2018 September. Cycling to the Japanese mountains.

My route from Naru to Aomori at the Northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s main Island.


    The early reports were sketchy, a typhoon, the biggest in 25 years had hit Shikoku Island near Osaka where I had ridden last March. A day later a volcano erupts about 400 klms North of my final destination, Aomori. Oh and my route takes me past Fukushima, didn’t they have that nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011 ? I check my proposed route is far enough away to eliminate the chance of my testicles forever glowing in the dark. Are the gods telling me something ? What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right ?      

I continued to pack, service my bike and worry about the things I can control. On the bright side a typhoon with a 240 klms tailwind could push me to Aomori in less than a day without peddling. I could sit in an Onsen bathhouse for a week watching my skin slowly shrivel whilst drinking Asahi !     
My final breakfast At Tullamarine is creamy yoghurt and a Strong full cream cafe latte. I won’t get too much dairy in Japan. My first meal in Tokyo is questionable chicken gizzard skewers and mandatory drought beer. I return satisfied to my hotel and gingerly unpack my bike in my room. The room is barely twice the length of my bike. The following morning I’m ready to go. My bike is intact and I peddle to the nearby Tokyo Main station. I need to get out of the madhouse that is Tokyo, it’s not really cycle friendly and the throng of face mask clad locals makes me feel claustrophobic.

              A young fella watches me on the platform, clumsy with my bike bag over one arm and two panniers in my other hand, I exude a certain nervousness. He wanders over asks in broken English if my platform and ticket are correct, confident one of the two will be wrong. He seems a bit too exuberant.  Is he a nutter or actually helpful, possibly both ? He drags me back to the ticket office, Sure that I am standing on the wrong platform. I was and now he’s happy except I’ve got to wait for my non warp speed country train. That’s fine but I do have a change of trains mid trip and the chance of getting my connection right is questionable. He leaves me but I can feel he is not happy, I’m obviously exuding loads of insecurity. Ten minute later he returns. He has found an old ticket and has scribbled the time I arrive at my change station and how many stops. 

     This helping others happens regularly here, it’s not uncommon, it’s civility and a genuine concern for others. We’ve lost it in the West, sorry it’s true. Our mentality is the strongest wins forget the rest. I get my train, I get my connection and I’m scooting along a country road late afternoon on my bike with Mrs Google telling me I’m only around the corner from Pension Twilight.    
  I luck in first night. Dinky little Pension Twilight Is set in the woods and there is a small restaurant just up the road. I walk the quiet heavily treed path ready to eat whatever they’ll give me, I have no choice. They don’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, it’s my problem not theirs. I point to the next table’s food, it looks good to me. The guy is slurping furiously at some Deep bowled noodle dish like he’s draining a swamp. It’s oishi / delicious, it’s all vegetarian, the girls in the kitchen are as happy as I am.

        I waddle out and flick on my headlamp, off along the footpath into the pitch dark. Minutes later a lonely set of headlights comes alongside me, the drivers window down, “Good night” cry the three kitchen hands in their high pitched giggling voices as they roll on by. I’m grinning from ear to ear it’s so foreign and oh so innocent. Pension Twilight has one last surprise. I flick the light switch to sleep, the room goes dark then gradually the ceiling fills with faint, twinkling stars. I grin again they must think it’s like sleeping in the great outdoors. That’s my last thought because my busy first day overcomes me.     
The next few days aren’t as easy. I grind through some mountain ranges which leave me wondering what the hell I’m doing out here. Especially when I become fatigued after a steady two hour climb. At the summit my stinging, sweaty eyes scan the surrounding mountain range, is that it, is there more ? In the distance sharp humped mountains, like the backbone of an ancient Japanese dragon loom. I’m skirting the horizon hoping to see an escape, maybe a river cuts me a path or is it just more leg burning climbing ? 

      I take some deep breathes, try to catch my breathe. I think I’m right and stupidly push off only to unceremoniously topple onto the road leaving some skin and dignity behind. It’s all forgotten an hour later. Forty klms downhill can do that but my grazes sting like a bitch soaking in the hotel mineral waters later that night.       I have much time to scan the countryside. The Japanese have been an industrious lot for hundreds of years. They have harnessed, manipulated and exploited every single piece of earth on their earthquake prone, typhoon ravaged set of islands . Where it might slide away they fortify it. Where the sea might erode it they barricade it. Often with massive tsunami-proof concrete tetrapods. Swampy ground is drained, wild rivers are tamed with all types of in stream barriers. So when I see mountains all around me I’m not immediately panic stricken for they’ll have often reduced gradients on mountains or drilled tunnels from one valley to another. Turning a corner to see the yawning mouth of a tunnel entrance has me nodding in approval to those Japanese civil engineers.

      I’ve woken again, too many nights sleeping on traditional thin tatami mattresses, yes cute on the brochures but the exotic appeal soon wears off. My bony hips need constant rotation however I have taken to the rice pillows, they hold my head perfectly after an initial pummelling. But not even too many beers can stop me tossing and turning through the night. By morning I’m feeling like I’ve just celebrated my 110th birthday. I work up to a crawl then look for some form of stable object to get me into the upright position. To add insult to injury I usually finish by banging my head on the central light, one of the few items in the minimalist room ! It takes a few hours on the  bike before I straighten up and feel vaguely human again ? 

I dare you to spring up after sleeping down there.

     Finally a day off the bike I didn’t think I needed it, I did. I celebrate by heading out hoping for some company, a cold beer and some nourishing food. I get the trifecta after crawling through a doorway three feet high. Koike and Misao sitting on the other side of the room help the chef feed me. I move to sit with them and we share a few hours of laughs and broken English. It’s what travel is all about. Later we spill back out into the night and off to our various hotels. The morning has us all heading elsewhere.

                 I head to Kakunodate by train it’s either that or another bloody long day on the bike. It’s a famous small samurai town and with a name like that you’d learn how to fight too. They fought dirty the samurai, efficient and ruthless. Their fighting prowess helped them to control much of Japan for five hundred years.

     At a museum house there are few around. I lift a samurai sword ( they are seriously heavy ) , wear the crazy steel helmet then bow as I bring the sword down screaming like a banshee the whole way. I am seven years old again wearing my dressing gown and plaided chord belt. I bow again stony faced, laugh and I’ll kill you. Much of my childhood was spent watching poorly dubbed samurai movies, agile men with jet black hair and pigtails. I put down the sword and resume normal transmission.

    I wander back down the road to my futuristic Shinkansen train complete with a snout that resembles a snorting dragon. I sit in the pristine carriage as It catapults me back to Akita in the blink of an eye. It’s actually possible to go from Kakunodate samurai Warrior to Tokyo game boy in four hours in one of these things. Talk about clashes of cultures. I step out in Akita, bow to the conductor it’s the one constant between the centuries.    Tomorrow I start riding up into the mountains again, my rest day will soon be forgotten. I’m half way there.

I started seeing harvesting equipment out in the fields yesterday. I guess as I head further North and Autumn is coming fast they will need to bring in their Summer crops. So I am seeing farm equipment showrooms instead of hundreds of car showrooms a pleasant but less ritzy sell. Japan is one of the largest manufacturers of cars in the world they have more shiny suited car salesmen that your average country, whereas the agricultural salesman everywhere simply chew grass. Anyway I’m in the mood for buying me a new rice harvester and after riding the Shinkansen the other day I think this model from kubota is just the ticket. This looks like the one for me, modelled on the superfast Shinkansen trains it will have me cropping that field in no time then sitting back drinking sake with my neighbours till planting season comes around again.     

    I should be banned from Onsens those Japanese communal bathhouses. If not for other people’s benefit, for my own wellbeing. It should be as simple as getting someone to point out where the room is. Better than stripping off in the boiler house because you saw steam escaping and assumed. Secondly you need to get into the mood by dressing in the appropriately traditional dress. Best is a Japanese robe ideally with a belt. Yes reception had a spare and it meant I didn’t get a draught as I sashayed about. Finally a pair of traditional slippers that don’t have your heels hanging off the back.    The best time to go in a busy hotel onsen is early dinner when people are still arriving. I arrive in mine to find the ballroom size change room empty. Quickly strip off, throw my gear in a basket then enter the scrubbing stalls like a startled ninja. There are thirty stalls and just me. I pull out the tiny milking stool and squat, soap up and then rinse with a portable shower head trying to get all the soap out of those bits folded in half on this tiny stool. I stand and do the job properly I’m not a ninja even if the initial burst of very hot water made me scream like one. As squeaky clean as a new baby and the same pink colour I head to the soaking pool. It’s the size of the local pool I went to as a child without the no bombing sign.       I ease into the water, it’s hot, almost too hot. I breathe in and wait to see if feeling completely leaves my feet, no I can feel the burning. I lay down once I’m acclimatised because after Fukushima I don’t care what happens down there anymore. It’s all bubbling away and the ceiling is dripping condensation. I try to relax, I breathe in the thick, water filled air, aah.      Ok so it’s time to get out, my skin is starting to wrinkle. Back to the scrubbing stalls, still no one to call me non authentic so I stand and wash off the clean water I’ve been soaking in ? Now I’m triple clean. But I’m not dry and this is when it turned bad. No stupid, because it’s happened before, ten years ago in a busy communal Onsen. Anyway I head dripping wet into the area for dry people, trying to stay calm. I go straight to the grooming area and pick up a hairdryer. Don’t be stupid Jeff you’re over six foot tall. I shake my arms, throw out my legs and throw on my Japanese nightwear. Very quickly my soaking wet Japanese nightwear. I slip on my undersized slippers and slosh my way back through the foyer to my room and a perfectly dry towel. But by now all I need is to wring out the sleepwear and lay down. Relaxing huh ?

      I have a rest day up at lake Towada a chance to catch my breathe and check out the area but like many country towns it’s visited for a few hours by Tokyo tourists then a big bus zooms them someplace else. Half of the town’s businesses are closed and those still open need work. My hotel although old has a feeling of opulence and space. The rooms were airy and the restaurant meals are served by an elderly brigade of white sock shufflers. I feel like royalty. I break the spell by returning to the bike for a leg burning lap of the lake which I was expecting would be flat, alas no. Towada lake is seriously deep, 750m deep and I suspect there are some types of fish lurking deep down on the bottom that not even the sushi loving people of Japan have ever tasted.

     Of course it rains unrepentantly the day I have to climb out of the mountains towards Rockwood Spa Hotel at Aomori Springs. It started in the middle of the night and without gutters it simply crashed to the ground sounding more like the lake had burst. I kept looking out the window at breakfast but it wasn’t easing up and reluctantly I drew my raincoat on and ground my way at snails pace up and over the mountain range and back to civilisation. For four hours I climbed, past the waterfall of some days before, now a roaring angry spout of escaping water. 

     By lunchtime it had eased and then finally it stopped. I celebrated by slurping a bowl of ramen almost the size of my head in unison with others. None of whom muttered a word until it was all gone. It was like medicine and I peddled towards Mount Iwaki with new found enthusiasm, steam coming off my damp clothes. The country turning from rice fields to apple orchards heaving with almost ripe but ripe enough for me apples. What a day of contrast. I arrived at 4.30pm to meet my arranged Australian touring group for the next week. All with their spotless gear and shiny racing bikes being unpacked. I must have looked like their poor country cousin, weary after 110 klms, splattered in road grime, my face covered in sticky apple juice and my bike squeaking like a disgruntled mule.

The apple trees literally heaving with produce, every apple perfect

        Dinner and a shower can make you feel almost human once more, the events of the day pushed to memory. Down to the basement at 8pm to meet a mechanic our guide Kenji-San had arranged. The mechanic spoke no English but whispered to my mud splattered bike in Japanese that help was on its way. An hour later the squeaks had gone, the gear changing was sharp and responsive and with 20 kgs of pannier bags removed he too would be a racing bike like those around him. 

       Life has become more civil. The days are organised and planned to simply let me ride before returning to luxury each night which includes a buffet and a sweets section. Again maybe I find amazement in different places but the bar has a beer dispensing machine. It is a work of art. The large glass is inserted and the machine springs into action. First the glass is tilted and a steady stream of Japan’s finest beer is shot into the glass and then to give it the perfect head the glass is lowered and the last portion deposited. I could watch it all night but the bar closes early and I keep falling of the barstool.

        We rise at 4am and clothed in everything we have silently step onto the bus for a short drive towards Mount Iwaki. No one speaks it’s not a time you normally hold conversation besides we are about to do a steep ten klm climb up the Skyline, it corkscrews through 69 hairpin bends on a private road. We need to have climbed and returned before 7.30am when the road opens to traffic. It’s a grind from the get go. Some shoot ahead but I learnt long ago to chase at your own peril, better to find your rhythm let your body choose the pace. I turn my mind to neutral and get my breathing steady. A gang of monkeys startles me not because they are monkeys but from a distance I couldn’t make them out and could only think of bears which are often seen around here. The monkeys scamper when we roar at them and wait for the next unsuspecting victim. Up and up barely a change in gradient or length between hairpins. There is little rest on the turns as the road twists to start another hundred metres plus of straight.            I glance to the side having barely turned my head. The thick trees have thinned and there are glimpses above the surrounding mountains to the coast and beyond. The sun is peeping out in the East and I feel on top of the world. Another fifteen minutes and I’m standing with the others breathless at the summit chairlift. We all get there and soon slip back down to the base of the mountain to regroup. Another ten klms further down we stop for breakfast at a foot onsen. Off come the bike shoes and into the steaming waters we step. Kenji-San serves us sandwiches, soup and coffee, it all tasting so good and it’s barely 8am. A memorable morning.

       We leave the luxury of Rockwood for a few days in the mountains. Riding next to the Oirase gorge the water roaring besides us and flashes of white rapids as it pummels the rounded rocks in its quest to get to the valley below. Rain stops us from a post lunch 20 klm climb to our Onsen at Sukayu. 

       It is a famous old Onsen and we are guided up rickety old stairs to the dormitories. The Onsen is also famous for its mixed Onsen and a massive timber chimney rising high above the water dreaming off the steam. Most are more interested in the mixed more than the chimney but it’s not quite mixed, there is a modesty screen in play.
      I washed as you do, like never before, then slipped into the steamy, cloudy water a haze hugging the surface from the heat and sulphur minerals. After a while you could hear girl’s giggling on the other side of the modesty screen and then through the haze comes a girl in her thirties with a washer as a headpiece and another wet washer in her hand. She glides through the cloudy water using her nipples as her bowline. The old men around me stirred restlessly, the younger ones stood and pretended to be getting out. She had a captive audience as she eased herself up onto the perimeter ledge flicking the wet towel casually over her body, she’d done this before. Ah she was enjoying herself. Eventually she slipped back behind the modesty screen to her girlfriend before climbing the staircase and standing peering into the men’s section from behind the stair bannister.      Five minutes later an old fella glided through the cloudy water beyond the signposted boundary of the sexes and peaked around the modesty screen. Immediately an Onsen employee was in there screaming like a banshee and demanding the man get out. Would he have done the same to the woman, I don’t think so, she had put on a naive, innocent twenty minute show and no-one had called security, no one had breathed. Too funny.

     Our days are taken up riding up and down and all around. Visits to ancient sake shops, temples, more temples, gardens next to raging rivers and tree lined lanes beside placid lakes so serene your heartbeat barely registers. We glide through apple orchards where the trees stoop under the strain of loaded fruit ripe, and individually being picked and carefully packed. When we need a pick me up we would often find  a disappointing coffee shop or cold yet appealing apple. Cream or any type of dairy isn’t big here. Actually I find myself feeling far better every time I travel through Asia and it’s limited intake of milk products. The coffee might have disappointed our Western tastebuds but the lunches whether it be fried noodles in a soup or a steaming bowl of rice with something tasty draped across the top I would walk out throw a leg over my bike and know I was good for another fifty klms.      We have a farewell dinner, a chance to reflect on some of the many things we’ve seen and experienced over the week. Suddenly it seems we’ve seen so much. Our local guide Kenji-San and tour organiser Chris Ivin deserve most of the credit. The trip has reinforced my belief that Japan is a rarity in this homogenised world. That courtesy, civility and pride in whatever you undertake all seem forgotten in my culture. Some will argue that Japan’s rigid conformity is like wearing a straight jacket but it seems to work in a heavily populated country where space is at a premium. It certainly makes it easy for a foreigner to quickly get their head around the systems and processes needed for survival. But it’s just another persons observation whilst just passing through.  

    Three weeks cycling from Tokyo to Aomori and many towns in between. My legs are strong, my body still holding up after thirteen hundred klms. Time to head home.