Tag Archives: autumn

Nagano Reloaded

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What I saw was autumn, but the wind told me winter was here already. For the first couple of hours as I climbed out of sight of Nagano city I thought I’d packed too much, and listened unduly to those naysayers who told me it was surely too cold to be galavanting around the mountains of Nagano prefecture mid-November on a bicycle… while here I was sweating at almost every exertion. But I would indeed need every single layer in the end; the wind cut deeper and deeper as each hour ticked by over this brief one and a half day trip.

I was following the same roads as I’d ridden a couple years ago; they were well worth repeating and I’d promised myself I would return, for once actually keeping my promise. Route 401 was the mossy staircase of an outdoor department store of pine, maple and beech, taking me higher at every uneven turn; the walls of the far valley were resplendent in oranges and reds although somewhat dulled by the overcast sky, and the horizon was aflame with white fire whenever the slopes of the Chuo Alps broke out from behind the clouds. On a high plateau a few miles away was an isolated village, cosseted in the folds of thickly wooded forest in various stages of colour, a boundary of distance and elevation discriminating this shangri-la from the rest of us. Dear God, I beseeched, whatever you have me do to live there, I will do. Sometimes the road dipped and rose through tiny hamlets, and I spent far too much time slowing down to absorb the views over the valley, and daydreaming of my mountain retreat.

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It was with a strong sense of deja-vu that I arrived in Nakajo, a small town straddling the unpleasant trunk road of Route 19, looking for something to eat, only to find everything closed. Just like last time, almost everything but the petrol station and an empty-shelved grocers was closed, and just like last time I followed my nose a few minutes beyond the town limits to find a “yakiniku” BBQ restaurant. The only place open for miles around, cold and drafty with impenetrable clouds of thick smoke, overpriced and – shockingly – packed absolutely wall to wall with people. It said more about the local attractions of Nakajo on a Sunday, than the quality of the food.

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Considerably later than I’d planned, I continued south on Route 12, overpowering smells of yakiniku wafting behind me, and I idly wondered what kind of wildlife the smell of roast lamb is likely to attract on these lonely roads. My laissez-faire approach in the morning had left me little time to appreciate the joys of Route 12, as I watched the sun get lower, felt the temperatures drop and had to focus to keep upright in a maelstrom of strong cross-winds. Oh but what a road! The impressive views of the valley to the north had transformed into magnificent views of the Southern Alps to the west. This gem of a road has not one plain straight section; it is always veering left or right, up or down, it keeps you guessing, keeps you involved, as you play on a constant dilemma: how much attention to pay to the road versus how much to soak in the scenery. Plotted on a map, my GPS looked like it had tried to find it’s way home from the pub, in the dark, after eight pints.

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It was already getting dark when I arrived in Bessho onsen, the mountains welcoming dusk somewhat quicker than the city. A perfect day, if a little rushed towards the end. The hot bath never felt better, and the dire bottles of Asahi they serve up in these places tasted almost artisan. Glad I’d booked tomorrow off… I thought.

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The early morning trudge through the outskirts of Ueda city was terrifying. It had taken me an hour and a half to cover 25 highly unpleasant kilometres. Eight o’clock on a Monday morning… is there ever a time in the week when people feel less inconsolable ? The trudge to the office, in crammed commuter trains, or bolted to a line of slow moving traffic… a long march of misery. The last thing you need is a cyclist, a recreational cyclist, overtaking you on the inside, weaving through the stalled cars and trucks. Oh the insolent poseur: doesn’t he have a job to go to? You’d teach him a lesson, cut him up, drive him into the gutter, put the frighteners on him. For his own good, innit. Ain’t safe on a bicycle…

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Climbing slowly out of the Ueda basin I looked down on the ant-like columns of traffic criss-crossing the city suburbs: never again, Ueda, never again. I reached Route 4, lined with autumn foliage and surprisingly carrying little traffic, but it was too late, too late to recover the magic. I crossed over to the almost tranquil Route 35, and frost covered pine needles sparkled in the sunlight … but all I could think of was the cold, and how precarious this descent would be a couple more weeks. Snow covered peaks provided a dramatic backdrop to the approach into Nagano city; but it was all I could do to navigate the many urban roads to the station…

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On reflection, what I should have done was to head south from Bessho, climb over the Ushigahara highlands and finish on the shore of Lake Suwako. Now that would be a classic ride.

And come Spring, what more reason do I need to try those enchanted roads from yesterday, one more time…

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Day1(partial):
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2339679758

Day2(partial):
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2339679881

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Fukushima (almost) Loop

10 Oct001 - Fukushima

There’s nothing quite like poring over a real map, with it’s bold colours, contour lines, it’s richness of symbols and comments… there are enough clues on what to expect, but plenty more left to the imagination. Well thumbed pages marked with coffee stains, rips, and the dried blood of a millipede that got too close to your tent one evening. Old scribbled post-it notes from some past travels… the telephone number of a long forgotten B&B ? Or maybe that young woman bowled over by your athletic efforts? Nope, definitely the B&B.

10 Oct011 - Fukushima

The colour of the roads tell you the official story, red = national, green = prefectural, white = take your chances… but it’s the subtle details that reveal the truth. A straight road through a multitude of towns and intersections… not likely. A serpentine line through a wide swathe of white space… now that’s more like it!  Just make sure you have enough water and a spare tube or two, and choose the more jagged of those lines to go up, and the smoother one to go down – it’ll hurt your legs but at least you’ll more likely survive the descent. And those little hot-spring signs – bingo! They are there for a reason, because that is where you stay the night and relaaaaaaaaax..

The thing about these old printed maps, though –  they’re not always right. An inviting ocean view hotel on a long stretch of isolated coast road… now a decrepit parking lot. That luscious looking outdoor spa… actually a bathtub in someone’s backyard. Today, I find that my planned route, an intriguing road spiralling over the mountain border of Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, has actually been impassable since the great earthquake of 2011, and my almost equally alluring backup plan has more recently been washed away due to heavy rain.

10 Oct003 - Fukushima

So I came back to the Fukushima outskirts and took the detour over Kosaka toge – on the map it looked a lovely climb and indeed it was. Starting from a pleasant village narrow and long – an extended row of houses clinging to the verge on each side of an incline – it ended at a rather breathtaking view of the wide valley basin below, it’s patchwork of bright yellow harvested rice fields mixed up with the grey brown of small towns beyond, while in the immediate foreground a family of three were punishing a two-litre bottle of shochu. After a late lunch at the dam further up the road, and a startled glance at the time, my leisurely time-wasting now suddenly turned into something a little more focused – let’s call it “panic” – when I realise that with only three hours of daylight left, I still had sixty mountain kilometres and any number of previously unanticipated climbs that lay between me and my hotel.

Head down, no photo-stops and I get to Kaminoyama town: I have one of those “that can’t be right” moments when I look down at the map, shuffle myself around to the direction I need to go, and then look up at a huge mountain rearing up immediately in front of me, with a dark mass of cloud building up behind. I furrow my brow – shit – it looked so much nicer on the map.

10 Oct004 - Fukushima

And it seems to take forever, that last climb up to Zao, as the forest closes round me and hoots, snorts and growls of neither man nor machine emanate from the shadows and then, as it softly starts to rain – oh bugger – I raise the intensity and push down on the pedals harder and harder. I’m in a trance of sorts, and I’m not sure that it’s real, but I pass a solitary street-lamp, nestled in the darkening clasp of the forest on the apex of one of the switchbacks, and I think I may be in the land of Narnia, half expecting some cheeky bare-chested goat-legged hairy local to pop out from behind a tree.

After a dozen more of these corners I see some lights and roll in the village as the last of the daylight disappears. The room is shabby, drafty, and entirely unwelcoming, whilst the outdoor bath is luxuriant, it’s hot silky water inviting me to spend a couple hours in it’s soothing embrace, as I watch steam slowly circle up into the night sky.

10 Oct014 - Fukushima

The climb the next morning lived up to expectations – neverending. There was an initial ascent and descent followed by a thousand metres of straight climbing but the gradient was forgiving, and bar the mist-shrouded peak, the sun joined me for the whole way. Somewhat prune-like in my dehydrated state from last night’s bath, I nevertheless enjoyed the rhythm of the steady grind, and was pleased that the extra layer of clothes I’d brought with me filled a useful purpose at last on the initially chilly descent.

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The eastern flank of the mountain had the feel of a bank holiday weekend, with droves of cars and motorbikes out for a drive, rubber-necking the mountain view – I was glad I was going down, and not up, seeing the state of some of some of the driving round here. Going down I could go at least as fast as everyone else and keep out of reach from most of the idiots. But despite the company I was keeping, it was a pleasant ride, stopping for drinks or ice cream on the long way down. It was only when the road eventually flattened out that the traffic built up and the cars and motorbikes started passing, too fast and too close, and it became distinctly grim.

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And it was here the map saved me, revealing a road heading south across the hills, in the direction of Shiroishi. Devoid of traffic it rolled up and down, delivering me almost to the entrance of the Shinkansen station, as if it was telling me I’d done enough, why didn’t I just get a ticket, hop on the train and head home.

So I did.

10 Oct012 - Fukushima

GPS tracks:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2111373141
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2111373197

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