Tag Archives: touring

Nagano Reloaded


What I saw was autumn, but the wind told me winter was here already. For the first couple of hours as I climbed out of sight of Nagano city I thought I’d packed too much, and listened unduly to those naysayers who told me it was surely too cold to be galavanting around the mountains of Nagano prefecture mid-November on a bicycle… while here I was sweating at almost every exertion. But I would indeed need every single layer in the end; the wind cut deeper and deeper as each hour ticked by over this brief one and a half day trip.

I was following the same roads as I’d ridden a couple years ago; they were well worth repeating and I’d promised myself I would return, for once actually keeping my promise. Route 401 was the mossy staircase of an outdoor department store of pine, maple and beech, taking me higher at every uneven turn; the walls of the far valley were resplendent in oranges and reds although somewhat dulled by the overcast sky, and the horizon was aflame with white fire whenever the slopes of the Chuo Alps broke out from behind the clouds. On a high plateau a few miles away was an isolated village, cosseted in the folds of thickly wooded forest in various stages of colour, a boundary of distance and elevation discriminating this shangri-la from the rest of us. Dear God, I beseeched, whatever you have me do to live there, I will do. Sometimes the road dipped and rose through tiny hamlets, and I spent far too much time slowing down to absorb the views over the valley, and daydreaming of my mountain retreat.


It was with a strong sense of deja-vu that I arrived in Nakajo, a small town straddling the unpleasant trunk road of Route 19, looking for something to eat, only to find everything closed. Just like last time, almost everything but the petrol station and an empty-shelved grocers was closed, and just like last time I followed my nose a few minutes beyond the town limits to find a “yakiniku” BBQ restaurant. The only place open for miles around, cold and drafty with impenetrable clouds of thick smoke, overpriced and – shockingly – packed absolutely wall to wall with people. It said more about the local attractions of Nakajo on a Sunday, than the quality of the food.


Considerably later than I’d planned, I continued south on Route 12, overpowering smells of yakiniku wafting behind me, and I idly wondered what kind of wildlife the smell of roast lamb is likely to attract on these lonely roads. My laissez-faire approach in the morning had left me little time to appreciate the joys of Route 12, as I watched the sun get lower, felt the temperatures drop and had to focus to keep upright in a maelstrom of strong cross-winds. Oh but what a road! The impressive views of the valley to the north had transformed into magnificent views of the Southern Alps to the west. This gem of a road has not one plain straight section; it is always veering left or right, up or down, it keeps you guessing, keeps you involved, as you play on a constant dilemma: how much attention to pay to the road versus how much to soak in the scenery. Plotted on a map, my GPS looked like it had tried to find it’s way home from the pub, in the dark, after eight pints.


It was already getting dark when I arrived in Bessho onsen, the mountains welcoming dusk somewhat quicker than the city. A perfect day, if a little rushed towards the end. The hot bath never felt better, and the dire bottles of Asahi they serve up in these places tasted almost artisan. Glad I’d booked tomorrow off… I thought.



The early morning trudge through the outskirts of Ueda city was terrifying. It had taken me an hour and a half to cover 25 highly unpleasant kilometres. Eight o’clock on a Monday morning… is there ever a time in the week when people feel less inconsolable ? The trudge to the office, in crammed commuter trains, or bolted to a line of slow moving traffic… a long march of misery. The last thing you need is a cyclist, a recreational cyclist, overtaking you on the inside, weaving through the stalled cars and trucks. Oh the insolent poseur: doesn’t he have a job to go to? You’d teach him a lesson, cut him up, drive him into the gutter, put the frighteners on him. For his own good, innit. Ain’t safe on a bicycle…


Climbing slowly out of the Ueda basin I looked down on the ant-like columns of traffic criss-crossing the city suburbs: never again, Ueda, never again. I reached Route 4, lined with autumn foliage and surprisingly carrying little traffic, but it was too late, too late to recover the magic. I crossed over to the almost tranquil Route 35, and frost covered pine needles sparkled in the sunlight … but all I could think of was the cold, and how precarious this descent would be a couple more weeks. Snow covered peaks provided a dramatic backdrop to the approach into Nagano city; but it was all I could do to navigate the many urban roads to the station…


On reflection, what I should have done was to head south from Bessho, climb over the Ushigahara highlands and finish on the shore of Lake Suwako. Now that would be a classic ride.

And come Spring, what more reason do I need to try those enchanted roads from yesterday, one more time…





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.


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.


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:

Monkey Mischief in Southern Kyushu

The devil’s washboard, Nichinan coastline

Kyushu, land of deep misty valleys and bubbling hot springs. If the rain keeps you away from enjoying the former, then at least you still have the latter to tickle your fancy. Unless, that is, your legs get burnt to a lobster red on the first and only day of sunshine, and the remainder of the week is spent cursing your own stupidity, while cycling past lots of spectacular hot springs. In the rain…

Day 1: Hairy Happenings

The view from the plane as we came into land at Miyazaki airport was stunning; the city is in a flat basin surrounded by huge jagged green covered peaks, the largest and most dense to the south, where I was to head to. My plan was to follow a loop around southern Kyushu, down to Sata Misaki, the southernmost point in mainland Japan and back up to the Ebino Kogen highlands before returning to Miyazaki for a flight back to Tokyo. There was already a tropical feel to the airport, with unkempt grass lawns, a multitude of colorful flowers and the ubiquitous palm trees. There were even a bunch of attractive young ladies outside the doors whose only role, as far as I could see, was to greet new arrivals.

“Are you lookin at me ?”

By the time I picked up the bike from the “takkyubin” depot, assembled it and got a bite to eat it was already 1:30pm – my plan was to head south as far as I could, following the coastline for the most part,  and camp somewhere on the coast. It was the first time in a year (since last golden week!) on my touring bike, fully loaded as it was with camping and cooking gear, and the immense weight was both a shock and a comfort – it felt good to free again. I cycled past long lines of feisty tropical foliage, bursting out into the roads, and even a couple of mango stalls – I realised that yes, I was on holiday !  Before long I was on the long coastal road hugging sea on on one side, and ridiculously vibrant green hills and mountains on the other.

Skirting the coast…

On one of the quiet side roads, passing a couple of monkeys by the verge I stopped to take a few pictures. One ran away, whilst the other nonchalantly climbed a tree next to the road and started picking off fruit to eat. I came closer taking more pictures as he ate and eyed me, before shaking the tree and hooting at me, “get away, can’t you see I’m eating!“. But I carried on snapping away, and this time he got really mad and in one bound lept from the tree and landed a few metres in front of me, fangs bared. Jezus, he was actually sauntering towards me – that’s not meant to happen ! In a panic I applied my anti dog measures – growl aggressively and wave my arms around like a lunatic. He stopped in his tracks, bemused more than intimidated I guess,  while we both stared at each other in an uneasy truce.  I backed slowly away to by bike parked further up the road while he stood his ground, eyeing me aggressively. Monkey 1. Steve 0.

Day 2:  Shock Treatment

I’d planned yesterday as a leisurely “warm up” day long the coast to get used to the bike again – I ended up doing almost 100km in barely half a day along rolling coast roads. Looking for a place to camp I came across this fabulous hotel overlooking the sea on the very top of Cape Daguri – my back was sore, my arse was sore, and I’m no spring chicken any more either… didn’t I deserve a little luxury ? It had great baths from which I enjoyed a view of the sunset, a sauna (with TV!), laundry facilities and an amazing dinner of sashimi, nabe, tempura, sushi and even cake for Y7000 in total – a bargain!  Hell, I even happily lightly electrocuted myself in their special “electric shock therapy” bath built for the purpose.

Kaimondake hiding murkily in the distance

So the following morning, with guilty feelings of premature pampering, I headed off early, grabbing breakfast at a convenience store in the nearby port town of Shibushi. I should have grabbed a lot more than breakfast, because this would be the last store I’d see for the next 36 hours. The coast road, Route 448 was extremely quiet, winding up and down through sleepy fishing hamlets and idyllic cottages but there seemed to be a small army of people beautifying the verges, cutting grass and tending flower boxes… other than fishing this would be the only employment around here.

Hard going, a hot hazy day and a strong headwind, lots of rolling hills, and nothing but a diet of biscuits and emergency power bar rations to sustain me all day. I’m not a sea kind of person and before long the views bored me, but I concentrated on the feel of the cycling, knowing that I was not stuck in an office, crammed in busy shopping mall or stuck at home watching inane television. It’s very thinly populated, this part of Kyushu, aging locals engaged in fishery and small scale farming – I saw one old lady using two scythes to cut grass, then use them as walking sticks to aid her moving to the next field.

Errant German on the road

Signs make it clear that really the only reason that this area is on the map is due to the Uchinoura Rocket Launch site, still another 60km further on. The only thing beating this form of distant advertising was, unaccountably, a sign for the Kushima Daiichi Resort Hotel, a scrappy dilapidated monstrosity I’d passed yesterday, over 70km back ! I encountered the first serious pass of the trip and it took a good chunk of afternoon to breach, and I welcomed the long shadows from the trees as the time passed 3pm. An hour later I was on the final stretch and saw a cyclist coming towards me – it was the only one I’d seen all day, and it just so happened to be someone I knew back in Tokyo, Malte, going the other way !

Feet up – beach side camping

It was a beautiful time of day, quiet shady roads interspersed by the orange glow of the late afternoon, and I rolled in to a small cove around 5pm with a basic, but free, campsite overlooking the bay. I had dinner in an old lone hotel next door, and had the cavernous dining room to myself while I watched the waves, and the melancholic melodies of Japanese “enka” reverberated soulfully around the entire building. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Days 3 and 4:  Japan’s Jurassic Park.

Yesterday’s distance racked up to 130km with a lot of climbing… and there was more to come. There was only 5km to Cape Misaki but it was intense with steep ups and downs, and the wind was picking up power. It was still an hour before the toll road opened and not a single soul was around so I lifted the bike over and continued alone, the verges overflowing with foliage and all manner of jungle noises scaring the bejesus out of me. A troop of monkeys lingered on the road in front of me – word must have got round the simian community that I’m a bit of a soft touch – so I picked up a stick to be safe, before giving them a wide berth as I peddled up the hill. Leaving the bike at the top I climbed over the next obstacle, a gate blocking the entrance of a long unlit tunnel. As I walked through the tunnel it felt like I was entering a long lost prehistoric realm, and I was let out into a small wooded clearing with narrow steps leading downwards.

In the jungle, Cape Sata Shrine

It was difficult to hear anything above the roaring wind and the creaking of the trees as they swayed back and forth, so when an inoshishi (wild boar) and her infant crossed the path in front of me, I’m sure we were all surprised as each other. I was pretty jittery by now, and I’m sure I could see the occasional hairy shape hiding behind the trees and vines –  whenever I passed by an exposed section of cliff face I instinctively took a step back, in case of any stalking wildlife might want to push me over it. There was a long abandoned restaurant, broken glass and debris littered the floor and cobwebbed tables, the building already being reclaimed by the jungle, like a future Angkor Wat waiting to be rediscovered. With great relief I made it to the final outcrop – the southernmost point of mainland Japan, and then hurried back.

Cape Sata Misaki… the southernmost point

I had to push hard along the coast to catch the 11am ferry across Kagoshima bay to Ibusuki, a town famous for it’s volcanic sand baths. It was eerily quiet when I arrived, and apart from the immediate station vicinity, a bit dilapidated as many of these old onsen (hot spring) towns tend to become. There were a dozen empty restaurants apart from one where there were, of course, twenty people queuing outside. The forecast was strong winds and heavy rains from later the afternoon so I hunkered down in a youth hostel near the sand baths, with a view of the derelict Hotel Kairakuen directly opposite, and as the wind and rain started, the sight of tourists’ umbrellas being ripped inside out. I amused myself by flicking through a tourist pamphlet about Ibusuki. Apparently it was known as the “Hihon no Hawaii”… the Hawaii of Japan.

Hot ‘n Heavy – volcanic sand baths

More realistically, people come here to get buried in hot sand. Wearing a yukata you are led to a sandy hole where you lie down and the attendants shovel sand over you. As you feel the weight and the heat of the sand, you can almost hear the blood pulsing through your body. I went twice, the second time my relaxation being somewhat compromised by some small sand dwelling creature nibbling on my little finger.

Day 5:  Escape from Ibusuki

Leaving Ibusuki… at last

Out of the dark tunnel of trees…

It was still dark when I peddled out of Ibusuki:  I just had to get out of there. As the day brightened I found myself on a climb to lake Miike through a microclimate of 100% humidity and dark tree formed tunnels. Behind the grey waters of the lake was the grey Kaimondake volcano, blanketed in grey clouds. Luckily, for visitors who might be disappointed in the inclement weather, a billboard declared an alternate entertainment less than a kilometer away; the Ibusuki retort to Swimming With Dolphins was Bathing With Eels. The advert showed a photo of huge shiny black eel, its body as thick as a rugby players thigh, in a pool, next to a delighted young lady who, I believe, was stroking the horrific thing.

Local entertainment options

Confused, I headed to the Skyline road, heading vertically up into a wall of trees … my kind of road, something I understood. Damp, cloudy, misty, but a wonderful brooding air across a ridge of mountains, followed by a cross country route of minor roads through pristinely kept fields of tea bushes to Chiran for it’s samurai houses. A little disappointing, mainly only the gardens were open for viewing, but the old lady who greeted me was so enthusiastic about the place I felt obliged to ponder thoughtfully over every manicured shrubbery or bonsai tree, while I secretly watched the time tick by – I still had a long way to go.

Chiran teahouse

When I did finally get out of there I was so keen to get a move on I actually overtook a cyclist up a hill who was riding a carbon road bike, and barely noted the famous eruptions of the Sakurajima volcano as I descended the other side. This, unfortunately, turned out to be my last chance before the clouds moved in to obscure all. A crazy smog (with a touch of poison volcanic gas) filled a high speed dash through the environs of Kagoshima, which surprised me by it’s vastness, and I finally escaped the tumultuous dangerous congested coast road by turning in land towards Kirishima, somewhere up there in the clouds.

Keeping ahead of the rain clouds… but not for long

They were both cruel and pleasant roads, these tree lined luminescent green avenues only partly making up for their topology; stints of prolonged climbing turning into long descents where the cycle would repeat itself again and again. When would I ever get some actual net elevation gain ?  It was raining quite hard when I got into Kirishima, a famous mountain onsen resort, and I retreated to a hotel, frustrated: I’d been lugging my tent, stove and food over mountains and valleys for five days now and only once had I had the opportunity to camp. But luckily for me the hotel had it’s own “kashi-kiri” (private) onsen baths: with my severe sunburn, and the subsequent necessity of keeping my lower legs away from the hot water, it was really with only the most provocative of poses could I enjoy a soak in the hot spring waters. And there was really no place for that in the public baths…

Weary Times

Day 6:  Mists and Monsters…

Waterfall in Kirishima highlands

It is tradition for me on my Golden Week travels to do at least one thing of questionable intelligence. Travel off-road, play with snakes, sleep in a tree… this time it was to cycle all day through torrential downpour, no matter what. Heavy heavy rain and a violent wind throughout the night had calmed to a drizzle by morning. I dismissed my original plan to go up to Ebino Kogen, which was shrouded in heavy cloud, and I really didn’t want to spend another day in a place waiting for the weather to change so I accepted the sodden inevitability of an uncomfortable ride, and optimistic that the rain would pass by evening, headed towards a campsite in the mountains. The deeper into the valley I got, the heavier the rain came down, but in a way it was very captivating and incredibly atmospheric cycling these furrows of trees, painfully lush green mountains and plumes of mist evocatively rising above the trees.

The Fog starts moving in …

It was difficult to see, with the rain bouncing off the road into my eyes, and then when the thunder roared and the rain came down even harder I was all but blind, bouncing randomly through deep puddles and pools of water formed from broken tarmac. The rain was so hard it hurt my face. When I arrived at the campground reception, they offered me a wooden bungalow and I gladly accepted – at least I could cook there. It was so far away that they had to lead me there in a van, up steep roads, perched alone up a hill with a spectacular view over the lake far below. I was left alone, and I stared out at the clouds swirling around the peaks, listening to the rain and the wind and the insects. As the remains of the day faded, the weak light from my balcony bounced back from an eerie wall of dense mist that had somehow advanced to only a couple metres away,  and had now completely surrounded my lonely wooden hut. I slept uneasily that night, dreaming of that old movie, The Fog…

Day 7:  A Final Flourish

The Aya Valley

Thankful that I hadn’t been eaten by fog dwelling vengeful zombie monkeys last night, I woke to a damp morning, the mist quickly dissipating in the rising warmth. After spending over an hour cleaning up the bike – there were no brake pads left after yesterday’s weather – I rejoined Route 265; ostensibly a “kokudo”, or national road, looking at the map it showed nothing but a crooked red line snaking between swaths of white page and contour lines. My hunch proved correct and it soon turned into a narrow, steep pot-holed tree-lined lane up a mountain side. It was a gem of a road and one of those discoveries that I live for.

Ravine, Aya Valley

Multiple signs indicated that the road I planned to loop back to Miyazaki was closed – given the ferocity of last night’s storm I had no doubt that it was indeed impassable, and I climbed only as far as the first pass, standing out of the saddle to get a better view of the valley below. After splashing back down through the puddles, swerving past rocks and hammering the brakes for dear life I stopped to clean the crap off my legs but there was one piece that wouldn’t budge … a leech !

In a panic of revulsion I grabbed the slimy beggar and with some effort peeled it off, leaving an oval of blood that would continue to ooze all day. I found a couple more in my handlebar bag and had great trouble bring myself around to finishing off the open bag of peanuts I had in there. But what the hell, it was now a wonderful day !

Suspension bridge across Aya valley

Blue skies, sparkling streams, cotton puff clouds sailing their way across the heavens… I passed rows of luminescent flowers and took another chance on a minor road that led up to a dam, almost missed on the map. But what another incredible discovery ! Tear jerkingly beautiful, a narrow road led through deep forest with spectacular views of the ravine to the left. No cars, just birdsong and the crash of rapids far below – I had found my fairytale road. This, I found out, was the Aya valley, apparently one of the best virgin forests in the Orient. I was glad to end on a high note (though I wish the weather had shown some improvement a little earlier…) and the end of this trip set me thinking of my next route through this island: Miyazaki to Kumamoto through only these minor mountain roads – traversing the very spine of Kyushu.

Now when might that be ?

The road ahead …

Route Map is here.
Complete photos are here.