Tag Archives: tsuru

When we were Heroes

IMG_1590

There’s something wonderfully illicit about taking a day off work just to go cycling, a paid holiday used up for some selfish pleasure, but of the hundreds of rides I’ve done over the years it’s these that I remember the most. I don’t mean a long weekend of cycling or a week or two with the tent – but just a regular route, there and back in a day, something that can just as easily be done on a Saturday or Sunday. But then you wouldn’t feel the joy of knowing that – as the sun burned your back, the trees creaked in the wind and the deafening cries of the cicadas enveloped you climbing an empty, winding road – knowing that you have escaped, albeit for only a day, escaped from the drudgery of another ten hours in the office.

IMG_1645

This route was something I hadn’t done for a decade (I looked it up later – ten years exactly – so it was somewhat of an anniversary ride), not long after I’d got my first road bike and started to explore the mountains to the west of Tokyo. There were three of us then and as such, the pace was fast, the climbing brutally competitive and at least one roadside verge soiled with the contents of my stomach – in those days, hard nights were untempered by the prospect of a hard ride the next morning. Fast forward to today and I am in bed, sober and asleep by ten.

IMG_1649

From Enzan station I started the long climb to Kamihikawa, 1200 metres gained in all, the first half on the narrow road that ran parallel to Route 411. The sky was an achingly clear blue and the heat of this unshaded climb seemed oddly only to invigorate me. A group of four labourers huddled at the side of the road beneath the ungenerous shade of a persimmon tree, drinking canned coffee and the road took me past small farmhouses and workshops; further up the road an old man sat in his garden trimming a bonsai tree. As it rose and took me through thick forest the sleepy sounds of rural life were usurped by a raged chorus of cicadas, screeching down from the tall trees, a hundred different pitches, and more than once I thought I caught the sorrowful cry of my favourite, the Higurashi.

IMG_1654

IMG_1656

Turning east onto the approach to Kamihikawa and the initial steep climb, I stopped and walked up the first few steps of the temple high up in a thick copse of pines lining the road – I’d never really noticed this before, crunched over the handlebars as I was, hanging on for dear life. Buddhist headstones, weathered over hundreds of years, lay between the roots on the forest floor. Still a long way to go yet though, and switchback after switchback eased me back up through the trees, sun, shade, sun, shade, the branches hanging over me like a natural strobe light, cicadas playing to me like an orchestra. Only one vehicle – a dump truck – passed me the whole time. It was hypnotising, focused on the moment and nothing else, how cycling should be. Not once did I think of my colleagues at work, huddled in a cubicle, fighting with pile of email, arguing into a speakerphone… I didn’t need to, for I was smiling already…

IMG_1675

Lunch at an onsen a few miles over the pass – “people come from all over the world to study our insects” – and after a long, sometimes bumpy descent I touched Route 20 briefly for a torrid few hundred yards before starting the ascent up Sasago Toge. Sasago has always been a gem, a mildly-graded green-clad climb on a deserted road but it was so bloody far from anywhere and it had been many years since I had last come this way. The alternative to the 1600 metre Kamihikawa Toge was a long ride up Route 20 – and it was rare I had the stomach for that. Birdsong serenaded me as the sun sparkled from the flooded paddy fields of the lower slopes and I made my way slowly up to the tunnel at the top.

IMG_1676

When we had done this ten years ago, the tunnel was under construction, blocked by diggers and dump trucks, and we instead had to go over the top of the thing – we found an overgrown hiking path which we clambered up with our bikes, helping each other thread gingerly across the narrow slippery track until a steep muddy descent on the other side. I got lost at one point, trying to scout the right path down I couldn’t find the way back up again to join my companions. I would be stuck forever on this mountain, I thought, with nothing but the company of the ghost that was rumoured to haunt the tunnel below.

IMG_1666

20180609_161204This time the tunnel was clear but I found the path we had used a decade ago – and I was glad I wouldn’t be climbing that thing today. Sasago was as magical as I remembered it and I saw not one car or even a person the whole time – never had I felt so far away from the stresses of life as I did right now. When I eventually emerged onto the main road I looked back up to the mountains behind. Had I just dreamt that?

IMG_1670

The next pass on this route – the third – was what I call the Monkey Pass, because the two times I had done this before there were monkeys everywhere. It was there just to avoid Route 20, and took me to over 1100 metres elevation. The road was gated, the asphalt littered with rocks and branches and the cliffside almost completely rebuilt in concrete. It was climbing just for the sake of climbing, and descending with extreme caution. The mountain spirits had long deserted this place, as so now it seems had the monkeys. A six-foot long snake laid casually across the road and eyed me with insolence as I stopped a couple yards beyond – it made no attempt to slither off into the undergrowth and I remembered the much smaller snake I had accidently run over a few miles before, afraid I had come across his older brother, looking for for some justice. I was relieved to eventually get down from this road, which meandered up and down next to the concrete cliff for far too long before I headed to Route 35 and past the Maglev station to take me to Tsuru tunnel and the final pass of the day. It was an hour or so before dusk, my favourite time of day, and quiet rice paddies volunteered reflections of the surrounding hills and hedgerows of flowers that house-proud owners had installed in their gardens.

IMG_1672

It had been a long day, an amazing day, taken leisurely (with a camera and tripod for some…vanity shots) and it was reassuring in this hyper-connected world that it was still possible to spend extended amounts of time without a signal on my phone. The aches and pains came soon enough but the wonder remained, with a tinge of disbelief – that pre-family and ten years younger I used to do this (and much more) every single weekend. One thing I didn’t doubt though – I would be taking a whole lot more days off from now on…

IMG_1668

Route:
https://www.strava.com/activities/1624670742

 

Advertisements

Rekindled

The Green Line

Happy, despite appearances

I looked back on the weekend like a man who has just learnt to love again. The early morning ride out of the awakening city, cool shadows draped across my chosen route of quiet urban back-roads, the orchestra of birdsong building into a quiet crescendo the further I rode. This was no infatuation – been there, done that – nor some frantic physical pleasure obscured by misplaced feelings of affection. She was an old flame genuinely rekindled, and I knew this was the real thing.

Okutama views

Okutama views

It didn’t happen overnight. We’d started courting again a month or so ago, wooing each other slowly, adding numerous outings since. Fun, oh yes, but nothing serious I thought – and if truth be told it felt a little awkward, hard work even. I’d lost some flexibility since our last liaison, and positions that felt so natural six months ago felt forced and uncomfortable now. And to be fair, she’d also put on a little weight herself. That was the set of winter tyres I’d put on her of course.

 

A jet-lagged post-tendonitis ride along the Arakawa, perhaps not the most promising of beginnings; the next weekend we hit the mountains, where it had all began many years ago; Imagawa-toge from the north, and the wonderful descent from Tsuru-toge… I had the first inkling something good was going to come out of this. The climb up Tomin-no-Mori and – oh my goodness ! – our favourite hidden Nokogiriyama, so soon…it was happening all so quickly; there could be no change of heart now. But it was last weekend when everything all clicked profoundly back into place, a ride that volunteered everything, a turning point.

Nokogiriyama South

Nokogiriyama South

I’d overslept, which probably helped, allowing me a rare six plus hours sleep. And I woke up to a glorious day, deep blue skies and a luminous green, starting from the weeds outside my front door right up into to the mountainsides of Okumusashi and the hidden farmsteads perched high in the thickly wooded hills. It didn’t feel like the 27 degrees shown on the thermometer.

Heading out ...

Heading out …

On the way to Yamabushi Toge I met an old friend at the Holy Shrine where I stopped for water, and we headed up there together, taking the serpentine curves at a conversational pace.
“Still got the bug ?” he asked knowingly, and I thought back to the eight months I’d spent cycling from the UK to Japan. Oh God Yes I still had it, but the responsibilities and joys of an almost- two-year old boy at home meant that nowadays I could risk nothing more than these occasional illicit weekend affairs.

Jose continued on to Chichibu after the pass, while I turned off for the gentle climb to Shomaru Toge, stopping in the soba shop at the top to buy some drinks.
“Italia ? Italia ?” shouted a bald Japanese guy sat at the window table. He was waving at me and I told him I was British. He said he was Pantani and continued chattering on in fluent Italian, until I could extract myself and make my farewells.
“Ciao” I said
“Auf Weidersein” he said back.

Nokogiriyama North

Nokogiriyama North

Heavy boughs cradled the road in a leafy grip and we bumped over the potholed descent at a descent speed, halting occasionally to absorb the view. As soon as it was done the momentum carried us up the first five metres of the next climb to Kayabazaka on the Green Line. It would have been nice if we’d been carried me a few miles more, because this was my steepest prolonged climb for a while, and after the initial soothing image of farmhouses, flourishing gardens of springtime flowers and the deep green tea-fields in the shade of the steep valley slopes, it was a tough grind, albeit through shaded forest. The bike creaked and I groaned.
I caught sight of one road perched incredibly high up on the other side of the valley. Wow, I thought, don’t recall seeing that on my map: that was one road I certainly wouldn’t like to climb today. A beginner’s mistake of course – it was indeed the same road, another two miles further on…

Kayabazaka marked one of several forest junctions that terminated a sharp climb from the valley floor to the “Green Line” a narrow up-down road following the ridge of the mountain range from Chichibu to Hanno. Wonderfully shaded, with few vehicles, and a couple of rickety restaurants to stop for lunch over breathtaking views, it had been one of my favorite roads for a long time.

One more climb after the Green Line, and I let a red-faced hard-breathing cyclist who had been tailing me overtake. I wanted to relish the moment, the steady upwards gradient, an colonnade of trees, unending switchbacks and the music of the river below. I danced lightly on the pedals, and she rocked gently from side to side beneath me, her rear cassette purring with pleasure, forgiving my unpracticed moves and my still clumsy handling. My heart rate far higher than it should have been I’m sure, and we glided down the last descent, a huge smile of contentment fixed across my face.

Yes indeed. I was in love again.

I'll be back

I’ll be back

Route:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/510663220

Arse

20130713_080150

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20130713_120236

Old lady working the field if you look very very carefully

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

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

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

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

Oh… Arse.

2013-07-15 21.02.56

Garmin Track:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/341696414

 

Kazahari

Kazahari

Almost a week had passed before I could once again walk up stairs without a leaden gait, and my neck and shoulders no longer felt in spasm. I had climbed Kazahari Toge for the first time this year. The beautiful quiet tree-lined roads out there, the slowly flowing brooks and Hansel & Gretal cottages made it one of my favourite roads, and in summer the generousity of the shady boroughs made it divine.

But – it was a honeytrap. The road narrowed some more and curved & burrowed deeper into the mountain, and with a frightful and abrupt 180 degree turn looked back with insolence and shot up into the heavens. Kazahari Toge. Say it out loud ! The syllables themselves threaten you, mock you.

Tsuru
It had taken me years to beat this climb, to make it up without walking, then without stopping on the long exposed 20 degree inclines. It was the steepest climb around, a 1150 metre summit with the last 700m elevation covered in less than 5km. It became my favourite training climb, perfect for building up strength and stamina, for teaching the body to handle sustained pain for the occasional hill climb race. And I would be back again and again, fixated on a personal best, a sub something minute time. I beat her, but I never conquered her – the fear remained, and the memory of the agony never faded fast enough. Oh I needed Kazahari, but I certainly didn’t want her.

I wrung out my sleeves, sweat dripped onto the tarmac and at 1150m I started to shiver – this pass punishes you to both extremes, boiling to freezing in minutes. The fast descent into Okutama was colder, and the wind in my ears was deafening but I couldn’t leave with only this; I needed to heal the wounds of Kazahari. So I climbed another pass, a lesser pass, Tsuru Toge, to remind me there was still sanity on some of these slopes, and peeled off into a favourite little-known side valley. The Unabomber route.

Tsuru approach
The rugged old hunting dog was there, as with every other time I took this narrow road. He leapt at me from outside the abandoned forest hide at the side of the road, snarling and slavering, and as always, was yanked back by the chain that secured him to a wooden tree stump. Someday that chain will fail I mused distractedly. There were no animal skins hanging out to dry today, and I guessed he was looking for his first kill of the season. The growling and barking subsided as I put more distance between us and now my full concentration was on dodging rocks and potholes hidden under the deep shade of the trees, and I climbed carefull over a recent rockslide, careful not to slip over the edge of the road.

It was deadly quiet, but for the odd rock that fell to the valley floor below and I smiled for the first time since I turned on to Kazahari that morning. It was nice to be back to some normality at last.

Ancient roadside milestones

Ancient roadside milestones

Route:  http://connect.garmin.com/activity/297068492