Words: Daisuke Yano | Photography: Brian Vernor, Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji | Date:
WORDS: Daisuke Yano | PHOTOS: Brian Vernor, Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji
The sun has completely set, not even a faint ring of light over the 3000m south Japan Alps. There is no point in putting street lights where people do not go out after dark. It’s just a few degrees celsius and will be minus ten in a few weeks.
Yuji’s patience had run out, and he could only think negatively, preventing him moving his bike forward smoothly. My motivation to pedal hard in the car-light-lit street wasn’t just coming from weighing a few more kilos, but more so that I could get away from his complaints.
Rapha Japan has it’s office in Nobeyama, on the mild eastern slope of Yatsugatake mountain: A farmer’s village of only 3500 population, the summers here create the best batch of wine grapes. Harsh conditions of 1400m elevation, with huge temperature differences from day to night makes highland vegetables unusually sweet. Cabbage, lettuce, and nappa cabbage from this area are considered to be the best and traded at high price for those who live in the metropolis. We eat for free, of course, as neighboring farmers leave them at the door every cool summer morning.
The Japanese are particular about having something “number one”. Nobeyama has the right to brags about having the highest rail crossing and train station (the two must come in a set) in the national rail system, the highest elementary school in the country and so forth, making it the highest village in the country. Only 2 plus hours from Tokyo and Nagoya and 5 hours from Osaka, the number two city, access is very good. With only 25 people per square kilometre of land, cycling here is also the best in the country.
There are problems, however, riding out of Nobeyama: Any ride will start with a down hill and must finish with a climb, a big climb. If you live on a hill, you would understand this dilemma on every long ride home. We managed to finish the ride with a descent from Hirasawa pass, but at a cost of 900m climbing prior to that…and little did we expect to do 50kph in pitch dark.
The ride starts off from Nobeyama at Rapha Japan head quarters. A kilometre away from the train station. The Route takes us through the desolate mountains of northern Yamanashi prefecture (state). Though we come close to the Kofu city, we really never hit the valley or any real civilisation. An undulating wander through the deep mountains, with constantly changing elevations.
There are no grand passes with the deep history of Europe like those told in Rouleur Magazine , or the endless wide open roads of North America told in the Rapha Continental . What we have here, typically, are mountains, very steep ones and ocean. Almost every city has mountains within an hour of riding. Traditionally, building roads is considered symbols of political power and as a result this country has thousands of kilometres of “unnecessary” roads spread across the most desolate parts of the country like capillaries. But these deep mountains separate regions and prefectures like borders. Japan is a similar size to California in the USA, yet offers surprisingly contrasting cultures throughout the country.
PART1 – CRYSTAL LINE
The last weekend of November usually means mountain slopes are bright with fall colors, but at 1400m Nobeyama has lost every single leaf and ground bushes enjoy the clear sun light. Even the evergreens drop leaves here. Animals gather food, and humans gather wood for long cold winters. We are ignorant of this as we prepare for a long ride.
The night before the first Yonretto ride, two in the morning, all the riders except for Vincent have gone upstairs to bed. Two bikes done, still one to go. Last minute arrival of parts, calls to Verona for spec confirmation and hardware issues cut into our sleeping time. Position? Forget positions. Get the saddle height and just go and ride it.
Around 7am sleepy faces come down the stairs. Some have forgotten why they are here for a moment. The fact that we have to ride bikes built a few hours ago on a long mountainous route is definitely not on our minds. Excuses for lousy legs are shared. Breakfast is consumed and little pre-ride rituals take place.
As we finally get the bikes out the door the field is still covered in fog. Farmers are done with harvest, but tractors with fertilizer trailers mow around preparing the field for next season. We have much to learn from them about preparation. Yuji, Seiichi, and Yufta are huddled up, waiting for some kind of instruction to start riding, Vincent and I just go.
5 minutes into the ride, already hitting 50kph, looking over bald Mt. Asama in the distance to the left. We keep an awkward distance to each other not from the speed, but from not knowing each other very much. Some still have no idea what we are doing. Is it a club ride? A race? A social ride? A photo shoot? Soon they find out that it’s definitely not an easy ride, as Vincent starts to pull into the headwind with my elbow signal.
The course is constantly going either up or down, until we hit the first proper climb at the Shinshu Tohge. It’s not a big one, but the road is wide and goes straight up through the field at 10%. We cross into Yamanashi prefecture (state) at the top and it’s a contrasting layout with a narrow winding descent into the forest, still at 10%.
There are people with guns in this part of the country besides the police. Hunters here do it for necessity. They are farmers and need to keep deer under control. A pretty female hunter with a gun the size of her says four dogs were surrounding a deer just now. She has a rare Kawakami hunting dog, rumored to be bred with local Japanese wolves, now extinct, as are the bears that used to roam this particular area.
Another peak to ride up to. Mt. Mizugaki take us to the highest point at 1700m on a wide smooth road, and then changes again with a rough, narrow, twisty, steep descent. There is only one road to follow, so we settle into our own pace. Yuji and Yufta are loosened up and start to put distance on the rest of us. With only a few hours of sleep due to building bikes all night, Vincent and I have no idea what our bodies will respond to.
The rough, steep descent continues, the road dotted with occasional buildings and houses. The road narrows to a size barely passable for a car. It’s a stressful descent, and hands start to cramp. This is the heart of the Crystal Line, a 68 km forest road made for…who knows what? No scenic open view, covered entirely by pine trees with steep, narrow, rough roads.
PART2 – ARAKAWA DAM
Approaching mid-day the occasional eateries that we pass are only open on weekends for motorcycle tourists. With very few choices, timing for lunch is difficult. We stare through the window of a noodle shop but ride past because we aren’t hungry. But then I prepare for Yuji to start complaining of “glycogen depletion”. Why can’t he just say “I’m hungry”, more straight forward and human-like.
There was a bigger problem for Vincent: Forced to ride with bronchitis, combined with constant up/down, and rapidly dropping temperature take a toll on his breathing and he has to abandon the ride. Physical pain that does not involve broken bones is one thing, we would have left him for that, but sickness is different. We know how tough Vincent is being the only former pro cyclist, so we trust his judgement. Of course, whatever the reason for getting off the bike, we give him a hard time.
Down to four riders, we pass countless 50m tunnels, continue down the twisty road hugging along gorges and the ever crumbling cliff faces until we reach the open spaces at the Arakawa Dam. Some noodle shops line the streets, tourist cars, we are actually relieved to see clear signs of civilisation. Funny how some of us always seek soulful places, become one with nature, but at some point anxiety builds up and in a severe case, turns into total fear.
We find a small noodle shop at the Arakawa Dam. It’s already past 2pm and the sun is barely hovering above the saw-toothed 3000m peak line in the west. Just a few leaves still hanging on almost bare trees, a few late season tourists are slurping soba inside, zero conversations. Why do half of the tourists always look unhappy to be there? We are also quiet as the sky turns amber and we realise daytime is running out. But once hot broth goes down our throat and warms our core we relax and a few words start to come out. For a moment, it almost feels like the ride is over.
PART3 – KAIGANDERA TEMPLE
We restart with heavy legs. The second half of the journey is a more open ride with sky visible as we climb and descend. With two more passes, we drop Seiichi and he is lost from visual contact. Yuji is hanging on but, as the sky suddenly darkens, he falls off. Always talking in training languages, Yuji is the most properly trained rider but at the same time has the least experience.
Up the penultimate climb, Hotch Tohge, Yufta and I begin to attack each other. Dancing out of the saddle, I seem within reach, but can’t quite catch him. My only memories now of the climb was a golf course and just for a moment we could see Mt. Fuji in the distance. Oh, and I also remember who reached the top of the climb first.
The other side of the Hotch Toghe is a straight descent, we lose 500m elevation in a matter of a few minutes and now traverse across Akeno. The whole village is on the gentle southern slope of the Kayagatake and they claim to have the longest daylight hours in the whole country. We seriously doubt that, but the view is fantastic with farmland and the 3000m high south Japan Alps range across the valley, where the sun is about to set.
One last climb, the whole 900m of it through a back road. Smart car navigation systems and locals use this road to avoid tourist/truck traffic on R141. It’s steep. And now, the sun if officially set.
Churning up through the monochromatic world, what was forest is now just a dark cloud with asphalt barely reflecting light from the moon. Easy to concentrate on riding now with nothing to see. Or it was for some of us. Switchbacks at the Kaigandera Temple is where we go into the woods. Yuji has totally lost his vision and Seiichi has totally lost contact. All we can do is yell and wait for the echo. I predict there is another one hour of riding, at least.
There are two sources of light from here; automobiles and a half moon. In pitch dark automobile lights do not help, but the ever soft half moon provides steady, uniform lighting. With pupils fully open, this surreal world becomes comforting. We pass a few old mountain villages, a field full of bright susuki grass, and a grand outline of the Yatsugatake mountains. Yufta and I are the men of the second half and lead up to the last climb, Hirasawa Tohge. Yuji arrives a few minutes later, mumbling something we can’t comprehend, and eventually Seiichi.
With steam rising off our bodies, we head back as a group for the last few kilometres. Still no one talks, but I can tell that we are all satisfied to have bagged this one in the history book. One and a half hours in the darkness was certainly not planned, but it brought out each riders character clearly.
MIZUGAKI – SLIDESHOW AND FILM
Short film – This is a trailer for the upcoming film.
Slideshow Brian Vernor:
Slideshow Shu Takenouchi:
Slideshow Kei Tsuji: