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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.