Our Last Mountain Passes in JapanJan Heine
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).