With a checkout time of 11am from Takayama it was almost inevitable that we would have a late start…I was right. I was a hot day, not the best day for climbing, especially crossing the Japanese Alps. After just a few kilometres on the flat we were climbing, something we were to do for pretty much the rest of the day. We stopped for a rest in the shade of a bus shelter, well, more of a garden house than a bus shelter, complete with cushions on the seats. We were the back into the climb, a slow sweaty climb. We had to take the low road, the Sky Road was still closed despite it being the end on June. It proved a good excuse not to take it, it rose up to 2,700m. Soon after we reached a pass which ended with a long tunnel, some 2.5km of it, oh joy! After a short plummet to the spa town of Hirayu that had that a sulphur smell that reminded us of Rotorua, we were climbing again to the main Abo Pass. With most of the already light traffic heading off through another tunnel that we couldn’t use, and the steep road sides making camp sites few and far between we took the first we could find, in fact one of the very few bits of level ground, though a bit close to the road, but nobody seemed to notice us there. It didn’t take us long to realise that we were being bugged, flies, dozens of them, but unusually lots of different varieties. After dinner we couldn’t take the biting insects any more so we retreated into the shelter of the tent well before dark. After a little while we heard footsteps cutting through the bush towards us, they got louder and louder, ‘Great’ I thought, ‘That’s just what we need, somebody to move us on’. We sat there peering out of the tent waiting for the person to arrive, but it was odd that they weren’t coming down the obvious path, nor had we heard a vehicle stop. When they were just 5m from the tent they revealed themselves, “HOLY SHIT” exclaimed Christine, I was just totally gob smacked. I think my response was something like “That’s a bloody black bear!”, I didn’t even realise there were bears in Japan. Thankfully it was far more frightened of us, because as soon as it saw us it turned and went running off into the forest, though Christine was convinced that is had just gone off to bring all it’s family back to meet us.
The following morning we thought we just had about another 200m of climbing to the pass, we were wrong, it was another 400m, though dense forest to Abo Pass at 1731m. After a short stop at the top to have a look at the snow capped mountains we were heading down through a series of switch backs. Any spot where a car could be parked was filled, it was the weekend and this was prime walking country. The traffic rejoined us at the other end of the tunnel, the descent continued by the river and through a series of 18 tunnels in about 30km, some of them over a kilometre long. They were hardly fun either, the traffic was increasing, the tunnels old which meant they were narrow, poorly lit and had a rough old surface. We stopped after the first group to let Christine’s nerves settle down, she keep asking me “Does nothing ever bother you?” To make matters worse for her she was not feeling well, though she battled through well and refused to stop once we had reached Matsumoto. The castle there (photo) was one of the nicest we have seen in Japan, though I sat outside whilst Christine went for a look inside. As I sat on a bench a group of girls wearing the shortest skirts I have ever seen walked past. Everybody in Japan bows a lot, it replaces waving or handshaking etc. Well, when these girls bowed the skirt didn’t really cover anything, nothing was left to the imagination…..not that I was looking of course! We thought heading out of the biggish city we would struggle to find somewhere to camp, but we rode beside the river and it wasn’t long before we found a quiet spot. As we looked around for the best spot to put the tent we came face to face with a large snake. As Christine yelped I was convinced that she would want to move on, but she surprised me again, we were soon setting up camp just a few metres away. Whilst in Australia I was told no end of times to be careful of the snakes, I was even told never to camp in the outback because of them, yet I never saw a single one. We have seen about 5 or 6 here, generally about 1-1.5m long and nobody has even been concerned about them, though it may be the fact that a bite from them wont kill you as much here as in Australia. So all was going well, I was happily stirring the contents of the pot on the stove when all of a sudden there was a loud bang, a flash of flames and all the grass around the stove was on fire. Once we had put the flames out we realised the cause of the problem, I guess I had somehow knocked the lighter under the stove as it was the lighter that had exploded. Christine always manages to find the right thing to say at the right time, in this case she asked “Why did your leave it there?” We had a wet night, but thankfully we had good drainage.
By morning it was still raining, the river had risen 6 inches from last night and by the time we left in the rain it had risen another 6 inches. We were using our new jackets for the first time, they worked well. Dare I say it, it almost made riding in the rain enjoyable. Hmmm, nah, may be not that good. Well we had visited the hi-tech world of Toyota, today we were heading for the opposite end of the spectrum, the low-tech wasabi farm (radishes). It was all very interesting, they need a lot, a lot, A LOT of water. The irrigation was amazing. They grew in stony ground with constant water running around them. Overhead they were covered to protect them from the sun. As we looked down the small valley with all the covering it reminded me of a glacier. Back at the shop you could buy anything so long it had radish in it. Having tried radish ice-cream we declined on buying the radish white chocolate. The ice-cream was ok, though not enough radish in there for my liking. You can’t have too much radish in your ice-cream in my opinion! Amazingly by the time we left the sun was out, the roads were drying and it was hard to believe that it had been raining for the last 12 hours. We rode along route 19, a nice road that followed the river the whole way, very easy going.
The following morning we carried on along route 19 to Nagano, a nice entry to a city with the mountains behind and our road elevated enough to let us look across the rooftops along the plain. By the time we had reached the centre it was raining again, it would rain on and off for the rest of the day. We visited the important temple of Zenko-ji, where there were more Buddha images that had healing properties, no need for a doctor in Japan. As with every important tourist site the street leading to it is full of tourist shops selling tourist tat and boxes of food, anything you like so long as it is pickled or contains soya beans. As it was raining we took a look around. One such shop had lots of sample pots, so we thought we might as well stop there for lunch, though we left just before we thought we might get thrown out. Next stop was Obuse, described in the guide book as one of the most attractive villages in Japan. It’s my job to do the navigating and as we approached the place I fell asleep and missed a sign. I realised by the next junction, no more than 100m further on, so I waited for Christine. She arrived with fire in her eyes “Why don’t you just follow the signs” she shouted at me. In the 6 weeks we have been here it’s only the 2nd navigation mistake, but I am riding with an efficient German who clearly has set very high standards. I might as well have missed all the signs for it as neither of us could see anything special in the place anyway, it was just another village. We were in a large valley, and large valleys are normally full of rice fields and people. As we passed a group of school kids I called out “Konichi wa” (Hello) and in unison they all called back “Konichi waaaaaaaa…….” it was so drawn out that it sounded musical, like a choir singing, wonderful. We managed to find a campsite in a small wood as we headed up a steep hill. Just as we started to eat dinner it started to rain, we retreated to the shelter of the tent. By heck did it rain, for the next 5 hours it was torrential. The sound of rain on the tent was deafening. Christine was convinced the drainage would be poor and we would soon be flooded out “What are we going to do?” she asked, “Sit it out” I replied “Unless you fancy going for a little walk to find another site”, she is a little worrier.
Thankfully the drainage was good, the tent held out well and we didn’t get wet, though the pot I had left outside rather than washing it up last night was completely full of water, there had been a serious amount of rainfall. We were soon back at the river we had been riding along yesterday, though it was hardly recognisable, this morning it was an angry, brown torrent of water, not a gravel bank in sight. We stopped to fill up with petrol for the stove. The petrol pump was the most hi-tech I have even seen, touch screens and displays all over the place, with slots for coins and notes alike. It was self service and the thing even talked to us. We weren’t bright enough to get anything out of it, so the attendant came over to help us. They clearing aren’t used to such small amounts of fuel, one quick blast and it was overflowing onto the forecourt, though any apology comes with a big sack full of complimentary bowing. We cycled along the river before climbing to Nowazaonsen, a spa town with 13 free onsen. We checked out 4 of them, they were all empty, though having just dipped a foot in we too left as they were way too hot. We found one that was much cooler and had our free scrub down, though I found it hard relax in a small pool with the remains of a dead bird drifting around in about 50 pieces. I hadn’t seen it until I got in, then the thing seemed to be chasing me about. I took the hint and left. We had lunch with our feet in a foot spa before continuing back down to and along the river, though the road that had been so flat in the morning rolled along nicely.
A hot day followed. We rode into Tokamachi, a town that is surrounded by art. We went to the tourist office to try and find a map to locate some of it. The directed us to another office where we would be able to buy a map, then the guy said he would take us and a minute later we were following him on his bike through the streets. Now that would never happen in Europe. The Japanese are wonderful people, not the most outgoing to foreigners, but ask somebody a question and there seems to be no end to the effort they are willing to put in to get the answer for you. The guy even took Christine up to the 4th floor office. On the way up he asked her where she was from, “Germany” she said. “Ah, ah…” he replied, then after a bit of thought he tried out the only German he knew and said “I love you…..only a little bit”. With map in hand we went in search of the art, some was around the town including a car park with he edges ‘lifted up’. But this is Japan, and if you are going to go in search of something it is almost undoubtedly going to involve going up a bloody great hill, today was no exception. But today was hot, stinking hot, so we flaked out at the top in the shade and ate lunch before Christine put on her food detector, went wandering off and came back with red currants, raspberries and blueberries. Having checked out some more whacky sculptures we went to another nearby area, a group of art around a campsite. The campsite had chalets, loos and showers as well as individual secluded camping areas in the shade and what is more there was nobody there. This seemed to be too good to be true, so as it was too hot for enjoyable cycling we stopped early and had a free campsite and a wonderful shower and great views across the valley to the mountians on the other side.
The following morning was back to cycling and trying to get somewhere. We climbed over a pass that had a long tunnel regulated by road works so we had the whole thing to ourselves, bliss at over a kilometre long (photo). We dropped down into a valley where it was a bit busier. I declined the first supermarket we saw, a bit of a dump, only to regret it a few k further on as we left habitation behind and still no sign of another supermarket. I waited for Christine to catch up, we didn’t need to say anything to each other, I could read the body language from 100m away. She was already planning what she could cook up with the little remaining food that we had , but my luck held out as we reached another store. It was another hot day and amongst other things we bought a box of 10 ice-creams on sticks and sat outside and demolished the lot. We stopped for lunch at a roadside rest area overlooking a nice little lake. I went to the loo and came back to find Christine had gone, also to the loo it turned out. We had been carrying margarine, though for some reason she had taken it but left the bag it had been in on the floor, very strange behaviour. Then I realised it had been stolen by a crow that was sitting 20m away trying to open it. I walked towards it, but it just picked up the container and flew off with it. On a previous occasion about a month ago another crow had picked up over half a kilo of chicken that was just feet from me, though on that occasion it didn’t quite have the strength and soon dropped it. We were heading up another climb through another series of switch backs, only to 880m this time, but it was tough in the heat. The pass came with a tunnel. Out the other side the scenery changed dramatically, we were looking down across the hills and a beautiful lake. The idea had been to camp beside it, but we instantly knew we had no chance as the sides were way too steep. As luck would have it we found a hut on the descent. The door was wide open and on the inside were tables and chairs, all recently used. To one side was a clean toilet block, to the other side a locked kitchen area. Nearby was some nice grass, so we made that our home for the night. There were hundreds of biting flies, just putting up the tent was bad enough, there was no way we were going to be able to cook outside, so having set up camp we retreated back to the hut and cooked inside. Just before dark a vehicle turned up. The guy came inside and told us in the little English he knew that he would be setting up lights for the flying insects. Once it was dark he had 2 powerful lights running of a generator. I have no idea what it was all about but he and his wife seemed to be having a wonderful time and wished us well later on as we turned in for the night.
The great views over the lake continued the following morning (photo), though once past the dam the road dropped sharply leaving us to follow the picturesque river. It was another stinking hot day. Any stop required shelter from the sun. At lunchtime we found some covered benches, had lunch the fell asleep on the benches. Getting going again was hard work in the heat of the afternoon. Later in the afternoon Christine spotted a sign to a camping area, so we went off route to have a look. It involved heading up a clonking great hill, I wasn’t best pleased with her, we didn’t know how far away it was or even if we would find it. We were all for turning back when I said we should give it one more kilometre, then not a moment too soon it came into view. Once again it was a lovely campsite, nobody there apart from the bloke closing the kiosk. We asked if we could camp there and he told us it was free. The place was great, very well kept with each site having its own platform and table and bench and it was so peaceful, no sound of cars at all. But I just don’t get it. How do these places stay open? We have stayed on 3 campsites, not seen another person camping and not been charged at any of them, and it’s almost the middle of summer. Christine’s theory is that they only have a very short vacation period and they all holiday at the same time. But this was Friday night, yet there was still nobody there for the weekend. I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.
So in more stinking hot weather we entered into Aizuwakamatsu, now that’s a mouthful isn’t it? I just love the Japanese place names. We have been through so many places starting with Matsu, for example Matsue, Matsuyama, Matsumoto, Matsunai, Matsunoyama, Matsushima to name but a few. They are all made up of descriptive words linked together, so Matsu means ’pine’, yama means ’hill’ or ’mountain’ etc, etc. So Matsuyama literally means a hill with pines on, and that is exactly how it started out, clever eh? The problem comes when some words have more than one meaning such as Matsu which can mean ’pine’ or ’wait, hold on’. So I looked up Aizuwakamatsu. It seems it means ’signal, 31 syllable poem, pine’. Hmm, may be our dictionary isn’t telling us all the variation. There is not a great deal here in town, but it have the obligatory castle and we did manage to check out a saki brewery with plenty more samples which had poor old Christine worrying about how on earth we were going to cycle back.