Joetsu – Yudanaka
Nine of the twelve highest mountains in Japan can be found in Nagano; a fact alone that was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat, and this was before a hearty old man with the essence of doom paid me a visit whilst I was packing up camp. He informed me that a typhoon was on the way and that I should be wary. The typhoon he was referring to was Typhoon Neoguri, and having just recently devastated parts of Okinawa it had now made landfall in the south and was bang on track for Nagano. I sighed and thanked him for the news, as he rewarded me with a can of coffee and a goodwill gesture of ‘Ganbatte,’ Good luck.
Many of the mountains across the Japanese Alps are well over 3,000 metres in height, so it was no place to be cycling if a typhoon should hit. Landslides, flooding, falling trees and slippery terrain could all quite easily get a cyclist mullered. Yet I’d been in touch with a bagel shop owner in the mountain town of Kusatsu – just over the border into Gunma Prefecture – who confirmed that her and her family would be delighted to offer me refuge for a couple of nights. By my calculations it would take me two days to reach them, bang in sync with the typhoon hitting central Japan. So now I had to make an executive decision, do I wait it out on the coastal flats of Niigata or try and make it to my saviours, embedded deep within the mountains of Gunma. I downed my can of coffee and looked toward the crystal clear skies, they were sexy, enticing and appeared to yield little danger. To the east a set of beautiful forested vistas trailed off into a hazy infinity. And, like a reckless fool, I began to chase them.
Nagano – host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, was a prefecture of scenic splendour. Yet, with its formidable array of mountains, it is an absolute gauntlet for a cyclist; it was going to be a long, hard week. Rivers cut through the vast network of alpine clustered mountains as the rich volcanic soils of the foothills offered up an agricultural haven to the local farmers. At just above sea level – the inland prefecture with towering peaks – gives one a slightly caged in feeling, it was only as I climbed higher and out of the plains that the true contrast of my challenge became clear.
As I reached the city of Liyama, it was swelteringly hot, so I decided to break for lunch. The city’s hidden talent is that it held the World Record for building the most snowmen in an hour… 1,585 to be exact. The current heat though made it difficult for me to imagine that snow was even a possibility in such a blazing inferno.
In the local supermarket, I bought a couple of ice creams before sitting outside on a bench in the shade. Next to me was a fat man, who looked at me with hungry eyes… I felt bad to be honest, but my hunger was raging and I needed all two ice creams for myself. It was selfish of me, but in the long run fatso would surely understand that I was doing him a favour.
Ice cream gormandizing aside, I would soon be slung into a ruthless ascent. The sun consistently remorseless, wearing me out fast. Making it to Nakano, I headed east along Route 292; there I found a brief refuge in an uphill tunnel. The north end of the tunnel allowed a cool vacuum of air to pass through it; soothing me somewhat and distorting a headache that had been gradually building. A little up ahead, I found the onsen town of Yudanaka. Stopping there for sushi and yet more headache inducing ice cream, I decided that it was time for a bath.
The area of Yamanouchi where Yudanaka essentially lies, is famed in winter for its Japanese Macaques. Coming in from the surrounding mountains, they bathe and relax in luxury amongst the area’s natural hot springs. Their berry-red faces and their icicle infested beards are a famed depiction of Japan in the winter time. However, in the summer months, the mountain forests are flush with fresh running water and an abundance of wild fruits, so the macaques venture out of town. Which is perhaps why – as I pulled up outside the train station and discovered a public foot spa – I felt like the next best tourist attraction. With little thought, I prised my shoes and socks off and doused my cheesy blocks into the mineral rich waters. It felt sublime. An elderly couple watched with some fascination as a teenage girl took a photograph of me on her iPhone, then ran off into the mountains, laughing.
Adjacent the foot spa was a bathhouse. I entered respectfully, placing my shoes in a wicker basket on the wall, before walking through a set of drapes and into a reception area. The lady behind the counter seemed hesitant as I ordered myself one bath. Having had mustered the odour of an evil poo spirit over the past week I guess she had every right to be concerned; for I had no doubt that evil poo spirits hadn’t been seen around these parts for a very long time… until now.
The onsen was full as I entered; some eight men packed tight into the bath, arse cheek to arse cheek. It was awkward to know where to look as I began to loiter amongst the nude beings. I observed the ceiling for a bit and found a hairline crack in the wall which I followed with my eyes for a bit in order to keep myself busy. By the time the crack had worked its way down the wall towards another, err… crack, the sausage party had mostly sizzled out. And with the space for one more, I dived in. The scorching hot waters opened and purified my clogged pores and massaged my stretched, tired muscles. As was tradition, in exactly 3 minutes and 24 seconds, I was fully baked and ready to flake out.
Well into the groove of keeping up with the act of cleanliness, I did some late evening laundry until the skies became moist. I hoped it wasn’t the typhoon finding its way into the mountains a day early.
After washing and drying my fetid clothing, I sought out a public park alongside the Kakuma River. There, I set up my tent on the concrete foundations of a picnic shelter. It would then proceed to hammer it down as a thunderstorm unfolded. A superstitious man might have crossed his fingers. I, however, did no such thing.
‘Tokyo to Tokyo – A Cycling Adventure around Japan.’
Enjoy the ride.