Autumn Trip to the Japanese Mountains

During a recent trip to Japan, we went on a short trip to the Aizu mountains in northern Honshu (Japan’s main island). It was a beautiful day, and the famous kouyou (‘autumn red leaves’) were at their best.

Like most rides in Japan, we started by taking the train. A Shinkansen bullet train whisked us a few hundred kilometers northward, then we took a small train into the hills.

We assembled our bikes, ate a late breakfast, and headed into the mountains on a small road that meandered up the slopes. There was no traffic at all. The sunlight painted the road surface into a dappled pattern of light and shade. It was a wonderful day for a ride.

With plenty of time, we explored side paths like this one that forded a creek. We climbed higher and higher until we reached a small pass. When we checked the time, we realized that we had to speed up a little if we wanted to reach our destination before dark.

We started zooming down the descent, but after a few turns, the road ahead was blocked. A recent typhoon had caused numerous washouts on the roads of this area. We had been able to pass a few, but here workers were installing concrete shoring. We had to turn around and retrace our steps, all the way back to the train station!

It wasn’t a huge loss, because the main road was beautiful, too. The rice fields in the valley had been harvested, and the hillsides were covered in red colors. A chill in the air betrayed that it was autumn, but with the right clothing, cycling was very pleasant.

From time to time, dark tunnels swallowed us, until we emerged into snow galleries that created a beautiful light in the afternoon sun.

In one village, a huge Gingko tree had dropped its leaves, coloring the ground in vivid yellow.

Natsuko couldn’t understand why I took a photo of the nearby parking lot. For her, this is a normal scene. The pickup trucks of rural Japan are small minitrucks. They are less menacing on the road than their North American counterparts. I suspect the diminutive size of the vehicles is one reason why Japanese rural drivers are so friendly towards cyclists. This makes cycling in the Japanese mountains very pleasant.

Darkness had fallen when we reached our beautiful ryokan (inn). After a hot bath, we enjoyed a traditional meal. We were the only guests that night, so we talked to the owner about the challenges of living in these mountains where typhoons are common, winters are long, and jobs are scarce.
The next morning, we continued our ride on little roads.
We visited a beautiful old village…

…with a restored grist mill. Every twenty seconds, the bucket under the flume filled with water. The weight lowered the end of the beam, until its angle was so steep that the water spilled out of the bucket. Then the beam dropped back, pushing the round pestle into the hole that held the grain. The periodic sound of “poc … poc … poc” used to accompany life in the villages, and here it still does today.

Autumn in northern Japan is a melancholic time. The colors of the trees were incredibly vibrant, but snow poles already lined the road as a sign that winter is coming. On this day, the skies turned from sunny to cloudy, and as we approached the station, it began to rain.

We could feel that the rains soon would turn to snow. In the villages, we had seen snowplows, freshly overhauled and repainted, standing by to keep the main roads open. The small roads we enjoy so much won’t be plowed – they will be closed until late spring.

We reached the train station just as it got dark. We packed our bikes for the long trip back and then locked up our Rinko bags. We had intended to visit a public bath near the station, but today was the one day of the week when it was closed. So we went to a bakery instead.

An hour later, our train arrived, and we boarded for the first leg of the trip back to Tokyo. It was a short tour, but our memories will last a long time.

20 Responses to Autumn Trip to the Japanese Mountains

  1. raino November 21, 2017 at 11:32 pm #

    Nice ride and great write-up!

  2. the coasting frenchman November 22, 2017 at 2:10 am #

    It’s been over five years now since I started reading your blog, and then got a subscription to BQ. I thought I might get tired at some point, but with this kind of post, and the articles in the magazine, I don’t think it’s very likely to happen any time soon. I found a similar kind of pleasure in reading the French magazine 200 — “another way to see road cycling” — in which the writers are not hell-bent on telling us we should buy the latest carbon racing bike because it’s five per cent lighter and fifteen per cent stiffer than last year’s model. Thank you for all your good work, I think a lot of us are hooked on it!

    • marmottz27 November 23, 2017 at 8:44 am #

      I do prefer BQ to 200, some of their writers have forgotten their French cycling culture to the point of regularly comparing handlebar bags to cinder blocks…

  3. Rick Harker November 22, 2017 at 4:09 am #

    Where is my Passport?

  4. Matthew J November 22, 2017 at 4:46 am #

    Beautiful pictures and essay.
    Considering what most in the US put in their pick up trucks, the mini-Japanese variety would be more than up to the task.

  5. Art Brûlant November 22, 2017 at 7:31 am #

    Wonderful. I also like the small “normal” pick-up trucks! Bigger isn’t always better!

  6. Paul Brookshire November 22, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    Jan, what is your level of Japanese proficiency? We’ve travelled in Japan, but rarely left the ‘roman letter’ signage zone. How would you manage without a native speaker companion?

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly November 22, 2017 at 11:38 am #

      My Japanese is rudimentary at best. Even in the countryside, important signs are written in the Roman alphabet. During our first trip, we headed into the mountains without speaking a single word of Japanese. We managed fine.
      The main advantage of speaking a little Japanese is that it puts people at ease. They realize that my Japanese is much worse than their English… That said, I derive a lot of satisfaction from being able to do simple things like buying a train ticket or exchanging a few words with other cyclists about our bikes entirely in Japanese. It’s a beautiful language, and I look forward to learning more.

  7. polkadotbicycles November 22, 2017 at 11:47 am #

    If you would like to see what it was like to be snowed in with little food in Northern Japan in the late 1800’s I recommend “The Ballad of Narayama” on iTunes $3.99. Haunting, to say the least.

  8. Julian November 22, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

    One of the things we greatly enjoyed during our tandem tour in Hokkaido this summer were the evening onsen (public baths) visits. These are a really great way to end a day of cycling. We ran into one or two that were closed on the day we were there… pots of cold water poured over your head in a campground is a poor substitute.

    • DaveS November 24, 2017 at 6:12 am #

      Is it legal to ride a tandem in Hokkaido? If not, what was your experience like?

      • Julian November 24, 2017 at 9:10 am #

        Dave, officially it is not legal, but we had zero issues. The laws are really written to prevent two people from riding on a bike made for one. A tandem ridden by foreigners is not an issue — in fact, the only policeman who we directly interacted admired it when we were stopped in a village to eat lunch. We found the people and the drivers very friendly and courteous, with a number of people going out of their way to be helpful. It was a great trip.

  9. Bill November 23, 2017 at 12:02 am #

    It’s amazing how disgusting and befouled the USA is when you compare it to just about anywhere else. You’d search a very long time in the states before finding anything as seemingly pleasant and simple and dignified as even one of these pictures illustrates middle-of-nowhere japan. It’s so dang sad.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly November 23, 2017 at 11:29 am #

      Rural Japan can be incredibly scenic and romantic, but the U.S. has many beautiful places, too. Almost everywhere, you need to plan a little to avoid the big box stores and freeways on your rides, but those places aren’t much fun to ride anyhow. Riding in the U.S., Natsuko has been surprised by the many small towns and old farmhouses that aren’t museums, but remain in daily use. I feel that it’s important to focus on the positive and enjoy it, while also deriving energy from it to work toward improving the rest of our world.

  10. Peter Chesworth November 23, 2017 at 12:30 pm #

    It is a shame that Kei cars (and trucklets) are ubiquitous only in Japan.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly November 23, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

      There is a company importing them to Seattle now. Once they are 25 years old, they are legal here…

      • Peter Chesworth November 23, 2017 at 2:13 pm #

        The odd Suzuki Cappuccino, Daihatsu Copenhagen and rare Autozams tootling around Oz – 600cc of turbocharged fury!

  11. Paul Ahart November 23, 2017 at 5:41 pm #

    Thank you for posting such a nice story with beautiful images. Also smiled at your attempts to speak a bit of Japanese. I just returned from visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Girona, Spain, and struggled with my poor Spanish. it’s also a fine place to cycle, and speaking a bit of Spanish or Catalan really helps! Maybe a trip to Japan some day….

  12. Takashi November 24, 2017 at 5:49 am #

    Great write up Jan. Enjoyed reading it very much.
    I also love sceneries of Aizu area so much that I visit there like once every few years.
    It’s very lovely in autumn, but also beautiful in May/June, when small roads are open again, and mountains are covered with tender green leaves. (Some roads might be still closed in early May.)
    Too bad that you got on Tadami Line train at night.
    Yes, you are in tunnels for about half an hour, but catching glimpse of beautiful mountains from the window of the train is something very special. There are people who visit Tadami just to get on this Tadami Line train.
    When you visit Tadami, I would recommend Oshio Onsen.
    The view from the “roten-buro” (outside bathtub) is spectacular.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly November 24, 2017 at 10:09 am #

      The Tadami Line was very romantic even at night, as we started on an empty train that slowly wound its way through the dark mountains. At every station, shoppers and school children got on, until the train was almost full when we reached the mainline. Next time, I’ll try to ride it during daytime!