The road from Lake Matsubara towards the Yatsugatake mountain range is nondescript as far as country roads go, but to foreign eyes there’s something special in almost every faded detail.
Intersecting Japan’s Northern and Southern Alps, Yatsugatake is equal in scale but somehow more moody than its neighbours. I’d planned a relatively simple route that would take me on a long series of climbs summiting at the Ohgawara pass (2100m). As the altitude increased the strong smell of pine was overwhelming, when you live in the city it’s easy to forget the sensations to be experienced in the mountains — nature is much more intense when it isn’t part of your everyday.
I was told there could be a little snow still around in the mountains and as I climbed higher there were small remnants of winter. 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 was blocked—I should have listened.
Hiking through two feet of snow that covered the road ahead of me, it was difficult to sense if what I was doing was dangerous or not — it didn’t feel dangerous, but inexperience and an unknown road ahead added to my uncertainty as I passed through rain, wind, sun and snow experiencing a spectrum of sensations until eventually the snow began to recede. Even though the road was littered with rocks and other post-melt debris it wasn’t long before I could get back on the bike and enjoy the amazing scenery as I descended through a series of meandering switchbacks. After about 10 kilometers of pure joy I realized with the disorientation of the snow I’d missed a vital turn. An adrenaline fuelled climb with a storm approaching took me back to the road I was searching for, hidden behind a snow drift.
I’d hoped this back-route to the lake would become another clear decent after this unwelcome 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 became steeper and the snow returned. Gravel, rocks, fallen-trees, it continued with conditions progressively deteriorating. The road was still increasing in altitude and becoming overgrown, the snow and mist intensifying. There were no tracks from anything other than a few unknown animals, at this point things were becoming scary.
Taking some time to pause was probably the best decision I made that day. Pushing forward in the hope of something better 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 to find an alternative trail and some kind of normality. When the snow finally began to subside what emerged was a gravel road with huge rocks that made rolling virtually impossible, especially with thin road tires. Through a combination of walking and riding I covered about 15 kilometers with the 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 into to the sun. Taking time to remove my wheel gave me chance to rehydrate and check my phone for a signal — nothing. Some hikers passed me with encouraging smiles, but there was still a long way to go and I had no idea when the trail would join the road. Juggling the decision to ride the rocky path with only one spare tube was difficult, the vibrations and possible damage of going downhill on a road bike against the slow awkward gait of cycling shoes with stiff carbon soles.
After another hour of painful descending, the first farmhouse I saw would mark the end of the trail and the beginning of a beautifully smooth road running through small fields with clear blue sky. There was still over 15 kilometers of road until 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 empty, emotionally and physically, the final 5 kilometers a long and steep series of slow climbs felt like they would never end.