As I pack to leave the michi-no-eki, more local Japanese campers start to talk with me. I love the fact that most speak little or no eigo (English) because it is refreshing to be in a place that hasn’t been totally colonised by the English-speaking world. Using sign language, a few known phrases, some guesswork, the map and Google translate (which sometimes makes strange incomprehensible translations) we manage some conversation. A man and his wife insist on buying me a drink from the vending machine. This is cycle touring at it’s best. When your guard is down and you are open to meeting new people with whom conversation is a challenge.
And with a few sugoi‘s behind me I am off to explore the unknown that lies ahead (including the huge mountains I saw in the distance yesterday). My first stop is this strong statue. I leave an offering and ask for a safe journey. I don’t know whether that’s what one does at a statue like this but I just follow my heart to see where it leads.
I enter yet another area of Japan’s agriculture industry: apples. The apple blossoms are flowering on these old trees. Many look like they’ve seen decades of seasons come and go with their thick espaliered branches. Oh how delicious it must be to come here later in the year when the apples are ripe and selling on the road side. I love to eat apples when I ride.
There’s a high school baseball match being played. I watch as the boys throw fast and frenzied pitches, heckle the batters from the outfield and slide between bases. It looks like the nation’s baseball credentials are in good hands for the next generation. Like school sports everywhere, parents watch from the sidelines with picnic lunches while younger siblings look bored playing games on mobile gaming devices to pass the time.
Like all who cycle Japan, I am becoming used to tunnels. They take the edge off climbs and are not as scary as I first thought (though they are crazy loud). The amazing thing about tunnels is that sometimes you can see the light at the end from a long way off. In this photo, the light is more than 800m (half a mile) away. In a tunnel earlier on my ride I could see the end from more than 2km away.
I have not read any guides about what to expect along the way so am pleasantly surprised to come across Fukare Falls. The first I see is a gorge visible from the road. It’s stunning. The water surges between the rocks and trees, forcing its way every towards the sea. There is also a sea of people around walking along paths near the gorge. Men hold parking signs at almost every shop or stall on the road. I stop to buy an ice cream and am given a map. It’s in Japanese so I am still unsure as to what’s here but there are walkways shown on the map and the guy who gives it to me is insistent that I check it out. He lets me park my bicycle in his carpark for free (well, I did buy an ice cream). The falls are amazing! There are layers of them cascading loudly. The first one I come to is about 25m high and thundering. As I walk upstream I come to lower but more complex falls where water fans out across the river bed only to come together in a meeting of multiple drops. It’s spectacular. Like everywhere I’ve been in Asia, the people who created the pathway are more trusting of their visitors’ common sense than are our Australian officials. There’s hardly any railings or fences so it would be easy to fall in but no one is pushing or shoving so there’s little risk. If this were at home, I suspect a large mesh fence would prevent anyone from truly appreciating the beauty of the place (if we were allowed to enter at all; what with the ridiculous safety focus my country has). I watch the water closely. Eddies are clearly visible, ripples show shallow sections and I enjoy the sight of my first ever standing wave. No way am I ever going to be a white water paddler … that surge of power is frightening in it’s beauty.
Leaving the waterfall behind I continue my ride. The road is climbing now towards the alpine mountains. But the gradient is not too bad because this is a major road that has been well-designed. I stop for a snack in a park overlooking snow capped peaks. A look at the map proves that these are not the peaks to which I am headed. I am going further east to where no snow is visible and I cannot help but feel worried that I might still miss out on seeing the white stuff. Though a quick refocus reminds me that whatever I find will be what I am meant to find, regardless of whether or not it includes snow.
The weather has changed since I first arrived in Osaka almost three weeks ago. The days are now long and hot. With sunrise before 5am and sunset after 7pm there is plenty of time for the heat to sink in. The road is now winding along a cool mountain creek so I have to stop. I consider swimming but prefer just to watch from a rock and then soak my hat in the water to cool off. This would make an amazing place to camp with plenty of flat ground. But I am still not so sure about Japan’s bear situation. Later I will see signs warning hikers to wear bells and carry whistles to warn the bears away. If I came back, I’d want to do some research into this animal that is as much a mystery to me as some of Australia’s snakes and spiders are to foreign visitors.
And then it happens. About 20km into the climb I come to my first proper patch of snow. I am as excited as a child unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. It’s just a small melting lump of white frozen water on the side of the road but it represents so much. It means I have traveled far from my home to a vastly different climate. It means I have climbed higher than I believed possible. And it means that there is a possibility I might get to go skiing (only my favourite sport of all time). The cars and motorbikes driving up the mountain with skis and snowboards strapped to them only add to my excitement. But I still have about 10km to go until I reach Marunumakogen.
And then I arrive. There is only one run open because most of the snow has melted but the resort is working hard to keep the money rolling in until the end of Golden Week in three days time. I hand over a wad of cash to hire skis and buy a lift pass. The guy at the information desk has told me that the run is 4km (2.5 miles) long and the longest I have ever skied is about 400m (1/4 mile) and it’s not like the money will still be in my wallet next week. So why not.
I take the gondola to the top of the mountain. Yes, a gondola. This is a real proper ski resort with a real proper gondola. It takes about 15 minutes to even arrive at the top of the run. For someone whose skiing experience is limited to tow ropes and the odd quad chair where you are at the top before you finish blinking a fifteen minute gondola ride is out of this world. As are the views. No photo can do them justice. I can see everything for miles: mountains, lakes and skiers making their way down the run.
At the top of the gondola there is a large red shrine and the summit of Mt Shirine. A sign declares that we are at 2,000m above sea level and that the summit stands at over 2,500m. People carrying packs with pick axes and crampons are walking down from the summit trail and taking the gondola back down the mountain (well, some have special short skis that they are using instead). It’s all very adventurous and wonderful.
Not so wonderful is my skiing ability. But that’s to be expected when you’ve only skied half a dozen times in your life. And that’s before you factor in the 55km mostly uphill bicycle ride I took to arrive here (my legs are pretty knackered). But if skiing is like surfing then the best skier on the slopes is the one having the most fun. And in that class of skier I am probably way out in front. I laugh and smile all the way down the slopes. This is happiness to me. And to get to do it for 4km is seriously unreal. I even open my wallet to purchase a second gondola pass (I misunderstood and thought I’d paid for three rides up the mountain when I had actually only paid for three sectors or one gondola ride) so I can go down again. My second run is much better than the first though I do fall over on one section. I am the only person in shorts and t-shirt and probably the only one on rented skis. The children ski faster than me and I don’t just mean the fearless helmets on skis children; I also meant the slightly more cautious 6-10 year old children. This two-and-a-half hours on the slopes is probably the highlight of my trip so far. Happiness is having a set of skis on a snow slope.
The lifts stop as I reach the end of my second run and everyone is coming down the mountain to end the day. Signs show that the slopes close at 4:30pm and that’s pretty much what time it is. I still haven’t found a place to camp but spotted a disused carpark from the gondola. I decide to head there though I probably could have got away with camping in the resort carpark after hours (there are a few minivans and motor homes here that I am sure will be staying the night). But I am still a novice at this so start riding. The carpark that looked so close by is actually another 5km up the road. Along the way I pass two stunning high altitude lakes that I cannot reach (well, I could reach the second but it has no shores for camping and would require some downhill cycling and we all know what that means in the morning).
I make camp in the gravel car park near the road. There are many deer up here eating their way through the spring grasses. At first I am confused at the sounds they make. It sounds like a high pitched whistle. But I guess you learn many new things every day when cycle touring, including the sound that deer make.
The sun sets over the alps, I cook a feed and then retire to my tent to sleep. It’s been a huge and happy day.