Izu no Kuni

Words: Daisuke Yano | Photography: Brian Vernor, Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji | Date:

“After a slow gradual climb by a quiet river adorned with all the autumn colours you could imagine, we come out onto the Izu Skyline road.  A place for fine European cars and 1000cc motorbikes to be put to the test. A real tarmac roller coaster. It’s barren and brutal, stunted shrubs and tall bamboo grass waving in the wind. We pedal into a howling gale, which adds spice to our roaring descents and slug-paced climbs. I see a sign, 900m, multiply that by 3 or 4 and we’ll have today’s elevation gain.”
Vincent Flanagan

400 years ago, after the Tokugawa family took over the reign of the country, they needed high quality large rocks to build the stone wall for the Edo castle in what is now Tokyo. Dense volcanic Komatsu rocks were considered best and were abundant in the northern Izu peninsula. Lords and their workers gathered here and for 30 years rocks were hewn out of the steep mountainside and carried to Edo. Masons would get paid with rice for the exact amount they chiseled. The chiseled grooves at the quarry were then filled with rice. Rocks that fell during transportation were considered bad omen for the castle, so were left untouched. They can still be found scattered all over the peninsula and along the roads.

Today, only surfers go to the Izu peninsula in winter months. Good surfers go to Shimoda at the southern tip where the tubes are perfectly round. In the summertime, with white sand beaches in the south, it’s a hot spot, being less than 100km from Tokyo. There are exactly two highways which lead to those beaches, one along the coast and another through the mountains. Families in people carriers, couples on driving dates and professional men in their sardine cans will take the coastal route for obvious reasons.

Flat roads are found only along the beach front. The beaches are separated by rugged mini-peninsula, which creates interval-like repetition of hills. Head inland and it’s all mountains. Forest roads and access roads for wasabi farmers and wild boar hunters sanke through and over these mountains.

The Izu Skyline floats along the ridges of the spinal mountain range. Pick any road from the 1000m Izu Skyline and you have one amazing downhill that dives right down to the ocean.

Part 1 – Coastline

After a brief downhill ride, we reach Ito’s train station. Just a few pedal strokes from here takes us to the Pacific Ocean. A short stint on the national highway 135 is tolerable only because the salty air gently wraps around our faces. We pass by a commercial fishing dock, supplying the riches of the Pacific to the surrounding area. Ito’s fish market is small and there is no 400kg tuna here, mackerel is the local fish.

As highway 135 starts to go up towards the hill we veer left and get even closer to the ocean. From here to Jogasaki the rugged coastline was created by close to one hundred volcanic craters, each erupting exactly once, shaped over millions of years. Rock climbers and hard fishermen savour these magnificent rock formations, and we love riding through it.

Repeating small hills hug the cliff line. The rhythmical tide moves in close and then far below again. All ten legs that ride are fresh, the sun is out and hitting at low angles as tourists still eat their breakfast. It’s a beautiful late November day and the misery of Mizugaki two days ago is forgotten, for now.

Passing through a couple of fishing villages hugging the coastal hills, we reach Jogasaki where the lighthouse and suspension bridge comes into view. I remembered riding a smooth trail system here and so venture off to find this singletrack. The I remembered it was smooth on a mountain bike. No big deal, our tyres hold up.

From Jogasaki, we head inland to the mountains.

Part 2 – Kokushi Tohge

You always hit one extremely steep hill to get away from the coastline. Then there are a few more hills to go over before hitting the main climb up to the Izu Skyline. When the road changes to gritty concrete from smooth asphalt, we get a muscular workout at a cadence of 30rpm. It’s too steep for steam rollers to lay asphalt here.

Diesel buses crawling past look like rockets launching with thick black smoke whilst no-torque Japanese cars need 7000revs to just get over the crest. My front wheel is flopping everywhere and staying in the saddle is nearly impossible.

The surroundings change here from coastal cliffs to covered forests. We find several kilometers of fine gravel road to shortcut the busy section of the town out to the Okuno dam. Sounds of the rocky stream almost cancels out those from the bikes. A soothing sound, almost as good as the 50km/h strong tailwinded stretch where you hear nothing but the friction of the tires and the tarmac. Seiichi is the only victim of the sharp rock.

The first real climb comes above the Okuno dam, but only a brief one. Just a few months ago this was a toll road. A mere 50 yen toll for bikes back then was just a formality, but a light wave at the bored toll-man usually provided enough entertainment for him to let you through.

Turning left off Route 12, after a stretch of leafless cherry trees, the surroundings change again to a typical countryside scene with local villagers and farmers. What we call the “satoyama” is perhaps the most representative of the old Japanese lifestyle. It’s not 100% natural (actually there is quite a bit of human intervention) but zen-like, done in a way to rhyme with the nature. An amazingly relaxing environment.

Soon we see the mountains up ahead, surrounded by wasabi farms. The second climb of the day up the Kokushi Tohge is nearing, a gentle single lane climb through a cedar forest. Followed by a mystical and smoothly cornered descent. Beautiful…If the road was not closed off from a land slide.

The detour we take is also a climb through a small mountain. Delayed by the detour, we only make a brief stop at the convenience store for a much needed mid-day refuel. We are half way, at the eastern half of the peninsula. Relatively small but repeating climbs and descents prevents us from getting any kind of rhythm. Interval-like efforts let fatigue sneak up on the legs.

The second half heading across on the western side of the peninsula is a different world, with everything in a much larger scale.

Part 3 – Izu Skyline

From Yugashima Onsen it’s dead simple. Two intersections, three roads. But the roads are high at over 900m and cold moist air blowing on the exposed Izu Skyline tests our legs and will power.

We must first get to the Izu Skyline which runs along the ridgeline, and it’s a 12km narrow road gaining 600m in elevation. Climbing really begins after passing what’s left of a 100 year old rare metal mine. Average grade around 7%, but maximum is over 10%.

Yuji is in fine shape today, barely sweating and pushing powerfully. Yufta as usual is floating over broken pavement, spinning effortlessly. The rest of us three are content with losing sight of them. No conversations, just looks to each other with clear implication.

Reaching the Izu Skyline was a shock to the system after bodies are heated to the core. The entire ridgeline is covered only by waist-high bamboo grass and you can see as long as the clear winter air allows. The excitement from the awesome views of ocean on both sides of the ridge is quickly overshadowed by the severity of an exposed mountain ridge.

There are very few totally exposed roads like this, where moist cold air blows from below on one side and then wraps around the ridge-top road down the other side. Vincent, still feeling the bronchitis, is barely holding up, trying to find anything to hide from the gust. But riding in the slipstream doesn’t work here and pedaling is required to fight the wind. Just like the ocean below, cold air comes in like the tide, lashing at each rider like waves on to coastal cliffs.

Yuji is long gone again. Yufta and I pair up to find a pace, acutely aware of unpredictable movements in the terrain. Then as we reach the highest point of the ride, I find it too steep for my tired legs.

At the Toda Tohge intersection Yuji is punished (ironically) for having the best legs and having to wait, shivering and getting impatient. We can get a full view of where we just came down from. Several minutes later, we see Vincent flying, twisting down towards us. It was a free-fall fast descent for him. Did I mention that Vincent is a former mountain bike pro? A fast descent wakes him up from any condition, like putting a fish back in the water.

Part 4 – Down to Ocean

From Toda Tohge it’s a straight shot out to the western coast of Usami, passing through Shuzenji. Losing 800m of elevation in 12km, down to Shuzenji is bitingly cold. With silky smooth tarmac and constant radium corners, it was supposed to be one of the highlights. Quick breathing, rigid body and numbing hands. Brake modulation is lost and bikes exit the corner at a wrong places.

Speed is lost instead of carrying through. As we approach sea level at Shuzenji we can feel the temperature rising quickly and by the time we reach the bottom we’ve all forgotten about the painful descent.

Somehow Seiichi is late to reach the bottom. He limps down with a ripped jacket and bibs and a broken fender mount. His rear wheel locked and he ended up kissing tarmac. As he picks himself up his heart is broken.

With no major injury, our sympathy soon switches to “come on let’s go the sun is setting” haste. The sun was really starting to get low on the horizon, again. Temperature isn’t plummeting like the Nagano mountains but we still have a big downhill to the ocean past the Kameishi Tohge, and with traffic and a cork screw descent, it is not the one to go down in darkness.

The cause of hitting the pavement was an unusual one and confused Seiichi. He climbs into the van. Disappointment, but we are not about to waste time to get him back on a bike that needs major adjustments. Perhaps camaraderie is shown with kind words but sometimes, for the Japanese, a bit of silent punishment is more effective, especially for the next ride. So we leave him behind. Next time he’ll be tougher.

The climb up to the Kameishi Toghe travels past the Shuzenji Cycle Sport Center where the Keirin School is located along with various courses for racing road and mountain bikes. Vincent has memories here and is given plenty of time to recollect as he struggles straight up past the velodromes.

Separating the oncoming traffic are banked corners, literally finishing on the beach. The Kameishi descent is a true pleasure and Vincent is looking again like a fish thrown back into fresh water. Such an emotional roller coaster.

Back down on the coastal highway 135 where we started and back to Ito station, it’s the only true flat sector of the ride. We finally benefit from Yuji’s strong condition as he moves up to the front and pulls us at 48km/h to our arrival. Tonkatsu, a fried port cutlet, is the reward as we watch the last victory of the great Mongolian Yokozuna*, Asashoryu, on the TV screen.

*Highest ranking Sumo wrestler


Short film – This is a trailer for the upcoming film.

Slideshow Brian Vernor:

Slideshow Kei Tsuji:

Slideshow Shu Takenouchi:


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