Norikura Kougen – Takayama
Up and away by 06:30am the skies were dreary; contrary to the weather forecast.
The climb was slow and steady and a number of race cycling enthusiasts passed me en route to the summit. Each wished me good luck as they went by, some would comment upon my heavy load. I agreed as up in these mountains – at an average speed of about 4 mph – I was like a mamachari compared to the speeds that some of these boys could reach.
A gentle drizzle set in as I came to a switchback that revealed the peak of Mt. Norikura was no more. The skies above were now painted in a variety of gloomy shades and, around me, random clumps of snow still sat on the ground. For the better part of the year, the roads up here are impassable, as the surrounds become enveloped in some 7 metres of the white stuff.
Approaching Sanbondaki at 1,800 metres, I reached the point where private cars were no longer allowed to traverse the remaining 915 metres to the summit. My only fight now would be with taxis, tour buses and border control.
As I came to a closed gateway, a stern-faced man in uniform and a black cap appeared from a small roadside shack. He was directing a crossed forearms salute in my general direction, suggesting to me that there would be no entry. It was a sign also given by West Ham fans like myself in proud support of their team. I brandished my irons right back at him, copying his stance.
‘Come on West Ham,’ I chanted.
The stern-faced man from border control failed to see my humour and looked around at one of his colleagues with a little confusion. His colleague quickly ducked back down behind his counter and out of sight. He wanted nothing to do with my kind.
‘kono michi shimette desu,’ this road is closed, confirmed Stern-face.
This was foul news. ‘Hontou ni?’ Really?
‘Racing Carnival,’ he said, in English.
‘A Racing Carnival?’
‘Demo Gifu ikitai,’ but, I want to go to Gifu, I pleaded.
Gifu Prefecture, has a split border at the summit of Mt. Norikura, with one section of the mountain belonging to Nagano and the other respectively to Gifu. I could only presume that the race was on the Gifu side, as all was relatively quiet in Nagano and far flung from a ‘carnival’ atmosphere, especially with Stern-face on watch.
He confirmed that I couldn’t go to Gifu. I suggested that this would be a bit of a problem for me as I had come all the way from England to cycle the world famous Norikura Skyline. Stern-face would then aggravatingly agree with me, before solemnly pointing back in the direction of Matsumoto and suggesting that I descend back down the mountain. Quite naturally, he just didn’t give a fuck for my predicament but… it’s a race, and like all races, it must come to a timely end.
‘What time does the race end?’ I blurted out excitedly, making Stern-face shudder slightly.
He looked at his watch, ’11:00am,’ he confirmed.
I then in turn looked at my watch. It was 09:30am. It would take me a few hours to reach the summit at my pace; the carnival would be long finished by then. In terrible Japanese I tried to explain this to Stern-face by fast-forwarding my watch to 12 o’clock, in order to purvey that I wouldn’t reach Norikura’s summit until then. He didn’t know what an earth I was going on about, he just kept telling me to go back to Matsumoto. My blood by this point was beginning to boil. I’d just have to keep working on him until either he got fed up or I self-combusted. With the rain intensifying I hoped that either of the two possibilities would conclude with haste.
’Ja, 11:00am, Gifu no michi, daijoubu desu ka?’ So, at 11:00am, the road to Gifu is ok?
‘Watashi wa chou osoi ne,’ I’m really slow. Pointing at all my luggage, ‘takusan garakuta ga arimasu kara,’ because I’m carrying so much junk.
‘Hai.’ Yes. His stern expression began to lighten a little, as he now merely looked weary.
And after a short and depressing sigh, he turned to face the road to the summit. ‘Hai, ok, ok.’ He said, as he reluctantly waved me through the barrier.
There was a small pause of shock on my behalf before the realisation that I’d won kicked in. But rather than linger and relish in the glory, I peddled through the now opened checkpoint barrier as quick as I could – just in case old Wearisome-face changed his mind.
Overwhelmed as I continued with my ascent, the skies would congratulate me by absolutely pissing all over me. And, as I cast a quick look over my shoulder, the checkpoint barrier was down again and the artist formerly known as Stern-face had disappeared back into his glum shack. If I’d have played the wrong card in that little mind game, the moment could well have ended in devastation. Alas, the day was still young and as I breached ever closer to the summit there was still yet plenty of time for a well synchronised dosing of drama.
Heading above the alpines, I came across an empty ski field; the snow still plentiful at this altitude. Torrents of rain fell, crashing down deafeningly upon my safety helmet as a northerly wind occasionally whipped across the exposed dips in the mountain’s jagged terrain. Drains to the sides of the road were filling up fast and the road itself was converging into a fast flowing stream; progress becoming formidably slow. I passed a bunch of wet and miserable skiers huddled together under the shelter of a mountain hut; their eyes offering me sympathy. Things were getting unhealthy, what was I doing up here? It was possible that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, as suddenly the idea of ‘Amsterdam to Amsterdam’ began to have a much more nourishing ring to it than ‘Tokyo to Tokyo.’
Taking time out, I huddled up against a snow wall, which offered some refuge from the now almost horizontally falling rain. Soaked to the bone, I quickly began to strip out of my drenched waterproof clothing and into another back-up set. Japan’s rainy season had made me wise to its elements, or so I had thought. And as I made a lingering ascent to the summit of Japan’s highest road, I approached the border into Gifu. I’d made it. A moment of contentedness hit me, as I knew a descent would soon follow. At this point things couldn’t possibly get any worse than my ascent – or could they?
The 4th and final 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.