24 May 2009

"They Must Have A Very Powerful Politician"

That spot in the distance ... is Jerome heading up the Enzan side of Yanagisawa Pass via a Route 411 sky bridge.

Click on this photo to enlarge and see the cyclist:

As we ride our bicycles in the Japanese countryside, we sometimes come across an extraordinary (and extraordinarily expensive) piece of public works infrastructure. Among these great feats of engineering (and fiscal stimulus/deficit spending), perhaps the most impressive are the bridges that cross, not water, but land -- soaring out into thin air, as it were, arching across some obscure valley to ease the passage of the (very occasional) larger vehicle that might try to navigate a steep mountain pass so as to deliver a large object to a village of a few hundred (or more like a few dozen) old people. In my experience, these great strips of asphalt are of most use to (1) the large dump trucks that go up and down the mountains to move earth in order to build even more spectacular infrastructure, higher up and farther away, and (2) cyclists!

Among these public works, the construction projects of the first half of the "first lost decade" of the 1990s have got to be the best of the best, the creme de la creme. When one comes upon such an engineering marvel, it is difficult to suppress an exclamation, "wow!" Such was Michael's reaction on a trip he took with Ludwig to the western edge of Chichibu this Spring.

And so it was, that I led Jerome on his first ever trip over Yanagisawa Pass on Saturday, he uttered the inevitable "wow!" Always an astute observer of political economy, one of Jerome's other phrases immediately came to mind, a phrase frequently heard from him in coming upon similar marvels. "They must have a powerful politician." Indeed, Yamanashi's politicians are so powerful that they are STILL building skybridges toward the top of Yanagisawa Pass (doubtless after a hiatus during the Koizumi era), to further ease travel to the mountain top coffee and soba shop. And we saw numerous large dump trucks joining Route 411 from a mysterious side entrance at about 900 meters elevation, just near the turn off to Kamihikawa Pass/Daibosatsu Pass where we had lunch ... as we had seen another mysterious line of dump trucks coming out of the woods at Sasago earlier in the day.

(Unfortunately, the politicians on the Tabayama-mura (NE) side of the pass have noticeably less clout, as evidenced by older bridges, rough road surfaces, and little more than "ordinary" repaving work we saw on the descent. Tabayama may be still in Yamanashi Prefecture, but it is clearly on the wrong side of the hill, connected more closely to Tokyo than to Koufu. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. ... Or maybe the good leaders of Tabayama did a trade with the politicians of adjacent Kosuge-mura, and decided they would much rather spend tens of billions of yen on the new road AROUND Matsuhime Pass and toward Sarubashi area. That road will make it much easier to get the dump trucks and cyclists to and from Kosuge and even Tabayama.)

Enough about infrastructure. On to the ride report. ...

Jerome and I left my house at the ungodly hour of 4:15AM, planning to get to Takaosanguchi and over Otarumi Pass ahead of Tom S., who had a 6AM start time for the Tokyo-Itoigawa ride. We did not see Ludwig/Manfred at our rendezvous point in Komae and, leaving mobile phone messages, headed on toward Takao at a slower pace. After a VERY brief stop at the traditional Positivo Espresso 7-11 in Takao, we headed up Otarumi. As we passed the start for the Itoigawa ride, Tom hailed us from across the street where he was warming up. 5:52 or 5:53AM ... a 7 or 8 minute head start giving us plenty of time to get over the first hill and ride with Tom a bit along the first stage.

Jerome was suffering. His legs "felt like cotton" and he had "no power." He struggled on every uphill section during the morning. (I was not worried, since I knew he would recover eventually -- he always does, a question of "when" not "if.")

In any event, we made it along Route 20 out to Uenohara, and through the dip just to its west (75 meters elevation loss followed by a similar climb). I climbed faster than Jerome and was several hundred meters ahead by the top of the slope. I heard Tom's voice call from behind just in time to see a train of 4 riders passing me by. I accelerated, hopped on the back and joined Tom, Ludwig (what happened to our rendezvous, Ludwig?) and two Japanese riders. They were going at a good clip, between 35-40 kph on the flat. But Tom seemed to be doing all the pulling. This did not seem fair to me, so after a few minutes, when they slowed perceptibly, I passed the train and settled in front to do my share ... after all, that was the idea, to help Tom go for the victory, sacrificing my "double wide trailer" body by acting as domestique and wind screen, for even a few minutes. Somehow, my move must have confused one of the Japanese riders, who now can up alongside me and asked me in English, "are you living in Chofu-shi?" The apparent non-sequitur puzzled me, until I remembered that, indeed, Tom lives in Chofu ... so I responded politely that no, I live in Setagaya-ku near Futako Tamagawa. This seemed to satisfy him and he let me complete a pull for a few minutes.

After about 5km, as we approached Torizawa, the road turned up briefly, giving me the perfect opportunity to bid farewell, slow down and await Jerome. I pulled up alongside Tom, gave him as big a cheer as I could muster, and then settled back to watch them disappear up the road. Looking forward to Tom's full report, but I understand he averaged 30.4 kph, up from 29.7 last year. The whole experience brought back memories of last year's Tokyo-Itoigawa ride, and absent (David J. and Juliane) or injured (Michael K.) teammates. Jerome caught up with me after I pulled off at the Torizawa Seven Eleven, and after some food and rest (having travelled almost 80 km from home), we continued toward Sasago.

We turned off Route 20 to head up the old road, Route 212, toward Sasago Pass. Jerome rested again, trying to cool down and even lying in the road for a few minutes.

When I tried this delightful climb back in early April, I marvelled at the lack of traffic, the road being "closed for winter" still over the upper stretch of the climb. Remember that this road was once the actual Koshu Kaido -- the MAIN ROAD from Tokyo to Koufu and beyond. Indeed, while there has been a train tunnel between Sasago and Koshu (Kai Yamato) since 1902, the Sasago tunnel for cars and trucks was only completed in 1958, and it charged tolls until 1973. Doubtless the traffic volumes dropped considerably as traffic shifted to the new Koshu Kaido, which made it possible to go 3 km THROUGH instead of 12 km or more OVER the mountain. Then in 1977, the Chuo Expressway opened between Otsuki and Katsunuma, going through yet another tunnel, and the traffic began to shift even more.

I am very pleased to report that, even with the road now open, there is still almost NO traffic over Sasago Pass. Most of the climb is a beautiful road anywhere between 5 and 10% gradient. It looks like this (with apologies for the shaky camera hand while trying to climb a 7-8% grade with one hand off the bars). ... I could have taken 5 more videos of similar length, also without seeing a single car, climbing in delightful shade and a cool breeze:

Climb to Sasago #1 from David Litt on Vimeo.

In any event, we were soon down the other side and onto the "Fruit Line" -- the road that grips the edge of the valley around to Enzan, affording a spectacular view of the entire bowl, with snow capped Southern Alps in the distance. Somehow I had not realized how hilly this road is, when taking it in the other direction. While it goes along the side of the valley, it is nearly constant up and down. The weather and views were glorious, looking over the vineyards of the "Grape Capital" of Katsunuma toward the pear and cherry orchards of Koshu and Enzan (much less shaky video).

The Fruit Bowl of Yamanashi ... from the Fruit Line from David Litt on Vimeo.

We even had a nice view back toward Mt. Fuji, along the Fruit Line we had just taken.


After a brief debate over the merits of trying Odarumi Pass (elev 2360 meters), versus taking Yanagisawa Pass and heading back toward Tokyo, we headed up Yanagisawa.


We were both famished and overheated, Jerome was still without power, and we nearly collapsed after remounting our bikes upon discovering that a restaurant we passed at 700 meters elevation was not yet open for the day (10:40AM). The lower slopes of this road ought to be called the "Fruit Knife", as it cuts straight up hill, steeper than it looks.
We ended up stopping at a place at 890 meters elevation, just at the turn off to Kamihikawa/Daibosatsu Passes. They treated us well, giving us towels to help dry after washing ourselves with water from their outside faucets. After lunch on the local delicacy of "Houtou" -- a kind of strip-like udon dish with thick broth -- and taking over the restaurant for awhile, Jerome rested on a bench nearby ... and recovered.

He started slow on the next leg of the climb, but by the time we reached the upper slope Jerome was firing on all cylinders, officially declared recovered, and he made it to the top well ahead of me as I stopped for photos and ran low on gas.

We quickly descended to Oume, with time only for 3 stops -- soft ice cream at the Pass, a brief stop at the westernmost convenience store in Tokyo ... at Okutama town near the westernmost train station, and then at a traditional stop at Aurore Bakery in front of Oume Station. From Oume we hopped the train home, having ridden just over 200 km and climbed around 3000 meters for the day. I turned in early and made up for lost sleep.

3 comments:

Manfred von Holstein said...

Great report on the madness of Japanese road construction! You couldn't have expressed my own thoughts better. If Japan spent all this money on healthcare, Michael would have found a hospital right away after his accident and many more patients and doctors/nurses would be much happier with the health system. And if some money needs to be spent on roads, I wished it was spent on improving surfaces on nicely winding roads rather than constructing autobahns for nobody. I don't even enjoy riding on them: cars tend to drive crazier and roads like the one down Yanagisawa get attacked easily by wind gusts so fear of crashing I have actually never gone down at full speed.

I'm posting my story about yesterday as a separate entry - too long to be accepted as comment.

TOM said...

The old road up to Sasago Pass video clip is a real tour-de-force David! You seem to be going up effortlessly although we can hear some panting in the background. Beautiful pictures too. I love the whole Katsunuma area and surroundings a lot too.

David L. said...

Revisiting an old post, I wanted to mention something that caught my eye recently during the Brevet. You may have read some about the new Democratic Party-led government and its Election Manifesto's declaration that wasteful, bureaucrat-inspired public works projects would be cancelled, including specific calling out of the Yamba Dam project in Naganoharamachi, Gunma Prefecture.

The dam project has been in the planning, design and preliminary stage construction phase for over 50 years, supporting numerous construction firms through not only the career of recent Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, but also that of his father, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, powers from Gunma. 85% of the total project cost has now been spent, but there is still no dam, and a level-headed economic analysis would doubtless show that the "benefit" of the project is less than the remaining 15% of the cost as yet unspent--no reason to throw good money after bad.

That said, I was shocked the other day upon reaching Yanagisawa Pass to find a leaflet stapled to a post outside the summit coffee shop saying roughly "Save the Route 411 Improvement Zone Project." It went on to explain that construction of the last few sky bridges on the route up from Enzan is now "at risk," having also been mentioned in some of the DPJ candidate speeches, though not specifically included in the party "manifesto." Even worse, there is talk that the DPJ will fire the Iwanami-gumi construction crews, and hire an Ozawa-Hatoyama-Okada-gumi joint venture to tear down some of the bridges that are already built, as part of a plan to cut traffic and thereby reduce Japan's carbon emissions.

The bulldozers and earth movers have stopped on Rte 411, awaiting clarification from Mr. Maehara, the new Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The local people are planning a journey to Nagata-cho to protest in front of the Prime Minister's residence sometime next month, when he returns from his various foreign travels. They've hired Professor Watanabe from the Yamanashi Gakuen Department of Climate Engineering and Running Science, who claims he can demonstrate that the skybridges actually SAVE carbon emissions, by reducing travel time and brake usage.

We may need to start a real "criticla mass" ride in Tokyo just to Save Our Skybridges!