We hadn’t planned it, hadn’t dared even to imagine it, so it was a surprise to us both as we thought the same thought at the same time, turned our bikes away from the promise of a hilly verdant green route beyond the small post town of Saruhashi, and instead pointed them northwards towards Matsuhime Toge. It had been a very pleasant ride so far, sunshine warming our backs, early cherry blossoms illuminating the road side, Spring all around us, but now, as we turned to face 1300 vertical metres of mountain ahead, dark clouds gathered ominously in the peaks above and a chill north wind rushed down the slopes at us. Getting out here we may have convinced ourselves that winter was truly over – ha! – but this mountain doesn’t allow you to entertain such fantasies.
They’d completed construction of the new tunnel since I’d been here last, many years of pork barrel spending in this quiet car-free area to punch a sacrilegious hole through the mountainside… but we veered off left, up what was now the “old” road, over a barrier, through the now unlit tunnels and onto the start of the mountain road proper, looking down on the dam and valley below.
Those lush colours of the morning were now usurped by the naked limbs of leafless trees, yellowed flora and the occasional tired dull green of a lonely pine. We ascended on the narrow switchbacks, negotiating rocks and ducking under fallen branches suspended across the road… “thou shalt not pass” they groaned, swaying in the wind. We were the only ones there, the birdsong of the lowlands had long ceased and even the crows had deserted us. The lack of foliage gave us a clear view of what lay ahead: miles of steep road snaking up and up and up to the pass above. It was increasingly magnificent looking down, seeing the narrow fracture of the road where it had started in the valley – and it was horrifying to look up and clearly see how far we still had to go. But the silence, the embrace of the peaks around us, and of course, the promise of a long downhill made it worthwhile.
But it was cold at the top of the pass, icy cold in fact, and barely had we pulled ourselves over the gate, when Matsuhime orchestrated her surprise – a hail storm, quickly escalating from a few harmless white flecks on the asphalt to a full-blown onslaught of large icy stones, stinging our exposed flesh as we ran for cover.
“Do we descend right now?” we asked aloud, maybe to each other, more possibly to the mountain, “or risk this turning in a full snow storm..?”. We were alone, a brief rustle in the undergrowth had confirmed that – the only other creature up here had the right idea and decided to get the hell out of it. So we did the same, a low, gingerly descent over hail-coated roads, turning to freezing rain as we lost elevation far too slowly. Around rocks and timber, on a seemingly endless teeth-chattering, bastard-freezing, soaking-wet cold ride to the lower slopes and the nearest soba shop.
We warmed our insides with some ramen, wrapped our numb fingers around cups of hot green tea and, bit by bit, let the grimace turn into a huge grin, a smile creeping wider and wider across our faces. Matsuhime – she knows how to hurt you alright, but by the Gods, she knows how to pleasure you as well.