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Jikkoku Pass in Autumn

Usually, October in Japan is a month of good weather, with an occasional typhoon that needs to be considered when planning a cyclotouring trip. But when I visited Japan this autumn, October saw so many typhoons and rain. It’s very unusual.

We did not want to miss the short window of good weather as we planned a cyclotouring trip. Mr. Yo had time off and could join us. We decided to go on a two-day trip together. Where to go? The typhoons had damaged some of my favorite roads and made them impassable. In other cases, we could not find out whether the roads were open or not. Living in Seattle, it’s hard to obtain local information about road conditions. I find it a bit frustrating.

When I lived in Tokyo, I visited Jikkoku Pass three times a  year: in Spring and Autumn to maintain the old road, and on New Year’s Day to cycle across the pass with my friends. Recently, I haven’t been able to go there very often. Mr. Yo had been here, but could not find the old road, so he was eager to go. It’s a favorite of Jan and mine, too. So why not visit Jikkoku Pass?

A big typhoon is coming to Japan – let’s go while there still is time. Going cyclotouring in Japan feels like a homecoming. I’ve introduced this road to Jan in the past; now I can show it to my best friend, Mr. Yo. Rinko is fun. Before dawn, we put our bikes in our bags at the station and board the train. The Shinkansen bullet train is followed by a small local line as, the landscape outside the window changes from Tokyo’s cityscape to the country and the mountains. It’s fun. A short nap on the train, and we already reach the station that I always use on these trips.

After we reassemble our bikes in front the station, we start riding. We visit the shrine where we always go to celebrate the New Year.

The valley floor is covered with rice fields. The freshly cut rice is drying on wooden racks in the fields. With all my body, I can feel that autumn has come. In the past, I did not think about it much, but the change of the seasons is special to me. In Seattle, the seasons are not so clearly delineated. In Japan, you really can feel when the seasons change.

Today, the sky is very blue, and the air feels fresh. Autumn sunshine. We take the familiar road to Jikkoku Pass. The leaves on the trees are a very deep green, long past the fresh green of spring, and still too early for the autumn colors. It makes for beautiful komorebi – the pattern of light and shadow on the road as the sun filters through the trees.

When we ride here in winter, it’s cold, and we don’t linger. Today, there is no rush. Cosmos flowers also show me that autumn has come. Then I remember that in Seattle, cosmos blossom even in August. I realize that even these feelings that I used to take for granted depend on where we live.

I haven’t seen Mr. Yo in a long time, so we chat as we ride along. It’s fun to catch up! The road is paved on this side of the pass. It winds through the forest and climbs 800 m in 10 km. It’s not so steep that we get out of breath. It’s perfect for conversation. It’s fun.

Today, we have time, so we visit a waterfall along the way. In winter, it’s not so easy to get here. The same road and landscape feel very different in different seasons. As we descend down to the river, we joke that the path is slippery, especially with SPD cleats. The sun reflects off the waterfall, and the spray cools our skin. It feels good. We eat onigiri that we made this morning before dawn with left-over rice from last night’s dinner. We eat only a little, because we don’t want to climb with a full stomach.

A terrible typhoon is predicted for the weekend, but today, it’s hard to believe this forecast. The sky is so blue and the air so calm. It’s a quintessential Japanese autumn day. We are lucky to have picked the perfect days between two typhoons.

When we reach the pass, we climb up the wooden observation tower and enjoy the 360-degree view. We try to identify the different mountains that surround us. We take a little detour along an old road that goes along the ridge, but then we notice that it’s autumn, and the sun is getting low in the sky. We return to the pass and start the descent.

Finally, we reach the old road – really a single-track footpath – that branches off the narrow paved road that we’ve been riding on. Recently, the old road has been well-maintained, so it’s fine for cycling, but my body has become used to wide tires. It’s been a long time since I’ve used 26” x 1.25” Elk Pass tires on single track. The tires are much narrower, and my heart beats a little faster. The road goes along a steep slope, and there is a deep drop to our right. I don’t go too fast, and I focus on balancing. When I can’t see the surface because of the leaves, I just walk. Sometimes, the surface of these old roads is not stable, and it can give way if you aren’t careful. Today, I am extra careful. My body is used to wider tires, which allow me to ‘just go.’ Slowly, my body gets in tune with this bike again, and I enjoy having to think about how to ride this road.

For today’s ride, I want to feel and enjoy my surroundings, not just the motion of pedaling. The stone statues that guard the travelers on this road are in the same place as always. It feels like they are waiting for us. The autumn leaves have not yet buried them, and the statues seem to be smiling. It’s been more than a year since I’ve come here, but the landscape and scenery haven’t changed. It feels like the statues have been waiting for us. I am very happy about that.

My watch shows that it’s only 3 o’clock, but in the mountains, it’s already getting dark. We shouldn’t linger.

The old road leads directly into the village. It’s so familiar: We go to the shrine at the top of the village, then take a rest in the communal meeting place. This village always feels welcoming.

Compared to our plan, we will arrive a bit later at tonight’s inn. I call the innkeeper and explain. We’ll be the only guests tonight, and it’s not a city hotel with 24-hour check-in and online booking. It’s a place where we really feel welcome.

The inn is up a side valley, almost at the end of Ueno village. I used to come here every year with friends for our New Year’s Cycling, but lately, I haven’t been able to come so often. We enjoy chatting with the innkeeper while we eat dinner. Many cyclists come here, and we talk about other cyclists and their rides. He mentions the Japanese Odyssey. What a small world: We’ve been working on an article about this event for the Winter Bicycle Quarterly!

We enjoy the local food and the Onsen hot bath as the deep, quiet night falls over the mountains outside. Today hasn’t been that long a trip, but we feel comfortably tired. We roll out our futons and fall asleep to the sound of the creek rushing by outside.

To be continued… (check back on Friday)

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