Tag Archives: golden week

From the Land of the Gods: Izumo to Kyoto

 

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From the home of the Shinto deities, Izumo Taisha, through 400 miles of roads less travelled to finish in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. Riding craggy windswept coastlines, snow-capped mountain passes and criss-crossing some of Japan’s richest highland farming country, luminous with lush green paddy fields.

Izumo Taisha is probably Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine, standing on the north west coast of Shimane prefecture. For seven days every Autumn the tens of thousands of spirits from around Japan leave their trees and their streams, their pastures and their rice fields, their roadside and their mountain shrines… and they gather in Izumo, so the legend goes.

It is a long way from anywhere really; I don’t know how the Gods travel there, but for me the best approach was the Sunrise Izumo, Japan’s last surviving night train, departing Tokyo station at 10pm on a Friday night and arriving twelve and a half hours later in Izumo city. It is not a place you visit on the spur of the moment; in fact you are unlikely to visit Shimane prefecture at all.

So all the more reason to start from here. Myth or otherwise, I often feel I’m never quite alone on these isolated Japanese mountain roads – this way I could let them know I’m coming.

Matsue Revisited

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A sense of boyish excitement swept over me as I waited on the platform for the Sunrise Izumo to pull in. It was the first night train I had been on since my trip up to Tohoku in 2009, for my “Spine of the North” ride, and sadly, this was now the last scheduled night train remaining in Japan – I wonder how long before this one is retired ? It took a few practised limbo dancing manoeuvres to squeeze into my berth but once inside it was quite comfortable and the bed lay almost along the full length of the window. I could comfortably flash at any number of people waiting on countryside station platforms as the Sunrise Izumo sped through non-stop.

I’d finished a book by the time we arrived next morning – I can’t remember when I’d last had the luxury of time to do something like this. A short 10km ride to the shrine and I joined the lines of people making their way through the main gates – I thought it pertinent to don a pair of regular shorts over the lycra ones. Lines of people were queued up at the various shrines making offerings and prayers… I made a cursory stroll round the grounds, enjoyed a couple of the gardens, but I was itching to get back on the bike and start towards Matsue, as it was already well after midday.

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Up until the west shore of Lake Shinjiko lake I could take a combination of quiet roads and deserted cycle paths, past homesteads that looked like they were floating on the water of the surrounding paddy fields. The croaking of a thousand frogs, and hoots, tweets, chirps and cries of a whole menagerie of birds and herons made me realise that by golly it was Spring and I was on holiday!

The main road to Matsue was busy with holiday traffic but more than manageable; the lake was on my right and thick foliage and earth ramparts on the left – behind these modest natural barriers was another world, a green oasis of small farms and fields sloping up to a low mountain range which separated the inland plains from the sea, on the other side. And above these the earlier cloudy skies of the morning was clearing to reveal pristine blue skies behind.

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Nearing Matsue I veered off north, heading to the coast for some spectacular scenery of the Japan Sea coastline, joining a local basset hound lazing on a rock to admire the views. I would have liked to circle around the entire headland but there was a hard day coming up tomorrow, and I reluctantly turned back inland after 10km… save it for another day. An enjoyable climb past flower-fringed farmhouses sat at impossible heights on impossibly steep valley sides and a long descent into the city of Matsue.

I had last visited Matsue many years ago in the days of film camera and asking real people for directions, and it stuck in my memory for it’s serene park, castle grounds and a pleasant old town area… I had always wanted to return. Sadly I only had time to visit the castle this time but I can think of worse places to be stuck for a couple days. Ah, next time.

 

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Mt Daisen

Poles of Koinobori commanded the gardens of hundreds of homes and long lines of them were stretched across rivers… put in place for Childers’s Day, these rows of cotton carp fluttering in the wind are synonymous with Golden Week, especially for me as I have usually spent this time cycling somewhere in Japan (though perhaps less so in recent years, now I have a boy of my own.)

Incense wafted across my path from unseen shrines and I rode rolling hills across quiet valleys, passing dozens of ancestral tombs high up in the hills or stood right in the middle of the plains. The rice fields were high with water and I saw my reflection in their green speckled surface as I cycled next to them; there were so many interesting roads curving up into forests and out of sight and I wish I had time to explore them all; I cycled through countless small hamlets of magnificent traditional houses, owned by old moneyed families.

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The locals

Today my route was to take me to Mt Daisen, the largest mountain in the Chugoku region, and through the early morning haze I could already see the silhouette of it’s perfect volcanic cone 50km away, dominating the landscape, taunting me. And it was indeed a brutal climb, almost a kilometre of elevation gain in one long straight ascent, with all but no shade. Oh my, but it was worth it. The descent – and another ascent – was my favourite kind of riding… winding forest roads. The icy saw-toothed peaks of Daisen made a spectacular backdrop as I descended at speed, trying to maintain a decent line against some tremendous cross-winds. There was still snow up here, and – surreally – I passed a couple of kids having a snowball fight on the side of he road. The views to the Japan Sea would have been fantastic but for the heavy haze today.

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01GW - 69In Misasa onsen I found a room available and decided to stay here to heal my tired legs. The onsen in the ryokan was extremely hot and I had to take cold showers in between brief dips, trying to to relieve the pain of my aching muscles with the pain of submerging sunburnt flesh into hot sulphuric water. It seemed to work. I caught the last night of the town’s golden week firework display over the river before I retired to bed, the explosion of the pyrotechnics echoing from the slopes of the valley like an ariel bombardment.

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Choices choices…

 

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Cape Fear

Still somewhat sore and tired when I got up (I never sleep well in hotels), there was a 500 metre climb to welcome me right out of the door. The early morning sun illuminated the flooded rice fields, long shadows forming a myriad of geometric patterns as ducks flitted playfully across the surface and bull frogs let loose their occasional huge belches. At the top of the pass, I sat down and leisurely finished an onigiri, actually taking the time to appreciate the serenity of my surroundings, deep in the mountains – all too often I cycle on. Any feelings of lethargy I might have had were now quite conclusively banished.

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It was a fantastic morning of climbs and descents across valleys full of paddy fields as I was serenaded by a chorus of hoots, whistles, chirps, tweets and the occasional unknown grunt of some unknown creature deep in the undergrowth (ironically, what some of the locals probably say of me). My original route through the mountains was thwarted by one road closed, and another seemingly not existing, so I had to ride down to the coast and through the city of Tottori. Central Tottori was unpleasant but I could navigate most of it through backroads and a river path.

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Coming this way meant I could see Tottori’s most famous sight, the “Tottori Sakkyu” – the giant sand dunes. I’d been here before on another bike trip (Yamaguchi to Tottori) but it was still quite an impressive sight, though I didn’t bother climbing them this time around. Cold blasts of wind buffeted me along this stretch of coastline and for the first time this year I heard the chirp of cicadas.

There are very very few foreigners stuck out in Tottori, but I met two of them.The first one just plain ignored my “gaijin nod” in the 7-11 and walked past me, whilst the next one coming towards me on his “mamachari” actually stopped when he caught sight of me, a look of upset on his face, turned around and took off in the direction he’d come from, setting a helluva pace on his shopping bike and seemingly disturbed by the possibility of conversation.

In contrast, an old Japanese man got up from his lunch and stared at me so hard and so long I had to look around to see if there wasn’t some murder happening behind me.

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This was some of the best coastal scenery I had ever seen, from hidden sandy coves, through to towering jagged cliffs, foaming waves breaking against rocky outcrops, and the ocean a beautiful aquamarine blue. And there was nobody here! The road I was following, route 178, was designated a “kokudo” or national highway, but for the most part had no traffic and was barely the width of a car in some places as it went up and down like a rollercoaster ride, hugging the cliffs like a lovers last embrace. I love it that I can still discover roads like this in Japan.

The seafood lunch I had was a work of culinary art – for only 800 yen. Sun, sea and er, seafood… after all, isn’t that what a holiday’s all about ?

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Then I decided to turn off onto an enticing sleepy looking road edging round one of the more isolated promontories. The amazing views were paid for with every pedal revolution through savagely steep climbs and descents along this twisting ribbon of a road. After a while I realised I had left the last fishing port and even a stretch of tea-fields behind me some time ago; the barriers had disappeared from the edge of the road and the only sounds I was hearing were the rustling of the snakes at the side of the road and the crashing of the waves against rocks far far below.

 

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But I carried on, steering carefully around the numerous rock slides – this was the last place I’d want to get a puncture. It was hot, I was running low on water and I had no idea how much further to go and how much more climbing to suffer. But still I carried on. My legs were fried from all the climbing and my nerves shattered from the descents but I still saw no sign of this bloody thing ending. I’d stopped receiving a phone signal a long time back and there was no sign that anyone actually used this road clinging so precariously to the cliff face. What if something happened to me ? Who would know about it ? How much further is there – do I continue or do I turn back ? Oh Jeyzus I don’t think I had enough energy to tackle all that climbing again – I was now out of food.

It was just after I’d started softly crying to myself that I spotted a lighthouse, and finding it on my map knew that I had at last crossed over to the eastern side of the cape and this whole ordeal would soon be over. After a long careful descent I eventually joined back up with the main road – I never thought I would be so happy to see so much traffic!

This little diversion had put me behind schedule and I looked for a place in Kasumi (now in Hyogo prefecture), a nondescript fishing village with no obvious tourist attractions that had well over a dozen minshuku (B&B) and apparently none of them having any available rooms. Maybe it’s the lycra. Anyhow, after 30 minutes of knocking on doors I found one place which could put me up and drive me to a local fish restaurant for dinner.

What a day.

 

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Kyoto by the Sea

The sky was dark with clouds threatening rain this morning so I decided to make a half-day of it and dash for Amanohashidate, famous for the narrow sandbar that crosses it’s bay, and it’s appearance of a “bridge to heaven” when viewed from the surrounding mountains.

The dark clouds and feisty waves crashing against the cliffs lent an edge to the morning’s ride, which I rather enjoyed as a contrast to the blue skies and temperate weather I’d be fortunate to experience so far. There was a string of villages and ports along the coast and I savoured the many small climbs and descents between each of them, and the occasional forays inland. There are some beautiful backroads here and for the first time I am starting to see more and more bamboo groves lining my route.

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I saw a group of junior high school students coming towards me all on identical bicycles each with a huge wing mirror. “Ohayo Gozaimasu” they all greeted me in chorus as I passed. Later in the afternoon a class of pre-schoolers were being led up a hill by their teachers and each and every one of them screamed an excited “konnichi wa” to me.

Originally I had planned to stay in Kinosaki last night, and when I cycled through it now I realised it was probably best that I hadn’t pinned my hopes on finding a place here. Plush ryokan of rich deep wood and carefully manicured gardens, elaborately decorated public baths, kimono-clad tourists strolling the narrow main street and trying not to get run over by the traffic…Kinosaki was the Knightsbridge of onsen towns, and if my lycra clad appearance had seemingly put off the locals in Kasumi, I’ve no doubt they would have run me out of town with a pitchfork if I enquired about lodgings here.

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After the town of Kyotango I deviated from policy, and decided to take the more direct main road, route 312, rather than being stuck up some minor mountain pass if it started pouring down with rain. For a “kokudo” it was actually rather nice: wide with a decent path for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as a generous verge – and very few trucks. The dedicated cycling path through the tunnels was wider than most of the roads I’d been on so far. I found a few interesting roads – some blocked by landslides – to take me a few miles north of the bay so I could cycle across the sandbar into Amanohashidate town proper.

At over two miles long and covered with thousands of tall pine trees the sandbar is impressive; the town is promoted as “Kyoto by the Sea” and although it is nothing like Kyoto it is indeed pleasant with a temple, coffee shops and boat ride and such. I treated myself to a ryokan with a view over the bay and spent a lazy afternoon dozing.

 

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Steve by the Onsen

A great palaver in the morning involving a broken valve on my spare tube, the hotel’s tool-box and a couple of sturdy rubber gloves meant that I left the hotel much later than planned. I didn’t want to risk being stranded in the mountains due to any mechanical incidents, especially as the forecast was rain for this afternoon again. However, any bad mood I might have had was soon fixed by the first climb of the day: I said goodbye to the Japan Sea and turned directly south.

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Route 45 took me through a narrow valley of small well kept homesteads of a few paddy fields each, and colourful local shrines lining the road. It was clear the villages here took pride in their appearance. I was determined to avoid the main road south and busy with trucks, and as I went cross-country across the valleys I found some back roads roads that took me through dark hollows of thick bamboo; the air was heavy with moisture – the rain would surely start any moment now – and I had to concentrate to stay upright on the climbs as my rear wheel slipped on the steep, damp, moss covered surface; but it was wonderful, and birds of all kinds kept me company with their tunes as I made my way slowly down the valley.

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Originally I had planned to head eastwards to the mountains and call ahead for a room in youth hostel I’d found on the map. It had started raining lightly and I thought I could still make it. But in the space of half an hour it went from spitting to full on chucking-it-down and I made my way down to the main road finding shelter under a gas station forecourt while I wondered what to do. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this all afternoon, so as soon as there was a break in the weather I tuned around and headed in the other direction to the previous town, Ayabe, about 12km back.

And what a good decision that was ! I found a cheap hotel next to a great onsen where I spent the afternoon treating myself to the various baths, jacuzzi and rotemburo (outdoor baths) there, while I watched a few determined kayakers potter up and down the river in the drizzle outside.

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Into Kyoto

Awake at 2am, unable to sleep again, and looked out the window; the rain had stopped, a full moon was high in the sky, and a wall of mist was rolling it’s way slowly and deliberately down from the mountains towards the river… I knew this would be a perfect day.

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I left early, and the mist still lay heavy over the valley and the sun was a weak orb of light glowing behind. I was cycling through another world as the sun slowly burnt off the last of the mist leaving fields and trees that were a vibrant and luminous green from the overnight rain, while a cacophony of hoots and other noises started up from the undergrowth and the cries from eagles echoed off the valley sides.

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It was an incredible route and I promised myself I would be back again to explore more of northern Kyoto prefecture. Route 12, a quiet hilly road for the most part following the course of the river led onto route 38, taking me up to the mountains proper. There were more and more “kayabuki” appearing now (straw thatched farmhouses), most with their tall steep roofs covered against the elements, but many with the thatch exposed. There was even a village of them, the straw roofed houses lined up behind each other like straw dominos up the hillside, and what struck me was that these were regular working farmhouses; I had been to similar villages in Japan before but their business had invariably been tourism, and every other house was a restaurant or “omiyage” shop. There was none of that here – in fact I felt rather self conscious taking a photograph.

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The road was gorgeous and eagles soared overhead as I climbed steadily higher. After the last village there were only the occasional hamlet of two or three houses, seemingly deserted, on the way to the main climb. At the top of the pass I was greeted with a flourish of “yamazakura” trees, the pink blossoms falling lazily from their branches forming pools of pink leaves on the ground, and a line of them running down the other side of the pass like a bridal procession for a mountain god.

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I was very low on water by the time I’d got over the pass and it had been a long long time since I’d passed any vending machine. The farmhouses I passed were eerily quiet, and only occasionally would I see someone working the fields. Any taps I saw were fed from the streams – I filled my bottle with water from one of them but it seemed to me that the cloudy brew swirling around was not suitable for drinking. I found a farmhouse off the road with a few people sitting idly on the veranda and asked one of them if they could spare me some water. “There’s no drinking water here” he said gruffly, and barked some unintelligible directions at me before heading indoors.

After that, I didn’t feel like approaching any more farmhouses. I came across a forest worker and he told me of a restaurant a few miles further on (as I eyed his bottle of tea enviously…) and sure enough fifteen minutes of downhill later I found a small rustic restaurant, right here, deep in the middle of the mountains! And it was the best bowl of soba I can remember.

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This road had been a classic and I resigned myself to the fact that things couldn’t get better than this; but these mountains kept on giving ! The jagged lines of route 477 south on the map hinted that it might be interesting and the climb up to the pass was pleasantly lined by small villages and standalone farmhouses, almost right up to the top. And then, on the other side… oh my oh my oh my.

It was a tightly winding descent through a lush sea of deep pine forest, the trees spaced far enough apart that I could see the road wind down several turns below me; the scent of pine as I slowly descended was intoxicating. The road was badly potholed in places (it would make a much better climb) but slowing down just gave me even more time to appreciate it. I came out of the pine forest into Kurama Onsen, with it’s classic winding narrow street through the pines, with temples and shops and a smattering of tourists. A little further and I was on the outskirts of Kyoto city.

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I headed to the station via Higashiyama and Gion, a little perturbed by the tide of tourists, but with a very satisfied grin on my face. Cycling is the secret to travel in Japan… I just hope that none of these other people find out…

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I’ll be back!

Notes:

Full photos here:

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Stats:
Sat 6th May: Matsue. 80km / 600m
Sun 7th May: Misasa Onsen, 120k / 2200m
Mon 8th May: Kasumi, 115km / 2000m
Tues 9th May: Amanohashidate, 100k / 1200m
Wed 10th May: Ayabe, 80k / 1000m
Wed 11th May: Kyoto, 130k / 1600m

GPS tracks:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728278845
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728278897
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279014
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279060
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279097
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1728279140

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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

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

Trials, Tribulations and Toba

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Every golden week it is time to dig out the old steel touring bike, load it up with moldy camping gear still damp from the previous year, and chose an area of Japan to cycle for six or seven days. The more remote the better, and there is one basic rule I must follow: no main roads. Tunnels would be avoided if at all possible (use those overgrown old roads that go over the mountain, rather than through it…) and weather permitting, camp whenever I could. Wear the same clothes, unwashed for days on end, forget personal hygiene, relieve myself in public, many many times. Go wild for a week.

This has been a tradition for the last six years now, and for the last three of them, there has been another angle to it: training for the Tokyo to Itoigawa road race, held end of May – perfect timing to toughen me up before tackling those 308km to the Japan sea coast. No carefully planned training schedule, set intervals, heart rate monitor… none of that. Like Rocky Balboa training to beat Drago in Rocky IV I had no need of high tech training apparatus and sports science. Rocky hauled logs and climbed frozen rock faces in raging blizzards wearing nothing but an oily overall and a strong dose of patriotic grit; I was peddling 45kg of bike and kit up mountain trails and unpaved roads. Basically the same. Old school methods which paid off – he beat the crap out of the Russian and I went from the top 20% times in 2010, to top 10% in 2011 and close to the top 5% last year.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild

Although this year there was no race to train for – a ten month old baby put a stop to that kind of frivolity – I would follow the same principle to guide me in a plan to cycle from Nara heading down the central mountains of the Kii Hanto, then up the eastern coast and again through some of the interior to finish at Toba on the far east coast.

This time I was on a strict schedule – I would meet my wife and baby son there exactly six days later. But I had not anticipated heavy rockfalls and washed out roads, the enduring result of heavy typhoons in 2011. And I had not foreseen that the rules which had made me, would now break me…

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Somewhere in Nara ken


The Slaughtered Boar

A "short cut"

A “short cut”

I’d shipped my bike to the nearest Takkyubin depot to pick up, assemble, load up my panniers and ride away – this time the start point was Nara and, resisting the temptation to view the temples, it wasn’t long before I was in countryside, taking a rural road east, climbing many small passes. It was good to settle into my old Brookes leather saddle and stand up and lean heavily on the handlebars whenever the gradient got harsh. There was very little traffic and the patchwork of rice paddies on either side of me turned into steep slopes of tea plantations as I got closer to the top of each pass, and the loud chorus of frog song would temporarily subside. I flashed my legs at the occasional farm dog relaxing by the side of the road, confident in the knowledge that in Japan 99% of the time they don’t spring from their leash and try to rip your ankle off.

Not alone...

Not quite alone…

However I did not do the same with a 4 foot long snake that was blocking my path in one of the small forest roads I took. He was relaxing in the sun and posed for a picture. It was a “mamushi”, a Japanese pit viper, responsible for 20 deaths a year in Japan.

The hazy sunshine turned quickly into dark clouds and I could smell rain in the air – I made it to the next town, Nabari, just in time for day to turn temporarily into night and heavy thunder and lightening to hit. I shivered under the entrance roof of an ugly disused hotel while I waited an hour for the storm to pass, and the air turned crisp and clear, and late afternoon sunshine bathed the road ahead in a gentle orange glow. Greenery returned almost immediately out of the town limits and the road started to rise to a lake: I followed the line of the shore, tightly hemmed in by cliffs either side, and rose further into a narrow ravine. Quiet, beautiful… it got darker as light was squeezed from the deep gorge and old shops and restaurants, abandoned many years ago, occasionally filled dark recesses in the cliff walls.

Up close & personal

Up close & personal

Ominous clouds had rolled back in by the time I had reached the steep turn off for tonights camp site – the map showed an onsen part of the same grounds and that was the sole aim of staying here for the night. I struggled in the smallest gear sweating and swearing up a long mountain road, but turn after turn revealed nothing – maybe the map was wrong, and I descended, both brakes screaming in the deathly quiet dusk of the mountains. I checked the map again – no, it had to be here – and I swore louder as I climbed it again. A sign post and lane led off from the next corner I had given up on the first time round. The pictures of the rotemburo – outside bath – looked irresistible and despite the inclement weather I knew I needed this bath.

That was until I was told the price: “4500 yen for one person”. I looked at the waterlogged ground outside, and the absolute lack of other guests – but that doesn’t matter, this being Japan, rules are rules. It was too much I told him, and as you will not negotiate is there a cheap minshuku – B&B – around here I can stay instead, I asked. And this being Japan, he said, yes, let me guide you to it in my car.

IMG_6704There was a lonely looking minshuku near the foot of the climb, simple, friendly. Other people’s old hair floated in the tepid bath water while I tried to imagine the views from the open air onsen back up the mountain. Dinner was generous, boar stew, and although I heard no one or saw no one else the owner was busy preparing dish after dish of food and taking it to a mysteriously quiet room next door. I looked outside and saw the clouds briefly part: it was a full moon tonight.

The Haunted Tunnel

It had rained all night and I woke up to temperatures barely above freezing – I wasn’t really prepared for this and started the morning wearing almost everything I had with me. It was a day of little used forest roads and long gorgeous descents through tunnels of trees. The clouds cleared as he morning wore on, and the sun’s warmth started to permeate my bones, helped by the sweet aroma of burning pine with every timber mill I passed.

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My kind of road

Heading south west I reached Yoshino around noon and stocked up with a day’s worth of food from a convenience store – luckily enough, as it was the last shop I’d see for the next 24 hours. A large bag of supplies on the back of the bike made no perceptible difference to it’s handling, nor the speed of the next big climb up Yoshinoyama… an indisputable advantages of having an already overloaded bike is that a few tins of sardines, pasta sauce and various stacks can be easily absorbed into the overall weight of the machine. In the past I may also have added a couple of bottles of nice Belgium beer if I’d been fortunate enough to come across some.

Guardian of the mountain

Guardian of the mountain

It’s not my first time up Yoshinoyama – I did it three years ago, and it is a wonderful climb though pine forests, past temples and eventually along it’s long steep street of souvenir shops and restaurants. The trick is to find the right turn off into the next valley… last time I descended half the way before realizing I’d got the wrong road (and had to climb back); this time I continued almost up to summit of the mountain, only questioning the possible error in my navigation when I found myself threading a tentative path through groups of hikers. This always hurts, as I know I have a weekly elevation limit in my legs, and every wasted climb brings me closer to breaking it. But a long long descent on another wonderful dusty forest trail brought me out to a southbound road which would take me to a high pass and then to a campsite and onsen in Tenkawa for the night.

IMG_6790And this is where things started to go wrong. A sign appeared … the road was unpassable. I carried on up the narrow ravine, deep in shade now and more signs appeared – it was the tunnel at the top which was blocked. It was still a steep 5km to go to the tunnel, marked as “unlit and frightening” on my map – I now recalled that I had been through it once before, three years ago, and indeed it was: very narrow, roughly hewn rock walls and an uneven rocky surface, and odd otherworldly echoes the further I ventured into the pitch blackness, a third of a mile long. It felt like a tomb and was the scariest tunnel I had ever been through. A hunter I had met on the road up there informed me it was hand-built over a hundred years ago, and I shuddered to think of the number of souls who may have lost their lives building it.

I checked with a local man tending his garden and a post office delivery guy on his scooter, “impossible to get through”. That was it – I wasn’t risking a 5km climb for nothing. There was a campsite not too far away and an onsen nearby – I would try the longer route around it in the morning.

At last, somebody else on this road...

At last, somebody else on this road…


My Way or the Highway

IMG_6794A freaking cold night but it turned into a beautiful clear morning. Set off early from the campsite, headed west, with the intention of avoiding 6km of busy main road tunnels by taking a series of linked forest roads that took me high over them. Stocked up with half a dozen freshly baked “manju” from a small bakery and filled up both my water bottles ready for the challenge ahead. Beautiful climbing, with views over the valley and the peaceful early morning quiet you only get in the mountains.

The lair of orcs and demons

The lair of orcs and demons

Time passed, elevation was gained and I saw only one other person, a motorcyclist on an off-road motorbike. He waved as he overtook me. The first fork in the road was preceded by a tunnel, long, unlit and inevitably eerie. I met the motorcyclist who had passed me thirty minutes earlier waiting at it’s entrance, pleased to see me: “no way am I going in that thing alone” he explained.

We survived it, and I headed left, for a much larger climb that should take me south east and eventually drop me in Tenkawa. There was another unlit tunnel, this time managed without the aid of the motorcyclist’s head-lights, and I had to rely on my tiny blinking front light to at least try and keep me from hitting the walls in the dank darkness. There was a road-closed sign at it’s exit but I didn’t see any obvious obstacles so I dodged around the barrier and started a long descent… I should be in Tenkawa easily within the hour !

I guess "road closed" really means something in these parts...

I guess “road closed” actually means something …

But this road really WAS closed – it had been completely washed away and there was a large gaping muddy crevace in it’s place, and a considerable drop into the valley below. Which meant that I now had to climb back up all the way I had come (and go through that bloody tunnel AGAIN). I took the other fork, which after a long descent through tree lined trails planted me out on the main road, between two huge, busy tunnels, no side walk, and cars and lorries speeding like maniacs. It was crazy to think of riding my bike into either one of those gaping black holes, and I couldn’t face climbing back up the way I’d come … there was one last option, a narrow road hidden behind a bridge. I took that.

My road

My road

And what a find ! One of these magical little narrow valleys that went on for miles and miles. Old wooden houses squeezed between the river and the road, or between the road and the valley sides, and where there were no houses trees and bushes tried to crowd on to the narrow road. Delivery men on Honda Cubs were busy going round the little villages and I was happy to see that people actually lived here – I’ve seen too many wonderful places in Japan where the community has all but disappeared.

When it ended, I came out on to the main road south to Totsukawa. Now I was further west than I had ever anticipated, much further away from my goal and time was running out. But if I took this road south I would have one last chance to cut across the bottom of the peninsula and make up time by cutting out some of the coast. Although busy, it was an amazing road, climbing high up through the lush green valley… but after a few miles I saw the mouth of a tunnel up ahead. A kilometre long according to my map and no sidewalk – I would have to battle for space with the onslaught of traffic, speeding into and out of it like bullets. It was narrow and it was uphill: I debated for twenty minutes whether to risk it before I saw sense – “no main roads” – and I turned my bike around and headed north. I would take an unlit haunted forest tunnel over one of these deathtraps any day.

Lost ? Me ??

Lost ? Me ??

IMG_6833So goodbye Tenkawa, it was not meant to be; I would have to retrace some of my route and head east across the top of the peninsula instead – there were new roads to be discovered there as well. By mid-afternoon it was warm enough for shorts and T-shirt and I took an alternative route past Yoshino, leisurely skirting a lake and enjoyed the alternating shade of the trees and the warm sunshine reflected off the water. By the time I rejoined the original road I had come in on yesterday, shadows were lengthening, and there was now a vividness in the all colours around me that were not there before – the trees, the sky, the river… even the red borders of the tiny roadside shrines that dot the side of the road. And all was silent, but for the sound of rapids on the river, the birdsong in the trees and my laboured breathing. Moments like this make it all worthwhile.

Onsen Action

Onsen Action

Tomorrow I would head east towards Toba, but for now I turned off and headed up a side valley of Higashi Yoshino to “Furusato mura” – another pleasing discovery. Located at an elevation of 800m it was the trailhead for a hike to some waterfalls and had a beautiful old wooden schoolhouse turned into dormitories and a restaurant, a place for camping and an onsen. I was the only one in the vast restaurant, and I looked out at the trees and river outside while I enjoyed a meal and a beer, exhausted and happy. Simple pleasures become surreal after a day on the bike.

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My bathroom…


Escape from Toba

Just what the feck had I been thinking ?! Toba ?! It had seemed like such a pleasant destination, stuck out in the east side of Mie prefecture, the campsite and onsen marked close to each other on my map, on a cosy little peninsula nearby. I’d had an image of a quaint fishing town with quiet coastal scenery, a pleasant place to finish up my trip and wait for my wife and baby boy to arrive to spend another day enjoying the sights together. I had no idea of the real horror of the place, the multi-lane highway into it’s cold concrete heart, a coast raped by heavy industry and rusting tankers. It was monstrous, and the only upside to the place was the fact that I’d got here in one day, covering almost 150km in the process, leaving me just enough time to ring the wife – “cancel all reservations !” – pack up my bike, and get a late train the hell out of there.

But I guess that’s the way I like it, the uncertainty of it all.

My kind of road ...

My kind of road …

The day had started well – the hypnotic sound of the river had allowed me a half decent sleep in the tent, and eagles soared above me as I descended the valley back to the main road. It was a “national highway”, the roads I usually avoid like the plague, but the traffic was quiet, almost non-existent, and the wide alpine views were staggering. I met a young fit-looking French touring cyclist coming the other way who had been traveling the area for two weeks: “I thought I could manage 100km a day before I came” he said, but had underestimated the amount of climbing, “I manage 60km a day at best…”. Yesterday I had managed 95km and I smiled somewhat smugly to myself – yep, I’ve still got it.

My sensitive side

My sensitive side

Pine covered slopes stretched as far as the eye could see and straight wide roads followed a determined river on the right, violent with rapids and whirlpools. There was the occasional isolated house here and there and I thought: what on earth do these people do ? It was all rather isolated and reminded me a bit of the Canadian Rockies, on a smaller scale. There were no camp sites marked on my map if I continued along this road so I turned south east onto a lovely wooded climb, heading in the direction of the coast to find a camp site for the night. There was once a time when I would choose any patch of ground to pitch a tent, and cook my dinner in the solitude of the forest. But not now – these mountains held too many mischievous spirits and I was far too superstitious nowadays.

IMG_6926The first pass invigorated me, preceding a long dusty run alongside a wide river, and a puncture. The second climb exhausted me. The third climb took everything I had and more, and spat me out into a vicious headwind, with huge and unpredictable gusts. I knew then that I couldn’t face the fourth and fifth climb of my chosen route and, with surprisingly little regret, admitted defeat and took the next turning left – north east – away from the coast and on towards the shrine town of Ise, now not sure of my new destination for the day. The scenery changed from mountains, to sprawling fields of tea, to villages and to towns, almost imperceptibly and I didn’t stop. Something was driving me on; I sped straight through Ise, out into the hills and continued on to Toba. I had covered the last 60km in two and a half hours.

The Japan Rockies

The Japan Rockies

The promise of a beach to pitch my tent, and a rustic onsen next door overlooking the ocean had been cruelly broken by the reality that is Toba. But I did find evidence of a previous campsite in the encroaching darkness – the signs were crooked and the pitches overgrown with weeds. It was now an overflow carpark for the onsen next door, a huge ostentatious building of plastic chandeliers and fake marble floors…

Sometimes you just don’t find what you’re looking for. But then again, maybe that’s the point.

Full route here:
http://ridewithgps.com/routes/2438183

Full photos here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stantopia/sets/72157633412981566/

Monkey Mischief in Southern Kyushu

The devil’s washboard, Nichinan coastline

Kyushu, land of deep misty valleys and bubbling hot springs. If the rain keeps you away from enjoying the former, then at least you still have the latter to tickle your fancy. Unless, that is, your legs get burnt to a lobster red on the first and only day of sunshine, and the remainder of the week is spent cursing your own stupidity, while cycling past lots of spectacular hot springs. In the rain…

Day 1: Hairy Happenings

The view from the plane as we came into land at Miyazaki airport was stunning; the city is in a flat basin surrounded by huge jagged green covered peaks, the largest and most dense to the south, where I was to head to. My plan was to follow a loop around southern Kyushu, down to Sata Misaki, the southernmost point in mainland Japan and back up to the Ebino Kogen highlands before returning to Miyazaki for a flight back to Tokyo. There was already a tropical feel to the airport, with unkempt grass lawns, a multitude of colorful flowers and the ubiquitous palm trees. There were even a bunch of attractive young ladies outside the doors whose only role, as far as I could see, was to greet new arrivals.

“Are you lookin at me ?”

By the time I picked up the bike from the “takkyubin” depot, assembled it and got a bite to eat it was already 1:30pm – my plan was to head south as far as I could, following the coastline for the most part,  and camp somewhere on the coast. It was the first time in a year (since last golden week!) on my touring bike, fully loaded as it was with camping and cooking gear, and the immense weight was both a shock and a comfort – it felt good to free again. I cycled past long lines of feisty tropical foliage, bursting out into the roads, and even a couple of mango stalls – I realised that yes, I was on holiday !  Before long I was on the long coastal road hugging sea on on one side, and ridiculously vibrant green hills and mountains on the other.

Skirting the coast…

On one of the quiet side roads, passing a couple of monkeys by the verge I stopped to take a few pictures. One ran away, whilst the other nonchalantly climbed a tree next to the road and started picking off fruit to eat. I came closer taking more pictures as he ate and eyed me, before shaking the tree and hooting at me, “get away, can’t you see I’m eating!“. But I carried on snapping away, and this time he got really mad and in one bound lept from the tree and landed a few metres in front of me, fangs bared. Jezus, he was actually sauntering towards me – that’s not meant to happen ! In a panic I applied my anti dog measures – growl aggressively and wave my arms around like a lunatic. He stopped in his tracks, bemused more than intimidated I guess,  while we both stared at each other in an uneasy truce.  I backed slowly away to by bike parked further up the road while he stood his ground, eyeing me aggressively. Monkey 1. Steve 0.

Day 2:  Shock Treatment

I’d planned yesterday as a leisurely “warm up” day long the coast to get used to the bike again – I ended up doing almost 100km in barely half a day along rolling coast roads. Looking for a place to camp I came across this fabulous hotel overlooking the sea on the very top of Cape Daguri – my back was sore, my arse was sore, and I’m no spring chicken any more either… didn’t I deserve a little luxury ? It had great baths from which I enjoyed a view of the sunset, a sauna (with TV!), laundry facilities and an amazing dinner of sashimi, nabe, tempura, sushi and even cake for Y7000 in total – a bargain!  Hell, I even happily lightly electrocuted myself in their special “electric shock therapy” bath built for the purpose.

Kaimondake hiding murkily in the distance

So the following morning, with guilty feelings of premature pampering, I headed off early, grabbing breakfast at a convenience store in the nearby port town of Shibushi. I should have grabbed a lot more than breakfast, because this would be the last store I’d see for the next 36 hours. The coast road, Route 448 was extremely quiet, winding up and down through sleepy fishing hamlets and idyllic cottages but there seemed to be a small army of people beautifying the verges, cutting grass and tending flower boxes… other than fishing this would be the only employment around here.

Hard going, a hot hazy day and a strong headwind, lots of rolling hills, and nothing but a diet of biscuits and emergency power bar rations to sustain me all day. I’m not a sea kind of person and before long the views bored me, but I concentrated on the feel of the cycling, knowing that I was not stuck in an office, crammed in busy shopping mall or stuck at home watching inane television. It’s very thinly populated, this part of Kyushu, aging locals engaged in fishery and small scale farming – I saw one old lady using two scythes to cut grass, then use them as walking sticks to aid her moving to the next field.

Errant German on the road

Signs make it clear that really the only reason that this area is on the map is due to the Uchinoura Rocket Launch site, still another 60km further on. The only thing beating this form of distant advertising was, unaccountably, a sign for the Kushima Daiichi Resort Hotel, a scrappy dilapidated monstrosity I’d passed yesterday, over 70km back ! I encountered the first serious pass of the trip and it took a good chunk of afternoon to breach, and I welcomed the long shadows from the trees as the time passed 3pm. An hour later I was on the final stretch and saw a cyclist coming towards me – it was the only one I’d seen all day, and it just so happened to be someone I knew back in Tokyo, Malte, going the other way !

Feet up – beach side camping

It was a beautiful time of day, quiet shady roads interspersed by the orange glow of the late afternoon, and I rolled in to a small cove around 5pm with a basic, but free, campsite overlooking the bay. I had dinner in an old lone hotel next door, and had the cavernous dining room to myself while I watched the waves, and the melancholic melodies of Japanese “enka” reverberated soulfully around the entire building. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Days 3 and 4:  Japan’s Jurassic Park.

Yesterday’s distance racked up to 130km with a lot of climbing… and there was more to come. There was only 5km to Cape Misaki but it was intense with steep ups and downs, and the wind was picking up power. It was still an hour before the toll road opened and not a single soul was around so I lifted the bike over and continued alone, the verges overflowing with foliage and all manner of jungle noises scaring the bejesus out of me. A troop of monkeys lingered on the road in front of me – word must have got round the simian community that I’m a bit of a soft touch – so I picked up a stick to be safe, before giving them a wide berth as I peddled up the hill. Leaving the bike at the top I climbed over the next obstacle, a gate blocking the entrance of a long unlit tunnel. As I walked through the tunnel it felt like I was entering a long lost prehistoric realm, and I was let out into a small wooded clearing with narrow steps leading downwards.

In the jungle, Cape Sata Shrine

It was difficult to hear anything above the roaring wind and the creaking of the trees as they swayed back and forth, so when an inoshishi (wild boar) and her infant crossed the path in front of me, I’m sure we were all surprised as each other. I was pretty jittery by now, and I’m sure I could see the occasional hairy shape hiding behind the trees and vines –  whenever I passed by an exposed section of cliff face I instinctively took a step back, in case of any stalking wildlife might want to push me over it. There was a long abandoned restaurant, broken glass and debris littered the floor and cobwebbed tables, the building already being reclaimed by the jungle, like a future Angkor Wat waiting to be rediscovered. With great relief I made it to the final outcrop – the southernmost point of mainland Japan, and then hurried back.

Cape Sata Misaki… the southernmost point

I had to push hard along the coast to catch the 11am ferry across Kagoshima bay to Ibusuki, a town famous for it’s volcanic sand baths. It was eerily quiet when I arrived, and apart from the immediate station vicinity, a bit dilapidated as many of these old onsen (hot spring) towns tend to become. There were a dozen empty restaurants apart from one where there were, of course, twenty people queuing outside. The forecast was strong winds and heavy rains from later the afternoon so I hunkered down in a youth hostel near the sand baths, with a view of the derelict Hotel Kairakuen directly opposite, and as the wind and rain started, the sight of tourists’ umbrellas being ripped inside out. I amused myself by flicking through a tourist pamphlet about Ibusuki. Apparently it was known as the “Hihon no Hawaii”… the Hawaii of Japan.

Hot ‘n Heavy – volcanic sand baths

More realistically, people come here to get buried in hot sand. Wearing a yukata you are led to a sandy hole where you lie down and the attendants shovel sand over you. As you feel the weight and the heat of the sand, you can almost hear the blood pulsing through your body. I went twice, the second time my relaxation being somewhat compromised by some small sand dwelling creature nibbling on my little finger.

Day 5:  Escape from Ibusuki

Leaving Ibusuki… at last

Out of the dark tunnel of trees…

It was still dark when I peddled out of Ibusuki:  I just had to get out of there. As the day brightened I found myself on a climb to lake Miike through a microclimate of 100% humidity and dark tree formed tunnels. Behind the grey waters of the lake was the grey Kaimondake volcano, blanketed in grey clouds. Luckily, for visitors who might be disappointed in the inclement weather, a billboard declared an alternate entertainment less than a kilometer away; the Ibusuki retort to Swimming With Dolphins was Bathing With Eels. The advert showed a photo of huge shiny black eel, its body as thick as a rugby players thigh, in a pool, next to a delighted young lady who, I believe, was stroking the horrific thing.

Local entertainment options

Confused, I headed to the Skyline road, heading vertically up into a wall of trees … my kind of road, something I understood. Damp, cloudy, misty, but a wonderful brooding air across a ridge of mountains, followed by a cross country route of minor roads through pristinely kept fields of tea bushes to Chiran for it’s samurai houses. A little disappointing, mainly only the gardens were open for viewing, but the old lady who greeted me was so enthusiastic about the place I felt obliged to ponder thoughtfully over every manicured shrubbery or bonsai tree, while I secretly watched the time tick by – I still had a long way to go.

Chiran teahouse

When I did finally get out of there I was so keen to get a move on I actually overtook a cyclist up a hill who was riding a carbon road bike, and barely noted the famous eruptions of the Sakurajima volcano as I descended the other side. This, unfortunately, turned out to be my last chance before the clouds moved in to obscure all. A crazy smog (with a touch of poison volcanic gas) filled a high speed dash through the environs of Kagoshima, which surprised me by it’s vastness, and I finally escaped the tumultuous dangerous congested coast road by turning in land towards Kirishima, somewhere up there in the clouds.

Keeping ahead of the rain clouds… but not for long

They were both cruel and pleasant roads, these tree lined luminescent green avenues only partly making up for their topology; stints of prolonged climbing turning into long descents where the cycle would repeat itself again and again. When would I ever get some actual net elevation gain ?  It was raining quite hard when I got into Kirishima, a famous mountain onsen resort, and I retreated to a hotel, frustrated: I’d been lugging my tent, stove and food over mountains and valleys for five days now and only once had I had the opportunity to camp. But luckily for me the hotel had it’s own “kashi-kiri” (private) onsen baths: with my severe sunburn, and the subsequent necessity of keeping my lower legs away from the hot water, it was really with only the most provocative of poses could I enjoy a soak in the hot spring waters. And there was really no place for that in the public baths…

Weary Times

Day 6:  Mists and Monsters…

Waterfall in Kirishima highlands

It is tradition for me on my Golden Week travels to do at least one thing of questionable intelligence. Travel off-road, play with snakes, sleep in a tree… this time it was to cycle all day through torrential downpour, no matter what. Heavy heavy rain and a violent wind throughout the night had calmed to a drizzle by morning. I dismissed my original plan to go up to Ebino Kogen, which was shrouded in heavy cloud, and I really didn’t want to spend another day in a place waiting for the weather to change so I accepted the sodden inevitability of an uncomfortable ride, and optimistic that the rain would pass by evening, headed towards a campsite in the mountains. The deeper into the valley I got, the heavier the rain came down, but in a way it was very captivating and incredibly atmospheric cycling these furrows of trees, painfully lush green mountains and plumes of mist evocatively rising above the trees.

The Fog starts moving in …

It was difficult to see, with the rain bouncing off the road into my eyes, and then when the thunder roared and the rain came down even harder I was all but blind, bouncing randomly through deep puddles and pools of water formed from broken tarmac. The rain was so hard it hurt my face. When I arrived at the campground reception, they offered me a wooden bungalow and I gladly accepted – at least I could cook there. It was so far away that they had to lead me there in a van, up steep roads, perched alone up a hill with a spectacular view over the lake far below. I was left alone, and I stared out at the clouds swirling around the peaks, listening to the rain and the wind and the insects. As the remains of the day faded, the weak light from my balcony bounced back from an eerie wall of dense mist that had somehow advanced to only a couple metres away,  and had now completely surrounded my lonely wooden hut. I slept uneasily that night, dreaming of that old movie, The Fog…

Day 7:  A Final Flourish

The Aya Valley

Thankful that I hadn’t been eaten by fog dwelling vengeful zombie monkeys last night, I woke to a damp morning, the mist quickly dissipating in the rising warmth. After spending over an hour cleaning up the bike – there were no brake pads left after yesterday’s weather – I rejoined Route 265; ostensibly a “kokudo”, or national road, looking at the map it showed nothing but a crooked red line snaking between swaths of white page and contour lines. My hunch proved correct and it soon turned into a narrow, steep pot-holed tree-lined lane up a mountain side. It was a gem of a road and one of those discoveries that I live for.

Ravine, Aya Valley

Multiple signs indicated that the road I planned to loop back to Miyazaki was closed – given the ferocity of last night’s storm I had no doubt that it was indeed impassable, and I climbed only as far as the first pass, standing out of the saddle to get a better view of the valley below. After splashing back down through the puddles, swerving past rocks and hammering the brakes for dear life I stopped to clean the crap off my legs but there was one piece that wouldn’t budge … a leech !

In a panic of revulsion I grabbed the slimy beggar and with some effort peeled it off, leaving an oval of blood that would continue to ooze all day. I found a couple more in my handlebar bag and had great trouble bring myself around to finishing off the open bag of peanuts I had in there. But what the hell, it was now a wonderful day !

Suspension bridge across Aya valley

Blue skies, sparkling streams, cotton puff clouds sailing their way across the heavens… I passed rows of luminescent flowers and took another chance on a minor road that led up to a dam, almost missed on the map. But what another incredible discovery ! Tear jerkingly beautiful, a narrow road led through deep forest with spectacular views of the ravine to the left. No cars, just birdsong and the crash of rapids far below – I had found my fairytale road. This, I found out, was the Aya valley, apparently one of the best virgin forests in the Orient. I was glad to end on a high note (though I wish the weather had shown some improvement a little earlier…) and the end of this trip set me thinking of my next route through this island: Miyazaki to Kumamoto through only these minor mountain roads – traversing the very spine of Kyushu.

Now when might that be ?

The road ahead …

Route Map is here.
Complete photos are here.