Tag Archives: Yamabushi

Two steps forward, One (painful) step back

A machine

A machine and a machine

Spring is the time to be cycling in Japan – the few weeks on either side of Golden Week are glorious, the sharp morning chill of Spring turning into generous warmth in the afternoon; and the mountains are green, greener than anything you’ve seen, the trees and the flowers pulsating with their new found colour and vibrancy. And I missed it all.

Road with a view

Road with a view

The note I had made to myself on my last ride: “Today I was, quite simply, amazing.” Yes indeed, I was back on form at long last! So pleased that I thought I would give my bike a decent clean … and it was then I noticed the crack in my titanium frame. The Horror. The Absolute Horror.

It would be two months before I’d got a replacement frame delivered and built up again, with business trips, Easter, and then Golden Week thrown in my way to thwart me. I cursed every fine weekend with blue skies and perfect temperatures, and rejoiced in weekends of rain.

Reunited

Reunited

The new bike built up, and a few more weeks of getting back some fitness and getting the fit right on the new frame. It wasn’t easy. Ride one: odd noises from the bottom bracket and two and half hours back at the bike shop to track that down… fixed! Next was lower back pain (a first for me in 15 years of cycling) – three rides to track that down, alter my fit and build up my core… fixed ! It was hard, but I was back on the passes I loved: Yamabushi, Nokogiri, Ireyama, Kazahari, Imagawa, Arima (what a beauty – Arima Toge!), Sadamine… and even Yanagisawa, over 1500m of constant climbing. I even did my 100km Urban River Loop in record time, a 29.4km/h average speed through city and bike paths, back home by 8:15am in the morning – much better than me at my peak even. Wow, was I was rocking or what ?!

Rocking'

Rockin’

Out and about

Out and about

My last climb, my nemesis Kazahari Rindo, the toge what put my lower back into spasms a few weeks earlier, the long super steep climbs, exposed to the heat of the sun, and very very little respite from the gradient until it’s 1150m top… I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it. The long weekend rides and the midweek early morning pre-work training sessions had paid off: it felt good to be strong again!

Perfection

Perfection

Well, that’s how I felt last Sunday, at 9:20AM.

At 9:45 I was lying dazed on a mountain road.

A truck coming from the other direction had suddenly pulled sharply across my path, looking to get into a parking place on the left, the idiot driver unaware of me coming down the road. I braked but it was just too close, almost meaningless; I swerved hard to the right in an effort to avoid going right into it … now I was lying in the road, confused, and not able to get to my feet.

It seems I had crossed the centre line and collided into the side of the car waiting behind it, leaving a large dent, and then flung back out onto the road. Probably a good thing – the aluminum panels of the car took the brunt of the impact, before the road got to me.

Man down

Man down

A long ambulance ride, police, road rash, bruising, cuts, twisted ankle, banged up shoulder and an assortment of other minor injuries… but thank goodness no broken bones. I was lucky. A few days on crutches, a fair bit of pain, a lot of hassle and a week later I feel I’m on the mend. Really lucky. The truck driver will be prosecuted – dangerous driving – but it seems he has minimal insurance, enough to cover my medical bills, but nothing for the bike, or the time off work, or compensation. I might need to lawyer up for that. More hassles.

And I need to be patient, wait to get mended and … start it all over again.

But not for long...

Me, soon

The Imperial (2014)

early mornings

There hasn’t been a ride this year where I haven’t fallen short of some goal, be it distance, elevation, destination… whatever. Something has interceded to thwart my plan for almost every ride: bad weather, bad scheduling, dubious fitness and even more dubious willpower. I had finished my Noto trip much fitter than when I started, but was disgruntled that I hadn’t spent just one more night out in the wilds in my tent, rather than a warm dry hotel. So it looks like I’d failed another goal as well: toughness.

IMG_2970vI needed a plan, something to put me back into gear so to speak, some way to demonstrate I was not as washed up as I thought ! And I came up with this: The Imperial. Not exactly empire building, nothing to do with the the five star Tokyo hotel… nor the local Tandori for that matter. I had defined “The Imperial” from a simple unit of measure: whereas all my stats for climbing and distance were measured in metres and kilometers, this would be a simple goal in good old fashioned units: “imperial” miles.

As goals go, it was very modest: a hundred miles of distance with a mile of vertical climbing.

My first try was an overnight trip to Shizuoka to regain some two wheeled dignity – it resulted in two closed passes, an unsightly detour via Route 1 and several minor valleys filled with quarries and heavy industry. Plus a cracked seatpost and a broken cassette. I limped down the Doshi michi, hoping nothing else would fail before Fujino station and my train ride home.

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Barely two years ago I was knocking out century rides every other weekend, whereas this year I hadn’t managed a single one.  It was beginning to feel like this would be my annus horribilis for road biking.

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But when I thought about it, I realised that I did manage some great rides, re-visiting some of my favourite “toge”: Tomin No Mori, the Imagawa south approach (always much harder than I remember), the classic Shiraishi followed by Sadomine descent. I had ridden through eerie silent dawn mists on the Arakawa, and past crystal clear views of Fuji-san on deserted mountain roads.

15932913246_cf6147b14a_kAll wonderful rides, and I also rediscovered my temple route, an old favourite of mine taking in Yamabushi, Shomaru, and the ancient Nenogongenji shrine –  I got to appreciate the joy in riding for riding’s sake alone, trying not to worry about The Imperial.

And then, one cold early winter’s day, after completing the temple loop, there seemed a little more left in my legs than usual. Why not ride home, I thought, instead of taking the train. From the mountains to the foothills, through lightly trafficked suburbs and then the river paths of Iruma-gawa and and Arakawa.  As I got closer to home the numbers on my Garmin looked vaguely familiar, like they were trying to remind me of something. I got to my front door and took one more glance before switching the thing off:  one mile of climbing and one hundred miles of riding…

When everything's right with the world

When everything’s right with the world…

Ride details:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/646085785

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

Moments Part II

One day left before the new year and I am trying desperately to make the last entry for 2013. Today there is snow on the higher passes whilst the usually demure riverside paths are now dangerously iced up in places. But the photos below are of me still in shorts (admittedly, of the goosebumpity kind) as I squeezed what colour and warmth I could get from the Autumn,  now two to three months ago. Ah, but it’s nice to remember.

This one is notable as being my last century ride, 162km and 2000m odd of climbing. Climbed an ancient back route over Yaku Toge  towards Gunma, passing gorgeous old farmsteads and whitewashed samurai warehouses all the way up. But the descent to the gorge was nasty, and I got attacked by a mutant wasp, size of a sparrow, big enough and heavy enough that I could genuinely head-butt it with my helmet into state of unconsciousness, and whilst it woke up and flailed around on the ground, make my escape.

Valleys of Chichibu

Valleys of Chichibu

Hiding behind a thick semi-circle of evergreens, there is a small temple I occasionally stop at on the way to Ome. He’s getting used to me now, this sacred guardian, and his roar has softened somewhat, with nothing of the fury and malice he first greeted me with several years ago.

Guardian

Guardian

Took a Shinkansen out to Karuizawa and made my way back to Chichibu over a few passes I’d be dreaming about for some time. Stunning bright sunshine soon turned into a cloudy Autumn day which superficially dulled the colours somewhat but added an edge to the whole atmosphere of the ride.

Hidden ponds in Gunma

Hidden lakes in Gunma

A quiet shrine by the roadside – the block of wood is tied to a length of thick rope and a bell which you rattle to summon the local deity. The characters on the wood say “kotsu anzen” – a wish for safety on the roads, the speciality of this particular spirit. I donated generously, and shook vigorously.

"Road Safety"

“Road Safety”

Fujita Toge, a hard one to find, and the eerie narrow trail deep through forest turned upwards, sustaining 19 degree slopes and 26 degrees in places. The echoes of my screams broke a little of the loneliness.

Wild Wood

Wild Wood

The back route from Gunma into Chichibu over the Shiozawa pass was such a find, marked as a prefectural road, but reduced to the width of a path in many places – deserted, but a perfect steepness that let me stretch my legs, but not break them. Hairpins like this were some of the highlights.

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin...

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin…

The colour of the foliage was subdued in the cloudy conditions but sometimes grey skies add meaning to a tough ride, whilst perfect conditions make it too enjoyable, too transient.

Quiet Mountain Pass

Shiozawa Pass from Gunma into Chichibu

Nenogongen Loop (one of my favorite early AM mountain rides):

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/398485272 

Karuizawa to Gunma:

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/399687573

Ultra AM

IMG_8267

 

IMG_8274In Japan, babies are good for summer riding.

When temperatures are already in the early thirties by 8am and humidity is 90% plus, you need something that can wake you up – decisively – at 1:30 am, provide half-an-hour or so of warm up – rocking, pacing, jumping – and then, after passing the baby baton to the missus, let you out the door so you can hit the road at the relatively cool and not entirely normal hour of 3am.

 

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Luckily the roads are lit well – this is Tokyo after all – for the entire 45 kilometres to the start of the mountains, and there is always a 24 hour convini marking the end of urbanization and the start of wilderness, providing replenishment while you watch the last of the evening’s blue mist dissipate, revealing a snapshot of a star-lit sky before it turns from black to velvet to deep blue. It does take a couple of coffees to clear your head after three hours of sleep, and when the headache retreats, and the nausea subsides, senses are heightened: a wild boar foraging in the roadside undergrowth, the troop of monkeys playing up in the trees.

20130811_081555You ride along deserted county roads, no cars, no people out just yet. The deep valley hillsides keep you protected from the sun for at least a couple of hours after sun-rise. The approach to Yamabushi Toge, the fields of rice a luminous green, the tips of the ridge line far above on fire with the early rays of the sun. Absolute silence, and then a commotion of noises – birds, insects, the rapids of the river you are following. And silence again. The sun sears you briefly, cresting the top of the exposed Shomaru Toge, but then you are back under the trees, descending, and reaching Route 299 it is still early enough to be in the shade; and the steep climb to Nenogengonji Shrine is mercifully bracketed by tunnels of trees all the way.

20130811_084916A transient aroma might transport you miles and years away from this place – yesterday, as the mist cleared in the foothills of Tomin no Mori, I was transported – momentarily – thirty five years back in time on a school trip to the English seaside town of Rye, surveying a miniature model of the town in an old musty museum. And then I was back again, on an uphill stretch through boughs of trees and the trickle of small waterfalls on my left.

IMG_8270That’s what these pre-dawn rides are about – in between the staggering bouts of sheer tiredness, the digestive turmoils to the body, and the eventual victory of the sun and it’s scorching rays, there are moments of early morning pleasure to savour. Something new and wonderful to pull out of these well travelled routes.

Or maybe it’s just the sleep deprivation.

 

Garmin tracks:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/356816281
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/360123093

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Finger of God

Views from Sadamine

Views from Sadamine

In the light of a bare, bright lightbulb I slipped on the thick thermal top, zipping it up to the neck, to slow down my immediate shivering. Then came the cycling shorts, after I’d massaged some warming “deep heat” thoroughly into my numb legs; on with the knee warmers, and the thick winter tights over all this, while I taped my secret winter weapon – Japanese “kairo” heat-pads – over my toes, keeping them in place by a pair of regular socks, and then over these another pair of heavy duty waterproof Sealskinz as well.  Next, the heavy winter jacket, a veteran of five winters, a thick fleece balaclava, and a final bandana to cover any remaining exposed flesh.  A thermal hat and a pair of winter gloves finished off the ensemble while I popped a couple more heat-pads in each of the gloves and put on the wind jacket. I was finally ready to step outside, an hour before sunrise – the coldest part of the day.

Looking down from Yamabushi

Looking down from Yamabushi

When dawn came, it spawned a blaze of fire on the horizon, and the mountain peaks glowed like hot coals. But it was pure illusion: today would be the coldest day of the winter so far, a nighttime low of -8 degrees where I was going and a daytime high of 4, according to the forecast.  Any moisture – a spilt drink, puddles in the gutter, somebody’s flem… all frozen solid. Harsh. Soft porn braced the window display of the 7-11 where I stopped for a coffee and croissant at the 80km mark, promising a far nicer time indoors.

A wind-chapped chap

A wind-chapped chap

But the cold wasn’t the worst of it. A fierce north westerly wind buffeted the bike, like an ice cold celestial breath, violently expelling me into the path of overtaking trucks. On the winding mountain roads I could swear there was an invisible hand holding back the bike for a few seconds, flattening my speed in an instant, and then immediately flicking me forward again … I could feel the thumb and forefinger of a mischievous mountain god playing dangerous games with me.

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Noon, and a stop for lunch. When I remounted the bike the wind was even stronger, but it was steady, and blowing back towards the city: the gods had forgotten me and moved on. It was my turn to have some fun, and I teased out a ferocious tailwind, under a clear blue sky, all the way back to Tokyo.

Rolling up to my doorstep I surprised myself – thanks to the wind I had completed 190km, relatively effortlessly: and my longest ride since last Spring. It looks like I had wrapped those gods around my own little finger after all…

 

The Caffeinator

Feeling Good, Looking Good

 

Friday 20:03. A pint of Guinness please barman. A few drinks. A few more. Bit of a blur. Saturday 14:23. Reunion. A few drinks. A few more. Bit of a blur. Sunday 00:57. End of film. Al Pacino, Robert de Niro. Super Violence Action Thriller. Bit of a blur. 05:55. Alarm. AlarM. ALARM ! Holy Crap !! My coffee. Where is my freakin COFFEE ??!!  07:10. Set off on bike. No Caffeine. Grim.

I usually start these early morning rides with a 7-11 Mt Rainer Roasted Double Espresso Super Shot, kicking me into action, eyes on stalks, alert through the traffic out to the mountains. Keeping me attentive to the hungover truck driver on an amphetamine downer, the distracted low rank yakuza in his souped up Toyota Corrola with his 20,000 yen hooker, the sleep deprived taxi driver and his single minded veer across the carriageway for the next fare… and I’m ready to twist my bike away from danger, keeping me safe.

Need Coffee

But somehow, this morning, the coffee was just not there. I know I bought it last night, on the way home, but I couldn’t  for the life of me find it. What the f*** ? WHAT THE F*** ? I had to leave and take on the road without the aid of my regular stimulants. The simplest obstacles became a roll of the dice against fortune. A mis-timed run through a red light… close. An unseen kerb stone… caught it just in time. A pile of frozen vomit… what a way to go. At the 40k mark I could bear it no more and stopped at a convenience store. Glancing inside I saw Evard Munch’s The Scream looking right back at me: my reflection in the store’s plate glass window. Give me a DAMNED COFFEE I said to the checkout girl. Nicely, now. “The Mt Rainer Roasted Double Espresso Super Shot. PLEASE !”. It came refrigerated, and it was 2 degrees outside, but I sucked it up … oh, what relief.

It was turning into a beautiful day, and I danced a little out of the saddle on the first hills, enjoying the gentle rhythmic rocking of the bike as I climbed, the frame and the the wheels providing subtle feedback from the scarred and dimpled tarmac. Life doesn’t get much better than this ! I climbed towards Yamabushi Toge through narrow tunnels of pines, bathing in the aroma of freshly cut timber as I passed the sawmills, noticing small natural ice statues formed by streams coursing by the road. There were a few other cyclists out today, and I nodded hello to them as they descended. One guy came off on a patch of ice, hidden in the shade, and hit the asphalt hard, sliding down past me. I helped him up – a young fellow, he was shaken but fine. “You need a 7-11 Mt Rainer Roasted Double Espresso Super Shot” I suggested, cheerfully. But he gave me an odd look, straightened his handlebars and remounted his bike; in unnecessary haste, I thought.

Someone else on Yamabushi Toge

I reached the top and turned round, looking forward to the descent. Sunlight filtered through the slatted gaps of the trees and I gently leant the bike into the corners – watch out for that ice, Steve! The temperature gauge at the side of the road showed 1 degree C – positively balmy.  I should be sunbathing.

But before long the wind became cold, and started hitting me head on, biting into any exposed flesh and finding devious passages through the layers of clothes to my skin. The light had seemingly changed, bleaching any remaining colour from the landscape, and I willed myself onward, through passageways of bare trees and dry lifeless foliage. The road threw harsh reflections into my eyes from the painted centre line while black ravens watched me cruelly from their telegraph poles. Would this torment never end ?

A small restaurant. At last. Lunch. Nice enough. But the coffee… oh yes! I scalded my lips and tongue in the hurry to drink it, desperate for that caffeine hit. “Here” said the kind lady, slightly alarmed by my rapacity, taking the coffee pot from her husband in the kitchen, “Finish it off”.

The small chocolate dessert was delicious and I put away my map, spirits buoyed by the blue sky. A tail wind ! And look at the lush velvet greenery of those hills ahead, and the avenue of trees, leaves rustling in the breeze, taking me there, while the pedals moved around almost on their own accord, a hot knife through butter. A couple of swallows danced and flitted in front of me, and truck drivers smiled at me from their cabins.

Yep. Life doesn’t get much better than this…

Life is Good !

Ride memo: 160km cycling with 1300m climbing. Route data is here.