After a wonderful couple of weeks at Dan and Hiroka’s in Hakuba, I figured I probably should get on with this ol’ cycling lark and get back on the road. Dan very kindly offered to drop me an hour up the road to avoid a stretch of dodgy tunnels just north of Hakuba which, quite conveniently, happened to leave me near the top of a massive hill.
The ride down to the ocean at Itoigawa was totally cool and quickly dispelled my guilt over not having cycled all the way to the top although one short uphill stretch is worth a quick mention. With the tremendous amount of snow that falls in the Japanese Alps the local authorities often leave some of the smaller mountain roads to their wintery fate and don’t clear them until the spring, and it was along one of these still closed roads that I found myself in a bit of a pickle. As I initially squeezed past the “road closed” sign I wasn’t particularly concerned thinking that with my bike I could clamber past most obstacles without too much trouble. However it wasn’t long until I came across a different sign, one that had much more of an impact on me: “Warning Bears”.
Within minutes I was working myself into a real state with the scary-yet-extremely-unlikely scenario of being slowly eaten by a bear lodged in my head and in the same way that I used to be scared of sharks in our local swimming pool I became increasingly convinced that I was being stalked… soon to be attacked. There are in fact quite a few bears in Japan and every year there are a handful of attacks and even deaths, usually in the countryside and nearly always when the bear is taken by surprise so however improbable, my fear had a more solid grounding in reality than the “great white in the Aquarena” one of my youth. In a bid to keep the bear at bay I yelled my way along the pass, singing at the top of my voice and stopping frequently to clap and whoop. If anyone had heard me I must have sounded like a right fruitcake… I even unleashed my well rehearsed version of “In the bleak mid-winter” with one particular rendition sung (I use the term “sung” very losely) with such gusto that I am sure it must have scared off any living being, four legged or otherwise, within 10 miles.
Suffice to say, I was not attacked by a bear however it wasn’t long before I found out why the road was still closed to traffic…
Eventually I rejoined the main road and leaving the bears and road debris in my wake I cruised my way to the ocean where, in true Japanese style, there was a nice big sandy beach lined with that classic view enhancer… bloody huge concrete tetrapods.
With the sun getting lower in the sky I decided to try and find somewhere to camp near the beach that evening in order to head west the following day. A lovely big field seemed like a sure bet and I wandered over to the information board to see if there were any rules. As a non Japanese reader I took the following green bordered image of happy campers as a sure fire sign that I could sent my tent up and spend the evening being as jolly as those pictured but it turns out green doesn’t always mean go… camping was forbidden.
I did quite like the other signs on the board however which I could only take to mean “Caution: do not assault babies with golf clubs”
and “Caution: contact with laser scottie dog may result in multiplication of limbs and substitution of eyes with small plastic spoons”.
In the end I camped on the beach that evening, putting my tent up in the dark in a bid to be as stealthy as possible. I got a few intrigued looks from passers by but no trouble and I slept well.
The following morning I was up and ready to go by half 5 and a little apprehensive of the road ahead. I had been warned that the coastal route between Itoigawa and Toyama was in places, rather treacherous. It is after all where the Northern Japanese Alps meet the sea and they do not do so gently. As a result the road cuts through the cliffs in a series of tunnels and narrow twisting roads that when combined with the heavy traffic screamed “WE’RE NOT GOING TO BE SAFE”. Matters were made worse when I discovered that historically the route was known as the most dangerous trail in Japan and referred to as “parents don’t look back”. Why you ask? Quite simply because even loving Mom’s and Pop’s left their precious offspring to the fury of the cliffs and waves in fear of their own lives. In fact, kind of like how my Mum left her three daughters to a stampede of cart horses on our buy-one-week-get-one-week-free horse drawn caravan holiday on the Dingle Peninsular when I was 9. Dad had made the grave mistake of protecting his new shoes from the dewey grass in our camping field with plastic bags and apparently if you’re a cart horse, rustling of any type equates to food. As my sisters and I discovered, this is only a problem if you suddenly find yourself alone in a field watching your mother swiftly disappearing over the horizon and most certainly not looking back! I guess I should add that she did redeem herself 5 years later when she shielded us from yet more stampeding horses on a walk in Cornwall.
Anyhow, back to Japan. After my death defying ride through the tunnel at Kawaguchiko (an experience I was not keen to repeat) I was not looking forward to the morning ahead of me. I had hoped that my early start would afford me quieter roads but the trucks whizzing past me into the darkness of the first tunnel didn’t imply that this would be the case. However, I wanted to go to west and thus I had no option, this was my only road.
It’s hard to describe quite how terrifying it is to be cycling through a windy tunnel and hear the roar of a truck approaching from behind. If feels like a boeing 747 is about to land on your head as the engine echoes and is amplified through the darkness. As you see the headlights approach in your mirror there are 3 or 4 seconds in which you are totally and utterly convinced that your death is inevitable. Then, as the truck screams past you push up against the filthy wall, close your eyes and either curse, scream or both – very loudly. It is truly terrifying. My adopted survival method was to put on my brightest clothes, set all my lights to flash, wait for what seemed like a clear section of road and then pedal as fast as I possibly could whilst looking almost continually in my side mirror. I am sure this drastically increased my chances of having a panic attack but on the bright side it also significantly contributed to my rapidly increasing fitness level – it was my Japanese life or death interval training! Oh and also the explanation as to why all my t-shirts have a dirty left arm.
Seeing as you are reading this however you can correctly assume I made it along the road of death unscathed. Greatly relieved I turned off the main road as quickly as possible and stumbled upon this beautiful sign:
The cycling route was wonderful with small roads and a big fat blue line marked out for me along the asphalt. I need simply turn left or right when instructed, relax and enjoy the ride. Having made such good progress it was about time for something to go wrong and so in what was perhaps the fastest change in weather ever seen (outside of the UK) I suddenly found myself riding into a ridiculously strong headwind. The biggest gusts brought me to a complete halt and even when the wind occasionally wained pedalling was exhausting.
It was time for a break so as I rounded a bend and came across the “Buried Forest Museum” I was sold. A buried forest, what could be more exciting? As it turns out… a lot. I fear the buried forest should have remained just that, buried. With few English translations I managed to establish only that there used to be a forest where Toyama now sits but over thousands of years it died and was buried under sediment which didn’t seem particularly groundbreaking to me. Oh and I also learnt that at certain times of the year there is a mirage over Toyama bay which excites lots of people despite the fact that it’s affect is essentially no more than a slightly squiffy horizon, something which I know for a fact can be achieved in a much jollier fashion and whenever one wishes with a bottle of wine.
Although a mirage and an ex forest may not have been enough to impress me I was, at least, afforded an hours respite from the wind as well as a quick cat nap during the 15 minute mirage explanation video. When I emerged from the museum however rain had been added to the list of inclement weather conditions and the wind seemed only to have gotten stronger. I dug out my waterproofs and battled my way through what I later found out was the edge of a typhoon heading towards Tokyo and eventually, with the help of a friendly cafe owner found a cheap campsite. The wind was howling as I pulled into the site gates and I think the owners felt a bit sorry for me, soaking and bedraggled as I was. To my delight they offered me the use of a small storage room where I could sleep out of the weather. I hadn’t trusted my tent pitching abilities as the last time I camped in a typhoon I returned to my tent to find it half collapsed and with my treasured kindle submerged inside so I have no doubt that their offer saved me a terrible amount of hassle and importantly my replacement kindle lives to fight another day.
The next morning I awoke to lovely clear skies. I had been lucky enough to miss the bulk of the storm and so I set off that day in the sunshine. Heading into Toyama city still on my lovely bike path the morning started off with nothing less than a very exciting bridge. Not only was it quite cool looking but the bike path ran underneath the highway on it’s own level with a lift each end connecting the path on the ground with the one in the sky. How cool is that! To make things even better there were an army of cleaners inside who were polishing the hand rails with true Japanese dedication. I’m not sure the job really called for such a sizeable workforce but boy were those handrails gleaming.
The rest of the day was just as great as the morning. The riding was super, the weather was perfect and I just felt really really happy! I finished my wonderful day in a wonderful camping ground with a wonderful view on a wonderful beach. I had wonderful sushi and a wonderful onsen. It was quite… wonderful.
The following morning I packed up my tent and hit the road in high spirits. My route had me following the coast of Ishikawa prefecture to explore the Noto Peninsular, an area famous for it’s beautiful coastline.
I covered good ground during the day and found a stunning onsen by the beach where I planned to spend the night. Annoyingly I made something of a mistake when I asked the girl at reception if I would be able to camp on the beach and fully expecting her to nod and give me the thumbs up she frowned and shook her head, “no it’s forbidden” she said gravely. Damn it, if I hadn’t of asked and just waited until it got dark I knew that I would have had no issues but now she had said no I couldn’t very well thank her and then walk out of the front door and set up my tent! Instead, I pushed my bike a little way along the beach where luckily I found a couple of covered benches. Out of any potential rain and technically not camping I slept surprisingly well, disturbed only by a couple of mosquitos who sought me out in the early hours.
The following evening further around the coastline I managed to upgrade my accommodations from “bench” to “free campsite”. If I’m honest the fact that it was free was a good enough reason for me to be a happy bunny but that it also happened to be a really lovely site just made things better… some might say wonderful. It was in a small bay, with a sweet little beach and big stepping stones that led out from the beach and all the way around the headland. I wandered round but like a plonker forgot to take my camera so I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was nice. It was shaping up to be another cracking evening. That is until I got my stove out and started to prepare my dinner. I had planned for a yummy dinner; rice, curry sauce, potatoes and sausages and I’d even splashed out and bought cheese to sprinkle on top. Sadly for me however I had forgotten to buy a lighter and was thus stuck with the later two ingredients only – the only that were edible raw. My dinner was downgraded as quickly as my accommodations had been upgraded; free camping but cold frankfurters and handfuls of pre grated plasticy cheese. Not quite so wonderful I think you’ll agree. Oh well you can’t win them all.