I wouldn’t be the first Englishman to tackle Mt. Norikura, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. In 1878, a: professor, mining engineer, mountaineer, foreign advisor, writer, archaeologist, better man and fellow Englishman, William Gowland, became the first to summit Mt. Norikura. He noted then how the beautiful, multi-pinnacle terrain was reminiscent of the French Alps, and was the first to christen the area, the Japanese Alps. From the basin of Matsumoto, with its panoramic views of the mountains, its title becomes just, it truly was a beauty. But like some beauties I’ve met in my life, it would perhaps also have the potential to be stubborn and uptight.
It was whilst waiting at one of the many red traffic lights on my way out of the city, that a Japanese gentleman skidded up alongside me on his mountain bike, grinning. His look suggested that he was just on his way to the shops to fetch a pint of milk: faded black t-shirt, joggers and a pair of Nike’s – prime convenience store going clobber. The stranger asked me my destination and I confirmed Mt. Norikura. His grin widened as he told me he knew a better route out of the city, and, before I knew, I had myself a guide. Mr Hazuki would lead me along a number of quiet back roads, away from the bustling down town traffic, and out into the eastern foothills of the Alps. He kept a good pace up in front, turning occasionally to make sure that I hadn’t perished. His intentions for the day were actually unclear to me, but I hoped that his wife wasn’t in a hurry for her pint of milk. Stopping briefly, we had a little chat in broken Japanese and English. He was a semi-retired salaryman with a big passion for cycling and showed me some pictures (on his smart phone) of his racing bike. I saw another photo of him dressed in his skin-tight cycling habiliments, to prove his point. I told him that he looked nice, which instantly felt like a weird thing to say. He then put his phone away and looked at the road ahead.
‘Hai, dozo,’ said Mr Hazuki, ushering me forward into the mountains.
I wasn’t too sure if this was goodbye, but as I began to cycle up front, I turned my head around to see that Mr Hazuki was following. Your wife is going to be so pissed when you get home! I thought.
The terrain got steep fast, and before long we were both sweating and dribbling in the mid-afternoon heat. Mr Hazuki tailed me close, so I felt slightly under pressure to set a certain pace as we ascended. I was cycling a little faster than I normally would; my baggage adding to the strain. Passing a number of dams en route, things suddenly got intense as we entered a cramped and hideously gloomy set of tunnels; reminiscent of a Victorian London sewer system. Dark and wet, I felt pressed to the tunnels’ slimy walls by the now heavy flowing traffic. The monotonous drone of engines filled my ears and the smell of fumes was excessive as the rutted asphalt made the road juddery.
Things got even spicier when the tunnel decided to split in two, something I’d never witnessed before. One way would lead directly under the Alps and the other up and over them. I of course needed the up and over option, which meant I’d have to risk life and limb etching myself across the dark and busy tunnel to make sure that I was in the right lane. My adrenaline was pumping savagely, allowing me to focus, my quads clocking up some overtime with the hope that this intoxicating nightmare would soon be over.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t look around to see if Mr Hazuki was still following on, as one small blip could’ve cost me my life. Cutting gradually into the correct line, the traffic would ease greatly, allowing me to realise that Mr Hazuki was not far behind. Up ahead I could see daylight. I sighed with relief; and my colon did too.
Stopping just outside the tunnel’s entrance, I was again glad to be amongst the fresh mountain air. Mr Hazuki emerged soon afterwards, still grinning.
‘Yabai ne?’ dangerous isn’t it? I said, starkly.
‘Sou, sou, sou,’ he agreed. ‘Chotto…’ he began to point up ahead as if we were now close to something significant.
Again Mr Hazuki would lead the way as I slumped a short way behind upon the gradient’s increase. Shunning a few more switchbacks, the terrain eventually levelled out, and at 1,400 metres we had made it to Norikura Kogen, the Norikura Plateau. This roughly marked the halfway point in the mountain’s ascent. A small number of houses, hotels and shops clustered the plateau… and a bottle shop. Barely was there time to blink before Mr Hazuki and I were sinking a beer together. Taking a seat curb-side we drank in silence; a well-rewarded silence.
In Matsumoto, I had briefly visited the local tourist office and they confirmed that Norikura Kogen had a camp site. I quizzed Mr Hazuki on the matter and he knew exactly which way to go; in fact he led me there! Awesome was obviously his first name.
Trudging up a stiff ski slope and along a dusty mountain bike path, amongst the shade of evergreens, we would cut through a wild meadow, before emerging out onto small grassland clearing. The site had an out of season feel to it with a closed reception and shop area, a locked up shower block, a clapped out looking diesel generator and only one other tent set up. There was however a beer vending machine.
I treated Mr Hazuki to another round of Asahi’s, which sadly would become a reluctant goodbye drink. Eventually, we shook hands and I thanked him for his legendary deed, then he headed back east to get some milk for Mrs Hazuki. I hoped for Mr Hazuki’s sake that his wife was an extremely patient woman.
I set up camp and drank another beer. The peak of Mt. Norikura peered down upon me gloriously as the sky turned the colour of crimson; the sun setting beyond the great mass of rock. The climes today had been ideal and I could only ask for the same again tomorrow on my journey to the summit. It had been a long and difficult trudge, yet thanks to Mr Hazuki, I was unexpectedly half-way there. I was surely at the point of no return?
The 3rd installment of ‘The Japanese Alps’ 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.