There’s something wonderfully illicit about taking a day off work just to go cycling, a paid holiday used up for some selfish pleasure, but of the hundreds of rides I’ve done over the years it’s these that I remember the most. I don’t mean a long weekend of cycling or a week or two with the tent – but just a regular route, there and back in a day, something that can just as easily be done on a Saturday or Sunday. But then you wouldn’t feel the joy of knowing that – as the sun burned your back, the trees creaked in the wind and the deafening cries of the cicadas enveloped you climbing an empty, winding road – knowing that you have escaped, albeit for only a day, escaped from the drudgery of another ten hours in the office.
This route was something I hadn’t done for a decade (I looked it up later – ten years exactly – so it was somewhat of an anniversary ride), not long after I’d got my first road bike and started to explore the mountains to the west of Tokyo. There were three of us then and as such, the pace was fast, the climbing brutally competitive and at least one roadside verge soiled with the contents of my stomach – in those days, hard nights were untempered by the prospect of a hard ride the next morning. Fast forward to today and I am in bed, sober and asleep by ten.
From Enzan station I started the long climb to Kamihikawa, 1200 metres gained in all, the first half on the narrow road that ran parallel to Route 411. The sky was an achingly clear blue and the heat of this unshaded climb seemed oddly only to invigorate me. A group of four labourers huddled at the side of the road beneath the ungenerous shade of a persimmon tree, drinking canned coffee and the road took me past small farmhouses and workshops; further up the road an old man sat in his garden trimming a bonsai tree. As it rose and took me through thick forest the sleepy sounds of rural life were usurped by a raged chorus of cicadas, screeching down from the tall trees, a hundred different pitches, and more than once I thought I caught the sorrowful cry of my favourite, the Higurashi.
Turning east onto the approach to Kamihikawa and the initial steep climb, I stopped and walked up the first few steps of the temple high up in a thick copse of pines lining the road – I’d never really noticed this before, crunched over the handlebars as I was, hanging on for dear life. Buddhist headstones, weathered over hundreds of years, lay between the roots on the forest floor. Still a long way to go yet though, and switchback after switchback eased me back up through the trees, sun, shade, sun, shade, the branches hanging over me like a natural strobe light, cicadas playing to me like an orchestra. Only one vehicle – a dump truck – passed me the whole time. It was hypnotising, focused on the moment and nothing else, how cycling should be. Not once did I think of my colleagues at work, huddled in a cubicle, fighting with pile of email, arguing into a speakerphone… I didn’t need to, for I was smiling already…
Lunch at an onsen a few miles over the pass – “people come from all over the world to study our insects” – and after a long, sometimes bumpy descent I touched Route 20 briefly for a torrid few hundred yards before starting the ascent up Sasago Toge. Sasago has always been a gem, a mildly-graded green-clad climb on a deserted road but it was so bloody far from anywhere and it had been many years since I had last come this way. The alternative to the 1600 metre Kamihikawa Toge was a long ride up Route 20 – and it was rare I had the stomach for that. Birdsong serenaded me as the sun sparkled from the flooded paddy fields of the lower slopes and I made my way slowly up to the tunnel at the top.
When we had done this ten years ago, the tunnel was under construction, blocked by diggers and dump trucks, and we instead had to go over the top of the thing – we found an overgrown hiking path which we clambered up with our bikes, helping each other thread gingerly across the narrow slippery track until a steep muddy descent on the other side. I got lost at one point, trying to scout the right path down I couldn’t find the way back up again to join my companions. I would be stuck forever on this mountain, I thought, with nothing but the company of the ghost that was rumoured to haunt the tunnel below.
This time the tunnel was clear but I found the path we had used a decade ago – and I was glad I wouldn’t be climbing that thing today. Sasago was as magical as I remembered it and I saw not one car or even a person the whole time – never had I felt so far away from the stresses of life as I did right now. When I eventually emerged onto the main road I looked back up to the mountains behind. Had I just dreamt that?
The next pass on this route – the third – was what I call the Monkey Pass, because the two times I had done this before there were monkeys everywhere. It was there just to avoid Route 20, and took me to over 1100 metres elevation. The road was gated, the asphalt littered with rocks and branches and the cliffside almost completely rebuilt in concrete. It was climbing just for the sake of climbing, and descending with extreme caution. The mountain spirits had long deserted this place, as so now it seems had the monkeys. A six-foot long snake laid casually across the road and eyed me with insolence as I stopped a couple yards beyond – it made no attempt to slither off into the undergrowth and I remembered the much smaller snake I had accidently run over a few miles before, afraid I had come across his older brother, looking for for some justice. I was relieved to eventually get down from this road, which meandered up and down next to the concrete cliff for far too long before I headed to Route 35 and past the Maglev station to take me to Tsuru tunnel and the final pass of the day. It was an hour or so before dusk, my favourite time of day, and quiet rice paddies volunteered reflections of the surrounding hills and hedgerows of flowers that house-proud owners had installed in their gardens.
It had been a long day, an amazing day, taken leisurely (with a camera and tripod for some…vanity shots) and it was reassuring in this hyper-connected world that it was still possible to spend extended amounts of time without a signal on my phone. The aches and pains came soon enough but the wonder remained, with a tinge of disbelief – that pre-family and ten years younger I used to do this (and much more) every single weekend. One thing I didn’t doubt though – I would be taking a whole lot more days off from now on…