Marunumakogen to Nishikata (Honshu)

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I wake up early and set off into the spring snow. I can see why some years this pass is closed until the beginning of June; there is still plenty of snow on the ground even now in mid-spring. I’ve heard that this spring has been unseasonably warm in Japan so the passes have opened early. It’s lucky for me because it means I get to live a dream of cycling along snowy roads without the danger of slipping on ice (there is no chance of ice in this heat).

The road is amazing and it has taken all my self-discipline not to post a hundred photos of the snow-lined road because I know not everyone gets as excited about the white stuff as I do. That said, later I will come to a carpark where Japanese tourists are parking fancy cars and motorbikes next to a big pile of snow and taking photographs, so others must still like it.
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There is a string of pretty lakes up here. They are all high altitude lakes with impossibly blue water. I can’t help but wonder how deep they must be. Do they plunge back down almost to sea level or are they just little shallow ponds? From the colour they appear deep. Most are inaccessible from the road because there is nowhere to park and the drop at the edge too steep. I certainly wouldn’t like to try clambering down only to end up wet and cold in what must be icy water.
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One of the lakes is still frozen. It’s the first time I’ve actually seen a frozen lake before. Until now it’s just been something I’ve seen in magazines and television shows. The lake is only partially frozen with whole sections in the middle still watery. There are a couple of ice bergs floating in there too. They are not big like in the movie Titanic but they are there all the same. The water is so clear that I can actually see what they mean by most of the ice berg being below the water. It’s fascinating.
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I come to a small village-like area. I discover that on one side of the road is a car park and food stop while the other side is a camping area with some cabins. Many Japanese people have set up for the night in the car park and are waking up doing morning things like packing small tents, brushing their teeth and organising hiking gear. All are wearing fancy waterproof boots and technical clothing. Here I am in my t-shirt and shorts wearing nothing but joggers. I feel like I’ve turned up at a black tie event wearing a Hawaiian shirt. But it’s okay. I am just going for a short wander up the snow-covered trail for a couple of hundred meters. I wouldn’t actually go out hiking in an alpine area dressed like this. And I do have proper warm and waterproof clothes in my panniers (just not boots). I find a big flat plain under the mountain and a locked ski hut. I love alpine huts in Australia and this one is just as cool.

A short while later I end the climb, zip through a tunnel and am out the other side looking at the flat lands below the alps. I stop in a small viewing point and some Japanese people talk to me. It seems that every time I tell someone I am from Australia they have themselves gone there for a working holiday or for business. The lady I speak with calls her daughter (my age) out of the car. She went to Australia last year with her children for a couple of weeks. This connection between the two countries is strong and something of a passport to an easier journey here.
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The descent from the alps is wonderful. I go from about 1,700m down to 1,300m and come to a lake where fly fishermen are flicking their lines. Again, this is a first for me because I’ve not ever seen people fly fishing in real life either. I love how travel is taking me to places where I see simple things for the first time. I sit a while to watch the fishermen.
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Descending towards the Nikko area takes me into a new landscape. I imagine it will be dense and green come the summer. There are many hiker in this area and many car parks with maps showing the local trails. All the hikers wear small bells on their packs that I later learn is to let the bears know they are coming. I must remember to get me one of those bells for if I come here to hike.
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At Lake Chuzenji I start to realise just how busy this area is. There are tourists, both domestic and foreign, everywhere. And it’s still early by Japanese standards. I ride through, passing the massive torii gates that mark the entrance to the area.
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There is a huge waterfall nearby. Sorry for having to post a portrait shaped photo. I know they take up a lot of screen space online but it’s the only way to show its size and scale. I love the way the water takes many paths to reach the bottom of the falls.
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A tunnel of sakura greets me as I ride away from the falls.
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The map shows lots of squiggling lines that make up the road heading towards Nikko. It makes me worry that I will have to climb another pass. So it is a lovely surprise to see that the squiggly lines actually lead to a massive descent. In three kilometers (two miles) I go through more than 25 hairpin bends. It’s an absolutely amazing ride. I love watching the cars disappearing around the bends below me and then watching them reappear again.
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I reach Nikko and it’s packed. The crowds are overwhelming to my senses after being in quiet areas for so long. The area is famous for its temples but, as I mentioned earlier, the temples here in Japan don’t speak to me so I give them a miss. Especially with so many people packed in the place. Instead, I use the free wifi at the tourist information centre and then head to a chain cafe to eat. I ate at one of these back at the Fuji Lakes and know I can refuel on something other than rice or noodles for a reasonable price. I select chips, fried chicken and sauteed spinach with bacon. It sets me back all of $12 including the unlimited drinks bar (oh I make good use of that, believe you me). Not the most Japanese meal, I know, but I really am over rice and noodles. All I want is a big steak with dianne sauce and thick cut chips. But I have eaten Asian cooked steaks before and they are no substitute for an Australian pub so I will wait until I return home.
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Happily fed I set off again to ride the 45km to Nishikata where there is a michi-no-eki. I am glad that I am not cycling towards Nikko from this direction because there is literally a 5km line of cars going nowhere fast.
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Instead I get to enjoy about 10km of this beautiful narrow road through tall trees.
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Once out of the tree-lined road I am in a mix or urban rural landscape where small plot farmers grow food while houses and commercial properties compete for attention. Even here in the no man’s land that is ignored by all the guide books there is always something to be seen. And so ends a day that took me from cycling along a snow-lined road to what is probably the far outer fringes of Tokyo.

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7 thoughts on “Marunumakogen to Nishikata (Honshu)

  1. What a marvelous day! Snow, alpine lakes, waterfalls, tree-lined streets, awesome hair-pin bends to ride down, friendly locals (although I realise that goes both ways)… You make it sounds too good! 😊

    • I have seen a 30 acrew property for sale near the Australian Alps (views of the alps and only 1 hour drive from ski resorts). It’s in my price range. Am considering buying it so I can live near the snow.

  2. This reads and looks like a great day riding Andrew. I enjoyed the variety of landscapes in your photos. The hairpin bends would have been heaps of fun!

    The snow really is something else when it’s so unfamiliar. I know that feeling too!

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