Cyclotouring in the RainJan Heine
On a rainy weekend in late September, a group of seven friends headed out for a weekend tour in the mountains. We took a long train ride from Tokyo to Fukushima. We started climbing almost as soon as we left the station. Up an up we went, into a landscape hidden by clouds and rain.
When the clouds opened up for a moment, I saw mountains shrouded by mist. Then they were gone again. As I pondered the mystery of this elusive landscape, I realized how much I enjoy discovering a new place.
Riding in the fog was almost meditative. The muted sounds reinforced the quiet and solitude of the small roads.
I looked up from my musings to see steam coming out of the mountainside. This was a mesmerizing spectacle for me, but for my friends it was nothing unusual. A volcanic spring emerged from the mountainside here, and the water was traveling to an Onsen bath through ancient wooden pipes.
The rain stopped as we passed a beautiful lake, where an inviting line of row boats beckoned us to enjoy the still waters. But cyclotourists cannot linger too long, if they want to reach their destination. Riding our bikes, we experience the world quite intimately with every hill and valley, yet we are also outsiders who observe more than we participate. I often think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s romantic descriptions of this feeling. A mail pilot during the 1920s, he landed his plane in exotic places for half a day, then took off into his own world, up in the clouds, again.
The lure of a mysterious road and a sense of discovery are big parts of cyclotouring. And, as my Japanese is still limited, I had no idea where we were going. I could only follow my friends. This made the ride up this tiny mountain road full of anticipation.
The mountain road dead-ended in a narrow valley at a centuries-old Onsen bath and Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn). This was our destination. Soaking in the hot bath, we relaxed and warmed up after a day of riding in the rain.
After the bath, we left our wet cycling clothes hanging to dry and donned the hotel’s yukata robes. These cotton robes mean that you don’t need to bring a complete change of clothes when you travel. On this chilly day, we also used the woolen capes that the hotel provides.
We sat down to a wonderful dinner of traditional Japanese fish, meats and vegetables. There was much laughter and merriment during the drawn-out meal. I caught snippets of stories about mountain passes (“touge”), bicycles (“jitensha”), the weather (“tenki”)… Even though I couldn’t follow most of what was being said, I was aglow with a warm and happy feeling. Cyclotouring is even more enjoyable with friends.
The first time I rode in these mountains was on a beautiful spring day, and it was spectacular. But despite the lack of cooperation from the weather on this rainy weekend, we had a great time. Perhaps cyclotouring’s greatest appeal is that it can be enjoyed almost anywhere, almost anytime.