Rekindled

The Green Line

Happy, despite appearances

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

Okutama views

Okutama views

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

 

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

Nokogiriyama South

Nokogiriyama South

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

Heading out ...

Heading out …

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

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

Nokogiriyama North

Nokogiriyama North

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

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

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

Yes indeed. I was in love again.

I'll be back

I’ll be back

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

Moments Part II

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

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

Valleys of Chichibu

Valleys of Chichibu

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

Guardian

Guardian

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

Hidden ponds in Gunma

Hidden lakes in Gunma

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

"Road Safety"

“Road Safety”

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

Wild Wood

Wild Wood

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

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin...

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin…

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

Quiet Mountain Pass

Shiozawa Pass from Gunma into Chichibu

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

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

Karuizawa to Gunma:

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

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.

IMG_8788

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

Happy Endings

Southern Alps

Yatsugatake and the tap tap tap of rain. I had longingly looked outside every morning waiting for this chance, the chance to try roads I have never ridden, a luxury less common nowadays.

Tap tap tap. Maybe tomorrow.

A little adventure; a token sense of discovery, a chance to map a new route. No recommendations, no hearsay, no guidance, just an old fashioned paper map and a careful eye for contour lines, rivers and the shape of the roads.

Tap tap tap. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after.

A little sense of mystery where it may lead, not knowing if that barely visible line is a road that can be ridden. And the possibility – successfully accomplished – of getting lost.

Tap Tap Tap… Tap … hang on … Jezus! Run !  Run get my bike… clear sky !

IMG_8448

IMG_8548Spectacular views of the southern alps in the dawn light as I descended a long long way into the valley and a huge unanticipated climb to Shinshu Toge, an old road from Yamanashi to Nagano prefectures, deserted of people and cars. And perfect for a minor tradition in such infrequent circumstances, I take the freedom to relieve myself in public, not huddled in the undergrowth, but proud and relaxed, in the the very middle of the road. The road drops down into thousands of acres of farmland, and trucks and tractors thunder along dusty roads – all this at 1400m above sea level.

And then a final long straight climb past the toy town of Kiyosato, never ending up to the Yatsugatake Kougen Line – a family of dear cross in front of me, a nonchalant glance thrown in my direction. Lunch with the family in a restaurant buried deep in the forest, and a 10km hilly warm down to the lodge.

IMG_8491

 

Route:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/371370725

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…

View original post 6,220 more words

Into the Sun

Only 92,960,000 miles to go

Only 92,960,000 miles to go

The sun is slightly hazy behind clouds, pumped up inside the vivid curves of their hard grey boundaries, combustive oranges, reds and golds, bursting to get out; and the sharp edges of the mountains rise in silhouette below them, still many miles away.

For probably the first time, I’m on the Arakawa river heading west at dusk. I’ve taken advantage of a 3pm flex-time release from servitude, hidden deep in the annals of the company working guidelines: the unofficial rule is, of course, don’t even think about it. “If you need me” I say, “email me or call my mobile”. I’d leave the iPhone in the kitchen and knew my private number isn’t listed in any work directory. A few heads turn round in surprise. Is he really leaving at 3pm ?

Oh but it’s worth it. By 4:15pm I was on the bike: a completely different feeling, a liberating feeling, and I forget this is a work day. Blue skies, the universal peacefulness of the last couple of hours before sunset, bike paths losing a battle against aggressive foliage, and dragon flies whizzing left & right & up & down in front of me. The occasional one in to me. And one, spectacularly perishing on my sunglasses. I keep my mouth closed, but that doesn’t some some buzzing insect find it’s way inside my ear until I put it out.

And then the clouds break and everything in front of me is bathed in a spectacular deep blood red. The world pauses. And for a split-second, or maybe a hundred years, it’s only me.

It darkens quickly, and I still have two hours left of my route; up to the deserted Tamako lakes, through a unlit forest and then trafficked roads back home. The night and the unfamiliar route exhaust me quickly and I arrive home four and a half hours after I left, aching all over, dehydrated and somewhat nauseous. But a 100km on a school night…

Can’t help smiling at that !

2013-09-03 11.35.45

Ultra AM

IMG_8267

 

IMG_8274In Japan, babies are good for summer riding.

When temperatures are already in the early thirties by 8am and humidity is 90% plus, you need something that can wake you up – decisively – at 1:30 am, provide half-an-hour or so of warm up – rocking, pacing, jumping – and then, after passing the baby baton to the missus, let you out the door so you can hit the road at the relatively cool and not entirely normal hour of 3am.

 

20130811_061508

Luckily the roads are lit well – this is Tokyo after all – for the entire 45 kilometres to the start of the mountains, and there is always a 24 hour convini marking the end of urbanization and the start of wilderness, providing replenishment while you watch the last of the evening’s blue mist dissipate, revealing a snapshot of a star-lit sky before it turns from black to velvet to deep blue. It does take a couple of coffees to clear your head after three hours of sleep, and when the headache retreats, and the nausea subsides, senses are heightened: a wild boar foraging in the roadside undergrowth, the troop of monkeys playing up in the trees.

20130811_081555You ride along deserted county roads, no cars, no people out just yet. The deep valley hillsides keep you protected from the sun for at least a couple of hours after sun-rise. The approach to Yamabushi Toge, the fields of rice a luminous green, the tips of the ridge line far above on fire with the early rays of the sun. Absolute silence, and then a commotion of noises – birds, insects, the rapids of the river you are following. And silence again. The sun sears you briefly, cresting the top of the exposed Shomaru Toge, but then you are back under the trees, descending, and reaching Route 299 it is still early enough to be in the shade; and the steep climb to Nenogengonji Shrine is mercifully bracketed by tunnels of trees all the way.

20130811_084916A transient aroma might transport you miles and years away from this place – yesterday, as the mist cleared in the foothills of Tomin no Mori, I was transported – momentarily – thirty five years back in time on a school trip to the English seaside town of Rye, surveying a miniature model of the town in an old musty museum. And then I was back again, on an uphill stretch through boughs of trees and the trickle of small waterfalls on my left.

IMG_8270That’s what these pre-dawn rides are about – in between the staggering bouts of sheer tiredness, the digestive turmoils to the body, and the eventual victory of the sun and it’s scorching rays, there are moments of early morning pleasure to savour. Something new and wonderful to pull out of these well travelled routes.

Or maybe it’s just the sleep deprivation.

 

Garmin tracks:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/356816281
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/360123093

20130811_074025

Arse

20130713_080150

Every cyclist should have a battle-cry, a word, or sound, or set of syllables for when they dig deep into the pain locker, for when they push themselves hard for one intense moment, when they think they can suffer no more . “Yohhh-Sh!” is a favorite of the Japanese, and of course “YeaaaSS!”, “Come OOOON!” or “F****K!” being more conventional English ones. It’s not something chosen consciously; it just comes out under moments of high physical stress.

Today, in my longest ride for months, 160km of hot & humid steep climbs and descents on broken mountain roads, I discovered mine. And I was a little disappointed to find that it was “Arse”. And I said it – for reasons I can’t really fathom – in a thick Irish brogue.

Arse!! I’d only done 20km, not even halfway to the mountains when the lack of sleep, 90% humidity and ferro-concrete heat of the metropolis almost stopped me dead in my tracks, the temptation to turn round, head home to an air-conditioned house and be back in bed by 7am was barely overcome. But I’m glad I did, because it turned into a classic ride, something I needed. The skies had become mercifully overcast, and the feeling of cycling though hot soup somewhat alleviated by the time I had passed Oume and made it to Lake Okutama-ko. It was hot, yes, but not of the red-glowing sun type, paraded by this morning’s weather forecast, there to scare viewers of immediate sun-stroke.

20130713_100619-1-1My first pass of the day was Imagawa Toge, approached from the North, probably only my second time from this direction. At just under 1000m high it was quite pleasant, steep – yes, but most of the elevation had been swallowed up by the 85km getting out here. Deserted, no traffic, and only one other cyclist whom I tailed and overtook with little trouble just as a large monkey jumped out from the trees of the opposite lane and started to make his way towards the centre line. He looked an aggressive brute, so I accelerated again, digging deep, leaving the other guy to deal with him.

A wonderful winding descent through a smooth tree-lined road and then the next pass, Tsuru Toge. A little harder, and the last couple of kilometres completely exposed. A hot one. It took forever for the last curve in the road to appear and I was wavering across the full width of the road by that time – but it did, just as I reached the point of collapse.  Arse !!

As I leaned against a tree, getting my breath back I heard the tannoy of an election vehicle chime up from below the pass, breaking the absolute silence: “Vote Tanaka, Vote Tanaka ! Thank you for your vote. Vote Tanaka !”. It slowly climbed the other side of the pass and came past the hairpin; there were half a dozen middle aged ladies waving at trees – there wasn’t another person within miles of this place. “Vote Tanaka, Vote Tanaka ! Thank you for your vote. “. Maybe they were canvassing the wildlife ?
“Otsukaresama deshita!” they said over the loudspeaker as they passed and saw me draped over the tree, waving furiously at me. “Well done ! Well done !” they said, “Don’t give up!”. The van slowly disappeared around the corner I had come around and the noise filtered away through the trees. I was once again alone in the wilderness, worried that I’d experienced my first heat-stroke related hallucination.

Another fine descent, reaching up to 70kmh on these narrow roads and even a stop for lunch before taking the Unabomber turn-off. Broken tarmac, small landslides, aggressive foliage – how I loved this route. The old lady was out, as always, tending to the amphitheatre of fields below the road, firewood bundled on her back as she leant against the 60 degree slope taking a break. I stopped as well, to take in the spectacular view of the surrounding peaks, and we briefly exchanged greetings, before going back to our own thoughts. She has been here unfailingly for the ten years I have been cycling this route, always alone, in all weathers, at all times of the day. There was an old dilapidated wooden farmhouse high up the slopes – I doubt it has electricity, and this is where she lived. How I would love to know her story.

20130713_120236

Old lady working the field if you look very very carefully

And from the familiar to the unknown – it was a sweltering up and down ride to get me to the start of the Takao Onsen mountain road, and the first mile or two offered up some stately views of the gorge. It was the hottest part of the day – the temperature had climbed to thirty degrees – and it was steep… very steep. The rough concrete road had furrows cemented in them to help cars grip, and my Garmin showed crazy numbers – 45% slope at one point. Ah, but that may have been due to the approaching electrical storm, throwing the GPS calibration off. And now there was a heavy steel gate across the road. “Road closed ahead” said the first sign; I climbed round it. “Beware of wasps and snakes” said the second.

Rockfalls, moss, potholes… bad, but not impassable. These new tires I’d put on soaked it all up. But I wasn’t too sure if I should make lots of noise to scare away snakes – did noise attract wasps ? And although some of the dead branches littering the road looked a little snake-like I wasn’t truly scared until it started raining. That encouraged me to speed up and get to the top; actually encouraged me to start whimpering a little thinking that I was one of the closest conductors to any lightening strikes, and then I really went for it.  Arse !!

The descent was nasty, and slightly surreal – the remains of a wide tarmac road, yellow lines still visible in the middle, broken in half on a tight corner; and a stream, treacherous with moss, flowing across and down the road. Something out of a post apocalypse movie. I dismounted, quite paranoid by now, and stepped through the shallows. And then JEZUS!! WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?? Something slimy had touched my ankle and when I landed back in my skin, there was a small frog down there looking up at me. Smiling.

No freaking way am I doing this stupid road again: it took quite some time on this shit surface to lose the altitude I’d gained, and then I had to climb again to get over the annoying Odarumi Pass, which I’d forgotten about before rolling down to Takao for a train home. The heat was quite fierce by now and a mile from the station I stopped at a convenience store for an ice cream – civilization ! All I wanted to do was get on a train home… but now, after all this, I had a puncture.

Oh… Arse.

2013-07-15 21.02.56

Garmin Track:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/341696414

 

The Rise and Fall

IMG_7263

Thought I was on the map, kind of a big deal, almost
Hold my own in a high speed pace line, mile high climbs in a new best time
And we all knew long distance was my special thing
Tokyo to London on a bloody bicycle – the undisputed distance king
Happy days !

My lunchtime mango lassi abandoned, got to watch my weight
No evening beer either, and half my chips left on the plate
A 55k commute twice weekly, up stupidly early for that
Intervals on the Arakawa, burn that freaking fat
Discipline !

Now I carry a spare tyre as well as my puncture kit
But that one ain’t much good to me if the tyre happens to split
My weight is up my speed is down, decline is all but certain
no time to train no time to ride, just severe sleep deprivation
A family man.

Take off the heart rate monitor, cancel dues to that pro cycling magazine,
Don’t worry about the performance data,
hell I was too old in any case
To be the next big thing.

Afterword

But hey I still like riding, it’s just racing that’s old news
So fcuk the Garmin, sit up relax… and just enjoy the views!

Ride from 18th May, Chichibu Western Loop

Hidden Houses, Old Houses

Hidden Houses, Old Houses

The Loop

The Loop

Nichitsu, abandoned mining  village

Nichitsu, abandoned mining village

Nichitsu, old bath house

Nichitsu, old bath house

Descending Hacho Toge

Descending Hacho Toge

Touching Gunma

Touching Gunma

Ride details here:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/314246054

3D Google Earth Video:
http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/render_route_video?route_key=8544636438&site=mapmyrun.com

Trials, Tribulations and Toba

IMG_6855

Every golden week it is time to dig out the old steel touring bike, load it up with moldy camping gear still damp from the previous year, and chose an area of Japan to cycle for six or seven days. The more remote the better, and there is one basic rule I must follow: no main roads. Tunnels would be avoided if at all possible (use those overgrown old roads that go over the mountain, rather than through it…) and weather permitting, camp whenever I could. Wear the same clothes, unwashed for days on end, forget personal hygiene, relieve myself in public, many many times. Go wild for a week.

This has been a tradition for the last six years now, and for the last three of them, there has been another angle to it: training for the Tokyo to Itoigawa road race, held end of May – perfect timing to toughen me up before tackling those 308km to the Japan sea coast. No carefully planned training schedule, set intervals, heart rate monitor… none of that. Like Rocky Balboa training to beat Drago in Rocky IV I had no need of high tech training apparatus and sports science. Rocky hauled logs and climbed frozen rock faces in raging blizzards wearing nothing but an oily overall and a strong dose of patriotic grit; I was peddling 45kg of bike and kit up mountain trails and unpaved roads. Basically the same. Old school methods which paid off – he beat the crap out of the Russian and I went from the top 20% times in 2010, to top 10% in 2011 and close to the top 5% last year.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild

Although this year there was no race to train for – a ten month old baby put a stop to that kind of frivolity – I would follow the same principle to guide me in a plan to cycle from Nara heading down the central mountains of the Kii Hanto, then up the eastern coast and again through some of the interior to finish at Toba on the far east coast.

This time I was on a strict schedule – I would meet my wife and baby son there exactly six days later. But I had not anticipated heavy rockfalls and washed out roads, the enduring result of heavy typhoons in 2011. And I had not foreseen that the rules which had made me, would now break me…

IMG_6690

Somewhere in Nara ken


The Slaughtered Boar

A "short cut"

A “short cut”

I’d shipped my bike to the nearest Takkyubin depot to pick up, assemble, load up my panniers and ride away – this time the start point was Nara and, resisting the temptation to view the temples, it wasn’t long before I was in countryside, taking a rural road east, climbing many small passes. It was good to settle into my old Brookes leather saddle and stand up and lean heavily on the handlebars whenever the gradient got harsh. There was very little traffic and the patchwork of rice paddies on either side of me turned into steep slopes of tea plantations as I got closer to the top of each pass, and the loud chorus of frog song would temporarily subside. I flashed my legs at the occasional farm dog relaxing by the side of the road, confident in the knowledge that in Japan 99% of the time they don’t spring from their leash and try to rip your ankle off.

Not alone...

Not quite alone…

However I did not do the same with a 4 foot long snake that was blocking my path in one of the small forest roads I took. He was relaxing in the sun and posed for a picture. It was a “mamushi”, a Japanese pit viper, responsible for 20 deaths a year in Japan.

The hazy sunshine turned quickly into dark clouds and I could smell rain in the air – I made it to the next town, Nabari, just in time for day to turn temporarily into night and heavy thunder and lightening to hit. I shivered under the entrance roof of an ugly disused hotel while I waited an hour for the storm to pass, and the air turned crisp and clear, and late afternoon sunshine bathed the road ahead in a gentle orange glow. Greenery returned almost immediately out of the town limits and the road started to rise to a lake: I followed the line of the shore, tightly hemmed in by cliffs either side, and rose further into a narrow ravine. Quiet, beautiful… it got darker as light was squeezed from the deep gorge and old shops and restaurants, abandoned many years ago, occasionally filled dark recesses in the cliff walls.

Up close & personal

Up close & personal

Ominous clouds had rolled back in by the time I had reached the steep turn off for tonights camp site – the map showed an onsen part of the same grounds and that was the sole aim of staying here for the night. I struggled in the smallest gear sweating and swearing up a long mountain road, but turn after turn revealed nothing – maybe the map was wrong, and I descended, both brakes screaming in the deathly quiet dusk of the mountains. I checked the map again – no, it had to be here – and I swore louder as I climbed it again. A sign post and lane led off from the next corner I had given up on the first time round. The pictures of the rotemburo – outside bath – looked irresistible and despite the inclement weather I knew I needed this bath.

That was until I was told the price: “4500 yen for one person”. I looked at the waterlogged ground outside, and the absolute lack of other guests – but that doesn’t matter, this being Japan, rules are rules. It was too much I told him, and as you will not negotiate is there a cheap minshuku – B&B – around here I can stay instead, I asked. And this being Japan, he said, yes, let me guide you to it in my car.

IMG_6704There was a lonely looking minshuku near the foot of the climb, simple, friendly. Other people’s old hair floated in the tepid bath water while I tried to imagine the views from the open air onsen back up the mountain. Dinner was generous, boar stew, and although I heard no one or saw no one else the owner was busy preparing dish after dish of food and taking it to a mysteriously quiet room next door. I looked outside and saw the clouds briefly part: it was a full moon tonight.

The Haunted Tunnel

It had rained all night and I woke up to temperatures barely above freezing – I wasn’t really prepared for this and started the morning wearing almost everything I had with me. It was a day of little used forest roads and long gorgeous descents through tunnels of trees. The clouds cleared as he morning wore on, and the sun’s warmth started to permeate my bones, helped by the sweet aroma of burning pine with every timber mill I passed.

IMG_6717

My kind of road

Heading south west I reached Yoshino around noon and stocked up with a day’s worth of food from a convenience store – luckily enough, as it was the last shop I’d see for the next 24 hours. A large bag of supplies on the back of the bike made no perceptible difference to it’s handling, nor the speed of the next big climb up Yoshinoyama… an indisputable advantages of having an already overloaded bike is that a few tins of sardines, pasta sauce and various stacks can be easily absorbed into the overall weight of the machine. In the past I may also have added a couple of bottles of nice Belgium beer if I’d been fortunate enough to come across some.

Guardian of the mountain

Guardian of the mountain

It’s not my first time up Yoshinoyama – I did it three years ago, and it is a wonderful climb though pine forests, past temples and eventually along it’s long steep street of souvenir shops and restaurants. The trick is to find the right turn off into the next valley… last time I descended half the way before realizing I’d got the wrong road (and had to climb back); this time I continued almost up to summit of the mountain, only questioning the possible error in my navigation when I found myself threading a tentative path through groups of hikers. This always hurts, as I know I have a weekly elevation limit in my legs, and every wasted climb brings me closer to breaking it. But a long long descent on another wonderful dusty forest trail brought me out to a southbound road which would take me to a high pass and then to a campsite and onsen in Tenkawa for the night.

IMG_6790And this is where things started to go wrong. A sign appeared … the road was unpassable. I carried on up the narrow ravine, deep in shade now and more signs appeared – it was the tunnel at the top which was blocked. It was still a steep 5km to go to the tunnel, marked as “unlit and frightening” on my map – I now recalled that I had been through it once before, three years ago, and indeed it was: very narrow, roughly hewn rock walls and an uneven rocky surface, and odd otherworldly echoes the further I ventured into the pitch blackness, a third of a mile long. It felt like a tomb and was the scariest tunnel I had ever been through. A hunter I had met on the road up there informed me it was hand-built over a hundred years ago, and I shuddered to think of the number of souls who may have lost their lives building it.

I checked with a local man tending his garden and a post office delivery guy on his scooter, “impossible to get through”. That was it – I wasn’t risking a 5km climb for nothing. There was a campsite not too far away and an onsen nearby – I would try the longer route around it in the morning.

At last, somebody else on this road...

At last, somebody else on this road…


My Way or the Highway

IMG_6794A freaking cold night but it turned into a beautiful clear morning. Set off early from the campsite, headed west, with the intention of avoiding 6km of busy main road tunnels by taking a series of linked forest roads that took me high over them. Stocked up with half a dozen freshly baked “manju” from a small bakery and filled up both my water bottles ready for the challenge ahead. Beautiful climbing, with views over the valley and the peaceful early morning quiet you only get in the mountains.

The lair of orcs and demons

The lair of orcs and demons

Time passed, elevation was gained and I saw only one other person, a motorcyclist on an off-road motorbike. He waved as he overtook me. The first fork in the road was preceded by a tunnel, long, unlit and inevitably eerie. I met the motorcyclist who had passed me thirty minutes earlier waiting at it’s entrance, pleased to see me: “no way am I going in that thing alone” he explained.

We survived it, and I headed left, for a much larger climb that should take me south east and eventually drop me in Tenkawa. There was another unlit tunnel, this time managed without the aid of the motorcyclist’s head-lights, and I had to rely on my tiny blinking front light to at least try and keep me from hitting the walls in the dank darkness. There was a road-closed sign at it’s exit but I didn’t see any obvious obstacles so I dodged around the barrier and started a long descent… I should be in Tenkawa easily within the hour !

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

I guess “road closed” actually means something …

But this road really WAS closed – it had been completely washed away and there was a large gaping muddy crevace in it’s place, and a considerable drop into the valley below. Which meant that I now had to climb back up all the way I had come (and go through that bloody tunnel AGAIN). I took the other fork, which after a long descent through tree lined trails planted me out on the main road, between two huge, busy tunnels, no side walk, and cars and lorries speeding like maniacs. It was crazy to think of riding my bike into either one of those gaping black holes, and I couldn’t face climbing back up the way I’d come … there was one last option, a narrow road hidden behind a bridge. I took that.

My road

My road

And what a find ! One of these magical little narrow valleys that went on for miles and miles. Old wooden houses squeezed between the river and the road, or between the road and the valley sides, and where there were no houses trees and bushes tried to crowd on to the narrow road. Delivery men on Honda Cubs were busy going round the little villages and I was happy to see that people actually lived here – I’ve seen too many wonderful places in Japan where the community has all but disappeared.

When it ended, I came out on to the main road south to Totsukawa. Now I was further west than I had ever anticipated, much further away from my goal and time was running out. But if I took this road south I would have one last chance to cut across the bottom of the peninsula and make up time by cutting out some of the coast. Although busy, it was an amazing road, climbing high up through the lush green valley… but after a few miles I saw the mouth of a tunnel up ahead. A kilometre long according to my map and no sidewalk – I would have to battle for space with the onslaught of traffic, speeding into and out of it like bullets. It was narrow and it was uphill: I debated for twenty minutes whether to risk it before I saw sense – “no main roads” – and I turned my bike around and headed north. I would take an unlit haunted forest tunnel over one of these deathtraps any day.

Lost ? Me ??

Lost ? Me ??

IMG_6833So goodbye Tenkawa, it was not meant to be; I would have to retrace some of my route and head east across the top of the peninsula instead – there were new roads to be discovered there as well. By mid-afternoon it was warm enough for shorts and T-shirt and I took an alternative route past Yoshino, leisurely skirting a lake and enjoyed the alternating shade of the trees and the warm sunshine reflected off the water. By the time I rejoined the original road I had come in on yesterday, shadows were lengthening, and there was now a vividness in the all colours around me that were not there before – the trees, the sky, the river… even the red borders of the tiny roadside shrines that dot the side of the road. And all was silent, but for the sound of rapids on the river, the birdsong in the trees and my laboured breathing. Moments like this make it all worthwhile.

Onsen Action

Onsen Action

Tomorrow I would head east towards Toba, but for now I turned off and headed up a side valley of Higashi Yoshino to “Furusato mura” – another pleasing discovery. Located at an elevation of 800m it was the trailhead for a hike to some waterfalls and had a beautiful old wooden schoolhouse turned into dormitories and a restaurant, a place for camping and an onsen. I was the only one in the vast restaurant, and I looked out at the trees and river outside while I enjoyed a meal and a beer, exhausted and happy. Simple pleasures become surreal after a day on the bike.

IMG_6885

My bathroom…


Escape from Toba

Just what the feck had I been thinking ?! Toba ?! It had seemed like such a pleasant destination, stuck out in the east side of Mie prefecture, the campsite and onsen marked close to each other on my map, on a cosy little peninsula nearby. I’d had an image of a quaint fishing town with quiet coastal scenery, a pleasant place to finish up my trip and wait for my wife and baby boy to arrive to spend another day enjoying the sights together. I had no idea of the real horror of the place, the multi-lane highway into it’s cold concrete heart, a coast raped by heavy industry and rusting tankers. It was monstrous, and the only upside to the place was the fact that I’d got here in one day, covering almost 150km in the process, leaving me just enough time to ring the wife – “cancel all reservations !” – pack up my bike, and get a late train the hell out of there.

But I guess that’s the way I like it, the uncertainty of it all.

My kind of road ...

My kind of road …

The day had started well – the hypnotic sound of the river had allowed me a half decent sleep in the tent, and eagles soared above me as I descended the valley back to the main road. It was a “national highway”, the roads I usually avoid like the plague, but the traffic was quiet, almost non-existent, and the wide alpine views were staggering. I met a young fit-looking French touring cyclist coming the other way who had been traveling the area for two weeks: “I thought I could manage 100km a day before I came” he said, but had underestimated the amount of climbing, “I manage 60km a day at best…”. Yesterday I had managed 95km and I smiled somewhat smugly to myself – yep, I’ve still got it.

My sensitive side

My sensitive side

Pine covered slopes stretched as far as the eye could see and straight wide roads followed a determined river on the right, violent with rapids and whirlpools. There was the occasional isolated house here and there and I thought: what on earth do these people do ? It was all rather isolated and reminded me a bit of the Canadian Rockies, on a smaller scale. There were no camp sites marked on my map if I continued along this road so I turned south east onto a lovely wooded climb, heading in the direction of the coast to find a camp site for the night. There was once a time when I would choose any patch of ground to pitch a tent, and cook my dinner in the solitude of the forest. But not now – these mountains held too many mischievous spirits and I was far too superstitious nowadays.

IMG_6926The first pass invigorated me, preceding a long dusty run alongside a wide river, and a puncture. The second climb exhausted me. The third climb took everything I had and more, and spat me out into a vicious headwind, with huge and unpredictable gusts. I knew then that I couldn’t face the fourth and fifth climb of my chosen route and, with surprisingly little regret, admitted defeat and took the next turning left – north east – away from the coast and on towards the shrine town of Ise, now not sure of my new destination for the day. The scenery changed from mountains, to sprawling fields of tea, to villages and to towns, almost imperceptibly and I didn’t stop. Something was driving me on; I sped straight through Ise, out into the hills and continued on to Toba. I had covered the last 60km in two and a half hours.

The Japan Rockies

The Japan Rockies

The promise of a beach to pitch my tent, and a rustic onsen next door overlooking the ocean had been cruelly broken by the reality that is Toba. But I did find evidence of a previous campsite in the encroaching darkness – the signs were crooked and the pitches overgrown with weeds. It was now an overflow carpark for the onsen next door, a huge ostentatious building of plastic chandeliers and fake marble floors…

Sometimes you just don’t find what you’re looking for. But then again, maybe that’s the point.

Full route here:
http://ridewithgps.com/routes/2438183

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