Winter Ride up Yabitsu Pass

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Rides

Winter Ride up Yabitsu Pass

Where to go for my first ride after recovering from my accident? I had commuted around Tokyo to make sure it was fine to ride my bike again, but now I wanted to experience the Japanese mountains once more before returning to Seattle. And so I headed to one of my favorite routes: Yabitsu Pass.
My outing started like most rides in Tokyo: I rode to the station, Rinko’d my bike, and boarded a train. Even after dozens of “Rinkos”,  it remains very satisfying to reduce my bike to such a small and convenient package in such a short time. An hour after leaving central Tokyo, I arrived at Takao, the final station of the suburban line.
After reassembling my bike, the first thing was to buy supplies at a typical Japanese convenience store. These stores bear little resemblance to their North American counterparts. Here, they don’t sell gasoline, but fresh food and even flowers! It was easy to find what I needed for lunch: onegiri (rice with filling wrapped in nori seaweed), hot tea and an ice cream bar for dessert. For the road, I bought juice, dark chocolate and a package of cookies.
A beautiful shrine provided a good spot for the meal, and in the sun, it was warm enough to sit outside. While I was at the shrine, I prayed for safety on the road. It’s a common practice among Japanese cyclists, and after my recent experience, I figured it couldn’t hurt…
The road started climbing almost immediately, but the grades were not very steep – perfect for getting back into a rhythm after a long time off the bike. Snow was lining the road when I reached Lake Miyagase. I had been here with Hahn during our very first trip to Japan. Then it was crowded with tourists on a weekend during the cherry blossom season. Now it was deserted. Both times, it was beautiful.
A few kilometers further, I turned onto the narrow road to Yabitsu Pass. The mirrors that allow looking around corners came in handy not just to check for traffic – there was none – but also to see whether there was ice on the shaded parts of the road. I did meet a mountain biker and a motorcyclist, who gave me a big thumbs up as I began the climb in the late afternoon.
The road winds its way along a valley, so it’s not steep, but very narrow and twisty: great fun!
I had calculated that I should reach the pass before dark, so I could descend the other side before temperatures dropped. I was concerned that meltwater might freeze on the road. However, I had not counted on ice and snow on the road up to the pass. Not wanting to risk a fall, I walked my bike on the icy parts.
I was still about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the top. If the entire road over the pass was icy, I would hike late through the night… Turning around was an option, but I really wanted to ride across the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. I decided to push on until 4:30 p.m. and decide then whether to continue or to turn around.
Just when I was giving up hope to reach the pass, the road cleared. I remembered that higher up, the road was more exposed. I figured (hoped?) that I’d be able to ride most of the way. I pushed my “decision time” out to five o’clock. If I made it to the top by then, I’d be fine. If I had to turn around, I knew where the icy spots were and could negotiate them in the dark.
Fortunately, the road was ice-free for most of the way to the pass. I reached the top just before five.
The climb seemed less challenging than I remembered it. When I rode here with Hahn almost two years ago, I had engaged in an impromptu race with an older gentleman on a racing bike. His age handicap was balanced by my loaded panniers, so our speeds were well-matched, and the climb seemed much longer at full effort.
The other side of the mountains is exposed to the mid-day sun, so there was no snow on the road. I was relieved. The descent was less challenging, which was welcome, as the light was fading fast. I was happy to enjoy the winding road.
After a few tight turns, I rounded the cliff face and saw the edges of the Tokyo-Yokohama agglomeration below and the Pacific Ocean beyond. It was as beautiful as I remembered it from our first ride here.
My late timing had an unforeseen benefit: a most spectacular view of Mount Fuji (photo at the top of the post). When I rode here with Hahn, the sky had been overcast, and we didn’t even know that the mountain usually was visible. Tonight, the unexpected view, and having the mountain all to myself, made it all the more special.
The remainder of the descent was uneventful, and 30 minutes later, I was at the train station in Hadano. I warmed up with a hot chocolate at a café…
… before Rinko’ing my bike again and returning to Tokyo in time for dinner. It was great to be back on my bike, and I am grateful that the recovery from my accident has been so smooth and uneventful.
We wrote about our first trip to Japan, including our tour that also went over Yabitsu Pass, in Bicycle Quarterly 48.

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