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Up, Up and Only Up

Up, Up and Only Up

On a solo bicycle tour of Japan, Sean O’ Toole gets lost in translation.

‘Where are you going?’ asked the 72-year-old man in Japanese, his overburdened touring bicycle parked between his sturdy legs. For a moment I just stared at him. His enquiring smile was a crowded platform of white that a dentist had once failingly tried to correct with gold wire. It was as disorientating as peak hour at Shinjuku station in Tokyo. I smiled back, revealing my own crooked Anglo-Irish inheritance, as disordered as Park Station at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon. ‘Friends,’ I offered. Actually, it was Mount Fuji, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flying into Osaka the day before, I had decided on a whim to take a highway bus to Takamatsu, a busy port city on the northern tip of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. From there I would work my way east, first to nearby Tokushima, a docile provincial city where I had lived for two years, then up the Pacific coastline to the mountain whose image appears on the rear of Japan’s ¥1000 note. By car, 625km, give or take, and not all that much more if you opted to skip the perniciously overpriced toll roads. But I was on a bicycle.

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Cycling is ubiquitous in Japan. Gangs of adolescents ride two or three abreast on wide, cycle-friendly pavements to and from school. Mom will nip off to the grocer on a bicycle. Even Dad in his smoke-coloured suit will have one parked somewhere near the main station. Nothing embellished, just some thin-wheeled urban commuter bike with a basket bolted onto the front and the possibility of three gear settings to negotiate any gradients. Known as mamacharis, these utilitarian runabouts rule the roads. Don’t underestimate their strength.

In 2006, when I cycled 1800km around Shikoku, following a thousand-year-old Buddhist pilgrimage route, I met a university student who had pedalled nearly 2000km on a mamachari, from Hokkaido in the north to Takamatsu. A few kilometres later I met another cyclist, a man in his late fifties. He wore black Raybans and an orange cotton T-shirt. ‘Where are you headed?’ I asked at a traffic intersection. ‘Wherever,’ he replied, cool as a cucumber under the hot August sun. The light turned green. Off he went. He made homelessness look like a philosophy rather than a circumstance.

“Shikoku has always been associated with a slower pace of life, a fact tapped into by Haruki Murakami, who set much of the action in his 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore on this island.”

At one point in the novel, the action heads south, to Kochi, the surf and sake paradise on the southern end of the island. It was where the old man with the crowded smile was from. Standing on the side of Route 3, we chatted some more. I summoned words I thought I had forgotten. Mount Yahazu loomed behind us. He pointed to his tent. Home, at least for tonight.

A couple of days later, having cycled up to a mountain-top temple near Tokushima, also to a sad example of a swimming beach on a peninsula in Mie Prefecture, I was on Tahara-Toyohashi cycling road. This dedicated cycling lane in central Japan follows the contours of the main island Honshu’s Pacific coastline. It is scenic, within measure: everywhere there are concrete bollards. Brand new tsunami evacuation signs clarified the Japanese will to tame, even surpass the ravages of nature.

Not all Japan’s road signs jointly present themselves in Japanese and English. In Shizuoka Prefecture I cycled 30km up Route 60 into the Japanese highlands, where green tea bushes are harvested with semi-circular mowers, only to find the road shut near the top. Landslide. Cycling back the way I had come, I saw the warning signs. They were all in Japanese. These sorts of hazards, if you will, are commonplace.

Photo: Sean O'Toole
The day before, I had diligently stuck to Route 150, a coastal road between Hamamatsu to Shizuoka, only to be frustrated by a tunnel 10km from my destination. No bicycles, stated the graphic. Tired, morose, headstrong, I decided to take the first road that looked like it went over the mountain the tunnel burrowed through. An hour later, a few hundred metres of climbing double-digit gradients, a sinking feeling: I was freewheeling back down to where I had started. A friendly mechanic – he hotted-up classic Datsuns and occasionally worked contract on long-range fishing boats – drew a neat map showing me the way around the mountain.

There is no avoiding the mountain road. Japan is an island state composed mostly of stony outcrops. Mountain is one of the first pictographs you learn when studying the language. (It looks like Neptune’s fork, sort of.) Foremost amongst the many peaks that define Japan is Mount Fuji. It is the apogee, the tallest one, the big dude, the shy queen. Officially, climbing season starts in July and ends in August. During these two months visitors stream to the sacred mountain, standing queue near the summit to see the morning sun.

Rituals and customs develop for a reason. Arriving in early June, I caught only glimpses of Fuji; thick clouds persistently shrouded the storied mountain. Perfect weather for cycling enthusiasts to attempt the Mount Fuji Hill Climb, an annual 25km race up an asphalt road to Fuji’s fifth station, where busses disgorge tourists and climbers. I missed the race by a week, but not the climb.

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The cycling route, which passes through the Aokigahara forest – it is also nicknamed the Sea of Trees and Suicide Forest, both for very factual reasons – is unrelenting. It goes up, and only up. Starting at just below 1000 metres above sea level, it climbs to 2305 metres, basically from finger-less mitt to winter glove conditions. A day before undertaking the three-hour ride up I visited a local tourist office.

“There was no applause when I reached the top, thoroughly soaked, chilled to the bone. But I had done it. Foolishness has its rewards.”

‘Is it possible to cycle up to the fifth station?’ I asked. The fifth station is the highest point of vehicular access before everything reverts to foot.
‘No!’
‘But what about the cyclists I saw?’ I had earlier reconnoitred the mountain by bus.
‘They are foolish people.’
Funny how sincere words can be a spur to action: the next morning, the sky sneezing and threatening, I repeated the idiocy of cycling uphill, for pleasure.

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Words and photos: Sean O’Toole