Our Last Mountain Passes in Japan

Our Last Mountain Passes in Japan

It all started innocently enough. We had taken the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto in the morning. We were to spend our last weekend in Japan with our hosts, Ikuo and Harumi Tsuchiya of I’s Bicycles, in Miyama. Wouldn’t it be splendid to ride to Miyama, rather than drive? It was only 80 km (50 miles), just across a little mountain pass. We’d been up the pass from the other side. It shouldn’t take more than 3 hours to do the ride. What could possibly go wrong?
It was a warm afternoon when we left Cycles Grand Bois in Kyoto, wearing just our short sleeves. We left our touring bags with our hosts, who would carry them in their car. We didn’t bother to re-pack and transfer extra clothes into our handlebar bags. This was just a quick ride, after all!
We found our way out of Kyoto without problems. Then the road started climbing. Steeply. For kilometer after kilometer, we worked hard in our small gears. Then we remembered that Kyoto is almost at sea level, but Miyama is located in a mountain valley. No wonder the pass was longer from this side.
Finally, we reached the top. To our surprise, it wasn’t the pass we had climbed from the other side. We checked our map and the GPS: We were on the right road. Then it dawned on us: There were two passes. We only had climbed the first one, and we had one more to go. It was getting late, and this high in the mountains, the temperature plummeted. The sign indicated 5°C. That translates to 41°F.
And here we were in shorts and short sleeves. Hahn was lucky to have a vest, but he had goosebumps, too. Without any extra clothing, I just shivered.
We embarked on the descent. It was as steep as the climb had been. We got into the aero tuck, not to gain speed, but to minimize our exposure to the wind.
Just as I started to worry about hypothermia, we entered a tiny village. Hahn spotted a beverage vending machine on the roadside. Can you believe it? A machine that serves hot and cold beverages. Japan really is a dream country for randonneuring!
Neither of us spoke or read Japanese, but fortunately, the hot beverages had red labels to distinguish them from the cold beverages with their blue labels. We almost randomly pushed red buttons, and I ended up with lemon-flavored tea. It tasted great, but even more importantly, it was the perfect temperature: ready to drink, yet warming me from the inside.
I felt better now, but there was more descending ahead. I rummaged through my handlebar bag and found our airline confirmation printouts. Just like racers in the old days, I put the papers under my jersey to act as a windbreaker.
Somewhat warmer now, we could enjoy the beautiful mountain valley. There was no traffic at all, just little villages dotting the hillsides. We drank in the scenery, knowing that we’d miss Japan once we left a few days later.
All throughout our trip, we had chased the cherry blossoms, which mark the onset of spring. We started in the southern lowlands of Osaka and ended in the northern city of Fukushima, traveling alongside the cherry trees in full bloom, as spring moved northward.
Now the trees in the high mountain valleys were blooming. It was a magical sight in the twilight. Spring had arrived even here, just as our trip was coming to its end.
Not speaking Japanese had added interesting challenges to our trip. But you don’t need to read Kanji to understand this sign: More climbing ahead! We were approaching the second pass.
And climb we did. Japanese mountain roads are incredible: beautifully laid out, with switchback following switchback. Often, they are just a single lane wide, but convex mirrors at each blind turn allow you to see the road ahead, so you can corner with confidence.
It was fun to ride here, but darkness was falling. I was concerned that the second descent would be even colder than the first.
In the twilight, we finally reached the pass. To our relief, it was the same pass we had climbed from the other side. At least there wasn’t a third pass!
Now it was mostly downhill to Miyama. We enjoyed the dozens of switchbacks on the descent. We were lucky – the temperature had not fallen any further. There was no ice on the road!
At the bottom of the pass, we turned on our headlights. We time-trialled the last 30 km or so to Miyama. This kept us warm, but mostly, we were concerned that our hosts might be worried when we didn’t show up on time. We arrived half an hour late, but with great memories of an amazing ride.
And we learned once more that dangers lurk not in the big adventures, where every detail is meticulously planned. It’s when you think a ride is not a big deal that you let your guard down and don’t think of the risks that hide in plain sight. Lesson learned: From now on, I will pack my long-sleeve jersey and tights on every ride over unknown terrain.
Photo credit: Harumi Tsuchiya (2nd from top).

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Comments (10)

  • jay

    sounds like it was a great trip. I always carry a tyvek envelope (generously donated by the USPS) for a myriad of uses: windblock, tire boot, collecting goodies, and so forth.

    June 27, 2014 at 6:47 am
  • thebvo

    Great pictures. The Sakura season is truly magical.
    The last time I was at Tsuchiya-san’s shop he had a glowing Barra aluminum bike hanging from the ceiling for sale. Did you bring it home? ;] His group of customers have some truly amazing vintage bikes, so it’s always an eye popper when you walk into the shop.
    Were the loaner bikes (what a friend, eh!) equipped with the new GB centerpulls? They look like new Mafacs. I’m curious how they fast they slow.
    Japan really is paradise for cyclists. The convenience begins with the random, inthemiddleofnowhere hot drink vending machines and convex mirrors, and it’s capped off by public baths in every town. Many are natural with gorgeous outdoor baths in the mountains, but the man-made ones are just as soothing after a long day in the saddle. Sleeping in parks isn’t frowned upon either. The difficult part is readjusting to the rest of the world.
    Are those knickers going to get a review soon? They look nice.

    June 27, 2014 at 7:53 am
  • Sam Krueger

    Hi Jan, great post, and great timing. I’ll be in Kyoto for the the first time in a few weeks, and would love to take a nice ride (in addition to simply biking around the city, which I understand is quite easy to do). Would you recommend Cycles Grand Bois as a place to rent a bike and get some good intel on local rides? If you’d like to recommend a 30-40 mile loop, I’d be all ears as well.

    June 27, 2014 at 4:59 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I’s Bicycles definitely is a place you should visit. I don’t know whether they rent bicycles, but they can tell you some great loops. We did one loop that was about 25 miles that was just stunning, and you can always go further. Plus, the amazing Ryoanji temple is not far from the shop…

      June 27, 2014 at 5:04 pm
  • Chris

    Did you get a chance to try any Pocari Sweat while you were there? It’s an electrolyte drink that is ridiculously expensive here in the U.S. and ridiculously addictive!!!

    June 27, 2014 at 7:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We saw a ridiculous number of ads for the stuff on the commuter trains in Tokyo, but we didn’t try it. We did try some other electrolyte drinks that were quite good. In general, Japanese foods, even desserts, are much less sweet than American ones, but have more complex taste that I enjoyed very much.

      June 27, 2014 at 9:19 pm
  • David Pearce

    Wow, you are great, and intrepid, and sometimes impetuous! Luckily you didn’t freeze, and a had a great time, as did I, through your eyes. Thank you. And you have put head and hands together to solve problems like broken handlebars and flat tires many times.
    Now, on to the imperative part of my comment. Once before (a while back) you mentioned you cut your finger a little turning on a headlight at night, and lately you tried to remove spokes from a front wheel without a wrench because something was buzzing. We all know where that led! 🙂
    I know that your current headlight switch is on your stem, so you’re safe there. But otherwise, my rule is firm: You may not approach the front wheel with your hand unless it is not moving! 🙂

    June 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Yes, lesson learned! (David is commenting on the story of my broken hand… which has healed very nicely, by the way.)

      June 28, 2014 at 1:39 pm
  • B. Carfree

    That was a wonderful story that had a very familiar feel. I’ve learned and relearned such lessons many times.
    The real grand-parents and great grand-parents of my sort-of grand-daughters live in Japan. (Long story, but my wife and I are honorary stand-ins for the real thing.) In a few years, they will be spending summers there. Maybe I’ll have to visit and fly back with them (excuse) so I can ride around that beautiful terrain.

    June 28, 2014 at 2:55 pm
  • Don

    In the Anime television series called Honey and Clover one of the main characters goes on a bike tour to the far north of Japan . Well worth having a look at imho.

    June 30, 2014 at 1:59 am

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