30 March 2014

Road Construction Ahead!

In my tenth consecutive year as a Tokyo resident road cyclist, Spring in Japan brings many familiar scenes.  Of course, the fur tree pollen arrives in February, causing misery for many hay fever suffers.  The amount of pollen varies widely from year to year.  But even for those of us who are not particularly susceptible, a ride in March often ends with one's face caked in a film of pollen dust.

On the positive side, March and April bring great riding weather and spectacular flowering trees, first the plum trees we pass near Oume, and transitioning to the cherry (sakura) trees along many rivers, then finally mountain sakura and sakura in northeast Japan that peak up to a month or more later.  Indeed, this weekend the sakura have started to come out in many places -- the coming week will see them reach their peak in and near Tokyo.
Mt. Fuji still white, from Otarumi Pass
Another ritual relates to the March 31 fiscal year end of most Japanese companies and all governmental bodies.  Budgets are set by fiscal year and most funds are on a "use it or lose it" basis.  This leads to an annual acceleration of spending the last 6 weeks or so of the fiscal year, most obvious in local road construction projects.  Since much construction takes place on nights and weekends, this is when we see road crews out, lane closures and the inevitable traffic jams that result.

This year, the fur tree pollen seems no worse than average.  The road construction, on the other hand, and resulting traffic snarls, seem epic.  At least they did on the ride Jerome and I took yesterday, Saturday March 29.  Why were they so much worse than usual?  First, Saturday was a beautiful day, while rain and wind was forecast for Sunday.  Second, the March 31 FY end pump priming seems to have reverted to the level of the "good old days" with the return of LDP-led governments.  Third, this year March 31 has added significance, as Japanese consumption tax will rise from 5% to 8% on April 1.  The consumption tax increase means that just about every Japanese consumer is out this weekend stocking up provisions, accelerating any anticipated purchases, filling up the gas tank, etc.  And just about every dump truck in the Kanto region seemed to be on the move Saturday.  The government's macro experts are worried about the impact of this activity -- pulling forward purchases from Q2 into Q1, with a resulting swing way up then way down for GDP and other figures.  This is what happened when the consumption tax was last increased over a decade ago, from 3% to 5%.  No doubt construction work done in late March will be paid for in April, and the resulting paychecks will be spent soon thereafter, helping a bit to offset any downturn.

After seeing reports of the rides that Tom and Laurent ("the Russian") took last week, Jerome and I decided to head out toward Matsuhime Pass, go over it from the South side and then come back into town via Okutama and Oume or, perhaps, Kazahari Pass.  But we were overwhelmed by the road construction and seemingly endless lines of cars and dump trucks on National Route 20 around Sagamiko and Uenohara.  After a stop at the rebuilt 7-11 in Uenohara, we decided to change our plan and instead to head for Tsuru Pass and approach Matsuhime from the North.  This was a brilliant choice as we quickly found ourselves on near-deserted roads.

We took Manfred's preferred alternative to Pref. Route 33, along the east side of the river that runs NW/SE to Uenohara.  We then started up Pref. Route 18, then took Steve T.'s route around Tawa pass. No traffic at all.
On Steve T's route around Tawa Pass, the old lady is nowhere to be seen ... but the steep field has been planted!
After Tsuru Pass we rested at the base of Matsuhime -- briefly joining a well-traveled dump truck route for construction of the "new" route 139 around/through instead of over Matsuhime Pass.  As we headed up the climb, through 950 meters elevation, who should we meet but the Russian!  He was doing a repeat of last weekend's ride, this time solo.  He was on his Neil Pryde bike painted in Soc Gen colors, of course with Lightweight wheels.  Very nice!
Still snowbanks near the N entrance to the Matsuhime climb (and on the way up), but too warm for any badass cred.
After a brief chat, we climbed the last 300 meters elevation to the top.  Then it was down the North side again (away from Route 20 and its congestion), and back to Okutama-ko.  We were able to stop for a late lunch at Yakyu-tei, the P.E.-approved restaurant at the west end of the lake.  Mrs. Watanabe looked well.  She told us they had had 120 cms of snow accumulation in the big February storm, roads closed completely for 10 days, and food delivered via Japan Self Defense Force helicopters!  Five or six weeks later, all that was left were snowbanks along the north side of hills.  And some twisted pieces of steel showing where the weight of snow had pushed over a barrier fence along the roadside.
Jerome, who now has 3 consulting gigs and more coming down the pike, attends to business from the Pass.
We slogged home in a swirling wind, which fortunately pushed us the last few kilometers.  In the end, a ride of 194 kms and 2100 meters elevation gain.  My longest ride, with most climbing, since the New Year.  Jerome must have ridden an even 200 kms -- a full Brevet -- with the added distance to and from my house.
The view from Matsuhime Pass, on the signboard.
The view from Matsuhime Pass, behind the signboard.
A few more rides like this, plus the Fleche and 300km Brevet in April, and I should be back into riding shape!

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