Tag Archives: Chichibu

Tokyo to Nagoya

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It has been well over a month of travel, colds, and cancelled weekend passes leaving me yearning for the mountains, as the muscles in my legs shrivel away and the remaining strength in my lungs support nothing more than the occasional left-over hacking cough into the face of some grim looking commuter on the packed early morning express.

If I’m not riding my bike then a poor methadone substitute is to read about it, and write about it – and the latter is long overdue. So let’s go back to the end of April, my short Golden Week mini-trip of Tokyo to Nagoya. Nagoya is where the in-laws live and whilst my wife and son were conventionally going by train (two hours) I decided to go by bike (three days).

The roads I’d chosen were certainly not direct, but most definitely scenic. Although I said Tokyo, I decided to start in Chichibu – usually a 70km ride from home, but having ridden this section many dozens of times over the years I felt no need to do this again so settled for a train there. Close enough.

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Day 1: Chichibu to Uminokuchi

IMG_6237The last leg of the early morning train into Chichibu unveiled vistas of lush tea terraces, shaded forests and high mountain peaks framed by deep blue sky. It was a gorgeous day and I was impatient to arrive and get my journey underway. But it was lucky foresight that I took a few more minutes to stock up with onigiri at a 7-11 near the station – this would be the last store I would see until the following morning.

Crossing west over the river, a twenty minute climb took me up and over the ridge of the hilltop park, a more pleasant alternative to following Route 299 through the suburbs of the city, and proved a harder than expected shock for my legs. The day was warm, hot even under the direct glare of the sun, but the heat was perfectly tempered by a cool breeze, and the side roads I’d chosen were devoid of traffic as they finally led me to Route 299: by now not much more than a single lane road, and just as quiet as the lanes I’d taken to get here (and on a Saturday no less!).The road wound purposefully upwards to my first pass of the day, to Shigazaka Toge, sheltering me under a dark canopy of trees, the views opening up here and there on my left over the Chichibu valley. I don’t think I’d climbed the pass from this side before and it was a wonderful discovery. It had been hiding under my Toge radar for far too long.

IMG_6262uBeyond Shigazaka, and the descent into the next valley, Route 299 would rise higher still up to Jikkoku Toge, a 1500 metre plus monster that would take me into the northern reaches of the Saku valley. But there was a bigger monster, Budou Toge, at over 1600 metres and a kilometre of straight elevation gain on a minor road shooting off south west. This has got to be good, I thought, filled up with water and settled in for a long hard slog. With just the very occasional car and two cyclists over the next 30km it was lonely, and not in the way that makes you think how lucky you are to be able to get away from everything. On the left the road skirted a reinforced concrete mountain side for the most part, and over to my right the views were uninspiring; no sleepy hamlets, and whatever trees there were, were thin and ungenerous in their cover. There was just no intimacy with this mountain.

IMG_6264There were a few smaller passes to cross, and the last one of the day was a narrow track winding leftwards up and beyond a tunnel in front of me. The late afternoon sun glittered promisingly through the trees, and this little broken track tempted me off the main road despite it’s gradient. I climbed out of the saddle under boughs of trees and had to carefully control the bike over a path strewn increasingly with huge rocks and rotting timber – it was clear nobody had been this way for a long time. Then the clouds rolled in and it didn’t seem quite the pleasant diversion it first looked; in fact it felt downright sinister. I’d invested too much energy to go back now and the decent soon started. But it was extremely steep, taken very gingerly and seemingly never ending – by now I was convinced the boulders and fallen branches suspended across the path were conspiring to keep me there, an offering for their malevolent mountain god, and when at last I saw a small farm tucked in a recess of the mountain sides below me, I cried out aloud with relief, and joined a lane that took me eventually down to the main road.

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There was a warm welcome from the old lady at the hotel in Uminokuchi (relieved that the mountain spirits had not abducted her guest that evening) and my room looked out over the garden with no thankfully no view of the ominous hills I’d passed over earlier.

Day 2: Uminokuchi to Iida

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IMG_6290uI had to first descend to a convenience store to get some supplies and quite a way past my turn off for Mugisaka Toge, already extending today’s climbing before it had even bloody started. It was a straight 1200m gain in elevation over a desolate 22 kilometres – not that steep but certainly persistent and with a wind that screamed like a turbine. It was a grey day, threatening with rain at some points, and the cloud shrouded icy peaks of the Southern Alps to my left did not make for cheery company.

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At long last, at around the 1700m mark, I came cross a single restaurant – closed or abandoned, I wasn’t sure which – and here there was the turnoff west onto the final stretch, a further 450m of climbing to go to the top. As wind howled around me and I looked for a place where I could lay my bike without it getting blown down the slopes, I really thought about packing it in. The pass had only been open a week after it’s long winter closure and right now it felt rather daunting – this is not what a fun “golden week” ride is all about ! Before long a couple of motorcyclists came past and headed upwards, and buoyed by the fact that I wasn’t the only one going up there, set off for the top, passing still snowy verges and the bare white trunks of trees, branches still devoid of leaves – it would be some time before Spring visited this place..

IMG_6298uThe decent was long, cold and bumpy – the seasons do not treat these roads with much care. I emptied the contents of my overnight bag and put on everything I had, as well opening all the “kairo” (hot pads) I had and fixing them to my toes and hands so the decent became bearable, enjoyable even. There were some spectacular “besso”, or holiday lodges, on the lower slopes looking out over some truly royal views. I looked longingly at the more luxurious ones with chimneys, imagining an alternative morning spent in front of a roaring log fire.

IMG_6311uEventually the road took me down to the plains and I arrived in Chino, a large town that lies in the centre of a large basin surrounded by mountains and ridges of various hues. It took an age to get warmth back into my body and I found it incomprehensible that people were walking around in T-shirts while I had my hands cupped desperately around a hot cup of coffee trying to get some feeling back into my fingers. Yet, ninety minutes later, after struggling to find my way to find the right road based on my mis-functioning GPS, and eventually climbing south on Rt 152 up to Tsuetsuki Toge, I had to take an emergency sit down in an air conditioned cafe to avoid succumbing to heat-stroke. It was a funny day.

IMG_6325uThe rest of the afternoon was hazy, into a strong headwind – at times I was having to peddle down 5% gradients just to keep my speed. It was wearing me down, and although I’d planned to follow the Akiba Kaito south (Rt 152) before turning west to Iida for the night, I’d done this route before and turned off earlier instead to Rt 18, hoping that I might find more shelter from the wind. And what a find this was ! Initially a little sterile looking it took me up one nice pass with a wonderful winding descent through rice terraces, and then – careful to take the old Rt18 rather than the new one – a narrow road, sheltered under trees that hugged the winding river south, ending the day on a high.

Day 3: Iida to Mizunami

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The advantages to staying in a hotel five yards from a level crossing is that’s it’s easy to wake up for an early start… a hot day today (reached 29 degrees later in the afternoon) and an initial straight-as-an-arrow ascent up a narrow road out of the town turned a corner and I was suddenly in a paradise of narrow leafy switchbacks alternating with slowly ascending curves squeezed between the mountain on my right and the expanding valley on my left. Birdsong enveloped me, and the mountain sides revealed a multitude of benevolent “jizo” statues looking down on me.

IMG_6373There was only one way – UP! – but it was well signposted, and the constantly changing grade kept it interesting. Freshly painted shrines greeted me on corners while rows of well tended flowers lined the side of the road; and although there were monkeys eyeing the bananas in my back pocket they generously left me alone to enjoy the ride. This was clearly a mountain that was loved and cared for, and it emanated goodwill in return. When I finally reached Iida Toge at 1100 odd metres I almost wished I had more to go.
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And it just so happened that I did. There was a graciously winding descent to a narrow sanctuary of just a few hectares of flat land, walled in by the surrounding forests, with a old buildings between elegant decay and more recent renovation. The road dropped me down into this hidden dell, and a few hundred yards later took me out of it again, back up, following a stream for a while until I crested Odaira Toge at over 1200 metres. These twin passes were now easily my favourite Toge, and the highlight my my trip.

IMG_6393After a long descent I arrived in Tsumago, a famous old post town on the ancient Nakasendo route, a picture postcard town with a long street of restored wooden buildings – I first found this on one of my early bike trips many years ago just by chance, and I felt like I had stepped back in time. Maybe it was the season, or the lateness of the hour, but all those years ago this was a magical place with just a few people wandering the streets in their geta (clogs) and yukata (summer kimono). Today there were already a fair number of tourists milling around and I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time. A pleasant climb took me over to the next post town, Magome, a single cobbled street descending a steep hillside for a mile or two. Visually spectacular, but far more tourist orientated that even Tsumago, and loads of Chinese tour groups, something that I didn’t see ten years ago. I walked down the street dutifully but then hopped on my bike to get away.

IMG_6381It was a great long descent from the mountains which ended unfortunately on the apocalypsal route 20 intersection of Nakatsugawa, a huge highway of twelve lanes cutting it’s way through the surrounding hills. Determined to avoid this monstrosity I found myself by mistake on the old pedestrian way of the Nakasendo, on a 30% incline so steep that I had no option but to commit to finishing it, scaring me senseless on the accompanying descent and hurting my legs so badly that I couldn’t face any more climbing for the rest of the day.

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IMG_6417uWith afternoon of long diversions, I headed north into the Gifu countryside in order to avoid the traffic magnet of busy roads around Nakatsugawa and was surprised at just how pleasant it was: rolling roads with short climbs and descents, many curves, lined by trees or generous views over green fields and pasture; the villages were pretty and well kemp, a sense of old moneyed families and extensive farms, and even a community pride. Usually you get the extremes of towering wild mountains or flat avenues of concrete in Japan – this was quite unusual and I promised myself to explore Gifu properly sometime.

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My only mistake was to then head to Route 66, it’s leafy verges belied the fact that it was maniac driver infested trunk road to Nagoya, with all sorts of traffic zooming by very closely and at speed: I valued my life more than an arbitrary goal of finishing within the city limits so stopped in the next town of Mizunami, one of Nagoya’s outer suburbs, and picked up a train from there. With 245km and 7200m of climbing I wasn’t too disappointed.

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Routes:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671170
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671220
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1158671269

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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

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

The Rise and Fall

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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

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.

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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…

 

Winter’s final salute

[Actually from a ride that took place 3 weeks ago… a bit behind on my updates]

Not much need for the Suncream, then

The roads were bone dry, with lumpy grey clouds hanging low over the landscape and there was a tepid dampness in the air – ah, the first signs of Spring maybe ? As the miles increased I removed my layers: the arm warmers under my jersey, the jacket, the woolly hat.  Why, I could head straight for Shiraishi Toge hidden in a ring of cloud ahead rather than the more circular, predictable Winter route over Sadamine. A day like today, sure, there wouldn’t be any ice. I was more worried about sun burn. But those clouds did look mighty odd though, like rings of Saturn enveloping the peaks above.

I pushed hard – today I was learning to suffer again, forcing my heart rate into the red, feeling the lactate acid weigh down my legs, and the nausea rise in my throat. My eyes could barely focus on the few feet ahead of me never mind the rest of the road, but I did spot the smallest traces of slushy ice in places. Harmless.

Climbing higher. There may have been a few noodles of snow on the verge there, in my peripheral vision, but that was the last thing on my mind, really. Eyes back on the road. Hmmm. More traces of snow, tracts of slush pushed up against the side of the road and a little in the middle. Nothing to worry about, it’s painful legs and lungs that worried me more. The mounds increased and got bigger, the verge and trees were completely covered, and I was carefully aiming my front wheel through narrow furrows of clear tarmac. Oh, feel a little sick, must hold back some. I hadn’t really noticed, but the bike and I were conducting a subtle dance, rocking back and forth just so I could keep some kind of traction over packed snow on a ten degree slope. A thin veneer of snow was stinging my eyes now, and I threaded a 23mm tyre wide line through virgin snow.

A car appeared in the gloom ahead, reversing from around the next steep corner – at least he had seen sense! – and I snapped out of my trance. Holy crap, where the hell was I ? I stepped to the side to let it pass and my foot immediately sunk eight inches into soft snow. Visibility went as far as the side of the road – this was a frigging blizzard !  There was no choice but a long, cold walk back down – you’d have to be crazy to try and cycle in this.

It was Winter’s final salute to me… of the middle finger kind.

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