Tag Archives: Arakawa

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 !

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Finger of God

Views from Sadamine

Views from Sadamine

In the light of a bare, bright lightbulb I slipped on the thick thermal top, zipping it up to the neck, to slow down my immediate shivering. Then came the cycling shorts, after I’d massaged some warming “deep heat” thoroughly into my numb legs; on with the knee warmers, and the thick winter tights over all this, while I taped my secret winter weapon – Japanese “kairo” heat-pads – over my toes, keeping them in place by a pair of regular socks, and then over these another pair of heavy duty waterproof Sealskinz as well.  Next, the heavy winter jacket, a veteran of five winters, a thick fleece balaclava, and a final bandana to cover any remaining exposed flesh.  A thermal hat and a pair of winter gloves finished off the ensemble while I popped a couple more heat-pads in each of the gloves and put on the wind jacket. I was finally ready to step outside, an hour before sunrise – the coldest part of the day.

Looking down from Yamabushi

Looking down from Yamabushi

When dawn came, it spawned a blaze of fire on the horizon, and the mountain peaks glowed like hot coals. But it was pure illusion: today would be the coldest day of the winter so far, a nighttime low of -8 degrees where I was going and a daytime high of 4, according to the forecast.  Any moisture – a spilt drink, puddles in the gutter, somebody’s flem… all frozen solid. Harsh. Soft porn braced the window display of the 7-11 where I stopped for a coffee and croissant at the 80km mark, promising a far nicer time indoors.

A wind-chapped chap

A wind-chapped chap

But the cold wasn’t the worst of it. A fierce north westerly wind buffeted the bike, like an ice cold celestial breath, violently expelling me into the path of overtaking trucks. On the winding mountain roads I could swear there was an invisible hand holding back the bike for a few seconds, flattening my speed in an instant, and then immediately flicking me forward again … I could feel the thumb and forefinger of a mischievous mountain god playing dangerous games with me.


Noon, and a stop for lunch. When I remounted the bike the wind was even stronger, but it was steady, and blowing back towards the city: the gods had forgotten me and moved on. It was my turn to have some fun, and I teased out a ferocious tailwind, under a clear blue sky, all the way back to Tokyo.

Rolling up to my doorstep I surprised myself – thanks to the wind I had completed 190km, relatively effortlessly: and my longest ride since last Spring. It looks like I had wrapped those gods around my own little finger after all…


Group Hug

“If we huddle together really closely”, the big Swede suggested with a glint in his eye, “we could all get a lot warmer…”.

For the first time in many months, I had decided to join a group ride. A flat 200km route following a series of rivers, it wasn’t my usual choice for a day out cycling but the mountains were treacherous with snow and ice, and in any case I was yearning for some company on the bike for a change. No leisurely breaks, no chance to take photos, but still, great to feel the camaraderie of a half-dozen or so riders tackling the winter cold together.

River Fever

But now we were waiting, stamping our feet on an exposed river bank while one of our number worked on fixing his broken wheel. It had been almost an hour and the north wind howled down upon us, icy daggers slashing at flesh, our suffering off the bike far more intense than we had ever suffered on it. We couldn’t leave him of course – the “rules” required that there should be no man left behind. Tous pour un, un pour Tous, as the Musketeers would say. It was a question of loyalty, a matter of honour.

“You know” he said, pausing, “maybe I should start thinking of getting a train home”…

Yes ! We all thought, secretly relieved, At last ! Leave him ! There are limits, after all. I was tired of this monotonous river path and with still over 80km to go the sun was already sinking in the sky. Two riders had gone ahead, but one more was working there with his stranded friend, helping to make his bike ridable. Fine, leave him as well !

So now there were three. A jagged fence of snow capped mountains bridled the horizon to the North and West, whilst the dark grey silhouette of Mt Tsukuba dominated the skyline to the East. But that static hour in the cold had killed our enthusiasm and the ferocious tail wind did little to raise our spirits – we were all so sick of this damned river.

It was dusk when we reached the Arakawa, another companion splitting off for home, leaving just two of us, the Swede and I, to tackle the last long stretch of riverbank in the dark, nothing but a couple of weak bike lights illuminating the way immediately in front, our eyes straining for those evil patches of ice. And this time we were facing into the wind. When we went our separate ways it was late and we were both terribly cold, tired and hungry. It was difficult to tell in the low light, but I thought I caught a look of regret in his face as he waved goodbye, and I understood.

We had broken the rules, fragmenting the group, ignoring etiquette and leaving two comrades stranded, twenty miles from the nearest train station. But perhaps more than that, I felt sure I knew what he wanted to say; we should have huddled together when we all had the chance.

Panic !

Early Morning Urban Views

I woke up with a sudden start this morning, a residual image from the nightmare still etched vividly infront of me in the dark pre-dawn gloom of the bedroom: a hairy, spindly legged, pot bellied figure, wrapped outrageously in tight white lycra, riding an wholly undeserved expensive titanium bike, puffing away at the tail of a group of strong young riders. The red sweaty face turned towards me briefly before I was shocked wide awake.  Holy crap – it was me !

Between a spa trip and the miserable weather I hadn’t managed time for a ride last weekend, and this fact was starting to get to me. I’d been feeling listless, unfit and – oddly – feeling vaguely guilty for no good reason, like being eyed by security walking through the “nothing to declare” gate at customs, or talking in unnecessary detail to your wife about an innocent night out with friends.  “It’s only you” I whispered to my bike last night, reassuring her, “It’s always been you”.

So, in the dark bitterly cold morning, I fumbled around the spare room, pulling on layers of clothing – not white, mind you – pumping up the tires and getting my bag ready for work. “Cycle commuting day” I decided, and realising I had to make real amends for my inattention, “…I’ll take the Long Route”. This is my 55km roundabout way to work, a 25km stretch of sweet and pleasant river path, sandwiched by hard and sour crusts of city traffic either side.

But today, even that filling was hard and unpaletable:  sheets of ice covered the asphalt entirely in front of me. It took only a couple attempts carrying my bike up the riverbank and through patches of snow to know I’d be very very late for work, this way. Beaten, I turned around and cycled back home, weaving carefully though icy patches and the heavy rush hour traffic, the exhaust fumes of buses and trucks at least pushing some warmth into my lungs.

Showered, changed, and joining the other tortured corporate souls on the Chuo line into Tokyo, I was stuck in the train at a standstill for fifteen minutes. Probably a “jumper” I reasoned, waiting to be cleared up from the tracks. And stuck in limbo yet again later, waiting for the Yamanote line to start moving. I joined the Kehin-Tohoku line, like every other zombie with no other option, elbow to groin, packed like bruised sardines. And I arrived in work exactly four hours after getting out of bed.

I could never tell her of course, but some days,  well,  it just ain’t worth it.

Life and Death in Chichibu

North climb of Sadamine Toge

The fox lay dead in the undergrowth, neatly arranged and parallel to the road. It’s eyes and mouth were closed, and someone had carefully arranged an embroidered cloth over it’s body from midway of it’s tail to it’s neck like a shroud, pristine white. This is Chichibu – animal spirits live in these hills and hundreds of shrines celebrating them are scattered deep in the forests. This was no simple roadkill to be left festering on the centre line. This fox demanded dignity in it’s death.

Dawn on the Arakawa

I had originally planned a short early ride up the Arakawa river, still feeling the residue of the heavy cold and fever I’d suffered as a consequence of last week’s 190km madness. It was dark when I left, my favorite time, when the first hour is spent anticipating what kind of sunrise will follow. Braziers burned red on the edge of the baseball diamonds spread along the river’s wide floodplain – obsessed parents, arriving far too early to set up for their sons’ baseball games later. Too distant to feel the heat; but just the smell of the burning wood and the sound of the crackle of the embers still warmed me a little. The sun came up – not bad, a little cloudy, but the pale orange and yellows were enough to convince me it would be a waste of a perfectly decent day to turn back now. The temperature was below freezing and the charcoal grey clouds on the horizon turned Fuji-san into an artful black and white sketching. I knew already that in days like this in the mountains, the Gods come out to check their domain. And, I knew, there were few better places for it than in Chichibu. So the decision was made.

The Chichibu Hills

A glorious crisp winter’s morning, chilling but clear of snow and ice – there had been no precipitation for well over a week and the only visible clue to the cold was the frost on the fields and the roof of their owner’s farmhouses. I rode deeper into the hills and climbed Sadamine Toge, deliberately taking it very easy – today would be another “long slow distance” ride, keeping my hear rate low. A Keiren rider leisurely overtook me, and we exchanged greetings: “Ohayo !”. He was tucked low into his handlebars, pushing a heavy gear at an excruciating slow and measured cadence. I tailed him for a while around the curves of the road before letting him go on.  Later on, a family of “saru”, Japanese monkeys, descended the steep slope on my right, trotted one by one across the road and down into the thicket on the left, a few lingering to forage by the roadside. Drawn back lips and a mouthful of fangs greeted my attempt to take a closer look at the nearest one. He shoved his ripe red arse in my field of view and loped off.

Hairy and Angry

On the second climb, Yamabushi Toge, an ambulance blazed past me, siren sounding, and soon after that I arrived at the accident scene – a motorcycle smashed beyond recognition, in pieces across both sides of the carriageway;  the front of the car imploded, and both airbags deployed like failed parachutes over the dashboard. The scene turned my stomach (they always do) but the young man – a boy, really – was being attended to by medics, about five metres further on. He must have been flung there, I guessed, and I saw his eyes were open and moving – he was alive, thank God. I rolled my bike along the footpath, averting my eyes out of a kind of respect for the victim, and a bunch of rubberneckers had already gathered around the crash zone, feasting on the carnage, chatting and – unbelievable – even laughing a little. Show some fucking solemnity you ghouls.

The Holy Fountain Shrine

Five minutes later a car overtook me – he had lost patience waiting for the accident to be cleared – and shaved by within twelve inches of my shoulder, at speed, on a wide and empty road. When I am King, I growled, one in every hundred airbags will be replaced at random with explosives. When I am King.

Descending a timber mile of saw mills, the aroma of freshly cut timber hauled me out of my temporary distress, and I pulled in to the Shrine of the Holy Fountain. It’s been too long, I thought, and flicked a coin through the slates of it’s weathered wooden door and yanked the rope back and forth, jangling the bell above to summon the spirits. Take care of that guy, I asked, and keep me safe on these mountain roads.

And I prayed for the fox as well. But I’m sure he was already watching me by now.

Mountain Restaurant, Deepest Chichibu