Ueda – Norikura Kougen
Judgement day pulled closer; apprehension and dread becoming a commonly frequent fixation of my latest dreams. All because of the Norikura Skyline, a road that scaled the roof of the Japanese Alps at some 2,715 metres, officially making it the highest road in Japan. But not the highest public road, for the road to the summit is limited to just taxis, tour buses and cyclists (yay!). I wagered that I wouldn’t be beginning the ascent until the following day, thus allowing myself to focus on the job in hand of making it through another cluster of mountains and on towards Matsumoto.
I started the day within the castle grounds of Ueda, next to an aviary full of squawking budgerigars. This was a busy little city with malls, malls and more malls. I’d crept into the grounds close to sundown, knowing that the budgies wouldn’t mind because they knew that they’d get the guilty pleasure of acting as my alarm clock… come the ungodly hour of 5am.
Taking in a breakfast of gyōza and strawberry cream sandwiches, I directed myself west, out of the city. The alpine flora hit my nostrils; a smell that I’d most certainly miss upon returning to the grind of a 9 till 5.
The climb up through the mountains was steady and gracious, the cool of the woodland shade welcome. The road narrow saw very little traffic and close by there was an alternate toll road that cut directly through the mountains, but this was strictly off limits to cyclist scum such as myself. In the odd car that did pass by, passengers’ cast glances. A small red Subaru passed at one stage; a child in the rear seat with his face pressed up against the window smearing the glass with his breath. I imagined the in-car conversation to keep my mind occupied.
‘Hey Dad, look at that wanker,’ says the child, pointing at me.
‘I see him son,’ replies the despondent dad.
‘Look at all that shit he’s lugging up into the Alps with him.’
‘Yup, it’s all shit son, it’s all shit.’
The mother in the passenger seat turns her head to take a fleeting glance at the wanker on the bike.
‘There certainly seems to be an increase in wankers these days,’ she adds.
‘Silence woman,’ demands the dad.
The mother hastily returns to her Sunday supplement and reads about space lepers.
‘That man really is a real life wanker isn’t he?’
‘He sure is kiddo, he sure is!’ At this point the father comes to a downhill incline and so he puts his foot down upon the accelerator like a complete prick. ‘Buckle up son, it’s time for daddy to start driving like a total twat… for no reason.’
‘Ok dad,’ the child buckles up, taking one last look at me.
Simple things for simple minds they say, and to be honest, these are the kind of workings that would constantly spill through my mind as I scaled an endless foray of mountains across the country. Having no music, radio or company one is left with nothing but one’s own imagination. For better or for worse it’s difficult to say, but for the best part it bought me a little light entertainment along the way, and… it was free!
Cruising back down the mountains and into the plains of Matsumoto, Nagano’s second biggest city would offer a temporary release from my imaginarium. The city’s central hub thrived with students and their mamachari as they clogged the streets, often making it difficult for a wide-boy like myself to pass. My bicycle bell, which I had rarely made use of, would inevitably come in handy here. The locals respected its monosyllabic chiming as I neared them. To ring my bell at a student or an obstructing pedestrian back in the UK would more often than not lead to me getting lambasted with an indignant medley of both verbal and more than likely physical abuse. Something culturally that the British wouldn’t have any other way, as opposed to the Japanese, who always give way to a stranger, as if it is ingrained into their culture.
I came to a halt for lunch, alongside the moat to the rather splendid Matsumoto Castle. Completed in the early 1600’s, its 5-storey tower sits prominently upon a motte of boulders as one of Japan’s oldest existing structures. The moat contained a burly fleet of koi carp, all contesting for feed that the tourists could buy from an elderly lady by the glistening water’s edge. I watched the tourists come and go, whilst sat under the shade of a vine clustered trellis; occasionally peering out to the west and observing the inevitable. Stacked high, climbing up and piercing the clouds, snow still formed upon several peaks. My palms began to get a little clammy. The mountain air was again so close I could almost inhale it. I looked back at the koi carp, they glubbed at some grain on the surface; they were living the high life. Averting my gaze west again, the skies were bright and clear. And there Mt. Norikura loomed, all 3,026 metres of it on full vivacious display, the perfect day perhaps to begin an ascent upon the country’s 3rd largest mountain. I gulped, looking back towards the calmness of the moat. The frenzy of carp were dispersing and so I sighed and stood up, returning my glance to the beautifully gruesome chain of mountains to the west – the Japanese Alps.
‘Fuck it,’ I said, like a gung-ho champ. I then headed west…
PART 2 coming soon.
If you have enjoyed this yarn, then you may well appreciate a more thorough and graphic account of my journey in ‘Tokyo to Tokyo – A Cycling Adventure around Japan.’
Enjoy the ride.
Now you see him….
Now you don’t!
The art of a good stealth camp. Blog coming soon.