I wake early at camp. I have no idea what the day will bring. I was given some tips on a route to Narita but following it feels like I am just wasting my final ten days in Japan by heading home. I need some more adventures. I spoke with Paul yesterday and he reminds me that I still have loads of time left in Japan to see and do more cool stuff. So, with this in mind, I plot myself a totally new course. Instead of heading towards Mito I turn away from Narita and head back towards the mountains on an ambitious route that will take me to Haruna Lake and then, hopefully, to the snow.
I start by riding back up the road I came down yesterday for about 3km (2 miles). On the way I pass two road cyclists heading uphill. They are going to see some flowers at the top of the mountain. They ask where I am going so I tell them Haruna Mountain. They look at me in disbelief. I don’t need to understand Japanese to know they are telling me that it is incredibly steep. But I have seen the squiggly lines on the map indicating that the road will have hairpins and I have decided to go anyway.
I drop down the mountain I am on into farmland. Here the green manure crops are just on the edge of maturity and are starting to be dug into the soil. I love this cycle of agricultural life that my travels are taking me on. And I love the soft beauty of the green manure crops.
Minowa Castle is marked on my map. I am going past that way so stop to take a look. From where I enter the castle is little more than some stone moat walls and monuments that I cannot read. Later I learn that there was actually a building and everything at the site but on the far side. It doesn’t matter though; I am here to experience what I experience not to ponder that which I might otherwise have seen. Goodness knows I am seeing so much already that it is sometimes a little overwhelming. Imagine if I saw even more than I am seeing … I might explode with wonder.
From here the road starts to climb gently. I pass a huge quarry where some men are directing traffic. I happen to look up past the quarry and notice the flower display at the top of the mountain. It’s amazing even from here on the road but, of course, I must go up there. The flower display is absolutely gorgeous. Pinks, purples and whites swirl around the hillside. The splendor of the display is accentuated by the faces of all us visitors who cannot hide our joy at beholding such a sight. Children frolic, parents smile at their frolicking offspring and elderly people shuffle along taking close up photos of all the flowers.
The climb to Lake Haruna turns out to be as epic as the road cyclists warned me it would be. I manage to cycle steadily up the first 3km (2 miles) but then the going gets tough and my legs decide not to push the pedals anymore. I’m still at about 500m above sea level and need to reach 1,400m to get to the lake. For the next 10km (6 miles) I alternate between walking and cycling. I don’t let myself get frustrated or upset. Rather, I focus on the steady progress I am making. I walk a kilometer before I manage to find the strength to cycle half that distance. Then I walk another half kilometer and manage to cycle a full one. Slowly, steadily and patiently I climb. The road is narrow so sometimes I have to stop and stand against the guard rail to let larger cars pass. Three times I stop simply to eat some food or pour some precious drinking water over my head. It’s over 25’C (77’F) and I am covered in sweat. But still I climb up this seemingly never-ending struggle focusing not on the challenge but on the beauty around me. I admire the trees, listen to the birds singing, marvel at the construction of the twists and turns that make up this road, and admire the road cyclists who pedal past me on their weightless machines with their very attractive muscular shaved legs powering them ever on as I pant and push my heavy beast of burden with my hairy legs.
And then I arrive at the summit. I almost cannot believe my eyes. It’s been almost three hours since I left the flower festival and somehow that time has become my entire existence. A couple of road cyclists are resting at the top of the climb and call out “sugoi” (“excellent”) to me as I roll up to them. I laugh and indicate that I walked a lot of the way. They nod and say something that can only mean “we know because we saw you”. But we are all cyclists and we have all conquered the climb so share the moment before I push off to roll down to the lake.
Lake Haruna is so worth the effort of arrival. I squeal with joy (and lose some of my masculine cred in the process) when I see the horse drawn cart, swan-shaped pedal boats and epic swan shaped ferry. It’s the ferry that really makes me laugh. I mean, really? Where else are you going to see something that bizarre? And it works here. It really does. I don’t think you could have Lake Haruna without the swan ferry. I take a rest, eat some random Japanese snack that I really do not like but I am so hungry I force it down. And then pedal slowly around to the other side of the lake where I take my lunch break and watch fishermen lazing in boats under cherry blossoms. This is so Japan.
It’s busy up here at the lake and there is not really anywhere to camp. It’s obvious a couple of motor homes have camped in the main carpark but I would feel awkward doing that with my tent with all these domestic tourists around. Besides, I just climbed a mountain so I want to descend. And what a descent. The descents here in Japan are bliss. I am no mountain goat and have a tendency to wear out my brake pads if I descend too many mountains. But here in Japan I am managing much better because the gradients are usually well under 10% and the cambers on the corners are perfect. I descend for ages, resting my legs and freewheeling except for the moments when I just need to stop and take photos. I can see the alpine mountains to which I am headed in the distance and suddenly feel scared. They are huge! How will I ever get over them? I push that thought from my mind and continue to enjoy the long downhill ride.
And enjoy it I must because soon I am climbing steadily again but this time more gently than the Haruna Lake climb. I ascend the side of a long valley where I watch farmers plough muddy fields to prepare for planting of the rice. The climb passes quickly as I enjoy that sight. I wish I could explain my fascination with this whole farming thing but I can’t. As a child I wanted to be either a farmer or an explorer. It’s taken a long time but, for now, I get to be the latter.
I reach a michi-no-eki that isn’t signed on my fancy michi-no-eki map that I picked up yesterday. It’s a pleasant surprise and comes at just the right time of day. I’ve cycled 65km and am ready for a rest. The place is pumping because there is an onsen here. Oh how I wish I could partake in the onsen experience but alas that’s not to be. So I lay in the sun working for a little while on my laptop before the bulk of the cars start to leave and it’s time for me to head down to the quiet part of the carpark where the motor homes and mini vans are starting to congregate. This is the sign that it’s okay for me to set up camp here.
The coolest combo ever turns up. In Australia you often see undersized sedans towing huge caravans but here it’s the other way round. This massive hummer is towing the cutest little caravan. And I have to admit, the guy who gets out is just an average older guy but the car certainly makes him look ten times more attractive (and I’m not even into cars). The couple with the hummer and cute caravan are lovely and we chat a little while before they go off to their camp and leave me to my tent. A motor home owner nearby comes to talk with me too. He and his wife have hosted Australian exchange students. They speak “Eigo skoshi” (a little bit of English) and we laugh because I speak “Nihongo skoshi“. It’s enough to get by with some sign language and some nodding and thinking we understand each other. I like this side of michi-no-eki living. It’s social like bush camps in the Australian Outback where everyone checks each other out and then moves on to leave each other back in peace. If you ever come to Japan, do yourself a favour. Skip the JR pass and rent yourself a minivan or car and sleep for free at the mich-no-eki. Buy some local products to support the local businesses, use the onsens if they are available and you can, and chat with local Japanese people along the way. It’s definitely been a highlight of my time here.
I look down over the fence rail near where I am camped and see my first ever snow plough. I know, this is yet another normal thing for most of the Western world because almost every country gets snow. But remember that I have always lived in the sub tropics and traveled to places in the summers. Snow ploughs are something I have only ever seen in movies. So I feel a little excited.
And then the sun goes down. It’s the end of another magical day cycling in Japan. I have already almost forgotten the challenge of the climb and my mind is already starting to focus on the positives like the swan pedal boats, cool camping neighbours and burnt orange sky.