Tag Archives: onsen

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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The Lows & Highs: Noto and The Alps

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Golden fields of rice ready for the harvest, small farmsteads and newly built hamlets under a strikingly blue sky, and the enormity of the Japan Alps rising up from the plains with little warning barely a few miles beyond, crowned by a bilious spine of cumulous clouds enveloping  any number of mountain towns and hot springs. I was on a train to Kanazawa, surveying what I would be climbing over, if things went to plan, in just a few days time.

But first I had to cycle around the Noto Hanto, a peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture, jutting far into the Japan sea, something I’d been meaning to do for the last decade but always putting it off over a dogmatic preference for mountains over coast. But this year, the legs are not what they used to be, and the hours spent on the bike, never mind on inclines, have been much reduced. It would be a perfect three day warm-up before the climbing began.

Day 1: Man vs Crab
(40km)

My way, not the highway...

My way, not the highway…

I picked up my first supporter in a café near Hakui station, Ikeda-san.
“Ishikawa-ken” he announced, standing up from his chair, “is the safest place in the whole of Japan”. He was a retired policeman and had spent his entire life in this town, a small regional hub at the base of the peninsula. “You won’t find me going to Tokyo or Osaka” he added, “Far too dangerous”.  But just to make sure, he insisted on being my guide for the afternoon.

He led me to the start of a bike path that followed the beach, and went off on his scooter to wait at key points ahead. The path forged a narrow thoroughfare between the sea on the left and overgrown hillside on the right; it really was lovely and I couldn’t believe there was absolutely nobody else on it, especially on a holiday weekend. A cool sea breeze gently buffered me, while I made sure to avoid the occasional crab crossing in front of me, their oversized pinchers raised towards me with a look – yes, even from a crab – that said “Don’t try anything mate”.

Not my commute

Not my regular commute

Every few miles, when the bike path crossed a main street, Ikeda-san would be there waiting for me at the corner, clapping and cheering at my arrival and excitedly pointing out some geological feature or a little local history. We parted ways at Togikai, about 40km north of Hakui, and even Ikeda-san’s seemingly unlimited enthusiasm seemed to falter somewhat when he felt obliged to point out that Togikai’s main attraction was the longest bench in the world – it looked like something hastily put together from Ikea. And sadly, he said, there were rumours of a longer one in China.

The pot of gold… my tent

The pot of gold… my tent

The beach offered the perfect combination of campsite and an onsen nearby: the campsite said it would cost an outrageous 2100 yen to stay, non-negotiable, so I pitched my tent a little further up the beach, and brought out my ancient stove (it still works!) to cook some pasta and tuna under some light showers. Every hour a van would come round to make sure I hadn’t relocated myself into their site, but I secretly used the toilet anyway, avoiding it’s headlights and imagined sirens, adding a little thrill to what would usually be a mundane task…

 

Day 2: Man vs Bird
115km

The Noto West Coast

The Noto West Coast

I was being tailed by a bird that was cawing “Ohayo ! Ohaya !” (“Good Morning”) over and over to me; considering the rough night’s sleep I’d had, this was particularly irritating, and he seemed to know it. I don’t know if this was some special local breed that could speak Japanese, and I don’t know if it was just one individual or a group effort, but this ear-grating greeting was repeated for the next 20km.

Senmaida Rice Fields

Senmaida Rice Fields

The views, though, were wonderful, and I cycled through small laid-back hamlets perched on cliffs high over the sea, usually a narrow winding main street and a small lane leading off to a lookout or descending to the beach. There was something different about these villages and it took me some time to realize what it was… unlike most places in Japan, these places hadn’t suffered from the blight of incongruous modern homes and apartment blocks – all the houses were wooden and had retained their original tiled roofs. A genuine page from storybook Japan.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy backroads

The road gradually widened, a few showers started and although the coolness was welcome the combination of coast and rain always drives me into a state of murderous depression so I took to the mountains to preempt any incidents, until the weather had cleared up and blue sky and appeared once more.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy villages

The craggy north-west coast of the Noto Pensinula is full of rolling roads, small enclaves of fishing villages and long sea-side stretches of cycling, and – apart from an odd if temporary abundance of tour busses at the famous Senmaida rice fields – very little traffic. It was simply bliss. The climb before I headed inland was magical, seemingly unending switchbacks up to a high promontory , the waves crashing against the cliffs behind me, the road bathed in shade and caressed with golden fingers of flickering sunlight from the late afternoon sun. And then the final ascent of the day, south up through the hills, a last look back at gulls soaring over the waters before I was enveloped in the forest, gulls now replaced by eagles circling above, the blue-white swell of the ocean now exchanged for the cool green quiet of the trees, and I followed this mountain road into the small town of Takojima.

IMG_1959There was a campsite next to the sea a few miles east, and an onsen only ten minutes walk away, where I hammered out the rivets of pain and tiredness in alternating hot and ice-cold baths…. it really doesn’t get any better than this.

 

Day 3: The Case of the Extra Beer
100km

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A stunning red dawn was quickly extinguished by clouds leaving the rest of the day overcast with occasional brief but violent squalls. I passed sleepy villages again of streets lined with wooden houses and small fishing boats moored to narrow inlets, but the east coast lacked the cliffs and the feeling of seclusion of the west. Every few miles there would be an elaborately decorated omikoshi (a hand-carried palanquin holding a portable shrine) parked in front of the gates of the local shrine, and as the morning wore on guys in their “happi” coats and tabi footwear would would turn up to join the preparations for the day’s festivals: today was a public holiday (Respect for the Aged day) and locals would later carry the heavy omikoshi through the streets of their village, bouncing it up and down while it swayed dangerous side to side. Clearly, 8 AM was not too early for some of these festival goers to fortify themselves with a flask or two of sake before the task ahead…

Roadside Guardians

Roadside Guardians

I headed inland briefly for a burst of climbing to try clear the cobwebs and some of the aches and pains I was feeling from another unexplained bad night’s sleep, but when I returned to the coast dark menacing clouds and exhaustion put a damper on most of the coastal sections, and long before the city of Nanao I turned off and took the long bridge over to Notojima island, and a quiet hilly road threading between thick trees to the south of the island, providing views across the bay and of the onsen town of Wakura, it’s tight cluster of faded high-rise hotels bunched against the beach. Although it didn’t look particularly appealing from here it was actually quite pleasant and laid-back once you got behind the wall of hotels, and it sported a wonderful (and free!) “ashi-yu” (hot-spring foot-bath) boasting unbeatable views over the ocean.

This is the life ...

This is the life …

There was little guilt in forking out Y8000 for a hotel: it was a nice town, I needed to do laundry and I was hoping that the comfort of a futon on a tatami mat floor would furnish me with a solid eight hours sleep. I had a beer with my dinner and the maid kept hounding me to make sure I pay for it before I leave, every time I ran into her. “Oyasumi nasai” (“goodnight”) she said at last, as I came in from an evening walk around the town. Then: “Make sure you pay for that beer, now”. I still couldn’t sleep that night either, mysteriously waking up at 1am despite the comfort of the futon. But I got up very early as planned, hitting the road in a state of semi-collapse before I’d even started, making my way out of town in the early dawn hours.

Oh, shit, had I paid for that beer ?

Non-risque onsen photo

Non-risque onsen photo


Day 4: Beware the Hotel Proprietors
125km

Glorious Escapes

Glorious Escapes

It looked like I had joined all of the peninsula’s traffic when I got onto route 249 out of Wakura; it was the first work day after the three day weekend and I could feel resentment emanating from every car and every truck on the road. After a few wrong turns and unnecessary climbs I found a narrow deserted road that took me over a small mountain range to rejoin east coast, rather than follow the rest of the traffic around it. An absolute jewel of a road, a luminescent green cathedral, lush shade punctuated by long beams of light from the gaps between trees… I breathed the clean air, absorbed the colours and let the quiet murmur of the forest envelop me. It was 8:30am: I realised that on any other Tuesday I would be squeezed between a dozen or so salarimen on the Chuo line, variously reeking of cigarettes, garlic and a general lack of hygiene. I smiled broadly and took my time on the descent, ignoring the urgency of a “Beware of the Bears” sign, hoping it would never end.

Beware of the Bears

Beware of the Bears

The coast road was not bad, running parallel right next to the sea, with gulls soaring overhead, but as the road left Ishikawa prefecture and entered Toyama, the number of trucks increased and the once wide hard-shoulder disappeared, so I headed inland on the hilly route 76, through farmland and shallow valleys, which was a pleasant if roundabout way to the city of Takaoka, from where I wanted to locate and follow the river south.
A horrible city, multilane highways, empty carparks and tired looking ferro-concrete buildings with not a speck of green to be seen. There were a multitude of bars, izakaya, and sleazy hostess clubs but nowhere to get lunch; typical of these places, the nighttime entertainment has to be overwhelming enough to blot out the misery of the daylight hours.

Liquor store

Liquor store

In an effort to clear my senses of this modern blight I successfully got loss in less trafficked roads through patchwork fields of rice under harvest, small hamlets and a wonderful riverside path taking me to a dam not too far from Yokamachi. And just when I though things had worked out for the better, the day turned me round, bent me over, and gave me one to remember.

Beware of the … Werewolf ??

Beware of the … Werewolf ??

I cycled 10km uphill, in encroaching twilight, first through route 156 and it’s multitude of tunnels, across a long narrow bridge, and then on a deserted mountain road (“Beware of the Bears!”) up to an small onsen village recommended to me by the local tourist office – Nagasaki onsen. At the first minshuku (A Japanese B&B), the owner almost fainted at the sight of me – a bedraggled-looking foreigner on a bicycle – she blustered around and said they were full (on a Tuesday and with no cars in the car-park). I knocked on the door of the second place, and called out into the hallway before a bloke reluctantly came out and said the same thing. At the last place, nobody came out to answer my calls – these ones had obviously had enough time to hide.

A ryokan at last

A ryokan at last

So back down the narrow road, across the bridge and up route 156, though more tunnels looking for a hotel marked on my twelve year old map… which was no longer there. It was a long descent back into town down route 156, in near darkness, and further away from where I wanted to go tomorrow. But I found a cheap ryokan in town, and the owner was very friendly, treating me like an old friend, because I soon realized, they thought I was indeed an old friend, an aircraft engineer from Germany by the name of Hans. But they were a friendly bunch and only thanks to them did I rescind my vow to leave Toyama-ken by the most direct route possible, never to return.

Yokamachi storefronts

Yokamachi storefronts

 

Day 5: Beware of the… Tourists ?
75km

Into the mountains...

Into the mountains…

Woke up this morning sore from the pointless climbing yesterday evening but more disappointed at myself that I didn’t continue up that road last night and find a patch of ground to camp on instead: I was turning soft.

Now disillusioned with route 156 I headed south west, cross county to the 304 instead, a long steep climb on a wide road up to a series of tunnels. It wasn’t that busy but I did hate the open concrete drainage ditch to the side giving me no space to turn to if any truck came too close. I was knackered and low on water, so I took advantage of roadworks at the first tunnel to have the whole road to myself, planning to turn off the main road between this and the next tunnel, where my map showed an exit, and take the mountain road. The reality was a exit that had been blocked up and a view through concrete beams of a seemingly collapsed road – so I had to run the gauntlet of a 2.5km tunnel after all, terrified of the enveloping whirr and metallic scream of trucks coming up behind me.

Eventually spat out, I was determined to avoid the next tunnel no matter what, so I took a turn-off for the old road, which should take me past a ski lodge and then over it. I found the out-of-season ski lodge but spent an hour searching for the old road without success – they all seemed to go nowhere (up up up… shit !… down down down !). Even Google maps showed the road should be close to where I was standing, and only when I looked very closely the third time I saw it – a broken and overgrown gravel track, cobwebs creating a sheer door of spider silk. And I remembered the Beware of the Bears sign I had just passed.

Gassho-Zukkuri

A “Gassho-Zukkuri”

Descending back to the main road I considered taking my chances on another road I had seen, a cracked, lonely road that seemed to descend following the line of the valley and would take me out 10km north of where I wanted to be. The entrance to this one actually had several bear notices plastered around and seemed particularly serious, warning drivers that they took this road at their own risk.
The restaurant owner last night had explained that there had been very few nuts and berries this year so the bears had been coming down from the mountains and closer to towns and villages – why, only last week one had been spotted at the end of the street !

And then I noticed I was chomping on a nut & berry cookie from Family Mart – I got back on the main road to face the tunnel…

Re-thatching a roof

Re-thatching a roof

Today a lot of time was spent visiting “gassho zukkuri”, the very steeply thatched roofed farmhouses that characterize this part of Japan, known for it’s heavy snow fall in winter. Ainokura village was so pretty it was borderline kitch, overly manicured with twenty or thirty thatched houses carefully laid out with displays, open workshops and souvenirs for sale, and half-a-dozen coach loads of tourists milling around. I hurried though, gritted my teeth while a group of OAPs insisted taking turns to take photos with me while their group leader sang God Save the Queen, and found myself on a half-hidden entrance to a back-road, winding steeply down the mountain side. It was open, but plastered with a large Beware of the Bears sign in Japanese, whilst in English next to it was a sign saying “Campsite this way !”.

A lot of these

A lot of these…

It went deeper into forest, tracking the edge of a sheer gorge and a foaming river could be seen through the trees hundreds of feet below. Deserted, spooky and then downright scary when I saw a large grey-black poo on the ground in front of me, still steaming. There would be another one to join it it I didn’t get out of here immediately.

Suganuma was another village a few miles up the road and mercifully lacking the tourist hoards of Ainokura but both were purpose built, having relocated these old houses from various parts of the region, and although very charming they lacked the gritty layer of real-life use.

I had a great lunch a few miles away on the main road while I watched lunchtime TV with the other two customers, the first Japanese TV I had watched in a long time. A fresh faced Japanese speaking young American guy was being followed by a television crew around Akasaka (an old part of Tokyo popular with tourists) while an annoying “talent” sat in the studio was asking increasingly banal and condescending questions to him (“can you use chopsticks ? Oooooh, you smart guy ! “) in her atrocious broken English while eliciting a cackle of laughter from the other misfits they call celebrities. Japanese TV has not changed a bit from the last time I watched it ten years ago. It’s still got the same celebrities, though as they age they get bumped from prime weekend evening slots to midweek daytime television: at least I could take comfort in that, knowing they suffer.

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go

I still had the Holy Grail of Gassho Zukkuri to visit, the village of Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO heritage site. I’d been here once years before in torrential rain and was frankly facing some enthusiasm issues on going there again, especially after a morning basically full of the same. But it was on my route, at the foot of a mountain pass which I knew (though not yet ready to admit to myself) was not going to happen today.

Ferocious wildlife

More ferocious wildlife

But first I had to survive route 156 again, on a stretch of road I will NEVER, EVER repeat by bicycle. My map (and google maps) once again promised detours around or over the numerous tunnels, while the reality was generally a few metres of broken tarmac disappearing into a freaking jungle of overgrowth, rusted gates and landslides. The tunnels were narrow, dark and uphill, the truck drivers angry, and my legs burned fiercely as I tried to sprint through every one. Never again.

Shirakawa-go was bustling with tourists, Japanese and overseas visitors alike, which didn’t encourage me to hang around so I bought some provisions and started to tackle the 1300m climb over to the next valley. But there was only an hour left before sunset, and my efforts were only half-hearted… I soon gave up and found a hotel instead, appalled at my lack of backbone. With regret I settled into a soothing hot bath with a view over the valley, and deeply disappointed at my ready embrace of amenities, I climbed – reluctantly – into the jacuzzi. I was still tut-tutting to myself when I ordered a beer thirty minutes later in the plush restaurant, and then when I ordered a second, remarked to myself how I was just not enjoying this.

Later in the evening once the crowds had gone, I wandered around the village, watching the lights turn on behind latticed windows, glowing softly in the velvet darkness, and I looked up and around at the silhouette of the mountains surrounding me. Now this is what it’s really about.

IMG_2287u

 

Day 6: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
70km

Lower slopes of Amo Toge

Lower slopes of Amo Toge

Into the clouds...

Into the clouds…

The skies were threatening rain as I headed up the lower slopes of Amotoge and as I left the last of the Gassho Zukkuri behind everything became very quiet. It was a steep and narrow road, sharp serpentine curves hacked out of the mountainside and jacked up with concrete. There was nothing up here, no farmhouses, no patches of agriculture, and not even any roadside statues of “jizo”, the protector of travelers, to see me safely on my way. There had been one workman’s truck pass me in the last 1.5 hours and it was getting very lonely, with nothing but slugs the size of eels scattered on the road to keep me company. It rained a little on the descent, though I squeezed some small enjoyment from the novelty of feeling cold after so many months of hot, humid weather.

Waterfall, Amo Toge

Waterfall, Amo Toge

The next pass was far nicer, taking me past a dam and up and over a valley feeding into it: there was nothing of the abject melancholy of Amotoge, and the noise of wildlife hummed in the background. At the top of the pass was a well tended simple wooden shrine, whilst the local spirit had been appeased with the customary offerings of sake and snacks.

My kinda road

My kinda road

It was a bit of a grind to Takayama, following the same direction as the main route 41 on the valley floor but sticking to the side roads; although not too bad with traffic it was a disappointing contrast to the scenery I had enjoyed in the mountains, and my bike spontaneously punctured while I was having lunch.

IMG_2318Takayama itself was an average unsightly small Japanese city but the three long streets of samarai lodgings and old warehouses were lovely and thronging with mainly overseas tourists. It is also promoted as the gateway to the Japan Alps and the lady at the tourist information was having trouble finding me a cheap hotel – mid-week, mid-September and the place was booked solid. I was again considering whether I should head up to the mountains to camp in the last hours of daylight in preference to the horror of getting a bunk-bed in a hostel dormitory with a dozen people half my age. Luckily she got a room in an old business hotel, walls reassuringly stained with nicotine and tired looking middle-aged blokes in stiffly starched white shirts behind the reception. That was more like it.

Takayama at night

Takayama at night


Day 7: It’s not what you do, It’s the way that you do it…

65km

Descending Kuraiyama

Descending Kuraiyama

My last chance to make amends, one more opportunity to cycle far, hurt myself on some climbs and find an uncomfortable patch of ground to put up my tent and regain some dignity.

The early morning was cold, and the cityscape covered with a thick mist. I had to travel part-way out of the city on the busy route 41, nervous about trucks that passed too close but it wasn’t for long, as I’d chosen an alternative route via Kuraiyama, with it’s pass at 1080m, to take me most of the way to Gero Onsen. It was a long cool climb up to Kuraiyama ski resort, and I enjoyed some of the out-of-the-saddle efforts, the heavily loaded bike barely swaying beneath me. As the sun slowly burned away the last of the mist, wonderful alpine scenery appeared around me, some of it already showing signs of changing colour – Autumn was definitely in the air.

Autumn in the air...

Autumn in the air…

There was a long descent before the road rose again to the lake and the final narrow ascent to the pass – with the tranquility of the setting and the vista of mountains around, my legs felt none of the tiredness from this morning and the descent took me quickly through forests, cattle country and then a downhill to the narrow valley floor where I passed rice fields and old farmsteads, chatting to the occasional gruff but friendly farmer on the way.

It was still sunny when I arrived in Gero Onsen but a thick sheet of cloud was being drawn like a celestial grey blanket across the sky, and any blue was set to be squeezed towards the horizon and behind the mountains. I packed up my biked and made arrangements to ship it home, guilty than I’d decided to call a halt here, unsatisfied that I hadn’t put in a 100km+ day with more climbs and a last night in the tent.

Cow country

Cow country

Perhaps I had tried to mould my route too much around points of interest; in the past I had always planned these trips based on the roads, looking for interesting lines on the map and linking them together; I’d usually comes across a few sights on the way but it was generally incidental, not deliberate. I’d forgotten what every good traveller knows: it’s not about where you’re going, but how you get there and I reflected on the highlights of this trip, almost always on a minor road, barely a visible line on my map.

But it was okay – I enjoyed the strong alkaline waters of the Gero hot-spring bath which I still felt I deserved and had the most robust shoulder massage ever from the spout of a high pressure jet of water a couple metres above me. And then I got on the train – I would see my two year old son a day earlier than planned. What could be better than that ?

Gero: clouds closing in...

Gero: clouds closing in…

Route is here:
(From the train I saw Rt 41 following the same spectacular gorge as the railway, and down to Kami-Aso it was almost deserted. Recommended to try next time!)
http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/552834374

All photos are here:

14SW 005 north from Hakui

Spine o’ the North (Flashback: 2008)

Bikes, Shrines & Inclines

First in my “Flashback” series of documenting old bike trips to this blog. If you like mountains, deep valleys and old rustic onsen, you won’t do much better than the Tohoku region. I did this twelve day tour in September of 2008,  following the mountains north to south, the very “spine of the north”.  


Misty Mountains

The Departure 

After riding nothing but my twitchy and temperamental road bike for the last three months, it felt remarkably comfortable to be cycling on my loaded touring bike, cycling through the Friday evening Tokyo traffic – the solid steel frame and heavy panniers soaking up the bumps in the road, and the well-worn Brookes leather saddle feeling like a familiar armchair. I was to catch the “Akebono” night-train from Ueno station heading to the Tsugaru coast, Tohoku, and the bike practically steered herself to the station. I was treating the ol’ girl to…

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