Tag Archives: Tohoku

Fukushima (almost) Loop

10 Oct001 - Fukushima

There’s nothing quite like poring over a real map, with it’s bold colours, contour lines, it’s richness of symbols and comments… there are enough clues on what to expect, but plenty more left to the imagination. Well thumbed pages marked with coffee stains, rips, and the dried blood of a millipede that got too close to your tent one evening. Old scribbled post-it notes from some past travels… the telephone number of a long forgotten B&B ? Or maybe that young woman bowled over by your athletic efforts? Nope, definitely the B&B.

10 Oct011 - Fukushima

The colour of the roads tell you the official story, red = national, green = prefectural, white = take your chances… but it’s the subtle details that reveal the truth. A straight road through a multitude of towns and intersections… not likely. A serpentine line through a wide swathe of white space… now that’s more like it!  Just make sure you have enough water and a spare tube or two, and choose the more jagged of those lines to go up, and the smoother one to go down – it’ll hurt your legs but at least you’ll more likely survive the descent. And those little hot-spring signs – bingo! They are there for a reason, because that is where you stay the night and relaaaaaaaaax..

The thing about these old printed maps, though –  they’re not always right. An inviting ocean view hotel on a long stretch of isolated coast road… now a decrepit parking lot. That luscious looking outdoor spa… actually a bathtub in someone’s backyard. Today, I find that my planned route, an intriguing road spiralling over the mountain border of Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, has actually been impassable since the great earthquake of 2011, and my almost equally alluring backup plan has more recently been washed away due to heavy rain.

10 Oct003 - Fukushima

So I came back to the Fukushima outskirts and took the detour over Kosaka toge – on the map it looked a lovely climb and indeed it was. Starting from a pleasant village narrow and long – an extended row of houses clinging to the verge on each side of an incline – it ended at a rather breathtaking view of the wide valley basin below, it’s patchwork of bright yellow harvested rice fields mixed up with the grey brown of small towns beyond, while in the immediate foreground a family of three were punishing a two-litre bottle of shochu. After a late lunch at the dam further up the road, and a startled glance at the time, my leisurely time-wasting now suddenly turned into something a little more focused – let’s call it “panic” – when I realise that with only three hours of daylight left, I still had sixty mountain kilometres and any number of previously unanticipated climbs that lay between me and my hotel.

Head down, no photo-stops and I get to Kaminoyama town: I have one of those “that can’t be right” moments when I look down at the map, shuffle myself around to the direction I need to go, and then look up at a huge mountain rearing up immediately in front of me, with a dark mass of cloud building up behind. I furrow my brow – shit – it looked so much nicer on the map.

10 Oct004 - Fukushima

And it seems to take forever, that last climb up to Zao, as the forest closes round me and hoots, snorts and growls of neither man nor machine emanate from the shadows and then, as it softly starts to rain – oh bugger – I raise the intensity and push down on the pedals harder and harder. I’m in a trance of sorts, and I’m not sure that it’s real, but I pass a solitary street-lamp, nestled in the darkening clasp of the forest on the apex of one of the switchbacks, and I think I may be in the land of Narnia, half expecting some cheeky bare-chested goat-legged hairy local to pop out from behind a tree.

After a dozen more of these corners I see some lights and roll in the village as the last of the daylight disappears. The room is shabby, drafty, and entirely unwelcoming, whilst the outdoor bath is luxuriant, it’s hot silky water inviting me to spend a couple hours in it’s soothing embrace, as I watch steam slowly circle up into the night sky.

10 Oct014 - Fukushima

The climb the next morning lived up to expectations – neverending. There was an initial ascent and descent followed by a thousand metres of straight climbing but the gradient was forgiving, and bar the mist-shrouded peak, the sun joined me for the whole way. Somewhat prune-like in my dehydrated state from last night’s bath, I nevertheless enjoyed the rhythm of the steady grind, and was pleased that the extra layer of clothes I’d brought with me filled a useful purpose at last on the initially chilly descent.

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The eastern flank of the mountain had the feel of a bank holiday weekend, with droves of cars and motorbikes out for a drive, rubber-necking the mountain view – I was glad I was going down, and not up, seeing the state of some of some of the driving round here. Going down I could go at least as fast as everyone else and keep out of reach from most of the idiots. But despite the company I was keeping, it was a pleasant ride, stopping for drinks or ice cream on the long way down. It was only when the road eventually flattened out that the traffic built up and the cars and motorbikes started passing, too fast and too close, and it became distinctly grim.

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And it was here the map saved me, revealing a road heading south across the hills, in the direction of Shiroishi. Devoid of traffic it rolled up and down, delivering me almost to the entrance of the Shinkansen station, as if it was telling me I’d done enough, why didn’t I just get a ticket, hop on the train and head home.

So I did.

10 Oct012 - Fukushima

GPS tracks:
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2111373141
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2111373197

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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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Spine o’ the North (Flashback: 2008)

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 two weeks of touring and we reminisced over the good times and the bad times we’d had together over the years, as only a bloke and an inanimate object can really do. And she behaved perfectly as I stripped her, bagged her and boarded the train to the Japan north east.

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Day 1: Finding Santa

After a change of train at Higashi Noshiro got off at Omagoshi on the Japan Sea coastline, the smallest station I have ever seen – a shed. 10km further up the road was a turn off inland for “Juniko Lakes”, famous for a dozen small lakes and ponds of various hues, and this made for a pleasant hike.

Lillies

Lillies

The region, Shirakami, is a UNESCO world heritage site due to it’s swathes of old beech forest, and the road to the lake, unexpectedly steep, cut through a small part of it. The “Blue Lake” and it’s luminosity was actually stunning.

The Blue Lake

The Blue Lake

The obasan at the restaurant I’d stopped in for lunch was very cheery and perceptive (“Ah yes, I knew you were from England – you are so handsome”) and gave me a huge meal. She introduced me to her attractive daughter, joking how I should take her with me, little knowing how I was already entertaining a similar (if not quite exactly the same) fantasy.

Unhappy Christmas

Unhappy Christmas

It was turning into a dark overcast day, threatening to rain at any moment, and on the way down from the lakes, attracted by mysterious chimes of Christmas songs heard though the trees, I found myself in “Santa-Land”.  A few cabins, tired looking tinsel covered climbing frame and the soiled and chipped faces of Father Christmas and assorted elves and reindeer surrounded an empty car-park, the music still chiming at full volume throughout the deserted complex. It was quite possibly the saddest thing I have ever seen.

I was back on the coast-road and the stretches of coast that had not been disfigured by concrete tetrapods were craggy and quite scenic; some coastal caves held old weathered carvings of some unusual multi-armed creatures, which didn’t seem particularly Buddist nor Shinto to me. Furoufushi Onsen (Spa of Eternal Youth?) was practically in the sea and I spent an hour soaking in it, watching the sea cormorants pacing the rocks a couple metres away, and trying not to worry the other naked bathers too much as I took pictures liberally of the whole scene.

Primal Entertainment

Primal Entertainment

Pushed on over over a predominately flat road, sometimes next to the sea, sometimes through hills on the headlands. Resting at the top of one pass a tough old lady of about a hundred came down out of the trees pushing her squeaking shopping bike, piled high with fresh vegetables, negotiating a steep precarious trail joining the main road. She greeted me in a thick local accent, mentioned that it should take only another twenty minutes to Ajigasawa (my goal for the day) before leaping on her bike and riding down the hill.

It took me 45 minutes.


Day 2: Onsen in the Clouds

Waved goodbye to the quirky landlady at the minshuku (B&B), who had got drunk and slept on the sofa in the lobby all night. It was a grim looking day, and the breakfast television reported torrential rain and landslides throughout the region, and had warned of more to come.

Memories

Memories

Started with a gentle climb through a wide valley with overbearing mountains close to my right and paddy fields on my left; one side of the road was lined with carefully sculpted scarecrows, mimicking everything from Astroboy, Godzilla and Thomas the Tank Engine: according to the labels, they were part of a crafts competition from a nearby retirement home. Judging by one of the entries – a paper-mache sculpture of a woman in a red mini-shirt and huge breasts – some of these old folks still had a few years of life left in them yet I thought.

Turning off into the mountains the road narrowed, green foliage flowed into the road from the verge and the dark skies added an edge to the atmosphere. It had turned to rain by the time I’d arrived in Hirosaki and I killed a lot of time in the castle park, waiting for it to stop. With waning enthusiasm, and in a light drizzle I continued on, a little later taking the road towards Hakkota-san, my spirits temporarily buoyed by a sky that had returned to a regular grey.

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It was a lonely road, very green and some potentially nice views if it wasn’t for the clouds and mist. Some steep climbs, and surprisingly no facilities for most of the two hours it took me to climb up to my lodgings for the night, Sukayu Onsen. The last few miles were particularly wet but I could already detect the rotten-egg smell of the onsen several hairpins before I’d arrived, and when I did turn the last corner and saw the lone sprawling old wooden ryokan through the mist, I just knew it had been worth it…

Sukayu Onsen

Sukayu Onsen

Sukayu Onsen is a beautiful structure, rambling creaking corridors, old dusty hunting trophies buried in shadow and small, modest tatami rooms. The onsen itself, a “senninburo” is a huge indoor bath of rich dark wood and milky blue water, the product of skilled carpentry and lovingly crafted workmanship. It’s a “konyoku” (mixed), men on the left and women on the right, but the low-lit lamps and steam seem to cover most of one’s modesty, and the lazy trickling of water, and muffled echos of low voices lull you off into a daydream in any case.

Mind you, I was slightly perturbed by one of the bathers nearby, who had the most unusual tan line. His torso was pale and white – but from the waist down he was completely brown…


Day 3: Naked Introductions

I saw two non-Japanese women in the baths this morning, which I thought was quite unusual in this remote neck of the woods. Furthermore, it was “konyoku” time – mixed bathing – which usually means that any female under the age of 70 stays well clear of the baths until it becomes “women only” again on the timetable. But, as they wandered closer to the mens’s area, it was quite apparent that thee two ladies were were young, attractive and, er, rather voluptuous. I really didn’t know where I should look… we kind of nodded a shy acknowledgement from afar, but that was it – I was a little worried that strolling over to introduce myself naked might be stretching some social boundaries.

Rain What Rain

Rain, what rain ?

I lounged in the onsen a some time, waiting for the rain to slow down and eventually set off up the road in a heavy mist and light drizzle. It didn’t take too long to get to the top of pass, at 1040m, but by now it was so wet and misty I couldn’t even see the tops of the trees. The muck and spray from the road was horrible, so much so that I decided to retire to another hidden onsen for the rest of the morning – Yachi Onsen.

Provocative Posing

Provocative Posing

The rain had stopped and the spray reduced when I ventured out again and long stretches of the road were breathtaking, with the boughs of tall brightly green trees cradling the road in an eerie fog. The road eventually descended to Oirase stream, the pretty stream that flows from LakeTowadako, the fast water causing all kinds of brooks and eddies, and the moss & lichen covered rocks and overhanging trees quite the fairy tale picture.

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Lunch at the tourist-bare lake: the restaurant owner had two small soft toys stapled to his tie, maybe in a symbolic sacrifice to the Gods to send us some decent bloody weather. Towadako is enclosed by mountains, almost right up to the shore barring the road that runs around it, and it is very pleasant running through the avenues of greenery. Towada the town was quite nice, with many wooden buildings and grass and trees – so sadly lacking in many Japanese tourist towns. But there were very few visitors around today and the swan-boats lying idle on the quay looked eminently lonely.

Loneliness

Loneliness

Oirase Valley

Oirase Valley

The road leading up south from the lake was steep and offered some fine views from the pass, the surface of the water actually an aqua-marine blue in places, surrounded by clouds running between the mountain tops.

The descent down the other side was phenomenal: for fifteen minutes I was alone in this world, trees hemming me in on either side, and the gradient and corners just acute enough that if you took the very best line on all the curves you could just about make it down without braking. And the sun had come out ! I cruised the last few miles through verdant Tohoku countryside and into the small onsen town of Oyu.

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In the sento that evening, it was rather “local”. I really couldn’t believe that what they was speaking was Japanese.


Day 4: The Highs of Hachimantai to the Lows of Karaoke

Got up before dawn because I’d seen the weather report and I knew that this is what cycling is all about ! Deep blue sky, a cool breeze, and the soft dawn rays of the sun. I followed a quiet minor valley parallel to the main one, hyper-green forests and fields, light sparkling off gurgling streams, dragonflies criss-crossing the air in front of me…absolute bliss.

Paddies, early morning

Paddies, early morning

After an hour or so I hit the main road, a little hotter but still mercifully devoid of traffic and climbing steadily upwards turned off again towards the Hachimantai plateau – at this point it became very steep, but shaded, as the narrow road twisted up and up. I finally saw the visitor’s centre over the prow on a stretch of straight road that I believed was the top – I was already at 1000m, knackered and overheated.

Green, Greener, Greenest

Green, Greener, Greenest

I asked the bloke at the information desk of the visitor’s centre if this was indeed the top of the pass – “just another 700 metres”, he said – and it took me a few seconds to realise that he was talking about frigging elevation, not distance. This final climb was the middle of a ridge, completely without shade and views until the top of the pass. And at the top, 1560m, it had become too hazy to see anything anyway, apart from the lower slopes of Iwate-san.

Easy

Easy

The descent was fast and dangerous – a dragonfly splattered into a messy hundred pieces on my sunglasses at 70km/h – and I couldn’t really appreciate the scenery, but the lower reaches seemed quite desolate. I passed a lonely youth hostel at the end of a row of large shuttered hotels and boarded up onsen. Grim. For 10km I had no choice but to join the abysmally busy 282 trunk road south, fearing for my life as trucks skimmed past me. Out of desperation I headed off briefly into the mountains with a vague notion to find an onsen and a campground but it was an upward climb, it was getting dark, and there was no guarantee I’d find food. And rain was in the air.

So it was back to another busy road as it got dark and I laboured to find a place to stay, finding myself on a pitch black road leading to Tsunagi Onsen, which I’d found on the map, modestly fronting the lakeside on the other side of a bridge. Sanctuary !

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The owner of a luxury onsen hotel toom pity and gave me the suite for 5000 Yen and I had the rooftop onsen to myself. Dinner was a dozen sticks of yakitori in a local bar, and the centre of some god-awful singing by a old toothless drunk bloke who of course kept insisting that I sing The Beatles with him. All along he was encouraged by the mama-san who kept clapping and shouting “Umai! Umai!” at appropriate moments. How can she live with herself ?


Day 5: Alone, but not Alone

Woke at 5:30AM, saw the rain and went back to bed. Ventured out a little after 8AM, splashing through puddles. I knew this would turn out to be a terrible day. The enticing looking diagonal road running almost unnoticed south west across the map had me imagining a sleepy tee-lined lane, densely forested hamlets, and perhaps a smokestack here and there, but the reality was a bit of an anti-climax, with farms and light agricultural industries lining a reasonably busy road. The sun made a brief appearance, but didn’t really turn my mood.

Rain, what rain ?

Rain, what rain ?

In Hottogaya I sheltered in a visitor’s centre in the middle of an electrical storm and watched a deluge of torrential rain attack the small town. I took Route 107 west and sheltered in a cosy deserted railway station for the next shower to pass. The 107 was dangerous with trucks so I was glad to get onto a steep mountain road south connecting to Route 40, which would take high up into the clouds and over the prefectural boundary from Akita-ken to Iwate-ken.

The lower 10km were lined by small farms and it started to rain heavily – there wasn’t much shelter and I was drenched and cold pretty quickly anyway. Up and up. Wetter and wetter. The road narrowed, the farmhouses disappeared and after some time I found myself in front of a locked gate barring further progress. The red sign seemed to indicate that the road has been washed away but every cyclist knows that the first gate at least must be climbed and ignored. And I was already so wet it didn’t really matter.

Once over the gate and back on the bike, I did deliberate over my decision though: nobody knew I was here, there was no cellphone reception, it was very wet and slippery, and it was also getting late. The weather could change for the worse at any minute, and judging by the rocks and branches littering the path in front of me, I’d say nobody had been this way for quite some time. But the alternative was a long descent back where I’d come from and an indirect route following some rather nasty trunk roads.

Misty roads ...

Misty roads …

It was getting creepy, fog filled the valley below me and I could hear, but not identify, noises from the forest. Trees peeked from the mist and the road twisted up so steeply that I had to dismount and push. The road was narrow and crooked, but there was still no sign of the landslide. But I’d come this far, and round the next corner I spotted the shape of a house only a few more hundred metres up the road. But it turned to out to be deserted, shifted from it’s foundations and the debris of a few broken chairs and plates on the floor visible through it’s wrecked doorway. Visible on the other side of the road in the distance, through a large patch of overgrown grass was a huge black gash into the mountain side, an old mine entrance.

But the road carried on ahead of me and then turned round sharply to the right and led upwards, hugging the mountain side on the other side of the valley. It disappeared into clouds the colour of coal, hundreds of metres above me, and I stared at the menacing black sky beyond. I started humming “Full Moon” quietly… yes, it was best if I turned back.

Rain Damage

Rain Damage

A miserably wet hour of descent to the main road, my feet destroyed and the sense of defeat stinging more than the needles of rain in my face. Curious, I asked a policeman if that road really was impassable. “Oh yes, destroyed by the earthquake in June”, he said, “On the other side of that pass, there’s just nothing there anymore”. Well that made me feel better.


Day 6: Fire & Brimstone

The sun struggled feebly behind the clouds before giving up. From Route 108 I settled into Route 398, which climbed very gently, a quiet narrow road lined by old-fashioned shops and wooden houses, hemmed in by trees behind. A group of young school-kids bowed and chimed “ohayo gozaimasu” to me, instead of a more typically smug “hallo!” and running away. This was the Japan of another era, and towards the top of the mountain, signs of life became thinner, and only the occasional old lady, bent double, could be seen patiently tending her vegetable patch.

Guardian of the Vending machine

Guardian of the Vending machine

I turned off onto Route 51, a deserted road sweeping graciously up to Route 310, which my map showed as 20km of jagged edges along a mountain ridge; the tunnel of trees that led into it had me worrying that this road too might lead to nowhere, so I only entered after checking some local knowledge at a nearby onsen sanatorium, of flaking white paint and empty tiled corridors (why are all these places so deserted ?).

... to where ...?

… to where …?

This was a wonderful forest road, trees thick on either side, but quite incredibly steep: I took to shouting and grunting through the ups and downs. After around 5km of forest the road descended briefly through clouds of sulfurous steam into a desolate grey basin, housing a half-dozen simple wooden ryokan scattered around the road, a few and occasional jets of boiling water coming from the ground. I’d been told there was an onsen here, and I couldn’t imagine anything more eerie than this place at night.

Sulphur warning ...

Sulphur warning …

On the steep climb out of the basin there were now signs warning of poison gas and after a few more hairpin turns I was faced with a luminous white mountain of volcanic ash in front of me, surrounded here and there by yellow rocks and pools of steaming sulphur. I cycled past, upwards, the road disappearing above the cloud line.

A superb descent took me back to Route 108 – this would be a wonderful road through rural Tohoku, undulating through thick forest and green valleys, if it wasn’t for the trucks roaring past me every twenty seconds, and a series of long tunnels. There had been a wild alternative mountain road, clinging to the cliff face on the other side of the valley, but this had been closed and blocked off due to the earthquakes. In fact all the roads I rode today seemed to have taken a beating. I ended up in Naruko Onsen, a popular onsen town, and the cheapest lodging there – I hesitate to use the word “hotel” over “doss house” – was actually not very cheap at all.

And my arse was now sore. Very sore, an experience made all the more painful by having to articulate the symptoms in some detail to an attractive young woman behind the counter of the pharmacy.


Day 7: Not all that Glitters

The ointment I’d got for my nether regions seemed to have worked a treat after a good night’s rest but I was feeling drained of energy as soon as I got up. The morning started out cloudy, eventually turning into sunshine. I had originally planned to head to Route 458, the fabled “kokudo” (highway) that turns into a dirt trail, but first stopping by Ginzan Onsen, a quaint looking onsen village in Yamagata-ken that often featured on the cover of various hot-spring publications.

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I turned off onto a wonderful mountain road, lined by tall cool pines and then, in order to avoid a tunnel, took a steeper road up into the mountains that was no wider than a footpath, covered with moss in places, and looked more like a hiking trail. In fact, a sign at the bottom indicated that it was indeed an old path through the mountains many years ago, before the road and tunnel was built. By the time I made it to Ginzan onsen, I realised I was in no state to be going much further today.

Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen

The village was indeed very pretty, with a number of old ryokan and shops lining both sides of a narrow stream, and the whole picture looking quite beautiful – but… I wasn’t getting a good feel for the place. While resting outside one of the “omiyage” (souvenir) stores, the owner awkwardly engaged me in conversation, “pretty hot, eh?” she said without enthusiasm, before adding, after a few seconds pause, “so I guess you’ll be leaving soon, then ?”. I replied that I was planning to have lunch here and now, with some enthusiasm, she suggested a restaurant at the top of the street around the corner, “…and there’s plenty of space to put your, er, bike”. It only occurred to me later, as I walked past the two restaurants immediately next to her shop and trudged upwards to the edge of town, that she just wanted me and my bike out of her way.

Meanwhile, two men were working in the stream, one younger guy in slacks, sports shirt and a tight “punch perm”, the hallmark of the small town Japanese gangster. He sat on a rock to the side of the stream, smoking cigarettes and shouting orders to the other guy, a harried-looking old man up to his knees in water, shoveling soil and moving rocks from one place to another under the hot glare of the sun. I spent a couple of hours in Ginzan Onsen, mainly making use of the free public “foot bath” and all the time this young lout was ordering around this poor old guy. So, undoubtedly a very attractive onsen village, but something just not quite right with the place.

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I took a minor farm road to Lake Tokurako which was absolutely beautiful, a gentle descent down through a wide valley surrounded by rice paddies and mountains, the sun gleaming. The lake itself was initially a little sad under the harsh sunlight but dissipated into a pleasant orange glow as the sun got lower. I camped nearby, hoping a leisurely dip in a nearby onsen would rehabilitate me, and that hopefully I wouldn’t get attacked during the night some of the extreme wildlife, which included moths the size of birds, and stick insects at least the length of my forearm….


Day 8: Route 458

Massive biting ants crawling over my tent – it was a terrifying night. The lake looked quite surreal in the dawn light and I reached the fabled Route 458, after a 35km warm-up of lakeside lanes and minor passes. A lot of greenery and some steep sections but nothing to suggest it was anything other than a normal road – there were even, of course, a few vending machines. After another short climb, the descent ended in a T-junction: to the right the road headed for an onsen, to the left was a hiking path into the woods. Oh, hang on, this was actually Highway 458 ! Even more than I expected…

Spot Route 458

Spot Route 458

From this point I knew I was committed – the map showed over 40km of tortuous up and downs, with no escape routes. It was one jagged line punching it’s way south; the only road for many miles around, the map showing only an expanse of bare white to the east and to the west of it – just unchartered mountains.

Route 458

Route 458

Sure enough, after a few turns in the forest, this road, or perhaps more accurately – this path – was clinging to the side of the mountain, bare rock and trees to my left, and a sheer drop into a jungle clad valley to my right. And no guard rail to protect me. After this twisty hanging path continued for a few more miles the tarmac turned into dirt, gravel and rock, and for the first time since I’d cycled through Western China I was having to swing my whole body above the bike trying to keep traction and balance as the road wound upwards. I couldn’t believe that they let traffic on this at all, never mind label it a bleedin’ “highway” !

I didn’t really take in the significance of a cute-looking bee sign at the entrance to the road until I noticed a swarm of bees would start pestering me whenever I stopped – which meant I soon gave up the idea of stopping. And now it was late morning and the exposed sections were painfully painfully hot, and I was worried about running out of water (and bee attacks, and bear attacks) – after all, very few cars passed this way.

Route 458

Route 458

At midday, now close to passing out, and paranoid that the damned bees were still following me I finally struggled to the top of the pass. A brief period of asphalt turned back into dirt, and a car struggling up the opposite way stopped; “Gambatte!” encouraged the driver, “Only another 10km to the top!”. What the f****??… As I was digesting this unexpected news, and they saw the hurt and confusion gradually appear in my face, they quickly handed me a bottle of water and sped off, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

It wasn’t pretty, but I made the next pass sometime around 1pm, pleased that my wheels had held up under the punishment. We’d done it (the bike and me), we’d beaten the 458 ! The descent was fast, and just as hard as the climb during the dirt sections, and the road was quite eerie towards the bottom, lined by decrepit buildings, long deserted, and steep rocky paths heading off into small valleys or just blocked off.

Joining the main road, I spent 45 minutes looking for a restaurant that wasn’t a ramen shop. I failed. Afterwards, Route 287 was busy in places but a sizable part of it pleasantly followed the Mogami river, leading me eventually into the town of Nagai. For dinner, ramen.


Day 9: Rain stops Play

I felt old and battered from yesterday’s rigors of the road, and when I saw the rain pouring down outside I didn’t rush to get ready. It did turn to sunshine long enough to cycle through some pleasant country lanes, arriving in Yonezawa by late morning. The rain returned, turning into a ferocious thunder and lightening show while I sheltered in the museum through to the afternoon. A brief break in the weather gave me the chance to find a cheap business hotel where I could spend the rest of the day moping around in misery.


Day 10: Lake Inashiroko and it’s Hidden Enclaves

In complete contrast to yesterday – it doesn’t get much better than this ! Woke up to blue skies and a direct path to the mountains, initially through the pleasant outskirts of Yonezawa in the early morning light (it wasn’t yet 7am) and then the beginnings of a gentle climb with open farmland on my left and mountains towering over to me on my immediate right. Then before I knew it, I was in a forest, tall pines on either side keeping me cool, if not actually a little chilly …

Perfect Onsen Village

Onsen Village

This road took me directly through a small onsen village, Shirabaru, with log cabin B&Bs and old a couple of old wooden ryokan with deep thatched roofs lining the steep winding street, harboured deep among the cliffs and trees, like a secret cleft into the mountain itself. This is exactly how an onsen village should look like, I thought to myself.

It was a long haul to the pass – Shirabaru Toge, at over 1400m in height – but the road soon opened out into sunlight as it edged along the valley. But despite the sun and the clear blue skies it wasn’t too hot, and the the occasional icy blast of a delicious cold breeze from the roadside waterfalls was close to ecstasy.

View from the pass

View from the pass

I lingered at the top of the pass taking in the views of the Lake Hibarako down below on the other side, in the next prefecture, Fukushima-ken. And it was still only 9:30am. After the effort expended getting up here I was reluctant to leave and after a short kip on a table, begrudgingly started the descent to the Urabandai area. A leisurely ride along the lake passing the occasional log-house, many serving as B&Bs, made for a pleasant late morning and I eventually stopped at Goshiki-numa for a hike around the luminous ponds there.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREBack on the road I hit the north shore of Lake Inashiroko and spent the next few miles on the horrendous trunk road Route 47 before it headed off inland while I continued south on a much quieter lakeside road, fighting an unbelievable cross-wind to stay upright. Now this was a real discovery – the road led down the east side of the lake, and an even quieter lane hugged the beach – in the late afternoon it was surreal how the sunlight filtered through the wooded groves by the lakeside.

Perhaps more surreal was the sight that greeted me outside one of the wood cabins – a group of twenty people facing each other in a circle, hands raised towards the sky, chanting and swaying. Once I was sure that the possibility for an orgy was minimal, I moved on.

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The narrow road took me through small sleepy villages and it was a while before I realised that there was now a mountain range between the lakeside and the main road. I couldn’t believe what a fantastic day of cycling it had been but my leisurely pace and explorations through the forest had put me behind schedule.

The road turned into a rough concrete lane, still following the lake, leading me round the base of a cliff with sheer rock on my left and water on my right, the waves actually lapping over the surface of the road.

Sinking road

Sinking road

Then – thankfully – the road rose. And rose and rose, no wider than a path through boughs of trees and ferns overhanging half the road. It descended out into an open glade with a single farmhouse in the middle of a ring of mountains, a full 360 degree view of the towering peaks around. An ancient old lady sat outside and smiled at me, “konnichi wa”.

Then I was off again, up up up into the mountains, only half-tempted to go back and see if I hadn’t dreamt the last fifteen minutes. By now I was starting to fret a little and stuffed the last of my food down me while the last rays of the setting sun dazzled me through the branches and leaves.

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Another furious descent and I was spat out to the edge of a plain, paddy fields cloaked by a semi-circle of mountains on one side, and the lake on the other. A choice of two rough gravel tracks continued ahead. A friendly farmer in a K-truck patiently obliged me and led me to a campsite by the lakeside, but by this point I had no food… “you know”, he said, “you can always stay at my place”.

So Suzuki-san took me back to his house to meet his family, and while his wife and mother-in-law prepared a banquet, he showed off his pride & joy, a Koei steel framed bike he built up himself over 30 years ago, and we talked bicycles for the rest of the evening, occasionally interrupted by curious neighbours, keen to see what this strange foreigner was doing here…


Day 11: The Thatched Houses of Ouchijuko

Like an excited schoolboy, Suzuki-san asked his wife if it was alright that he ride with me a short way – and on his bike he led me to the first pass of the day, before waving goodbye and turning back. Glorious sunshine again and a quiet forest road but a bugger of a climb first thing in the morning – 300m of elevation gain in 3km, a downhill, and then another horrible climb up again.

Aizu Wakamatsu

Aizu Wakamatsu

This effort eventually took me down into Aizu-Wakamatsu, a pleasant old castle town if only I had the time to stop and enjoy it… I wanted to finish as close to Nikko as I could today. I took the mountain road (of course!) – the old Edo-era post road south. Suzuki-san had told me not to miss Ouchijuko – a village consisting entirely of dozens of traditional “kayabuki” (thatched roof houses) in the middle of the mountains. His wife’s friend, Abe-san, lived here and she’d been told to expect a visit from me.

The road offered a phenomenal climb, a little hot now, but superb views and very very quiet. It topped out at around 800m so wasn’t too outrageous, and I could see the village of Ouchijuko quite far down below, nestled in the valley, several miles before I reached it.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIt really was very impressive – a wide long avenue lined by old thatched houses, functioning as omiyage shops, restaurants, clothes shops, grocers, etc, but almost as surprising was the large number of (Japanese) tourists, the only ones I’d really seen on this trip, infact.

I sought out Abe-san and had soba in her family’s restaurant, a beautiful old farmhouse over 400 years old. She confirmed that yes, everyone lives in these old houses and it is indeed a “regular” village (if you discount the hundreds of tourists of course…).

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I would have liked to stay longer but it was now midday and getting quite hot. Sticking to my policy of avoiding main roads whenever possible I took the minor road that ran east of the river rather than Route 121 and it was quite lovely, through fields and forests but quite a lot of climbing, and not very direct at all.

With time running out, and now in direct view of the blistering sun I crossed over the river to the west bank, back to the main road. It wasn’t too terrible and eventually I made it to a campsite about 15km north of the final pass that would take me into Tochigi-ken, and the end of my journey down the spine of the north.

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Day 12: A Final Farewell

A cold night but fantastic setting – the campsite was in the mountains and quite deep in the forest. There were scores of monkeys picking at the neighbouring apple orchard in the dawn light, and the whole field moved in a blur of furry bodies as they scampered back to the tree line once they saw me.

One climb, and then a day of mainly leisurely descents with a little up & down. The main road, Route 121 was actually really nice in the morning light, with most of it shaded from the sun by trees. A badly maintained surface, but all the same – a real find. Some parts were busy with trucks but these all turned off West onto Route 23, after which the traffic calmed down completely again.

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Instead of crossing one particularly long bridge and tunnel I took the old road round the side of one of the dams, resting at a wonderful little park that would be just perfect for camping. Found a couple of bees attached to my shiny blue cycling T-shirt, one of which stung me. Always happens.

On the descent I almost came off my bike in shock, alarmed at seeing one road-worker sporting an outrageously indecent handlebar moustache, a rarity for a Japanese man to sport such a monster.

Cutting across the hills north of Nikko I decided to climb up to the temples to finish this trip off properly, and indeed they were beautiful in the warm sunlight of the late afternoon. I spent a couple of hours walking around the back lanes of the temple area, taking it in – a perfect end – before heading down to the station to disassemble my bike and pack her up before boarding the train home, rather reluctantly.

Goal !

Goal !

Walking into Nikko station, struggling with my packed up bike and luggage, I noticed two young  ladies, backpackers, heading out the opposite way. Our eyes met and we briefly paused, confused, at what seemed to be mutual familiarity. But the moment passed, and I was already on the platform before the realisation hit me… by the Gods, they were the two ladies I’d seen (rather thoroughly) in Sukayu onsen ! I was gutted, having missed the chance to genuinely utter that immortal line: “Sorry, I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on …”

The End !

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Full photos can be found here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stantopia/sets/72157607282985550/

Route Information (just in case you want to try it yourselves…)

Day 1: 85km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283346
Lodging: Minshiku opposite Ajigasawa Stn. 4000yen w/ breakfast.

Day 2: 92km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283348
Lodgings: Sukayu Onsen, 8000yen w/breakfast & dinner

Day 3: 80km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283351
Lodgings: Youth Hostel (not recommended)

Day 4: 140km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283353
Lodgings: Hotel Sansui, Tsunagi Onsen. 5000yen without meals.

Day 5: 116km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283356
Lodgings: Business hotel, nr Yokote. 5650yen without meals.

Day 6: 119km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283394
Lodgings: Kokuminshikusha, in Naruko Onsen. 6600yen w/breakfst and dinner.

Day 7: 63km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283394
Lodgings: Obanazawa campsite, Lake Tokurako.

Day 8: 147km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283400
Lodgings: “Business Hotel Nagai” in Nagai, 5000 Yen.

Day 9: 35km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283403
Lodgings: Business Hotel in Yonezawa, 2900 Yen.

Day 10: 108km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283409
Lodgings: South of Lake Inashiroko.

Day 11: 93km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283412
Lodgings: 15km north of Tochigi border, campsite 800 yen.

Day 12: 78km
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/3283414

Total Distance: 1040km.

Misty Roads ...