Another Day With Mountains

Fujimi to Lake Kawaguchi

May 23, 2023

Today was our last ride before heading to Tokyo. On paper it looked easy with it being mostly downhill up to a point. It was a wonderful morning ride. Not much wind, a bit of sunshine and mild temperatures trending to the cool side. I got an early start hoping to have the road to myself and ease into the ride. I even had time to do a short video call with my wife, Chris and gave her some live views from the valley at the base of my descent. On my way down to the village I passed some sort of institution where there was a wall rack containing twenty or so unicycles. Either it was a Japanese clown collage, an institute of busker education or the kids of that village were buying their bikes on the installment plan, half now, half later.

The rest of the morning was a ride through the usual rice paddy agriculture that seems to be everywhere here in Japan with an extensive irrigation network that allows rice to be grown almost everywhere I have been so far.

After lunch, or second breakfast, as it was before 10:00 am, We hit the big challenge for the day, a 1,500 meter of climbing over a twenty kilometer distance. The climb started easy at two to three percent grade with occasional increases to seven or eight percent. Our route followed the path gouged by a mountain stream that zig-zagged its way slowly up the mountain. Small farming villages would pop up from time to time breaking up the ride through a heavily forested area. As we climbed further along the 1,500 meters of uphills, they became steeper, topping out at ten to eleven percent at the summit.

At the end of the climb there was a three kilometer long highway tunnel that fortunately was not busy. Tunnels themselves can be scary for cyclists and I know of at least one fatality on a group trip in Arizona that caused the Adventure Cycling Association to abandon that route. The group that was on this route three days before us reported that the tunnel did not have lights and that it was extremely busy. However, they were there on a Sunday and unless there was a power failure during their visit, the tunnel definitely had lights. Still, three kilometers is a long tunnel and I was lucky enough to have only one vehicle come up behind me and there was a convenient pull off just ahead that I was able to duck into.

Tonight we are lakeside at Lake Kawaguchi, a resort town with a nice hotel and a beautiful lake view. The only down side is the lack of a convenience store nearby for a snack. However, in a rare moment of foresight, I stopped at one about a kilometer before arriving at the hotel and picked up a snack and a beverage. Strange flavours here in Japan and I can testify the SPAM is not a great flavour for potato chips.

Sunshine and Climbing

Komagene to Fujimi

May 30, 2023

After yesterday’s wet slog through the mountains it was a pleasure to wake up to the promise of sunshine. By the time we were riding out of Komagene the sun was out and the rice fields a brilliant green and flush with nutrients from yesterday’s rain. The big climbs started right away but no one cared as the sunshine was so lifting to our spirits that the meters melted away.

Once clear of the traffic we were free to look at the scenery as we tackled the five big climbs that would take us to the mountainside hotel in Fujimi. Along the way we passed a castle that I decided to pass by, spectacular flowers everywhere and an ancient Shinto shrine.

There also appears to be some influence to the local culture from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Without outright violating the copyright or other intellectual property infringement, they hint at the story with Anne(ish) looking roadside advertisements and non-sequesters such as Canadian Farms. As I understand it, the settings for the Anne stories on Prince Edwards Island are very popular with Japanese tourists.

Just to put today into perspective for my cycling friends, we covered a 70 kilometer route with 1800 meters of climbing broken up over 5 big climbs. That is a lot of uphill in any rider’s inventory but for us it was just another day in Japan. Our hotel this evening does not have in room showers so I must go native and go onsen.

Monday, Monday, Can’t Trust That Day

Monday, Monday, Can’t Trust That Day

Hikone to Komagene

(Monday) May 29, 2023

The day started out gray then it got worse. We had a scheduled 2 hour bus ride to our starting point in order to avoid a lot of kilometers of riding through one of Japan’s more industrialized areas. Not only would it be boring but there would be heavy truck traffic as well. We opted for a mountainside starting point with a 1000+ meter climb (over 3,400 feet) but it being over a fifteen kilometer distance the climb itself would be gradual. Lunch would be at the top.

However, what should have been a two hour drive turned into a three and a half hour slow motion tour due to road construction and heavy traffic. Instead of starting our ride at 9:00 am we did not get rolling until a few minutes before 11:00. I was last off the bus and last to start up the mountain but was able to move up ahead of our sweep, Chris after passing some other riders. Nice to know that I am not yet ready for a permanent position at the back of the pack.

Lunch was a soggy but welcome respite after the long, wet slog up the mountain and even with the wind and rain increasing in intensity, I felt good afterwards. My new rain gear and a change to a dry base layer of clothing prevented the chills that plagued my previous rainy day experience. The mid day rain was heavy at times, expanding the tiny mountain streams into raging torrents that were almost kayak-able. However, as I moved down to lower elevations the temperature became warmer and I was able to peal off one or two warm but wet layers.

The ride may have been quite beautiful under different circumstance but every vantage point for a view out over the countryside was clouded by a dense gray mist. Eventually I settled onto a lightly developed roadway for the final twenty kilometers to a hotel that was a carbon copy of the place we stayed last evening, right down to every detail of the lobby and dining area. Almost a Groundhog Day moment except for the wet and dripping clothing that I carried to the laundry area and a room to myself for the night!

A Sunday Ride in the Park

May 28, 2023

Kyoto to Hikone

After a day off we rode out of Kyoto in a quiet Sunday morning. I am assuming that TDA tries to plan it this way when we leave large cities. Sundays have far less early morning traffic in most places. There were few other riders out and about with the exception on one little girl on a bike with 20 inch wheels and a backpack almost as big as she was. We came up on her at a traffic light and when it turned green, she took off trying her best to give it all she had to stay in front of us. I remarked that we were being dropped by a six year old and that maybe we should try to draft behind her. None of would dare to pass her and when she turned off onto a side street she was all smiles.

It took an hour or so to clear Kyoto and the satellite towns that make up its metropolitioan area but when we did we found ourselves riding around Lake Biwako, the largest freshwater lake in Japan and estimated at a geological age of around four million years and is a breeding ground for freshwater species such as trout and hosts an important pearl culture industry. It also provides drinking water and farm irrigation to fifteen million people. Aside from that, it is a recreation paradise for folks anxious to leave the crowded cities. Circling the lake is the Biwa-Ichi bike route, a 180 kilometer cycling route mostly on dedicated bicycle /walking paths that is popular with locals as well as with us.

On this day there was some sort of community cleanup campaign in progress as we encountered hundreds of civic minded volunteers doing a deep clean on every scrap of litter. The walked in two, threes and even higher powers with heads down and talking in their dedicated search for every last bit of anything that might remotely be considered trash. It did not matter if a hundred or so ahead had already passed over the same territory, each new group searched with fresh dedication hoping to score some overlooked cigarette but or bottle cap ring. The cover the pathways, grasslands and even along the shoreline. They sometime strayed into traffic when a particularly tempting score of litter beckoned. It was an impressive sight and a tedious one to negotiate on a bicycle. Even riding along with the highway traffic was no protection from this trash devouring force. I applauded their efforts but wished that they looked up from time to time or at least sailed a true course rather than tacking from suspected liter bit to bit.

Even with this hoard of the civic minded there was still plenty of time to take my time and enjoy the nearly level ride, smooth (and litter free) pathway and soak up the scenery. It was like a picnic on two wheels with a nice lakeside lunch provided by the great staff of TDA. An easy start for our push to Tokyo.

Here There Be Dragons (but not tour guides)

May 27th, 2023

Kyoto, Japan

A full day to explore the ancient imperial capital of Japan and the stage upon which much of the drama of the book Shogun took place. I was eager and set for a full blown, get down and into it tourism experience, having joined a group tour with a professional guide. In all of my past experiences such tours have been worth every penny from the insights and knowledge provided by the guide. Not this time.

Our guide was a Hungarian name Daniel which struck me as an odd choice for a tour of an ancient Japanese city but who was I to judge? I knew that knowledge can come from a variety of sources and Daniel must be good for a company like TDA to recommend his employer, Serpentine Tours.

Our first stop was the famous Nijo Palace, power base and stronghold of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is a beautifully restore and recreated castle complete with specially engineered creaking floorboards designed to prevent someone for sneaking up on someone. Of course a skillful ninja would easily circumvent this safeguard but the common assassin would be defeated by his own footfalls. An ingenious metal substructure under the wooden floor provided the humming bird like chirps that we heard as we walked along. This detail was learned from a different tour guide that I was able eavesdrop on while our guide was playing invisible man. This was trend that would continue throughout the tour.

Next stop was the Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple with its upper two floors covered in gold leaf. I sometimes served as a temporary resting place for the Shogun during his travels (Another detail not garnered from our guide.) The temple is surrounded by elaborate gardens that are well maintained as are all gardens in Japan. At times I would hear the deep sound of a large bell being struck and wandered what it signified. I later saw the bell and a sign that indicated that you could ring it for 200 Yen. What did it signify? The sound of 200 Yen changing hands!

Further on we we stopped at the Ryoanji Temple famous for its rock garden and delicate wall paintings portraying the life of dragons. Sands are carefully raked into patterns surrounding the precisely placed fifteen rocks. No trees, just rocks and white gravel in this Zen garden surrounded by walls made of clay boiled in oil. It was created around 1500 during the Muromachi Period by Zen monk Tokuho Zenktsu.



After a lunch that almost happened but was abruptly canceled by our guide when he feared missing the tour bus to the next destination, we continued our sightseeing at Ginkakuji temple (also called the Silver Pavilion, although no shiny silver here), that was built by the grandson of the shogun who built Kinkakuji, also as a retirement palace. After the founder passed away, the palace was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 15th century according to his wish. Again it was surrounded my immaculate gardens that were cared for with tender and exacting precision.

At this point we decided that our guide was an necessary accessory and politely bid him sayonara to find our own way back to our hotel and a nice cold beer. As an interesting codicil, I can report that Ezster of Serpentine Tours responded promptly to our complaints and offered her sincere apologies and a refund for our tour. A very considerate and professional response. She also let us know that Daniel was a last minute replacement for the guide she had hired to conduct our tour who had come down with a serious illness. A satisfactory explanation and resolution that restored our confidence in Ezster and Serpentine Tours.

The Road to Kyoto and Other Thoughts

Kotohira to Kyoto

May 26, 2023

Arriving at Kotohira

Our ride ended quite a bit short of Kyoto stopping instead in the City of Kotohira. There is a well known temple here part of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, a circular journey to visit the 88 temples associated with Buddhist monk Kūkai. According to Wikipedia, “The pilgrimage is traditionally completed on foot, but modern pilgrims use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, or motorcycles, and often augment their travels with public transportation. The standard walking course is approximately 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete.” There is very little else in Kotohira but plenty of tour busses loaded with mainly Japanese travelers, some wearing white and carrying walking sticks, so I imagine visiting this temple is an important step on the pilgrimage. However, not being a pilgrim and having already seen a few temples, I decided to pass on this one.

We are taking a motor coach to Kyoto to avoid what our tour leader said would be another week of bicycling without as much scenery and a lot more highway traffic. While I am a EFI (Every Fantastic* Inch) type of rider, I had no desire to to blindly follow that motto. I was happy to get on the bus for the uneventful four hour ride.

Tomorrow I am doing a guided walking tour of the city which should be better than just walking around without a plan or a clue. I did take some quality time today to try to find some alternative to my backpacking rain gear which has performed with less than moderate satisfaction. I found a set for around 4,000 Yen ( about $40 Canadian) at a bike shop just a few meters from the hotel but wanting a second opinion, I walked over 3 kilometers round trip to find a North Face store that Google suggested. Bad choice. The “store” was just a department in a high end, multi floor department store that sold all you favourite designer fashions from Tiffany to Louis Vuitton and everything else you may have heard about but never could afford. Far from the North Face originally sewn together up the hill from my Lake Clear home in Foymount, Ontario, the limited selection at this “store” was way overpriced and the inventory less than what you would expect to find at a dollar store closeout bin. At least I got to stretch my legs and get some sunshine.

*There an assortment “F” words that people use for this expression. I leave it to you, the gentle reader to select what you feel best suits the spirit of the motto.

On the Road to Kyoto

Climbs, Shines and Other Things

Iya Valley to Kotohira

May 25, 2023

Hinoji Valley of the Iya River

The Iya Valley is one of the most beautiful places in a county know for beautiful places. It is a land of cone shaped, volcanic mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls and twisting roads with heart stopping drops at the edge. We stayed in a classic Japanese resort hotel with commanding views, its own onsen with cable lift access and some very traditional meals. As expected, Japan was expanding my pallet through introducing me to new foods and meal traditions. It is a good thing to toss aside you traditional tastes and dive into something different from time to time and those who know me are likely mumbling, “it’s about time,” under their breath as they read this.

The ride to Kotohira started with a nice downhill glide that for all too brief a time put off the lengthy climb to come. Monkeys played in the trees just out of sight except for the one that ran across the road in front of my bike. The river Iya could be seen hundreds of feet below in the valley it carved over the eons. In one spot some erected a statue of a boy peeing off into the vastness, a celebration of youthful freedom. Next to it is a small Buddhist Shrine filled with offerings of small coins as is the flat rock behind the statue. Further on is the Hinoji Valley which resembles the English letter U and gives the area its name.

Leaving this beauty behind it was time to climb one of the longest climbs of our journey so far. It involved an elevation change of around 950 meters over a distance of approximately nine and a half kilometers. Put simple, it was steep and long. For me it was even longer when a bad directional prompt combined with fogged glasses and Garmin’s annoying habit of not using common sense and directing you to just turn around when you make a wrong turn took me back down to near the starting point of the 100 meters I had just climbed. It is one of those time when a plain paper map would have avoided such an error but plain paper maps are becoming ever more a rarity. By the time I reached the top and started down the narrow road to our lunch stop, I was soaked with sweat and shivering ass the cooler temperatures at high altitude combined with my self generated, downhill breeze cooled me beyond the point of comfort. I ate a quick, shivering lunch before getting back on my bike to head further downhill to warmer climes and a sunny ride on lesser slopes that allowed me to shake off the shivers.

Our stay in Kotohira is in another traditional hotel and another pallet expanding dinner to further push my boundaries. It is what I signed up for.

Sights, Sounds, Ups and Downs

Hochi to Iya Valley

May 24, 2023

The bicycle rider sees the world in slow motion. The only thing slower is walking and the walker can not cover nearly as much territory even though they can go places where bicycle travel is difficult or impossible. I have done both extensively and for the pure joy of traveling, the bicycle is my first choice for a number of reasons. It is as nearly silent as a footstep and faster but not so fast that you can not let your senses take in all that the environment has to offer, good or bad. Today’s ride was one of climbing and some of the toughest climbs of the trip so far but still a treat for the senses after the exhaustion was put aside.

I should take a moment and write about climbing for my non-cycling friends. A climb is generally considered an uphill ride of 300 meters or more with a rise in elevation of 3% or more. In other words, a gain in elevation of 100 meters over a distance of a kilometer means that you are going up a 10% grade. Down in the USA they sometimes measure grades in degrees but in terms of difficulty a 10 degree grade is nearly the same as a 10% grade. Here is an example: a 100% grade is a straight up wall as is a 90 degree grade. Impossible for anyone on a bike unless you are Spiderman or Batman. For trains a 2% or 2 degree grade is about all they can handle without special equipment. The stairs in the average home have an average rise of around 33%, too steep to ride up on a bicycle, even if it was a smooth ramp set at that angle. Bicyclist tend to get pretty annoyed when the grade gets above 15% and really discouraged above 20%, especially if that grade at that degree of difficulty is continuous over a long distance.

Terraced Rice Paddies

One of our climbs today was around 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) over a distance of 13 kilometers (8 miles) with a continuous climb in the range of 5% to 12% and no flat portions. For my bicycling friends that single climb was like doing most the elevation gains of the Tour de Bonnechere’s Monarch of the Mountain course (100 kms) over a distance of 13 kms. Try it sometime and let me know how you did keeping in mind that I am a 71 year old heart attack survivor.

Of course for every climb there is (hopefully) an equal and opposite downhill. This is not always true and sometimes, like yesterday, you even can get a lot more downhill for your uphill effort. However, those moments are rare and should be cherished. Today there were some nice downhills through terraced rice plantations where rice is grown on man made ledges that spill water onto the next paddy below and on so down the steep mountain side. We also rode through forests with a mix of conifers and deciduous trees with some effervescent green bamboo forests mixed in to accompany the streams and waterfalls along the route. Combined with a landscape more vertical than horizontal it kept the mind engaged and open to other experiences such as the dog sitting in front of a roadside farmer’s home that looked at me with shocked amazement as I rocketed past on one of the steeper descents. On the more gradual downhills, I occasionally saw farmers in their boots and straw hats working in the newly planted paddies pulling weeds. There were also hawks, drifting on currents making the occasional cry as they tried to scare up a meal. Local thrushes and warblers added their songs to my journey and even a cuckoo that chimed in from time to time. Rounding a bend on a steep uphill revealed a small Shinto shrine to a local deity. Further below in a small town a man on a ladder carefully trimmed a cedar to perfection.

A hard but enjoyable ride in the land of the rising sun.

Some Days I Ride in Wonder

May 23, 2023

There are times when riding a bicycle that the world comes together into perfect harmony with my mind and body. A time when beauty and perfection are all around and I am one with it. Today was such a day. An easy climb took us to a long curving downhill glide along a mountain stream slipping through a dense Japanese Cypress forest. The sound of water splashing swiftly down rocky beds and the breezes speaking their soft murmurings through the branches formed the symphony in my mind. As I negotiated hairpin switchbacks with the wind in my face and nary an effort by my legs, my mind was open to all that my senses could absorb. Kilometer after nearly endless kilometers I rolled on in a rapture with this beautiful environment of fairy waterfalls and rugged streams that carved this magnificent route around and down the mountainside. Every turn a new vista, every curve seemed to bring even greater beauty. Just when it seemed like it would end, I would round a fairly flat bend only to have the road pitch downward into yet another long winding descent. It went on and on and I could tell that this moment was something special; something rare and something to be treasured forever. Today I touched the soul of the world.

Matsuyama Castle and Other Things

May 22, 2023

Matsuyama Castle was on my map and seemed only a short distance away. Despite a less than educational experience at Kumamoto castle I decided to give it a visit. Using my infallible sense of direction I set off towards the castle and quickly found what looked o be an impressive entry gates that quickly led me up a tree lines drive to a very institutional looking building that might have been a seminary or a school or a prison as far as I could tell but definitely not a castle. I next let my infallible logic lead me down a main thoroughfare that skirted the castle grounds. I could actually see the castle high above me and patted myself on the back for being so clever. There were even directional signs indicating the proper path to the entrance. Like a cruise missile I found the ticket booth and happily paid the surprisingly low 200 Yen fee to get in.

I found myself in a beautiful Japanese garden complete with waterfalls, koi ponds and a gurgling stream running through it. A pathway led up steps in the direction of the castle and I followed it to a lovely, one room love shack and a dead end. A sign on the way down indicated that this portion was a lover’s sanctuary. A few more false starts led me to the conclusion that the gardens did not connect directly to the castle. A group of school children passing uphill just outside the garden wall confirmed this as did a conversation with the woman who sold me the ticket.

Like a goose following ancient instincts to its southern home, I followed the sound of the school children up the every rising path to the thousand or so stone steps that brought me to the castle. Another mission accomplished through flawless navigation. I was so proud of myself that I gladly paid a second 520 Yen fee to get into the castle It was money well spent.

Matsuyama Castle, unlike the one in Kumamoto is more than facade over concrete shell. While earthquakes, lightning and even arson in 1936 have destroyed much of the original, it has been faithfully restored or recreated to resemble the original both inside and out. Building began in 1602 on a commanding hilltop and strong defensive location. Massive stone walls pierced by a series of increasingly strong gates funneled attackers into the perfect position for ambush by the castle defenders. Kato Yoshiaki, the lord of Matsuyama fiefdom, retaine the most experienced designers and craftsmen to build his stronghold over the next 26 years even rerouting a river to accommodate the design.

The castle stood as the stronghold protector of the village below until 1732 when over 3,500 people of the fief died of starvation during the rule of Matsudaira Sadahide. Bad times continued with famine and food riots during his rule. A later ruler of the same line Matsudaira Sadaaki became ruler at the age of 22 in 1867 but was dishonored through his role as councilor to the Shogun who was on the losing side of a battle with Imperial forces. He lost his family name in disgrace.




Samurai Bob
Samurai For Real

All of this said, the castle is a treasure of artifacts from the feudal period of Japan. From finely made samurai swords to displays of ancient armor, everything has an English translation allowing uneducated westerners like me to improve our knowledge. There are also some great views from the tall castle keeps. You have to remove your shoe when inside but when in Japan you expect to do this often.

Tomorrow we are back on our bikes and off into the hills.

I see these hills in my future.