue sky and appeared once more.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy villages

The craggy north-west coast of the Noto Pensinula is full of rolling roads, small enclaves of fishing villages and long sea-side stretches of cycling, and – apart from an odd if temporary abundance of tour busses at the famous Senmaida rice fields – very little traffic. It was simply bliss. The climb before I headed inland was magical, seemingly unending switchbacks up to a high promontory , the waves crashing against the cliffs behind me, the road bathed in shade and caressed with golden fingers of flickering sunlight from the late afternoon sun. And then the final ascent of the day, south up through the hills, a last look back at gulls soaring over the waters before I was enveloped in the forest, gulls now replaced by eagles circling above, the blue-white swell of the ocean now exchanged for the cool green quiet of the trees, and I followed this mountain road into the small town of Takojima.

IMG_1959There was a campsite next to the sea a few miles east, and an onsen only ten minutes walk away, where I hammered out the rivets of pain and tiredness in alternating hot and ice-cold baths…. it really doesn’t get any better than this.

 

Day 3: The Case of the Extra Beer
100km

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A stunning red dawn was quickly extinguished by clouds leaving the rest of the day overcast with occasional brief but violent squalls. I passed sleepy villages again of streets lined with wooden houses and small fishing boats moored to narrow inlets, but the east coast lacked the cliffs and the feeling of seclusion of the west. Every few miles there would be an elaborately decorated omikoshi (a hand-carried palanquin holding a portable shrine) parked in front of the gates of the local shrine, and as the morning wore on guys in their “happi” coats and tabi footwear would would turn up to join the preparations for the day’s festivals: today was a public holiday (Respect for the Aged day) and locals would later carry the heavy omikoshi through the streets of their village, bouncing it up and down while it swayed dangerous side to side. Clearly, 8 AM was not too early for some of these festival goers to fortify themselves with a flask or two of sake before the task ahead…

Roadside Guardians

Roadside Guardians

I headed inland briefly for a burst of climbing to try clear the cobwebs and some of the aches and pains I was feeling from another unexplained bad night’s sleep, but when I returned to the coast dark menacing clouds and exhaustion put a damper on most of the coastal sections, and long before the city of Nanao I turned off and took the long bridge over to Notojima island, and a quiet hilly road threading between thick trees to the south of the island, providing views across the bay and of the onsen town of Wakura, it’s tight cluster of faded high-rise hotels bunched against the beach. Although it didn’t look particularly appealing from here it was actually quite pleasant and laid-back once you got behind the wall of hotels, and it sported a wonderful (and free!) “ashi-yu” (hot-spring foot-bath) boasting unbeatable views over the ocean.

This is the life ...

This is the life …

There was little guilt in forking out Y8000 for a hotel: it was a nice town, I needed to do laundry and I was hoping that the comfort of a futon on a tatami mat floor would furnish me with a solid eight hours sleep. I had a beer with my dinner and the maid kept hounding me to make sure I pay for it before I leave, every time I ran into her. “Oyasumi nasai” (“goodnight”) she said at last, as I came in from an evening walk around the town. Then: “Make sure you pay for that beer, now”. I still couldn’t sleep that night either, mysteriously waking up at 1am despite the comfort of the futon. But I got up very early as planned, hitting the road in a state of semi-collapse before I’d even started, making my way out of town in the early dawn hours.

Oh, shit, had I paid for that beer ?

Non-risque onsen photo

Non-risque onsen photo


Day 4: Beware the Hotel Proprietors
125km

Glorious Escapes

Glorious Escapes

It looked like I had joined all of the peninsula’s traffic when I got onto route 249 out of Wakura; it was the first work day after the three day weekend and I could feel resentment emanating from every car and every truck on the road. After a few wrong turns and unnecessary climbs I found a narrow deserted road that took me over a small mountain range to rejoin east coast, rather than follow the rest of the traffic around it. An absolute jewel of a road, a luminescent green cathedral, lush shade punctuated by long beams of light from the gaps between trees… I breathed the clean air, absorbed the colours and let the quiet murmur of the forest envelop me. It was 8:30am: I realised that on any other Tuesday I would be squeezed between a dozen or so salarimen on the Chuo line, variously reeking of cigarettes, garlic and a general lack of hygiene. I smiled broadly and took my time on the descent, ignoring the urgency of a “Beware of the Bears” sign, hoping it would never end.

Beware of the Bears

Beware of the Bears

The coast road was not bad, running parallel right next to the sea, with gulls soaring overhead, but as the road left Ishikawa prefecture and entered Toyama, the number of trucks increased and the once wide hard-shoulder disappeared, so I headed inland on the hilly route 76, through farmland and shallow valleys, which was a pleasant if roundabout way to the city of Takaoka, from where I wanted to locate and follow the river south.
A horrible city, multilane highways, empty carparks and tired looking ferro-concrete buildings with not a speck of green to be seen. There were a multitude of bars, izakaya, and sleazy hostess clubs but nowhere to get lunch; typical of these places, the nighttime entertainment has to be overwhelming enough to blot out the misery of the daylight hours.

Liquor store

Liquor store

In an effort to clear my senses of this modern blight I successfully got loss in less trafficked roads through patchwork fields of rice under harvest, small hamlets and a wonderful riverside path taking me to a dam not too far from Yokamachi. And just when I though things had worked out for the better, the day turned me round, bent me over, and gave me one to remember.

Beware of the … Werewolf ??

Beware of the … Werewolf ??

I cycled 10km uphill, in encroaching twilight, first through route 156 and it’s multitude of tunnels, across a long narrow bridge, and then on a deserted mountain road (“Beware of the Bears!”) up to an small onsen village recommended to me by the local tourist office – Nagasaki onsen. At the first minshuku (A Japanese B&B), the owner almost fainted at the sight of me – a bedraggled-looking foreigner on a bicycle – she blustered around and said they were full (on a Tuesday and with no cars in the car-park). I knocked on the door of the second place, and called out into the hallway before a bloke reluctantly came out and said the same thing. At the last place, nobody came out to answer my calls – these ones had obviously had enough time to hide.

A ryokan at last

A ryokan at last

So back down the narrow road, across the bridge and up route 156, though more tunnels looking for a hotel marked on my twelve year old map… which was no longer there. It was a long descent back into town down route 156, in near darkness, and further away from where I wanted to go tomorrow. But I found a cheap ryokan in town, and the owner was very friendly, treating me like an old friend, because I soon realized, they thought I was indeed an old friend, an aircraft engineer from Germany by the name of Hans. But they were a friendly bunch and only thanks to them did I rescind my vow to leave Toyama-ken by the most direct route possible, never to return.

Yokamachi storefronts

Yokamachi storefronts

 

Day 5: Beware of the… Tourists ?
75km

Into the mountains...

Into the mountains…

Woke up this morning sore from the pointless climbing yesterday evening but more disappointed at myself that I didn’t continue up that road last night and find a patch of ground to camp on instead: I was turning soft.

Now disillusioned with route 156 I headed south west, cross county to the 304 instead, a long steep climb on a wide road up to a series of tunnels. It wasn’t that busy but I did hate the open concrete drainage ditch to the side giving me no space to turn to if any truck came too close. I was knackered and low on water, so I took advantage of roadworks at the first tunnel to have the whole road to myself, planning to turn off the main road between this and the next tunnel, where my map showed an exit, and take the mountain road. The reality was a exit that had been blocked up and a view through concrete beams of a seemingly collapsed road – so I had to run the gauntlet of a 2.5km tunnel after all, terrified of the enveloping whirr and metallic scream of trucks coming up behind me.

Eventually spat out, I was determined to avoid the next tunnel no matter what, so I took a turn-off for the old road, which should take me past a ski lodge and then over it. I found the out-of-season ski lodge but spent an hour searching for the old road without success – they all seemed to go nowhere (up up up… shit !… down down down !). Even Google maps showed the road should be close to where I was standing, and only when I looked very closely the third time I saw it – a broken and overgrown gravel track, cobwebs creating a sheer door of spider silk. And I remembered the Beware of the Bears sign I had just passed.

Gassho-Zukkuri

A “Gassho-Zukkuri”

Descending back to the main road I considered taking my chances on another road I had seen, a cracked, lonely road that seemed to descend following the line of the valley and would take me out 10km north of where I wanted to be. The entrance to this one actually had several bear notices plastered around and seemed particularly serious, warning drivers that they took this road at their own risk.
The restaurant owner last night had explained that there had been very few nuts and berries this year so the bears had been coming down from the mountains and closer to towns and villages – why, only last week one had been spotted at the end of the street !

And then I noticed I was chomping on a nut & berry cookie from Family Mart – I got back on the main road to face the tunnel…

Re-thatching a roof

Re-thatching a roof

Today a lot of time was spent visiting “gassho zukkuri”, the very steeply thatched roofed farmhouses that characterize this part of Japan, known for it’s heavy snow fall in winter. Ainokura village was so pretty it was borderline kitch, overly manicured with twenty or thirty thatched houses carefully laid out with displays, open workshops and souvenirs for sale, and half-a-dozen coach loads of tourists milling around. I hurried though, gritted my teeth while a group of OAPs insisted taking turns to take photos with me while their group leader sang God Save the Queen, and found myself on a half-hidden entrance to a back-road, winding steeply down the mountain side. It was open, but plastered with a large Beware of the Bears sign in Japanese, whilst in English next to it was a sign saying “Campsite this way !”.

A lot of these

A lot of these…

It went deeper into forest, tracking the edge of a sheer gorge and a foaming river could be seen through the trees hundreds of feet below. Deserted, spooky and then downright scary when I saw a large grey-black poo on the ground in front of me, still steaming. There would be another one to join it it I didn’t get out of here immediately.

Suganuma was another village a few miles up the road and mercifully lacking the tourist hoards of Ainokura but both were purpose built, having relocated these old houses from various parts of the region, and although very charming they lacked the gritty layer of real-life use.

I had a great lunch a few miles away on the main road while I watched lunchtime TV with the other two customers, the first Japanese TV I had watched in a long time. A fresh faced Japanese speaking young American guy was being followed by a television crew around Akasaka (an old part of Tokyo popular with tourists) while an annoying “talent” sat in the studio was asking increasingly banal and condescending questions to him (“can you use chopsticks ? Oooooh, you smart guy ! “) in her atrocious broken English while eliciting a cackle of laughter from the other misfits they call celebrities. Japanese TV has not changed a bit from the last time I watched it ten years ago. It’s still got the same celebrities, though as they age they get bumped from prime weekend evening slots to midweek daytime television: at least I could take comfort in that, knowing they suffer.

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go

I still had the Holy Grail of Gassho Zukkuri to visit, the village of Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO heritage site. I’d been here once years before in torrential rain and was frankly facing some enthusiasm issues on going there again, especially after a morning basically full of the same. But it was on my route, at the foot of a mountain pass which I knew (though not yet ready to admit to myself) was not going to happen today.

Ferocious wildlife

More ferocious wildlife

But first I had to survive route 156 again, on a stretch of road I will NEVER, EVER repeat by bicycle. My map (and google maps) once again promised detours around or over the numerous tunnels, while the reality was generally a few metres of broken tarmac disappearing into a freaking jungle of overgrowth, rusted gates and landslides. The tunnels were narrow, dark and uphill, the truck drivers angry, and my legs burned fiercely as I tried to sprint through every one. Never again.

Shirakawa-go was bustling with tourists, Japanese and overseas visitors alike, which didn’t encourage me to hang around so I bought some provisions and started to tackle the 1300m climb over to the next valley. But there was only an hour left before sunset, and my efforts were only half-hearted… I soon gave up and found a hotel instead, appalled at my lack of backbone. With regret I settled into a soothing hot bath with a view over the valley, and deeply disappointed at my ready embrace of amenities, I climbed – reluctantly – into the jacuzzi. I was still tut-tutting to myself when I ordered a beer thirty minutes later in the plush restaurant, and then when I ordered a second, remarked to myself how I was just not enjoying this.

Later in the evening once the crowds had gone, I wandered around the village, watching the lights turn on behind latticed windows, glowing softly in the velvet darkness, and I looked up and around at the silhouette of the mountains surrounding me. Now this is what it’s really about.

IMG_2287u

 

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

Rekindled

The Green Line

Happy, despite appearances

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

Okutama views

Okutama views

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

 

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

Nokogiriyama South

Nokogiriyama South

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

Heading out ...

Heading out …

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

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

Nokogiriyama North

Nokogiriyama North

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

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

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

Yes indeed. I was in love again.

I'll be back

I’ll be back

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