I wake to discover that I am no longer alone sheltered on the stage. A motorcyclist has joined me during the night and pitched his tent. His motorbike is just parked right next to the stage on the grassy play area and he’s put his pannier bags next to his tent. We are not alone in using the michi-no-eki as a sleeping area. In addition to the cars in yesterday’s photo there are two campervans, half a dozen cars and also some tents spread out in the various parking lots at the road station. Even the family who adopted me at Shoji Lake said that if there was no camping ground I should just sleep at a michi-no-eki so this must be quite a common thing for domestic travellers to do here. For cyclists, you can either pitch your tent on a patch of grass, sleep in the rest room (if there is one), find some sheltered out of the way spot like this stage or pitch your tent in a car parking space (if you have a free-standing tent). This is a great way to get legitimate free camping that is close to clean toilets, food (most michi-no-eki have some sort of cooked food available and, in 9 out of 10 places, fast free wifi. The only thing missing are power points but if you get creative you can also find those (the fancy heated seat toilets use 220V power and usually there are two outlets there in the cubicle and sometimes there’s also a spare outlet behind one of the vending machines; but I haven’t reached that level of need yet).
The sun is just cresting the mountains as I ride out of the michi-no-eki and onto the road. I am following route 141 to Saku and will then turn north on road 254 to continue my ride around Tokyo. I don’t know how far I will get today. I just know that the highest point on this road is around 1,370m and I am still at 850m in altitude so have a bit of steady climbing to do.
Steady climbing is exactly what I do. For quite a few kilometres. As I look back at where I’ve come I notice the stunning snow-capped mountains (I love snow-capped mountains because we don’t have them where I am from) and a massive bridge spanning the valley to save cars on the expressway from having to change altitude too much.
I enjoy the colours of spring as I cycle along. The climbing really isn’t so bad when you have this kind of scenery to enjoy. The climbing here in Japan is totally different to what I experienced in Korea. In Korea, the climbing was steep and sharp. Mountains were scaled aggressively as though concrete was scarce. Here in Japan, climbing is long and steady. There’s a finesse to climbing here; something I very much need to learn. In Korea I could get away with my climbing style in which I stand and power my way up the mountain cranking the pedals and heaving the bike. In Japan this doesn’t work and I find myself slowly (ever so slowly) trying to learn to climb while seated in a small gear patiently spinning knowing I will eventually arrive at the summit. I am rarely successful in this practice because old habits die hard and I find myself struggling to find a rhythm because I cannot help but stand to climb yet cannot stay standing as long as these mountains go on. I am sure that, with time, I will learn to become more efficient. And, in the meantime, I will just enjoy the flowers along the side of the road.
I come to a gorgeous village where alpine farms sit amongst luscious green grass with mountains towering above them. This is the stuff of my dreams and never did I let myself imagine I would actually be cycling through landscape like this. I thought I was destined only ever to know the sub-tropics that I have called home most of my life. But here I am, cycling in alpine country at about 1,300m in altitude.
I stop at a 7-Eleven to buy some breakfast and use the wifi to send a message home. A gentleman comes to speak with me. At first he speaks in Japanese and I try to answer as best I can. I know the phrase for “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Japanese. Umm … a little” and am not afraid to use it. Usually it lets the other person know that my blank or confused look is because I cannot understand them. I always try to use some language and have a fantastic little app that helps me with the most common practical things but it takes me a long time to work out what people are saying and then it’s mostly just a guess. My new friend switches to English. At first he seems shy but his English is excellent and he invites me to his cottage for a cup of tea. He suggests I eat my breakfast and he’ll come back in five minutes. Then we walk together to his cottage, which is about a quarter hour walk in the same direction as I will be riding. The cottage is gorgeous and set in a quiet secured estate with Japan’s third highest mountain looking down on it.
Before we have tea my new friend takes me for a drive. First we visit the highest point on the JR line in this area. And then he takes me up a hill to see a full panoramic view of these mountains. It’s amazing. I can see the mountains I cycled past yesterday and also today’s beauties. My friend tells me that Mt Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. The mountain I cycled past yesterday (he points it out to me) is the second highest and the mountain in the middle of the picture above is the third highest mountain in Japan. Afterwards we drive over to the base of the ski field (you can see it in the photo above) to see whether we can see Mt Fuji from there today. Unfortunately we can’t but boy is the drive stunning. I must come back here in the winter time to see what it looks like covered in snow. Apparently few foreign tourists frequent this area so it might be fun.
We return to my new friend’s cottage where we sit in the garden to drink tea. He insists I eat the two delicious sweet oranges he has brought out for me because the fruit will be good for me as I cycle. They are fantastic and much better than the sour mandarins I have in my panniers. We use the moss-covered rock as a table and sit on the warm wooden benches. I learn a little about my host’s life and family. I think of all the experiences I have when I travel, it’s these times when people give me their time that I appreciate most. It’s humbling to be invited to spend time with a stranger who could have chosen simply to ignore me or do little more than say “hello”. It’s definitely something I want to bring into my life at home as a way of paying it forward.
We say our goodbyes and I carry on cycling. Fortunately, it’s not far until the road starts to descend again. On my way to the next river valley, I come across this cute picnic area. It is everything that is great about Japan in the spring: playful cartoonish cows, clean picnic benches, lush green grass, sunshine and of course a drizzle of snow left on the mountains.
A little while further along the road I come to Umijirijo Castle remains. Some cute statues dressed in red protect the approach while some pretty serious warriors guard the gates. I go in and walk around a little. There’s not much of the castle left but a lantern-lined walkway leads up a hill to some shrines and a large stone monument that probably tells the story of the castle (pity I can’t read Japanese).
From here my ride will take me through the urban fringes of Saku. It’s a relatively busy road and I use the separated cycle/pedestrian path where I can to allow trucks to pass without too much concern (trucks here wait behind you until safe so when I can get off the road to allow them to just drive I do).
Some of the houses have open portals that provide a glimpse of the beautiful gardens beyond.
I think though that this picture probably best defines the places through which I have travelled the past couple of days.
I’ve booked a hotel in Saku and probably can’t check in until after 3pm so have plenty of time. As luck would have it, I come to my first 100 yen shop where everything really is 100 yen (+8% VAT of course). I now have some fire works (of the sparkler variety not the bang kind) and presents for my nieces and nephews (I’ll tell them it cost 108 yen and that will make it sound expensive 😉 ).
As I take a backroad to get to my hotel I come across this shrine with these infinite red gates.
At the top is a shrine where someone has got a bit carried away with porcelain cats. Some of them aren’t even cute cats. They are a bit scary to my eye.
There are also a whole heap of paper wreaths in all colours, some new and some quite old. It’s beautiful and eye catching.
Saku is another river town that sits below more alpine mountains. I enjoy seeing the clear mountain rivers run. From the high banks it could get pretty full here. But for now, the river is peaceful as it cuts a path through the landscape.
It’s still too early to check into my hotel when I arrive so I spend a few hours writing these last couple of blog posts while enjoying first some shade and then, as I cool down, the sunshine. Again, my picnic blanket has to be one of the best bits of kit I have with me because I feel quite civilised with it to sit on instead of having to lay on the grass. While I am typing a bird poops on my head. I wonder whether this is good or bad luck for me. I’m off to my hotel now and hoping to be able to check in so that I can shower, upload these posts, charge my electronic items and do some work. Until next time …