05 November 2011

Tokyo-Hiroshima Day One -- Norikura in November

Jerome waits for me at the top of Norikura Rindo (2700m elev in the Japan Alps), wearing his new Rabobank helmet and all the warm clothes that he brought on this trip -- the only time I've ever seen him bundled up like this.
Over the past week, Jerome and I made plans for the previously announced trip from Tokyo to Sanda/Kobe, taking advantage of the Culture Day" holiday Thursday and a day off work Friday.

First, Jerome contacted Yazaki-san, a longstanding Beeren member who lives in Kofu at least part of the time, and who also has a small farm plot and house where he grew up in the country just west of the City, off of Prefectural Route 12 between Minami Alps and Nirasaki.  Yazaki-san seemed happy to give us a place to stay Wednesday night, and mentioned that a few friends were already coming over in advance of a volunteer event on Thursday.

Next, the destination was changed to Hiroshima, as Jerome had business meetings there scheduled for Monday.  We debated the details -- would we go through the Kiso Valley along Nakasendo, or over Norikura (2700 meters elev), or compromise with Nomugi Pass (1675 meters elev); would we stop in Takayama after 200 km and 3300 meters climbing, or press on so there was hope to get all the way to Hiroshima?  In the end, we agreed only that we would need to stay flexible, adjusting our plan based on weather and progress.

Finally, I stayed up late Monday night waiting for sign-offs or comments on a document from client teams in NY and Tokyo, and awoke Tuesday with a sore throat.  I took the train in to work, and it seemed like half the people in the train car were coughing or sneezing -- cold season is here, even though the weather outside feels more like September than November.  I felt marginally better on Wednesday, and hoped that if I just did not get worse, I would be able to ride on Thursday.  I needed to at least try.  The weather forecast promised 3 days of mostly dry, warm weather for all of our route -- the last best chance to ride in higher mountains this year -- and I could not let Jerome down lightly.
Yazaki-san (on the right) and one of his Sophia cycling buddies.

The Yazaki collection.
A late night "snack" of tempura, persimmons from the garden, eggplant from the garden, and a range of other foods and drinks.
Yazaki-san picked us up at Nirasaki Station before 9:30.  He and his friends seemed like a great group -- all of them cycled together at Sophia University 40+ years ago, they are now between 65 and 68 in age, and still ride together at times, even those who spent decades off the bike.  When we arrived, just before 10PM, the table was laid for us with lots of dishes prepared from Yazaki-san's garden, including a large plate of delicious sliced up persimmons, and several tasty eggplant dishes.  (Thursday's volunteer event consisted of a potato digging/harvesting experience at the farm for a group of handicapped persons from Tokyo -- some of the same members who had done the running leg of a triathlon, with Yazaki-san and his friends taking bike and swim segments, in Akita Prefecture last summer).  They were enjoying a night of eating and drinking going strong when I awoke briefly at 1:30AM, two hours after I had gone to bed to try to get enough sleep so that I could ride early on Thursday. 

Jerome and I woke early and left as quietly as possible, grabbed breakfast at the Lawson down the road, and were on the road in earnest by 5:45AM.  I felt a bit weak and achy despite a decent night's sleep, and decided to try to ride well within myself and just not "blow a gasket" that would take me out of the trip before I managed to complete at least a day.

Route 12 is a very nice, quiet road for cyclists running North-South around the western edge of the Kofu metropolis, especially at 6AM on a holiday.  I remembered taking it the other direction at 11PM on a Saturday night, on the first Brevet I rode in 2009, when it was equally quiet and smooth -- the experience that made me decide that riding at night in Japan was something I might enjoy a lot, though I had always avoided it before.  We made good time over the first 12-13 km to the North, where Route 12 ends at National Route 20 -- exactly at the Nirasaki checkpoint for the Tokyo-Itoigawa Fast Run Classic.

The first two climbs of the trip, from Nirasaki up to Fujimi, and then from Suwa/Okaya up to Shiojiri Pass, seemed very easy and gradual, despite my cold.  I realized that every time I had done these before, it was after coming from Tokyo.  I had never done them "fresh".

We left the main road after the descent into Shiojiri from the pass, and wound our way up an down through the farmland, eventually joining the "Japan Alps Salad Line."  I had ridden the "Fruit Line" on the hillside between Enzan and Katsunuma in Yamanashi, but never the "Salad Line" in Nagano!  True to name, there were lots of stands selling fresh vegetables, and persimmons ... all too heavy to carry onward.

We met Route 158 and headed west up the valley along the Nagawa, past several dams and across the big one at the top of the valley, then through several kilometers of tunnels and toward Kamikochi, our third climb up to the 1000 m elevation range.

This trip offered a mix of massive Japanese infrastructure, huge gashes across the landscape, massive eyesores, and spectacular natural beauty.  The climb up the valley was no exception, with beautiful fall colors on the slopes and a free running river full of rocky rapids, but the most impressive sight by far the incredible concrete monstrosity at the top.

The tastefully designed "water and electricity" exhibition hall at the tunnel entrance.
 We made it onto the Norikura climb by 11:30, pretty much on schedule, and left tunnels and dams behind.  We rested around 1400m elev, where there were some restaurants and shops, near many resort homes in the woods.

Our next rest was at 1800m, where a "rest house" was closed and a gate blocked any further progress by automobile.  A few older couples wandered around the parking lot snapping photos before hopping back in their cars and turning around.
Looking back down the valley -- too late for fall colors at this elevation.
From a bit higher up.

I climbed the last 900m elevation as slowly as I have in years, no power at all when I tried to push too hard, but not giving up.  It was not particularly steep, or hard, just long, and I had no power at all today. More rests and photo stops at various points along the route, then gradually adding clothes -- leg warmers, shoe liners, arm warmers, full fingered gloves, a skullcap that covered the ears.  
A long and winding climb.
The Canyon stops for a look at the view, in its Brevet incarnation today - Topeak Dynapack seat bag, wheels with the wide Velocity A23 rims/White Industry hubs/Vittoria Open Pave 24mm tires, and, most important, 36 rear spokes.  Also, double front and double rear lights (plus a third front and rear light on my helmet).

Jerome climbed ahead and waited for me at the top.  I had warned him he might want to wait a little below, so he could warm up when he started to ride again ... but he found a place in the lee of the wind only a fwe meters from the top.  The temperature was just slightly above freezing, and a howling wind hit after we rounded the corner and started down the other side.

The top of the mountain and everything down a few hundred meters below the pass was in the clouds. It looked nothing like the beautiful summer scenery I remembered from Half-fast Mike's video of the same descent on a warm sunny day in July.

Other than Jerome, I saw only one hiker -- heading downhill within a kilometer of the first gate -- for almost 30 kilometers of riding.  Great not to worry about tourist buses when rounding the corners on the descent ... but a little bit scary if we had somehow gotten stuck.  The huts we passed were all boarded up tightly for the winter -- not easy to pry open, even for shelter from a storm. Jerome kept well behind me on the downhill -- the worst case I could think of was that I would crash, he would ride into me and go down, and then we would both be lying wounded on the mountain as dark and cold set in.

Before we knew it, we were down the hill and onto a long, fast stretch down a beautiful river valley to Hida Takayama.  We coasted around the town, enjoying the scenery and noticed it seemed bustling with tourists, including plenty of foreigners.  After almost giving up on finding any restaurant appropriate for two sweaty cyclists' early dinner, we finally saw a yakiniku (barbeque) place, Rokubei.  We picked the "all you can eat - 90 minute Gifu beef" course, and consulted the cook about our route.  I was ready to stop and get some sleep, check into a business hotel and try to recover for a stronger second day.  But the yakiniku master said we would be very, very lucky to find any rooms free in Takayama, where the holiday overlapped with a festival (not the main autumn "Takayama Matsuri", a few weeks earlier, but something more obscure yet still sufficient to pack the hotels).

Rokubei's master
We left town and continued west on National Route 158, hoping to get a further 80 km to Shirotori ("White Bird"), which looked large enough so it might have accommodations -- as confirmed by the yakiniku cook.  The map showed we would need to climb 3-400 meters up and over Odori ("Little Bird") Pass, 1002m elev, then down and up over a Matsunoki  ("Pine Tree") Pass, 1086m elev, down again and up a third (1150m elev) pass, on the first half of this ride.

There was a 4-km tunnel under the first hill, but it was marked "closed to bicycles" and on the map it looked as if it poured right into the expressway at the other end, so we did not chance it and instead headed up and over the climb.  Again, we found ourselves on a perfectly good road with almost no traffic.  I plodded along.  Jerome waited at the top of each little climb. 

Mounting up in the dark after
finishing dinner.
The temperature dropped down to 7 or 8 degrees C.  Finally, we got a lucky break, as on the third climb we reached our own tunnel entrance, at least 30-35 meters below what we had expected would be the last pass, then headed onto a descent.  In the dark along much of this route, we could see the shady outline of an expressway, high in the sky, emerging from one side of a hill, crossing open space, and disappearing into another tunnel.   The Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway -- it must have been a very expensive road to build.

After the descent from the third after-dinner climb, we pulled into a "michi no eki" (rest area) at Shokawa, near an entrance to the expressway.  The rest area was cold and dark, only a few camper vans in the parking lot with people sleeping overnight, and the restrooms and vending machines functional 24/7.  After getting hot "banana au lait" drinks from the vending machine, and using the facilities (heated toilet seat!), I noticed a darkened board with a list of hotels and ryokan (Japanese inns).  It was 9:45PM.  After almost 250 km and 3500+ meters of climbing, I needed to stop.  If we kept on to Shirotori, we might be too late to check in anywhere.  Even now, in the countryside, the odds were against us.  Jerome called at least half the 20 places on the board.  They were closed for the season, or full, or "already preparing for tomorrow", or asleep and not answering the phone.

Eventually, he found a kindly innkeeper, the lady who runs the Sakaeya Ryokan (栄屋旅館, tel 05769 2 2016), together with her husband.  She took pity on us and agreed to take us in, for "su domari" (just a place to sleep, no meals -- she did not have extra supplies for breakfast).  We enjoyed rice crackers and tea (or, in Jerome's case, beer), a hot bath, a place to rinse and hang our clothes, brush teeth and shave, all the comforts of life, even a nice futon and a TV (sorry, no cable), and most important, a full night's sleep, so we could continue the next day.

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