You Shall Not Pass

Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan.

Bike touring is certainly one of those things where lofty intentions sometimes lie so far apart form reality it would make the most ardent Darwinian question how one ever evolved form the other. The fact that I am in Japan and not India is testament to this; so was my time up in the Japanese Alps.

I took the ferry from Kyushu back to Osaka; a ferry that had its own onboard sento that was open even to people travelling in steerage, like myself. From the comfort of a pool of water that’s thermostat had been turned up to a picture of a little red lobster, I enjoyed the view of the many tiny islands of the Inland Sea for about five minutes before getting little too lightheaded. I opted to enjoy the view while cooling down on deck with a beer bought form a vending machine instead. From here I planned my route for the next few weeks, a route that would take me over some of Japan’s highest mountain passes between ancient trading towns and villages that, on any chilly morning, would disappear beneath a cloud of steam from the countless hot springs it offered its visitors. I couldn’t wait.

To get there I had to do pedal through some relatively monotonous days through grey suburban sprawl and eventually around Biwa Lake, Japan’s biggest. Things finally got a bit more interesting once I found the Nakasendo Trail. This used to be the main road that linked Kyoto with the new new capital of Edo (Tokyo) five hundred years ago and is dotted with post towns, once bustling hubs of safety and rest for the weary traveller half a century ago. Many have been restored and boast a whole range of Edo-period shophouses, temples, and ryokans to explore. They are pristinely maintained and yet, with the exception for the odd walking tourist, deserted; as a result they feel more like monuments to life in a era before what eventually became highways and bullet trains than your average, working village. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I was pushing the distances because I impatiently wanted to be in the mountains. After these long days of about five to six hours of pedalling, I often couldn’t be bothered to find a properly hidden spot to camp in. I really couldn’t say I was stealth camping when, for instance, I put up my tent in the middle of a park’s covered sumo wrestling arena. This led to the worst altercation with authority so far when, in the following morning, the park warden woke me up with a smile, some cookies, and a nod of his head back towards the park entrance. Even being told to jog on is pleasant here.

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Green, white, and blue: the colours of the Japanese Alps

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After passing through another uninspiring urban sprawl of Gifu, I finally reached the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Unfortunately storm clouds hid any mountains from view during a downpour that lasted for the next twelve hours. I was lucky enough to find shelter at a shrine and having a propper roof that isn’t made of canvass over my head during weather like this is as good as The Ritz, so I was more than happy to sit in my sleeping bag and wait it out in comfort and dryness. I’m glad I did as the views I would have otherwise missed out on, had I pedalled through the rain, were absolutely stunning. Bright blue Lakes and luscious green forests led up to jagged, white snow capped mountains. Many peaks stood on their own, and these almost perfectly triangular, snow capped monoliths looked just as if a child had painted what they thought a mountain would look like. It was the sort of view that makes you want to sing like a Von Trapp.

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I started climbing my first pass and, with my fitness finally finally back (unlike the last mountains I did on the Tibetan Plateau) I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be as I approached the first pass.

It was here where I bumped into two French cyclists coming the other way. We engaged in the usual chit chat of passing cyclists, talking of where we’d been, how long etc but sadly my grand plan received it’s first blow when the topic of the road ahead came up.

The bad news was that the first pass I had planned to cross was still officially closed; the good news was that bicycles could just squeeze past the gate that blocked the road to traffic, so that’s what I did. A few kilometres along and the best part of a kilometre up I found out why the pass was still closed: winter wasn’t letting go up here and the whole area was covered in snow, with about a metre of snow penned in the part of the road that had been cleared that allowed me to ride through without any real problems. It was fun to ride but this pass was only 1200 meters above sea level and I intended to go much higher later on. Seeds of doubt were sewn.

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Reality came to deal it’s crushing blow to my plans in Takayama’s tourist information office. The lady working there told me that the pass to the idillic spot of Kamikochi, and the Norikura Skyline, the highest road in Japan, was covered in about 6 meters of snow. I ended up pointing to various roads on my map to the lady in the tourist office with increasing desperation and hearing the same bad news: closed, closed, closed. Self-serve sake tasting at a nearby distillery provided suitable commiseration as I dealt with the reality that I’d have to take a relatively uninspiring route to Matsumoto and miss two of the highlights the Japanese Alps offer. I was pretty miffed until the sake went to my head.

After said uninspiring ride I took a rest day from both cycling and budgeting in Matsumoto to explore its black castle, soak/poach in an onsen, and enjoy some local food. That day, while the sun was out, I indulged on what essentially was a spa, eating in an a proper restaurant, and a wifi-enabling latte from Starbucks. But as the sun set I returned to the tramp life and went back to the park to sleep in.

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Matsumoto Castle
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Long, scary tunnels

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There was one more opportunity to cycle some high altitude roads that weren’t dead ends and, when I left the tourist office in Nagano a few days later, I was optimistic. The mountain pass I wanted to take was open from the beginning of the May, according to the person behind the counter, meaning I’d get at least one go one of Japan’s big passes. The climb was steep and I probably should have attempted it the following day, but I wanted to camp at the top as I was certain the view would be worth it. That was, until I came to another barrier.

Apparently the road on the other side of the pass was under construction and no one thought it would have been a good idea to put some signs indicating the road was closed at the bottom of the hill. The sign said work was due to finish in about ten days time, so I thought the road couldn’t be impassable. I put up my tent near the barrier and planned to wake up at dawn the next day and sneak through before any workers arrived.

Japan has an ageing population. Now I don’t know whether it’s to do with finding jobs for Japan’s these guys, but it seems that every bit of road works usually has at least three surplus workers with a few more grey hairs on their head than their colleagues. These guys are given what look like little orange toy lightsabers and have the important task of telling cars exactly the same thing as the adjacent traffic lights do to rule out any confusion. Sadly, the traffic Jedis who were working on the roadworks I planned to sneak past had had their alarms set as if they knew my intentions and were already guarding the barrier by the time I was ready to go the next morning. I tried walking past them with the air that I knew what I was doing, but they soon called my bluff and stopped me. I asked them if it was possible just to go to the top and come back, given the works were on the other side of the mountain but any attempt to slightly bend the rules were met by the crossing of these guys’ forearms to form an x to remind me that, in Japan, there is no bending or loose interpretation of rules. There was no choice but to go back. Before I did however, I noticed a small white squiggle on my map that seemed to cross the mountain further down the valley I climbed up yesterday. Desperate not to backtrack all the way to Nagano, I gave it a shot.

This road didn’t last long. Perfectly smooth tarmac deteriorated into a dirt track and soon the amount of plants that were slowly taking over the road made it clear that few actually used it. I carried onwards and upwards out of stubbornness until the forest got thicker and I had to pushing my bike through the undergrowth along what I could just make out to be the track before, after about twenty minutes, it disappeared entirely into the forest. My legs were cut and itchy from all the bushes I had waded through and, after two years of escaping whatever pollen my immune system believes will kill me, I had an eye-watering reunion with hay fever. It was here this dad end that I accepted defeat, turned my bike around, and retreated back to Nagano.

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Back in Nagano and three hundred meters above sea level I  accepted the reality that there wasn’t any point trying any more passes. I accepted that I was still too early in the season and any other attempt at these high roads would just end up with me having to come back down the way I came. It was time to hatch a silver lining to this failure and, luckily, some friends who lived in Japan for a while had given me a long list of recommendations, some of which were nearby. After a day camping by the crystal clear waters of Lake Nojiri I pointed my bike downhill, boarded a ferry, and ended up spending a week on the sleepy island of Sadoshma.

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Lake Nojiri
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Sunrise at Lake Nojiri
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Sadoshima

This island was home to Feudal political exiles and now offered spectacular volcanic coastlines on the almost completely traffic-free road that looped around the island. As I did a figure-8 of the folksy island, I enjoyed deserted beaches to camp on and, in these tiny fishing villages that seemed to exist in even the steepest ocean bay, a couple of sake breweries.

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Less glamorous camping in an abandoned restaurant

It would be an understatement to say my time in the Alps had not exactly gone to plan, but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy what I did. It doesn’t matter that I never got to see the region from those high passes, either, as the best views were of those mountains, not from them. It’s like trying to enjoy the New York skyline form the top of the Empire State Building: it’s a good view but you’re standing on the best bit. Then there was the unexpected treat of Sadoshima. Given that my time there was only meant to be a silver lining to a plan that went all wrong, and a place to kill time before I caught the ferry up to Hokkaido, it turned out to me some of the most enjoyable cycling I have done in the whole of Japan.

I’m now taking a break in Sapporo and I’ll be spending the next month up here on Japan’s northern island, enjoying the company of a surprise visitor and riding around some more remote areas before calling time on this country that, in spite of all the the things that haven’t gone to plan, has never disappointed.

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