Cherry Blossoms Below, Snow Above: Cycling Tsuchiyu TougeJan Heine
I recall a great ride up Tsuchiyu Touge (touge = pass) almost two years ago. This ride was organized for Hahn and me by friends from Tokyo. It was a day of much climbing, even more laughter, and the beginnings of wonderful friendships.
We were in Fukushima to visit the Nitto factory, and the following day, we set out from the lovely Onsen hotel where we spent the night. As bikes are readied, Hitoshi discovers that his tire is flat. This minor mishap does little to discourage us on this glorious morning.
The climbing starts right away, and we settle into a comfortable pace. Here, Hitoshi and Ikuo lead, with Hahn and Natsuko following. Harumi is already ahead.
Even though the cherry trees are in full bloom down in Fukushima, we soon encounter the first snow: We are gaining altitude quickly.
Along the road, we observe how the snow has melted around the trees. Different hypotheses are proposed for the cause. Is it meltwater that runs down the trunks? Or does the sun heat the dark trunks more than the white snow?
We learn that the road has only recently been opened for traffic. In several places, we see giant snowplows parked by the road. Some have fresh snow on their blades! It rained last night in Fukushima, but here in the mountains, the rain has fallen as snow – even though it’s the middle of April, and we aren’t even half-way up the pass yet!
The road climbs along the ridges, then breaks into tight hairpins where the hillside is too steep for a direct ascent.
Even on this weekday, there is some traffic, including this “bad boy” motorcyclist. His beautifully turned-out machine includes a pristine leather bag underneath the frame. Perhaps not the most practical spot on a fenderless bike…
After a picnic lunch, we stop at a viewpoint. Several times we reach spots that seem like the top, but then we just keep climbing further.
Our group stays together loosely as the snowbanks on the side of the road grow taller and taller. Above 1000 m (3300 ft), the elevation is written on the road in 100 m increments. When we cross the 1500 m (4921 ft) mark, I climb atop the snowbank to take a photo (top of the post), figuring this will be the highest we’ll reach. Of course, the road continues to climb, and we soon see 1600 m written on the pavement.
When we finally do reach the pass, we have climbed close to 1500 m (5000 ft) since starting in the morning! The snowbanks are about 3 m (10 ft) tall, but fortunately, the road is wide enough to offer great views of the mountains.
Not far away, steam rises from a peak, indicating volcanic activity that also is responsible for the many Onsen hot springs we have passed.
After a second lunch at a cafeteria near the pass, we descend into a desolate landscape. Little vegetation grows here because the winds are so severe.
It’s so windy that a van with a highway maintenance crew stops to warn us. The worker has to hold onto his hard hat, so it doesn’t get blown away.
With good bikes and some skill, everybody makes it across the windy parts without trouble, and then we launch into an amazing descent. Tight hairpins are joined by long straights, so we get to feel the rush of speed, before braking hard for the next turn. This continues for a while…
…until we reach the turn-off to an Onsen hot spring. It’s a surprise for us, but our companions have planned to stop here. To everybody’s disappointment, we have just missed the closing time.
Undeterred, Natsuko cycles across the suspension bridge that links the Onsen with the road. We’ll never know how she persuades the staff to let us in after hours, but when she returns, it is clear that she has been successful.
After soaking in the hot water at the Onsen, we descend the final kilometers back to Fukushima. We Rinko our bikes and lock them at the station. After a nice dinner, we take the Shinkansen train back to Tokyo.
The route up Tsuchiyu Pass probably isn’t ideal to ride with newly-healed shoulders and arms, and in any case, it’ll be snowbound for a while. But just like our friends planned this beautiful trip for us, I anticipate they will find a perfect route for my first ride, and I look forward to it!