04 August 2014

Positivo Espresso Nagano Training Weekend -- Climb Out of the Heat!

We planned to head to Nagano Prefecture in order to escape the ridiculous summer heat that has recently enveloped most of Japan.  On Saturday the morning paper showed a forecast of 34 degrees C for Tokyo.  Great to escape! .... but I was a bit shocked to see that the Nagano City Saturday forecast was for a high of an even higher 35 degrees C.

We rode to Tokyo Station in the morning weather.  It was not quite so scorching as midday, but hot enough to sap one's energy completely over a 40-minute ride.  In any event, we caught the 7:52AM Shinkansen to Nagano as planned.  At Nagano Station we transferred to a very local private train line to Suzaka, to skip the first 10-15 kms of urban sprawl riding.
On the local train from Nagano Station to Suzaka 
Juliane wields Jerome's new "bear bell" -- a Canada souvenir
Before long we were on the SR600 Fuji course heading North toward Nakano and Yudanaka.  The lower climb up to Yudanaka (elev. 600) was painfully hot.  We rested at Yudanaka Station, admiring the old station building, the foot soaking onsen (great ... in a different season of the year), and soaking ourselves by splashing cold faucet water over our heads.

Then it was onto the main climb to Shiga Kogen, nearly 1500 meters elevation!  After we joined Route 292, David J. suffered a mechanical (chain slipped inside large cog and jammed) on the bike I had lent him.  Juliane told me she would fix it and I should go on (I could use the head start).  I did so, and the others followed 20 minutes later, fixing the chain with help of a borrowed screwdriver from the resident closest to where we had stopped.  This assistance was typical of our visit -- everywhere people chatted and helped.

I need not have hurried, as I was climbing reasonably well on the Yamabushi.  David J., meanwhile, suffered under the weight of his backpack.  Jerome struggled in the heat -- until a mountain lake refresher charged him up.  Juliane "the gazelle" Prechtl zoomed up the hill at will.  Finally, clouds arrived, and slightly cooler temps.

We reconnected for lunch at the Restaurant Mont Moi.  Elev. 1460m, and cool weather now.  The restaurant was empty, about to close for lunch, but took pity on us hungry foreigner cyclists.  In this respect, I think we do much better traveling with Juliane and David J. than just Jerome and me.  Juliane gets a very positive reaction in the Japanese countryside.  Just the figure of a 180+cm blond lady on a road bicycle is something they do not see every day.  The lady who served our lunch (huge portions of curried rice and omelet rice) struck up a conversation.  When we told her we were headed for Nozawa Onsen she said we had best hurry.  Still a LONG way and after 3PM already!  She said she cycled.
At the high point in Shiga Kogen on Route 471 looking South
At the high point in Shiga Kogen on Route 471 looking North
Indeed, after the restaurant, we climbed another 200 meters on Route 471 to the pass (Elev. 1670) at another ski area.  There was a brass/wind ensemble (band?) playing outdoors in front of a hotel.  The hotel next door had a banner welcoming students of "Waseda Academy" cramming for their entrance exams.

Then almost 60 kilometers with no services, almost no traffic, just a beautiful ribbon of concrete surrounded by green, high up in a valley or along the crest of a ridge, with trees, streams and some impressive vistas.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this road to others.  I hope as few people use it in the future as did this weekend.  Indeed, please stay away!  Some reasons:

--  No services. For a large stretch you will be without convenience stores and other services of modern Japanese life.
--  You might get caught in a thunderstorm. We were!  Indeed, we went through a brief 10-minute storm, then a much, much longer one that continued over the last hour plus of our ride.
--  The road is under repair in several places.  We passed numerous "road closed" signs, but fortunately, on a Sunday in early August, the construction was shut down and road still passable, a small sticker on top of the "road closed" signs so noting.
--  At times the rain was so heavy it was as if we were riding up a river.  It was possible to see splits and bumps or holes in the road only from the line of eddies in the flowing water.
--  Cool.  Yes, we had managed to find a cool place to ride on one of the hottest days of the year.  But as you will learn if you read on, this could even mean hypothermia when heavy rain and then a descent is mixed in.
--  Yabu, Yabu, Yabu!  (my mistake, they are "Abu" (虻) ... Japanese biting flies.)  As Tom has noted before, he and Manfred suffered numerous Abu attacks around this area of Japan.  Abu bites can be like bee stings -- causing serious difficulties if one has an allergy.  We did not see any Abu or feel their sting, but IT COULD HAPPEN, so please stay away from these spectacular hills and leave them to us.

Finally, there was a long descent from around 1500 meters elevation down to Nozawa Onsen, most of it weaving through the ski areas, and we were at our destination.
Above Nozawa Onsen.  Ski jump in the distance to left.
In case you were not impressed with the last photo, this one points out that the view of Nozawa Onsen from here is one of Japan's 100 famous sunset spots.
I stopped and waited at the famous viewpoint above the onsen town, the rain now warmer since I was at a lower elevation.  Finally Jerome arrived.  We tried David and Juliane's telephones.  Only voicemail.  We waited.  They must have stopped.  Maybe a flat tire?  Or a quick duck into a dry shelter to warm up? (or was one of the ski area shops actually open?)  Anyway, we headed down the lower part of the descent and waited again at the upper entrance to the town.

More calls.  No answer.  Finally, here comes Juliane.  And there is David riding in the passenger seat of a tiny "K" truck, bicycle in the back.  Apparently they both got chilled from the wet descent, hands seized up, minds not fully functional -- we have all been there at least once -- and then David's front tire blew out (brake pad had worn down over the past few days riding and was rubbing against the 700x25 tire where it seats in the rim), and they had fortunately prevailed on a passing mountain man to give him a lift to the town.  Juliane had stuffed her jersey with some padding (rinko bag?) for a bit of warmth.

From heat exhaustion to hypothermia in a few short hours!

I also was a bit confused as I waited with Jerome at the entrance to town.  I took out the plastic bag with my wallet and handkerchief to dry my iPhone's glass front before dialing ... and left the bag sitting on a stone ledge at the edge of a building.  I later needed to ride back up from town after we checked into our inn to retrieve my wallet -- still dry and in the bag, and of course safe and untouched, this being the Japanese countryside.

Nozawa Onsen is a beautiful little hot spring town at the foot of a big ski area.  Very nice.  They have had some major events.  In 1994 they had a children's ski event.  Then in 1995 another major ski event.  Then in 1998 they were one of the host towns for the Nagano Olympics.  Then a gradual decline over 16 years in numbers of skiers and guests, and apparently no events so major that they merited commemorative posters in the inn.  So the townspeople said they are now trying to attract some business in summer as well as winter.

We have little doubt that better times are ahead, with the planned extension of the shinkansen beyond Nagano all the way to Kanazawa, and stops planned for Iiyama (where we saw the impressive shinkansen station building ready and waiting), Jyoetsu Myoko and, yes, even Itoigawa!
Source -- Wikipedia
Iiyama shinkansen station -- artist rendering ... but it does look pretty much like this
We stayed at a very nice onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese hot spring inn), but did not order meals -- unusual for this type of place -- since we would be arriving late.  And we no doubt confused the innkeepers as David, Juliane and Jerome all entered the bath just before the 730PM "changeover" of the men's and women's baths, delaying the changeover and leaving at least one couple sitting in the lounge waiting (with me and the onsen changeover crew).  Worse, Jerome and David brought beer to the bath area (they were the sole occupants, everyone else at dinner).

The innkeepers have a ready facility for any unpredictable foreigner who disturbs the "wa" (harmony) in such a manner, and made David welcome there.
We headed out into town for the evening and were happy to find an Italian restaurant (Kaze no Ie) with plenty of good food and drink.  The next morning, we went to the Sunday 6 to 730AM morning market, where we bought a wide array of foods and had a breakfast picnic at the public foot bath with scenic view of the town, within 50 meters of our inn.  The morning market was fun, with plenty of chance to chat with townspeople selling their wares.  We got coffee and smoothies from 3 nice ladies.  Then miso, breads, peaches and other items.

Again, at the foot bath area we chatted with a couple from Honjo, Saitama, who ended up giving us some of their onsen tamago, in exchange for which we offered peaches and cucumbers.  They were regular visitors, and amused to meet a United Nations cycling contingent.  They recommended another visit in November to get apples in Suzaka.  "The best apples in Japan."
Plenty to eat and drink, even as Jerome and Juliane show their best effort at the emaciated cyclist look
Breakfast of peaches, cucumber and miso, onsen eggs, etc., etc.
The public (villagers only!) bath just above our inn.

Honeymoon couple

The inn where we stayed.  Sumiyoshiya.
On Sunday we rode down to Iiyama, then parted ways.  Jerome and I headed down the HOT valley to HOT Nagano Station for the train home.  David and Juliane planned to go to the west up the next VERY HOT hill to explore a bit, then return to Nozawa Onsen for a second night.  At least no worries about hypothermia here!

All in all a successful training weekend, despite the heat, and the cold.

UPDATE:  David and Juliane spent a second night at the inn in Nozawa Onsen, then returned to Tokyo on Monday afternoon (via shinkansen).  On Tuesday they headed for Kagoshima (via shinkansen) then Yakushima (via high speed ferry).  They had planned to visit Graham and Shoko at their inn, then move on to Kyoto for the weekend, but the trip on Yakushima was extended as all ferry service (and even, for half a day, on-island electricity) was shut down by the passing of a massive typhoon.  At least they had time to ride the island -- circuit and climbs both -- and got to enjoy more of Shoko's spectacular cooking.  The ferry service restarted mid-morning Sunday, and they were on the first boat out to make it back to Tokyo on Sunday night and, of course, rode back to their Kaminoge lodgings after a food/drink stop in Yurakucho area.

1 comment:

Manfred von Holstein said...

Well done on this ride. I've done the Shiga Kogen twice, first with TCC Mike (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/46634314), and then with Tom (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/116834348). The weather around Kusatsu/Shirane-san/Shiga Kogen is for sure rather wet - good for winter sports, but less pleasant in summer. I've spent a pretty miserable rainy 10 days in Kusatsu at the music festival when Tokyo was fine. On the ride with Tom, the temperature dropped to only 7 degrees, but fortunately we were blessed with only a brief and light rain.