Japan Update #18

Friday, November 1, 1996

Two weeks ago we set out on our second major tandem adventure in Japan. We were off to the Alps. Yes, Japan has Alps. The prefecture (state) where we were going, Nagano, will be hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. We were going to the southern end of the mountain range by train, and then spend four days riding back home. We brought some cool weather clothing since we were going to be further north, and at much higher altitudes. Overall, an ambitious trip for us! From our last trip we decided to lighten our load by not taking a spare tire, and by jettisoning our Kryptonite cable lock (this is Japan after all). Otherwise, we took all the same gear, plus the extra clothes. Two JandD "commuter" panniers, not quite full, plus a rack pack.

The first day we would ride down the Kiso Valley between two mountain ranges. Four hundred years ago this was part of the major "highway" from Kyoto to what is now Tokyo. We would stay that night in Tsumago, an old restored "post" town along the highway. No new buildings, no utility poles, no TV antennas.

The second day would be the real challenge, as we would go from the Kiso Valley to the Tenryu Valley by climbing over a pass at 1192 meters. The topo maps indicated that it would be a 17-kilometer, 5% grade climb. Then we would head east to the Tenryu River to stay at a Ryokan with an Onsen (Hot spring).

The third day would have us riding up to a ridge, then going along the ridge for half the day before we would head down to the river and follow it to our destination for the evening.

The last day would be our longest, going due south along the Tenryu Gawa, through the area which we believe is the most beautiful we have ever biked in, to Tenryu-shi. A friend was moving our car from Kakegawa to Tenryu so we would not have to bike that extra 35 kilometers through our local area.

Day 1:

We had a late night Thursday due to a company dinner, but still set out early Friday morning to catch a 7:30 bullet train from Kakegawa. With bike in bag, we boarded the train, but only after we got some strange looks from the men checking tickets. One of them started to point at the bag, but we just kept going. No problem!

We took the one-hour Shinkansen ride to Nagoya where we changed to a "limited express" for the 1 1/2-hour trip up into the mountains. This train was not as nice as the bullet train, less smooth, more swaying and bouncing. The motion put Lindy to sleep and made me carsick. Not an auspicious beginning of a four day ride!

At Kisofukushima we got off the train (thankfully for me) and reassembled the Santana. We must be getting better since it only took about 20 minutes. Within 45 minutes of the train stopping we were on the road, just after noon. Of course, within 1/4 kilometer we had to stop and recheck the map. The route we had laid out was correct so we headed down our first hill.

According to the maps, we were going to have a 400-meter drop during the day's 45-kilometer ride. They did not lie. We made very good time. The route though was somewhat disappointing. We had envisioned a scenic ride along an old river valley. Not! The road we were taking for most of the first day turned out to have a lot of truck traffic. There were no alternate routes, no small side roads. Fortunately though, this is Japan, so the trucks and cars were not a problem, just a little noisy.

The area surrounding the road was also heavily developed. At the most scenic areas there were numerous tourist stops (tourist traps) complete with bus parking areas. We did take one set of side roads for a short time, but even that got cut short by a bridge being out. So, we just enjoyed the downhill run and wrote off the scenic aspect of this day's ride. We did get some nice views of the Alps and of the river rapids when we stopped at the tourist traps, but that was about it, until we got to Tsumago.

As we approached Tsumago the signs indicated that between 10:00 and 16:00 the road (there was only one) was closed to vehicles. Pedestrians and bikes only. Our Minshuku (B&B (futon and fish)) for the night was about 1 1/2 kilometers past the middle of town. We decided to ride through the town, drop our panniers at the Minshuku and then head back to the old town. The road without cars was so crowded with people that we were in our lowest gears just to be able to pedal smoothly at 4-7 KPH! Of course we made several people jump in surprise at this strange set of gaijin on a futari nori jitensha (two-rider bicycle).

At the Minshuku, our hosts came out to look at us and to tell us where to "park". We were the only guests who arrived with their own vehicle. We just leaned the bike up against the side of the house. No locks required. We checked in, then headed back to the old town to do the tourist stuff.

The museum was interesting. About 20% of the displays had English translations. The gist of things was: 1) this was a very rugged part of the country. You could not grow rice in this area. Since you could not grow rice, why would anyone choose to live here? 2) Over the years, all of the different governments that ruled the area were harsh and did not treat the people fairly. I think they especially did not like the era that ended in the late 1860's. During this period it was felt that the cypress trees belonged to the ruling class. If anyone else cut down a tree they had to pay for it. With their head! I guess there was a high turnover rate for lumberjacks. 3) Now lumber and woodcarving are the major industries for the area.

While in the old town we stopped at a souvenir shop and saw some wooden masks we wished to buy. But how to transport them? We decided to ask to have them shipped to our workplace. But we could not say this in Japanese and the proprietor did not speak English. But resourcefulness won out! I spotted some packages he had stacked up with shipping labels on them ready to go. I pointed to them and to the masks and he understood. Sign language does work wonders. We filled out a shipping form in English. He then read the "romanji" letters and said the words. We corrected the pronunciation, and he wrote the address in Japanese. Shipping was an extra $9. And yes, they did arrive at work the following Wednesday.

That night at dinner we met a couple from the Netherlands, and a Japanese woman who is a good friend of someone we work with (small world comment is appropriate). Dinner was an assortment of sashimi, fish, tempura and soup and........was very good. Sleeping on a futon and having a bathroom down the hall is not the most luxurious way to travel, but in many areas of Japan it is the only way to get overnight lodging. Think of it as camping out, only you know that the tent will be dry. We did use the TV in the room ($1 per hour) to catch the weather report, and for Lindy to watch a "Sumo Drama". We went to sleep by 9PM.

47 Kilometers

20.1 KPH average

64 KPH Max.

Day 2:

Breakfast the next morning was an egg, slice of meat and fish. At breakfast we met a US couple from Tokyo who had arrived too late for dinner. They try to escape from Tokyo every weekend to find some peace and quiet. Again, small world- they love mountain biking, but can't find good rides in Tokyo. Maybe they can come down and enjoy Shizuoka some time. After breakfast we headed out. We had pictures taken with us, and of us. Most of the people with whom we had met and "talked" to at meals were there to see us off and to tell us Gambatte and Ki o tsukete (good luck, and be careful).

It was a cool morning so we wore leg warmers and jackets to start, especially since the Minshuku was up a small hill, giving us a 1/2-kilometer downhill coast to start the day. Then we turned right onto the road up to the pass. Within another 1/2 kilometer the leg warmers and my jacket came off. It was a steady climb. The grade varied from about 3% to 7%. It just kept on going! A few weeks earlier, on our trip to Izu, it was always a little demoralizing to be climbing, round a bend and see that the hill kept going. This time, since we already knew it was going to be 17 kilometers long, we were mentally prepared for the "endless" use of granny gears. We stopped at a small parking area to rest for a few minutes (I used the excuse of needing to change sweat bands). We talked to another couple who had stopped there (in their car) and found out they lived about 15 kilometers from us. Small world again!

We were able to get off the "main" road for about 5 kilometers and go through a series of villages instead. This little detour also saved us some climbing since the main road went around the villages by going a little higher up the mountainside and then coming back down. Not a big difference, about 50 meters, but we welcomed the slight decrease in hill climbing. More importantly, going through the villages was more scenic. Many old houses dotted the sides of the roads, along with their small, but well appointed gardens. There were also the people to whom we would say ohayogozaimasu (good morning) bringing smiles to their faces.

At the point we joined back up with the main road there was a collection of shops selling the woodenware made in the area. This seemed like a good time to stop for a munchie, we still had some homemade bagels with us, and for a bathroom break. We bought a couple of wooden spoons and were pleased to note that the same masks we had purchased in town were about 25% more expensive here. It must be the altitude! We visited a couple of different shops, got to see how wooden bowls get transformed from blocks of wood into the bowls. Of course we were amazed that the lathe operator did not wear any safety glasses, with wood chips flying in all directions! At one of the shops we were tempted by a small wooden statue, but resisted. Then it was time to move on. And up.

And up. The road just kept climbing, as expected. We stopped a couple of times to admire the scenic view, even if there wasn't one. Actually, although the mountainsides were pretty to look at, we were a little disappointed in that there were no scenic vistas, no matter how high we climbed. There were always trees between us and any valley overlooks. As we climbed, we had a countdown to the top based on our Cateye altimeter. Finally, we rounded a bend and I let out a "tunnel ho". The tunnel at the top was interesting. It was only about 100 meters long, and did not have any significant land on top of it since it was right in the pass. The only thing we could figure was that it kept snow slides off the road in the winter and rock slides off in the summer. We took the obligatory picture of us and the tandem in front of the tunnel and the 1192-meter sign. The altimeter said 1197, from the topo maps I had estimated 1190; so reality, theory, and equipment were all in agreement (it's the engineer in me thinking again, bad habit!). With stops, it took us 3 3/4 hours to get to the top. We averaged about 7 1/2 kph (just under 5 mph) for the climb.

The downhill run was fantastic! We did virtually no pedaling for about 8 kilometers, then only occasional pedaling for the next 5 kilometers. The road was gently curving; allowing us to just let the tandem go. A drum brake is not necessary on this road. The stoker got great views of river valleys with rushing rapids. The captain missed these because of going so fast! Of course, if we had done the pass in the opposite direction it would have been very different. The uphill we did was a continual stream of switchbacks, OK going up, but not much fun going down. We eventually got to the town of Achi-mura and stopped for some lunch. Real food: ice cream sandwiches.

We were feeling a little tired, but knew from the maps that there would only two significant climbs remaining. We headed down the back road we had picked out. It wound its' way around the hills and went through some beautiful farming country. It did have its' ups and downs, but had lovely views of colorful fields. Of course I blew one shift as we flew down a hill, rounded a bend, and started up a wall of a road, short but steep. The transition from highest gear to granny occurred so fast that I could not get into granny. So we stopped, picked up the rear of the bike and shifted into granny, then restarted. We continued along this road, made some required turns and were thoroughly enjoying the ride. Then the road started getting steeper, with sharp ups and downs. Also, we did not seem to be getting to the river that was always just over the next ridge. The hills were getting bigger, and we were getting more tired. We saw some road signs, so we stopped and I tried to find the locations on our map. No luck.

Lindy saw a group of older women up ahead so she took the map and asked for help. During her last Japanese lesson she had learned how to say, "Perhaps I am lost, can you tell me where I am now?" It came in handy. They looked at the map and could not figure it out. Then a younger woman came out and pointed to the map. I saw, and heard Lindy go, "Ah!!!". I glanced over to where she was pointing and saw that we had missed a turn and had just done about 8 kilometers of hills we were not supposed to do. The women discussed our options, decided that the direct route over the mountain was too difficult by bike, and recommended that we continue going up the road we were on and then take the main road back to where we had planned to go. We thanked them profusely and went on our way, following their directions.

There was only one more significant hill before the turn. Then it was a great downhill run for several kilometers. A few more twists and turns and we were at the river. Just as we got there, several boats came down the river and were going through the rapids. These are the oversized rowboats that the tourists take down river from Iida-shi. We stopped to watch and to take some pictures then we crossed the bridge and went up the short steep hill to our Ryokan (Inn) for the night. The owner, who spoke limited English (much better than our Japanese), met us outside. She was most gracious, allowing us to park the Santana in the garage where they park their buses. She did ask for the key to the bike. At most of the hotels they ask for your car key while you are in the hotel. When you go out, you give them your room key and they give you back your car key. So, we locked the bike with the new lightweight (read openable with a butter knife) cable lock and gave her the key. She took us up to our room and made us tea. All rooms come with Yukatas (cotton kimonos) to be worn when going to the Onsen. Experience indicated that I needed size 3L (XXL). They only had up to 2L. She apologized for not having my size. We took much-needed showers and got into our Yukatas. The hostess then showed up with a Yukata she had just purchased in 3L. We thanked her, but pointed out that the 2L was OK. They do try to please the guests at these places.

We then went down to the Onsen (hot spring) for a good soak. Another shower before going into the hot spring water (required by tradition). The hot soak was decadently wonderful. It definitely makes the legs feel better, and relaxes the whole body. Another shower after the soak to get off the mineral water (that's 3 showers in about one hour!), then up to the room to change for dinner. We got into our best dinner clothes: clean bike jerseys and tights! Normally at a Ryokan, dinner is served in your room. Our hostess explained that they had a dinner party of 66 people that night and so were a little short handed, would we mind if we ate in a room that was closer to the kitchen. Dai jobu desu (no problem).

Dinner was an elaborate meal. There were about 12-15 courses, including at least three fish and three mushroom dishes. Too bad we did not have the camera with us to take a picture; it was a feast for the eyes as well. After dinner we walked around the Ryokan, looked through the gift shop, and talked with our hostess. Then we went back up to the room to sleep. We did not watch the weather report that night, $6 per hour for TV just seemed too unreasonable. We went to sleep by 8PM.

54.5 Kilometers

13.2 KPH Average

68 KPH Max.

Day 3:

We awoke early for breakfast and once again were escorted down to our private dining room. Breakfast consisted of fish, egg, rice, and other small delicacies. This time we took a picture of the table with all the dishes. I do wonder, who washes all of those many dishes? There were over 20 for our breakfast. We again started the day with some over-clothes since again we were starting with a downhill run. It was about 2 kilometers down to town and the river crossing, and we lost almost 200 meters. A nice easy way to start the day. This was the day I had been most concerned about. I figured we could somehow grind our way over the pass the second day, but I was worried that we would be sore for today's ride. Not too bad. Maybe the Onsen worked its' wonders.

At the bridge crossing we stopped to look at the river, and the rapids below. We then continued up the other side of the valley, after first stopping at a "Quasi national Park". There was not much to see in the park, maybe that is why it is "quasi". The road up to the main ridge road was steep, but short. The main ridge road looked like a fairly heavily traveled road, but it had a good shoulder, and the traffic was not that heavy. It went up and down from hilltop to village and then back up to the hilltops. I did not try to count how many times we went through this up and down scenario, but each time it was 75-100 meters up and down. The good news was that the road was good, and relatively straight, so we would fly on the downhills before struggling on the uphills.

At the top of one hill, in small town, there was a matsuri (festival) at the local Japan Agriculture building. Of course we stopped to investigate, after first sharing our last bagel. As we were walking through there was a loud "boom", accompanied by a large puff of smoke. At first I thought some fireworks had exploded, but no one seemed concerned. As I looked closer I saw that they were making puffed rice, the old fashioned way. The rice would be put in a cast iron pot, with a little sugar. It was then heated for about 5 minutes. Then a mesh cage was put on the front and a mallet was used to release the cover. Boom! Puffed rice. They told us it was Japanese Popcorn. Of course I bought a bag, you know, emergency food. We both had small ice cream cones, good but small, and Lindy bought an ear of roast corn on the cob. Very good. There were all sorts of things to buy. There were strange farming vehicles, at least for us: really small cherry pickers, petite liquid fertilizer spreaders, miniature back hoes, etc. They seemed just a little too big for our garden back home, but way too small for a farm. But that is the common size of equipment here.

We had a few short conversations (Lindy primarily) and then went on our way. By this time it was midday and I was starting to wonder if we would make our destination before dark. We continued along the ridge until there was a road down by the river. We had picked our down route from the map and were glad when we got to it. The ups and downs along the ridge were very pretty, but the ups were getting old. We made the turn to go down to the river, and down it was. Have you ever taken a bobsled ride? We lost over 300 meters (1000 feet) in a matter of minutes. I don't know what the distance was, but I know we could not have ridden up that road. When we stopped at the bottom there was a yucky smell coming from the drum brake. I guess having it on full, going 30 kph, gets it kind of hot. The rims were also too hot to touch when we first stopped. The rim brakes were used for the extra slowing to make the switchback turns. Great road to go down. I can recommend it to anyone who wishes to test their brakes!

Tenryu Gawa wa kirei deshita! The Tenryu river was beautiful! The road along the river is a narrow, winding, 1 1/2 lane road, with small hills and majestic views of the river and the mountains that come down to stick their toes in the cooling water. The road follows all of the small curves of the river shore, making the biking distance about twice the crows' flight distance, but worth every extra kilometer. While biking along though, the captain has to keep a look out for oncoming traffic. There are very few cars on this road, but they come from around blind corners. Use of the convex mirrors that are at every turn is mandatory. The curves were so sharp and so frequent that I joked with Lindy that I would look over my left shoulder to see what was ahead! Actually, it was true a number of times. By looking back, left, I could see what would be coming on the road around the next bend.

We rode along the rivers' edge, past the dam above Tenryu Mura, and into the town. On a previous trip, this was as far north as we had gotten on the Tenryu River. At that time we did not go down to the dam, but stopped at the top of the hill just south of it so we would not have to climb all the way up that big hill. This time, after the mountains of Nagano, it did not seem like much of a hill. Our plan was to stop in Tenryu Mura for water and food. We had passed many small groceries along the ridge road, but did not want to pick up anything until after the hills. Mistake. For some reason, possibly due to national elections, all of the shops in Tenryu Mura were closed. We were able to get water from a diner at the train station, and the puffed rice emergency food came in very handy!

We were familiar with the road from here on, and knew that it was just rolling terrain. We wanted to get to Tomiyama in time for a dip in the Onsen before heading to our Minshuku. We cruised along this section as the temperature started dropping. We stopped once for Lindy to put on a jacket, as we were in the shade of the cypress covered hillsides most of the time. I had trouble seeing ahead every once in a while as we went from bright sunlight into a shaded area. We passed the bridge above Tomiyama and headed down into town. We planned to stop at the Koban (police station) to say hello to the keisatsu (policeman) who had given us tea a few months back, but no one was there. So onward we went to the Onsen.

The Onsen is located about 1 1/2 kilometers out of town toward our Minshuku, which was another 3 kilometers up the road. We pulled up to the Onsen and parked the tandem. We paid our $3 apiece and went into the bath area. We did not have any towels with us, but there was a vending machine for towels (and other sundries) available. Just as we were about to buy two towels at $2 each a women came out and said that there were towels inside. Fine. Lindy and I went into our separate bathing areas. I found out that there were no towels in the men's area. But now it was too late. Lindy had the money and I could not go into the women's area to get it. So, I showered off, which felt great, and took my hot soak. Another man joined me after a while and asked where I was from, where was my wife, where are we going, etc. He also recommended the outside bath. The outside was really nice. I could lean back in the water and look at the lush green mountainsides, and the watch the passing of the clouds. Definitely peaceful. Well, after a while I was fully cooked, so I got out and showered off. Of course, with no towel I did not get myself very dry! It is difficult to get lycra bike clothes on when you are wet! I put on my windbreaker to keep from freezing as I went outside.

Lindy had been waiting for me for about ten minutes, so off we went. The Minshuku was up a side road on which we had never ridden. Up the road. Two kilometers of 6% grade. Not what we wanted at the end of the day, and after such a relaxing soak. But, finally we arrived. We were nervous about this place since the woman who ran it had to be convinced to accept two gaijin (foreigners) as guests. We had told her, through Lindy's secretary, to check with the local policeman who knew us. She was willing to take us in, but we were still uneasy.

The woman greeted us out front and suggested that we go down the hill and take in the Onsen. Lindy showed her the wet hair to explain that we already had done so. I, for one, was not about to ride down and up that hill again! She had us park the bike in the carport, and showed us to our room. We were the only guests that night, so we had the entire upstairs to ourselves. It even got us a private toilet! The shower was outside in an adjacent building, as was the sink. We took another shower (three in less than two hours once more) and dressed for dinner. Dinner was again a multi course meal served downstairs in the "dining room". There were two types of fish, veggies, soup, rice, and, as a concession to westerners, grilled beef. It was all wonderful, and overly filling! I had been concerned that I would not get enough to eat here. Wrong, it was the biggest meal of the trip!

After dinner we went up to our room. TV was free here, but since it was Election Day there was nothing to watch, not even a weather forecast. It was getting cold outside, and the rooms were not heated, so our host brought us up extra blankets for the night. I think this Minshuku is primarily a summer business for hikers, etc. We went outside to brush our teeth and the woman came out to tell us that since it was so cold that we could use their sink inside in the morning. We hit the futons before 9PM.

57.3 Kilometers

14.5 KPH Average

68.4 Max.

Day 4:

Up bright and early. Multiple blankets and tired riders make for very good sleeping. Breakfast was again a bountiful delight. There was some kind of fish paste that was eaten with rice. I am convinced it was the leftovers from last night cooked down over night. It was actually quite good, so I don't really want to know what it was. We left a little after 8AM and the temperature was 42F. Legwarmers and windbreakers were required. The 2-kilometer downhill start to the day did not help to warm us up. Today's ride was on roads we had been on at least 2 other times. It was again following the river, in all it's splendor, winding back and forth, and up and down rollers for many kilometers. There were to be only two significant climbs, and these paled in comparison to those of the previous two days. They were only 50 meters each at about 5%. They seem easy now.

This river road, between Tomiyama and a few kilometers above Sagama dam, is definitely the prettiest place to ride. In the book "Cycling Japan" it is just a footnote for extending the ride down the Kiso Valley. We think that this should be the primary section of the ride, which is why we chose to come this way. We have ridden this section 5 times now, and each time we "ooh" and "ahh" at the scene. The mountains rise steeply up from their wet roots in the river. They are lush green from the abundant Cypress trees. The final few meters at the water's edge are frequently barren, due to river erosion, resembling elephant toes dipping into the river. There are very few cars, and the terrain is friendly. Positively THE place to ride in central Japan!

We wound our way down river toward the dam. At the parking / rest stop 4 kilometers above the dam we stopped for bathroom breaks, and for me to change from sunglasses to clear glasses for the upcoming tunnels. The only really bad parts of this ride are these 4 tunnels above the dam. They are dimly lit, and the road surface is quite rough. And they are not wide enough for two cars to pass each other. While we were stopped, a dump truck also stopped, and the driver told us to be careful because there were many trucks coming up from the dam. Oh well. We set out with a little extra trepidation, but we only passed one truck until the dam. In one of the tunnels a truck came from behind us, but he kept well back, very different from the US where he would have been on our tail blowing his horn. At the end of the tunnel, in the 30-meter space between tunnels, we pulled over so he could pass us. As he did he said over his PA speaker, "Domo arigato (thank you), bye bye". We chuckled and then continued riding. We blew through the last tunnel, it was downhill, and came out onto the dam.

The dam is the largest in this section of Japan, and is a well known tourist area. We just kept going (been there, done that) and headed down (quite literally) to town. In Sagama Cho we stopped at our usual grocery and got ice cream. At this time, Lindy told me that she was suffering from a bad case of bike butt. The road out of town climbs a small hill (relatively) before rejoining the river. Once over the hill, we followed the river for a few kilometers on a main road, then that road crossed over to the other side, and we stayed on the little narrow road, which we consider a bike path. There is an occasional car on this road, maybe 4 per hour, so it is really nice for riding. At the next dam we again stopped for bathroom and butt breaks. I offered to continue alone and pick Lindy up in the car, but she stoically said she could make it. I figured that since we were on the last leg of the trip, and obviously would not ride into work the next day, I would start pushing myself to get us to the end as fast as we could. The balance of the ride is following the river up and down tandem rollers. At least that was the plan.

Just after we passed one of the few bridges across the river, there was a road-closed sign. It seems there had been a landslide and the road was impassable, even for a bike (we asked). So back to the bridge, and explore some new roads. Eventually on the other side of the river we rejoined the main road. The bike gods were with us since there was virtually no traffic while we were in the narrow hilly section (about 8 kilometers). Just after we got to the town where had had planned to get on this road, a convoy of trucks passed us, at least 8 of them. Good timing. From there on the road had a good shoulder and was predominantly downhill. We cruised along this section. There were two small tunnels just prior to the end. The first was on a slight uphill grade, and the second was slightly downhill. We exited the second tunnel going 48 KPH (30 mph) and headed to the dam parking lot. As we rounded the bend we saw our car. There had been an unspoken fear that for some reason the car would not be there and we would have to ride another 35 kilometers to get home.

65.2 Kilometers

18.7 KPH Average

52.1 KPH Max.

We quickly loaded the Santana onto the TandemMover roof rack and headed home. Of course, along the way, we stopped at the first Circle K convenience store and got ice creams. And, by the way, we did commute to work by bike the next day. It's amazing what a little rest (in a bed instead of on futons) and Neosporin can do for hot spots! What would we do differently for future rides?

1) Not pick a route with as many hills (mountains)

2) Not stay at Minshukus on the top of a hill every night

Overall, the ride was WONDERFUL!!!

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