In its early stages, the road that leads out from Lake Matsubara on toward the Yatsugatake mountain range is nondescript as far Japanese country roads go, but to a foreign eye almost every faded detail has something.
Away from this, the road would take me on a long series of climbs eventually summiting at the Okawara pass at around 2100 meters. I’d experienced the amazing mountains of this region through the eyes of others but never in reality and after witnessing the abundance of intriguing back routes and gravel roads my main concern was that my route would be far too normal, too civilized.
As the road ahead began to rise the strong smell of evergreen consumed me — spending most of my time in Tokyo it’s easy to forget the smells, sounds and sensations out there to be experienced, nature can feel so much more intense when it doesn’t form part of your everyday. The range itself intersects Japan’s Northern and Southern Alps, equal in scale but somehow more moody than it’s neighbors. I was told there could be a little snow still around in the mountains and as I climbed higher there were small but impressive remnants of winter that in retrospect seem absurd. Although for the most part it was a clear and sunny day, ascending the final few hundred meters there was a subtle fog and a light rain coming in as the temperature dropped the change in air pressure was palpable — a motorcyclist that passed a little earlier was awkwardly turning his heavy tourer around telling me the road ahead wasn’t possible. I should probably have listened but the idea of going back along the same road wasn’t something I was considering.
Hiking across the two feet of snow covering the road ahead of me without any reference points, it was difficult to sense if what I was doing was dangerous or not — it didn’t feel dangerous, but the sense of inexperience and an unknown road ahead added to my nervousness as I passed through rain, wind, sun, and snow experiencing a whole spectrum of sensations until the snow eventually began to fade as the altitude decreased. On the decent I was finally able to get back on the bike and even though the road was littered with rocks and other debris it wasn’t long until I could build up some speed and begin to take in the amazing scenery as I followed the meandering switchbacks beaming. It was after about 10 km of pure joy that I realised with the disorientation the snow had caused I’d missed a vital turn that would have taken me home. An adrenaline fueled climb back up through the storm took me further into the snow than I’d hoped, the road I was trying to find mostly covered by another snow drift.
I pushed ahead hoping that what appeared on the map as a simple route back toward the lake would become another clear decent after this initial belt of snow. Unfortunately this thin ribbon of road became increasingly wild, even after a small glimmer of hope when a gravel trail started to emerge the road began to climb again and the snow returned; gravel / snow / gravel / snow / fallen trees / snow / overgrowth / water, it continued with conditions progressively deteriorating. The road was still increasing in altitude and becoming overgrown with vegetation, the snow and mist increasing, I could see no tracks from anything other than small unknown animals, at this point things were beginning to get scary.
Taking some time to pause was probably the best decision I made that day, pushing forward in the hope of better conditions seems to be the human default that often ends in disaster. Checking back more carefully on my GPS, the road would actually rise at least another 500 meters and with conditions unknown I made the decision to turn back and head for a previous route which led to another trail and an obvious descent that would hopefully take me to some kind of normality. When the snow did finally begin to decrease what emerged was more than a gravel road, oversized rocks made even rolling virtually impossible, especially with road tires. Through a combination of walking and riding I covered about 15 kilometers with the occasional hope that the road would become smooth, only to be forced back to walking.
It’s surprising that I got as far as I did without a puncture, but it was bound to happen, this road was extreme and more suited to a mountain bike. At least by the time I did get a flat I’d made it back into to the sun, so taking time to remove my wheel gave me chance to rehydrate and check my phone for a signal — nothing. Some hikers passed by at this point with optimistic smiles, there was still a long way to go however and I had no idea when the trail would start to become road. Juggling the decision to ride the rocky path with only one spare tube was tricky, the vibrations and possible damage of going downhill on a road bike against the slow awkward gait of cycling shoes with stiff carbon soles that were becoming more disfigured with every step.
After another hour of this painful descent the first farmhouse I saw in the distance would mark what was an end to the trail and the beginning of a beautifully smooth road that ran through small fields and farmland. Above there was a clear blue sky and eventually a ringing phone which meant I was within reach and could explain why I was so many hours late. There was still over 15 km of road between here and home but the sense of relief was staggering, even though the road soon became harsh and uneven with speeding trucks and cars forcing me into the gutter, the adventure was over. Once the adrenaline from the mountain had subsided I was completely spent, emotionally and physically, the final 5 kilometers a long and steep series of slow climbs felt like they would never end.
This story was originally published by Terasu.