Friday, May 08, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle: Day 2

Day 2
May 1, 2009
Start: Tosa-Iwahara
Finish: Mount Tsurugi
Distance: 75 km (uphill)
Departed: 7:00 a.m.
Arrived: 3:30 p.m.

Today was the day the serious mountain climbing began. My destination, the base of Mount Tsurugi, was only 75 kilometres away but it would be uphill almost the entire way. On roads that resembled coiled intestines.

This was going to be the most physically demanding stage of the entire trip. If I could reach Mount Tsurugi it would be, quite literally, all downhill from there.

I wanted to get an early start. Partly to make the most of the daylight. But mostly because I had to endure another 10 kilometres on terrifying Highway 32 before I could start my ascent up the mountain roads. I wanted to get the highway from hell over with as early as possible. Before it became rammed with 10-tonne trucks traveling at high speeds.

Unenclosed in steel and glass, without airbags and anti-lock brakes, I felt naked and vulnerable on Highway 32. Riding a bicycle on a shoulder-less highway with massive logging trucks bearing down on you makes you realize how pathetically fragile the human body really is. Rear-ended by one of these trucks and I'd be squashed like a bug on a windshield.

I hammered as hard as I could along Route 32 and got it over with in less than half an hour. As soon as I turned off the main highway, the twisting mountain roads leading up to Mount Tsurugi were almost devoid of cars. Routes 439 and 438 were the stuff of dreams. Ribbons of perfect pavement, winding their way up higher and higher into the mountains. Switchback after switchback.

At 6,500 feet, Mt. Tsurugi is the second-highest peak in western Japan. Getting there by bicycle was long and slow. But the scenery along the way was spectacular.

Cycling aficionados looking closely at my pictures will notice that I spent the day in my lowest gear. Using the smallest chainwheel on a triple crank set generally brands you as a pussified rider in cycling circles. But I don't care. I am a big fan of the Granny Gear and I am not ashamed to use it.

Although my spirits were high, my body was beginning to break down. My hands were covered in calluses, my knees were starting to ache and I was developing blisters in places too X-rated to mention. Advil helped. So did frequent stops for ice-cold cans of sweat. Mmm . . . sweat.

I made a deal with myself. If someone stopped to offer me a ride, I would take it. Why not? I had nothing to prove. I'd ridden plenty of mountain passes tougher and steeper than this.

The only wrench in my plan was that no one actually stopped to offer me a ride. I got plenty of smiles and waves and thumbs-up from passing drivers. I would smile and wave and give thumbs-up right back. Maybe I should have tried to look more pathetic and less energetic. Maybe they would have stopped.

It wasn't that bad, though. I took lots of breaks. Chatted with lots of random Japanese people. Everyone seemed impressed that I was planning on cycling to Mount Tsurugi. Wow. That's really tough, they'd say. Be careful! It’s dangerous!

But the thing is, it wasn't really that tough. And it wasn't the least bit dangerous. It was a gradual ascent the whole way. (I'm starting to learn that Japanese people love to exaggerate.)

I was making good time so I decided to take in a tourist attraction along the way. I took a two-hour break in the Iya Valley, stopping for a long lunch and a trek across the area's famous vine bridges.

This thing was just begging me to jump in and ride it. So I did.

Unfortunately, I got stuck halfway across the river. Fortunately, this guy came to my rescue.

I learned one particularly valuable lesson today: Keep your mouth shut. If you ride with your mouth open, bugs will fly into it. And then you will waste precious energy violently gagging and coughing and spitting to rid your mouth of said bugs.

I also learned that rural Japan can be mildly creepy. I passed through ghost town after ghost town. Each one likely abandoned by people seeking work in the cities. There would be long stretches of nothing and then suddenly a few houses and shops strung together. I never saw anyone under the age of 70 in these towns. Sometimes I never saw anyone at all.

At one point, I rounded a corner and saw what looked to be a vibrant town with lots of people out working the fields.

Except when I got closer, I realized they weren't even human. I had wandered into a town populated by stuffed dolls.

What made it even creepier was the fact that I was the only living person around for miles. I took a few photos and got the hell out of there.

By 3:30 p.m., I finally made it to the base of Mount Tsurugi, where I had booked a minshuku for the night. A minshuku is best described as halfway between a hotel and a hostel. Like a hotel, you get your own private room. Like a hostel, the bathrooms are communal. But it's a uniquely Japanese experience. You sleep on a futon in a simple room.

And you get a traditional dinner and breakfast. This was my dinner. I ate all of it. In about five minutes flat.

I was the only foreigner staying at the minshuku. As a result, I attracted a fair bit of attention, especially among three middle-aged Japanese men commandeering the communal dining room. They were very drunk and very loud and they would yell things out at me every time I passed by ("It's the Canadian cyclist!" "Can you eat sushi?" "Oi! Where are you going?"). I spent most of the night hiding in my room to avoid them.

Eight hours earlier, as I was setting off in the morning, I thought about hiking to the top of Mt. Tsurugi if I got there early enough. A good idea in theory. But I didn't realize how tired I would be by the time I arrived. I felt obligated to at least spend a little time on the mountain. So I took the chair lift halfway to the top. And then I rode it back down.

Happy to have made it to Mount Tsurugi, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing the toughest part of the trip was behind me. Or so I thought . . .

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