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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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…