Honshu HeightsAugust 9, 2013
Once I left Hokkaido I was happy and relieved that now, when I find my little forest tracks, I don’t have to worry about the big brown bears.
Because in Honshu they have only black bears.
And I quote :” Asian black bears can be very aggressive toward humans, and have frequently attacked people without provocation” -wikipedia-
They’re not the biggest worry though…
I arrived in a hot and humid Niigata and headed for the hills. I thought the rain season was supposed to have finished.
Seems I was wrong.
I don’t like cycling in the rain much, but I rather be in the rain than in the tunnel.
They are dead-scary! A lot of them have side walks. No problem there. But there’s others that do not.
And with trucks, busses and cars coming from both directions they’re a real problem. My tactic lately is to take my place before a car so they have to slow right down. In the hope they understand why I ride in the middle of the road. Some don’t, and try with extreme danger to overtake anyway. While I wave my flashlight around like a mad woman. Most cars seem to be ok with it. Lucky they don’t have such thing as road rage out here…
As usual I ended up near a hot spring. After scouting the area for good camp spots (plenty) I went to the Onsen. It happened to be a ‘Ryokan‘. This is a traditional Japanese Inn.
The hot spring was glorious. With even a better view then I’ve had in any spa’s so far!
As I packed up my bike to head off I got chatting to the owner. Masaaki asked where I was heading so I told him.
A minute later he came back with a little note that said: “ You sleep here”
He must ‘ve seen the look on my face because he quickly added :”No pay, no pay!”
His mum just had dinner ready so the timing was perfect.
When he showed me the room I was amazed, it was so beautiful! And after a fitful sleep on the ferry and a very wet day more than welcome.
According to my host there is absolutely no problem at all about heading towards Fukushima. But I figured I better take a turnoff earlier.
Seems I missed it.
But the road I was looking for is in the Fukushima prefecture. Route 400 winds its way through gorges and valleys and tiny small town where it’s absolutely blissful cycling.
I even found a hot spring.
A very very scorching hot spring. And the tiniest I’ve seen so far.
I shared it with three local ladies all over the age of 70 whom didn’t seem to feel the heat at all. They kept pouring cold water in my corner so I really had to go in. I lasted about a minute.
The man who owned the shop had a spare little shack he let me camp in.
The scenery was beautiful even in the rain.
One lady stopped me on the road to fill up my water bottles with ice tea and ask about my trip.
She’d seen me on the road earlier and was waiting for me outside her house.
I found a nice place to pitch my tent right in the middle of a village square. Nobody seemed to mind, and I had a hot-pool next to my tent and even some company as a guy on a scooter pulled up looking for a dry place to pitch his tent too.
I really like the road. Not all the time. But it seems the mountain roads have little traffic and when you get into the valleys there is usually a river with a road along the dyke or a quiet (er) road parallel to the main one.
I climbed my way into Nikko. Turns out there are some world heritage-listed temples there.
I wandered up to have a look and heard something familiar. Dutch!
It’s been a while since I’ve spoken that language. But at this world heritage site I had a lovely chat with Anja, Mark and Wolfgang. Who were over for a holiday.
I hadn’t planned to ride up the mountain that day,
but I missed the turn off to my hot spring, and I rather ride 14km up the hill then 1km back.
I got to a lovely lake late in the evening and just managed to find a place for my tent.
Then the drumming started.
I pitched my tent next to a temple and since there was a big festival the next day there was some drum-practise going on.
You know you’re a bad tourist when you rather go ride your bicycle up the hill than hang around for a festival…
Early in the morning I had a visit from 2 gentleman on their way to a day of painting.
I got on my bike to ride to the top of the hill. I’m not sure how high it was,
around 1800 meter I’m guessing, and I felt pretty good about getting there until a 63 year old lady over-took me.
She rode all the way from Nikko that day!
I came across a sign telling me I’m now on the ‘Japanese Romantic Route’ .
You see all sort of things along this ‘Romantic Route‘
Like people completely ignoring the fact it’s mid-summer and go skiing anyway.
Only about 10km down the road I saw the same gentleman and he waved me over to enjoy some locally famous corn together.
I know I’m lucky. I experience it every day. But there was one minor moment where I really got to appreciate it.
Riding along a steep narrow town road in Numata a gust of wind suddenly took my hat and blew it right into the fast streaming gutter next to the road. I looked in and saw my hat balancing on a pipeline right above the raging water. With a slightly acrobatic manoeuvre I managed to grab it before either wind or water could take off with it. Pfew!
I really like my hat.
Down the hill Yasuo Kenjo found me wandering around his neighbourhood and decided to take me home.
To my surprise he does not have a computer, he does not like internet and you’ll never find him on facebook. He is content living in the house where he grew up and showed me the pictures on the walls.
One of which was his great grand-dad who died in WWII.
He also proudly showed me the Japanese snaps he brewed himself. I even got to try it.
That made the next day’s ride an awful lot harder.
I stopped before the ‘big climb’ in the small town of Naganohara where I pitched my tent on the sports field.
I was a little surprised when around 20.30 all the big lights came on, and a bunch of guys were probably rather surprised to find a tent at their baseball field. Oops.
Next door was a big sport hall, when I went to investigate (no sleeping with those lights on) I found a jolly bunch of locals playing badminton. So I joined them.
My arm still hurt the next morning as I climbed 1200 meters into the famous spa-resort town of Kusatu.
Here is the source of the water used by all the Ryokans and spa’s in the town. It gushes out 4.000 litre per min.
It smells just like Roturua. And I like Roturua.
It was only 11 in the morning and I still had a big hill to ride up so I decided just to have a coffee. Luck would have it I stopped at ‘Cafe Spa Neue Post’
Where Takashi is running the show.
Not sure if I got a bit smelly during the climb up or if I just looked like I could use a bath but he told me his family runs a traditional Ryokan here and would like to offer me a spa, if I had time.
Well sure! Nothing like a hot tub in the middle of the day.
It was absolutely glorious.
Don’t know if it was the hot spring, the coffee, my mood or the scenery but I felt extremely energetic heading up the next pass.
The views were unbelievable and I saw the most beautiful rainbow.
It reminded me of my Oma.
But the top wasn’t the top and the road kept going up and down for a good while before I finally reached the 2.172m point.
From where I shot down, getting rather cold, looking for a bear-free spot to camp.
I never thought I’d be dancing Japanese folk-dance with 250 high school students in Suzurikawa. Yet this is exactly what happened that very evening.
There was a high school camp with lots of dancing, a big campfire and singing.
The dancing seemed not all too different from traditional Dutch folk dances. Although I doubt you get any high school student to do those back home.
After each little set the boys would move along so every boy got to dance with every girl. There were some very surprised, amused and slightly shocked looking boys when they had to dance with this weird Dutch girl who kept stepping on their toes (sorry ’bout that!)
It was hilarious for the first 20 minutes or so but I was happy they finished after two hours for a firework display.
I hadn’t seen any bicycles for a while and was surprised when another cyclist, with nothing but a small backpack, rode in after dark.
Syunnsuke Kondou is on his way to Tokyo and was going to sleep in the toilet building, as he didn’t have a tent and it was getting rather chilly up this high. He was lucky because my water had just boiled and I was about to have some miso soup
He made me a drawing;
I had the choice of shooting down the hill from there or climb over another one.
At 1920m a nice warm-up in the morning. And very conveniently a little restaurant on top. Where the owner gave me a very welcome complementary cup of coffee before heading down route 66.
And I sure got some kicks!
I couldn’t read this sign but the road says it all.
On the way down I came past another hot pool and decided to warm up before heading down the mountain.
By the end of the day I was wondering if I’m taking it a little too far. 4 baths in 2 days… hmmm. Maybe. At least I’m really very clean.
I love the old houses, the colourful roofs,
even the gutters are pretty.
I passed a field with some seriously scary scare-crows. I’d stay well clear if I was a bird.
Matsumoto is a big town.
I had not planned to stay there at all, and I had no idea they had a famous castle.
But I stumbled across it and was staring at my map to find a way out (or a place to camp) when a lady came up to ask if I needed directions.
Sachiko was on her way to the library,
but when it started to rain she decided the books could wait and took me to her place where she lives with her 91-year-old mum.
A very happy lady who looked after me like her own grand-child.
As it rained I spent the next day doing some washing, shopping and inter-netting. The delights of a city.
And I marvelled over the little things that make live easier. Like light-in-the-dark light switches. So much easier to find! Why don’t we have those? (maybe because I live in a tent… Ah)
After a great rest, glorious food,
and the wonderful hospitality of Sachiko and her mum I rode out of town towards the highest public road in Japan! Even the roads near mount Fuji are nowhere near as high as the Norikura Sky Drive!
I was very excited about the ride but had to get through some horrible tunnels to get to my road.
As the rain hadn’t eased off yet I decided to camp in a bus stop the first night.
It was conveniently located right across the road from a small (free) hot spring.
Route nr. 84 heads up to a height of 2702 meters and is popular with cyclist.
The wonderful thing about this road is that it’s closed for private vehicles so once you’re through the gates, where the security guard gave me a helpful push up the hill you got the road to yourself and a few tourist busses.
I stopped to have a chat with this fellow who camped on a small piece of snow.
He had a bicycle and a pair of ski’s and seemed to spent his day skiing down the snow patch and hiking back up. He also mentioned he’d seen a bear last night.
The climb itself was a fair bit easier than the last big hill I rode over. Some steep bits but nothing to serious.
I sat on top of the hill where there is a big bus stop, some souvenir-shops, and restaurants. Chatting and taking pictures with people, mostly other cyclist who couldn’t believe I got the beast up the 2702 meter.
I was planning to camp up here so had to wait for all busses to leave before pitching my tent in the most glorious spot.
Just then a guy came walking down the mountain.
Ryohei Ichikawa is a classic guitarist from Saitama with a passion for night-time photography.
He thought I was very lucky to end up in this spot on this very night.
I thought so too.
It is good to have some company, it makes camping amongst bears a lot less scary and it was nice to have somebody to have a whiskey with
What we didn’t realise is that this seems to be Japan’s most popular spot for watching the sunrise. I found out as three tour busses pulled up next to my tent at 4.30 in the morning.
Suddenly you realise why they call this the land of the rising sun.