Riding to the Sea of JapanJan Heine
Oceans have a strong appeal to me. The Raid Pyrénéen, a ride across the length of the Pyrenees mountains, starts at the Atlantic and ends at the Mediterranean. On our Flèche 24-hour rides, we often visit the Pacific Ocean. Oceans seem like limitless expanses of water from the shore, yet you know that way, way, way over there, on the other side, there are exciting foreign lands.
In Japan, we had cycled for many kilometers along the Pacific Ocean, yet it wasn’t so exciting. On the other side of the vast water is… Seattle! Riding along the Sea of Okhotsk during our tour of Hokkaido had more romance, since it freezes over during the winter, and Siberia is on the other side. But I really wanted to see the Sea of Japan… which links Japan to Asia, and really provides the context for our experiences there.
Kyoto is located where the main island of Honshu is narrowest, so the distance “from shining sea to shining sea” is less than 100 km “as the crow flies”. I already was in the mountains north of Kyoto, so the Sea of Japan really wasn’t that far, and my friends from I’s Bicycle suggested a bike ride to Obama on the promised shore. They’d drive across the first pass, while I’d ride, together with their employee Choco, an avid randonneur who would ride all the way from Kyoto.
It was a frigid morning when I set out from the guesthouse where I was staying. Almost immediately, the road started climbing, gentle at first, then steeper as I approached the mountain pass. The cherry trees were in full bloom, but the temperature at the bottom of the pass was a frigid 39°F. I could not read the Kanji on the sign, so I didn’t know whether to expect snow on the pass. So I forged ahead…
On the other side of the mountains, I found the small town where I was to meet Harumi and Ikuo. That is where I finally encountered Choco, too (above). We had planned for me to catch up to him shortly after leaving my guesthouse, so we could ride together. Somehow, I had passed him on the single highway across the mountains without either of us noticing. One of the mysteries of long-distance riding…
Then we met up with Ikuo and Harumi Tsuchiya, the owners of I’s Bicycle. Together, we cycled up another mountain pass, which we traversed via a tunnel near the top. (There is no shortage of mountain passes in Japan!)
Choco and I briefly explored the old road across the pass, which was great fun, but we decided that it would take too long, so we, too, went through the tunnel.
We rode past cherry trees in full bloom (photo at the top of the post), along scenic backroads, and then, suddenly, there was…
… the Sea of Japan! Obama is located on a large bay, so you don’t get the experience of a “limitless expanse of water”, but it was still moving to realize that out in the distance (actually, to the right in this photo), there is the vast continent of Asia.
The bay may not give you a feeling of “limitless expanse of water”, but it makes the ride along the water much more interesting and varied. After lunch on the seaside and a short stretch on a busy highway…
…we joined a cyclepath that went high on the cliffs above the water.
The views of the water and shorelines were spectacular, but I was almost as interested in the slope stabilization projects on the other side. Faced with a very young and active landscape, the Japanese spend huge amounts to maintain their infrastructure and prevent damages before they occur. These concrete latticeworks span the mountains in Japan and stabilize slopes that otherwise might crumble into landslides.
After a snack at a beautiful antique store-cum-bakery in a small seaside town, it was time to head back.
Did I already mention that the cherry trees were in full bloom? I’ve always loved the “sakura”, but in Japan, they are incredible.
Choco and I split up from Harumi and Ikuo, who took a more direct route back. We cycled back into the mountains, had a snack at a small store (above)…
… and then it was just one more mountain pass for me. For Choco, getting back to Kyoto involved 70 km (44 miles) and four big passes. It didn’t faze him… but I have to admit that I was getting tired.
Not so tired that I didn’t admire the “yama sakura” (mountain cherries) high in the valleys. I am deeply grateful to our friends who took me here and showed me these beautiful places. It was a great outing, and one that I will remember!