Tag Archives: lake okutama



Every cyclist should have a battle-cry, a word, or sound, or set of syllables for when they dig deep into the pain locker, for when they push themselves hard for one intense moment, when they think they can suffer no more . “Yohhh-Sh!” is a favorite of the Japanese, and of course “YeaaaSS!”, “Come OOOON!” or “F****K!” being more conventional English ones. It’s not something chosen consciously; it just comes out under moments of high physical stress.

Today, in my longest ride for months, 160km of hot & humid steep climbs and descents on broken mountain roads, I discovered mine. And I was a little disappointed to find that it was “Arse”. And I said it – for reasons I can’t really fathom – in a thick Irish brogue.

Arse!! I’d only done 20km, not even halfway to the mountains when the lack of sleep, 90% humidity and ferro-concrete heat of the metropolis almost stopped me dead in my tracks, the temptation to turn round, head home to an air-conditioned house and be back in bed by 7am was barely overcome. But I’m glad I did, because it turned into a classic ride, something I needed. The skies had become mercifully overcast, and the feeling of cycling though hot soup somewhat alleviated by the time I had passed Oume and made it to Lake Okutama-ko. It was hot, yes, but not of the red-glowing sun type, paraded by this morning’s weather forecast, there to scare viewers of immediate sun-stroke.

20130713_100619-1-1My first pass of the day was Imagawa Toge, approached from the North, probably only my second time from this direction. At just under 1000m high it was quite pleasant, steep – yes, but most of the elevation had been swallowed up by the 85km getting out here. Deserted, no traffic, and only one other cyclist whom I tailed and overtook with little trouble just as a large monkey jumped out from the trees of the opposite lane and started to make his way towards the centre line. He looked an aggressive brute, so I accelerated again, digging deep, leaving the other guy to deal with him.

A wonderful winding descent through a smooth tree-lined road and then the next pass, Tsuru Toge. A little harder, and the last couple of kilometres completely exposed. A hot one. It took forever for the last curve in the road to appear and I was wavering across the full width of the road by that time – but it did, just as I reached the point of collapse.  Arse !!

As I leaned against a tree, getting my breath back I heard the tannoy of an election vehicle chime up from below the pass, breaking the absolute silence: “Vote Tanaka, Vote Tanaka ! Thank you for your vote. Vote Tanaka !”. It slowly climbed the other side of the pass and came past the hairpin; there were half a dozen middle aged ladies waving at trees – there wasn’t another person within miles of this place. “Vote Tanaka, Vote Tanaka ! Thank you for your vote. “. Maybe they were canvassing the wildlife ?
“Otsukaresama deshita!” they said over the loudspeaker as they passed and saw me draped over the tree, waving furiously at me. “Well done ! Well done !” they said, “Don’t give up!”. The van slowly disappeared around the corner I had come around and the noise filtered away through the trees. I was once again alone in the wilderness, worried that I’d experienced my first heat-stroke related hallucination.

Another fine descent, reaching up to 70kmh on these narrow roads and even a stop for lunch before taking the Unabomber turn-off. Broken tarmac, small landslides, aggressive foliage – how I loved this route. The old lady was out, as always, tending to the amphitheatre of fields below the road, firewood bundled on her back as she leant against the 60 degree slope taking a break. I stopped as well, to take in the spectacular view of the surrounding peaks, and we briefly exchanged greetings, before going back to our own thoughts. She has been here unfailingly for the ten years I have been cycling this route, always alone, in all weathers, at all times of the day. There was an old dilapidated wooden farmhouse high up the slopes – I doubt it has electricity, and this is where she lived. How I would love to know her story.


Old lady working the field if you look very very carefully

And from the familiar to the unknown – it was a sweltering up and down ride to get me to the start of the Takao Onsen mountain road, and the first mile or two offered up some stately views of the gorge. It was the hottest part of the day – the temperature had climbed to thirty degrees – and it was steep… very steep. The rough concrete road had furrows cemented in them to help cars grip, and my Garmin showed crazy numbers – 45% slope at one point. Ah, but that may have been due to the approaching electrical storm, throwing the GPS calibration off. And now there was a heavy steel gate across the road. “Road closed ahead” said the first sign; I climbed round it. “Beware of wasps and snakes” said the second.

Rockfalls, moss, potholes… bad, but not impassable. These new tires I’d put on soaked it all up. But I wasn’t too sure if I should make lots of noise to scare away snakes – did noise attract wasps ? And although some of the dead branches littering the road looked a little snake-like I wasn’t truly scared until it started raining. That encouraged me to speed up and get to the top; actually encouraged me to start whimpering a little thinking that I was one of the closest conductors to any lightening strikes, and then I really went for it.  Arse !!

The descent was nasty, and slightly surreal – the remains of a wide tarmac road, yellow lines still visible in the middle, broken in half on a tight corner; and a stream, treacherous with moss, flowing across and down the road. Something out of a post apocalypse movie. I dismounted, quite paranoid by now, and stepped through the shallows. And then JEZUS!! WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?? Something slimy had touched my ankle and when I landed back in my skin, there was a small frog down there looking up at me. Smiling.

No freaking way am I doing this stupid road again: it took quite some time on this shit surface to lose the altitude I’d gained, and then I had to climb again to get over the annoying Odarumi Pass, which I’d forgotten about before rolling down to Takao for a train home. The heat was quite fierce by now and a mile from the station I stopped at a convenience store for an ice cream – civilization ! All I wanted to do was get on a train home… but now, after all this, I had a puncture.

Oh… Arse.

2013-07-15 21.02.56

Garmin Track:


The Temptress of Tomin No Mori

The icy realm beyond

Just as the mythical Sirens of ancient Greece would use their enchanted songs and music to lure sailors to their death into the rocks, so the mountains of Okutama called to me this morning. “What’s a bit of ice” they seemed to sing, “it’s all but gone…”.

I was skirting the far side of Lake Okutama-ko having spent most of the morning riding out from Tokyo. The sky was a perfect blue, the air crisp, and the sun was almost warm; already I could feel a hint of spring. I’d left early morning heading west, the sun low in the sky behind, casting an orange framed silhouette of me peddaling, a mesmerizing shadow puppet, forever just out of reach, legs moving up and down like a piston, a kink in the gears clicking like a metronome.

But I could ill afford to lose concentration on the road in front of me. Even in Tokyo small piles of dozen snow lay uncleared by the kerb, and crooked fingers of ice clawed their way surreptitiously into the road. Out here, like Tokyo, the snow had mostly disappeared, but in some ways this made it all the more dangerous. It was too easy to be complacent, to forget that two weeks of bitter temperatures – it was -9 last night – had left small pockets of ice; some of them ovals of hard white marble, polished to a silky luster by the hostile wind. But some were black, the only visible warning a dull reflection like a puddle on the road, and barely this could be seen away from the sun. They were few, but they could be deadly – it only takes one, after all.

On the way home

And it was taxing work, scanning the road like a vigilant sentry, braking anxiously before every shady stretch, offering a little prayer before every tunnel entrance. Going up, at this speed, I think I could manage it, but would I have the same discipline coming down ?

Passing my regular soba shop, the last outpost before the valley starts to rise, I turned left on to the iron bridge to reconnoiter the approach up to Tomin no Mori. It was quiet, nothing but the wind (which was gaining in strength). Usually at this time on a Saturday there would be motorcycles racing up and down this stretch of road, their riders smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of coffee in the lay-by further up. Today there was no one, and I realised I hadn’t seen a single other cyclist. A small reflection of light betrayed a glossy patch on the road a few yards ahead.

No, I said aloud, today it just ain’t going to happen.

No ice next week, please

Odysseus had saved his crew by putting wax in their ears so they couldn’t be seduced by the beauty of the sirens’ song. So I turned my back on the road to Tomin, fighting thoughts of other climbs, and set off back down the valley. Heading east, I kept my eyes on the cobalt blue of the lake to my right, putting distance, little by little, between me and the mountains behind. I had seen sense. Today, at least, I would not be beguiled by their lethal beauty.

Ride memo: 180km cycling with 1100m climbing. Route data is here