Cherry Blossoms Below, Snow Above: Cycling Tsuchiyu Touge

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My recovery from the accident is proceeding smoothly. My bones have healed, and I hope to ride my bike again in a few weeks. Where shall I go on that first ride? I am back in Japan, finishing the things that were left hanging when I had to return abruptly to Seattle after being hit by a car in Taiwan.

I recall a great ride up Tsuchiyu Touge (touge = pass) almost two years ago. This ride was organized for Hahn and me by friends from Tokyo. It was a day of much climbing, even more laughter, and the beginnings of wonderful friendships.

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We were in Fukushima to visit the Nitto factory, and the following day, we set out from the lovely Onsen hotel where we spent the night. As bikes are readied, Hitoshi discovers that his tire is flat. This minor mishap does little to discourage us on this glorious morning.

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The climbing starts right away, and we settle into a comfortable pace. Here, Hitoshi (Vélo Après; left) and Ikuo (Cycles Grand Bois; right) lead, with Hahn and Natsuko following. Harumi (also Cycles Grand Bois) is already ahead.

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Even though the cherry trees are in full bloom down in Fukushima, we soon encounter the first snow: We are gaining altitude quickly.

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Along the road, we observe how the snow has melted around the trees. Different hypotheses are proposed for the cause. Is it meltwater that runs down the trunks? Or does the sun heat the dark trunks more than the white snow?

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We learn that the road has only recently been opened for traffic. In several places, we see giant snowplows parked by the road. Some have fresh snow on their blades! It rained last night in Fukushima, but here in the mountains, the rain has fallen as snow – even though it’s the middle of April, and we aren’t even half-way up the pass yet!

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The road climbs along the ridges, then breaks into tight hairpins where the hillside is too steep for a direct ascent.

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Even on this weekday, there is some traffic, including this “bad boy” motorcyclist. His beautifully turned-out machine includes a pristine leather bag underneath the frame. Perhaps not the most practical spot on a fenderless bike…

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After a picnic lunch, we stop at a viewpoint. Several times we reach spots that seem like the top, but then we just keep climbing further.

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Our group stays together loosely as the snowbanks on the side of the road grow taller and taller. Above 1000 m (3300 ft), the elevation is written on the road in 100 m increments. When we cross the 1500 m (4921 ft) mark, I climb atop the snowbank to take a photo (top of the post), figuring this will be the highest we’ll reach. Of course, the road continues to climb, and we soon see 1600 m written on the pavement.

tsuchiyu_top

When we finally do reach the pass, we have climbed close to 1500 m (5000 ft) since starting in the morning! The snowbanks are about 3 m (10 ft) tall, but fortunately, the road is wide enough to offer great views of the mountains.

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Not far away, steam rises from a peak, indicating volcanic activity that also is responsible for the many Onsen hot springs we have passed.

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After a second lunch at a cafeteria near the pass, we descend into a desolate landscape. Little vegetation grows here because the winds are so severe.

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It’s so windy that a van with a highway maintenance crew stops to warn us. The worker has to hold onto his hard hat, so it doesn’t get blown away.

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With good bikes and some skill, everybody makes it across the windy parts without trouble, and then we launch into an amazing descent. Tight hairpins are joined by long straights, so we get to feel the rush of speed, before braking hard for the next turn. This continues for a while…

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…until we reach the turn-off to an Onsen hot spring. It’s a surprise for us, but our companions have planned to stop here. To everybody’s disappointment, we have just missed the closing time.

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Undeterred, Natsuko cycles across the suspension bridge that links the Onsen with the road. We’ll never know how she persuades the staff to let us in after hours, but when she returns, it is clear that she has been successful.

After soaking in the hot water at the Onsen, we descend the final kilometers back to Fukushima. We Rinko our bikes and lock them at the station. After a nice dinner, we take the Shinkansen train back to Tokyo.

The route up Tsuchiyu Pass probably isn’t ideal to ride with newly-healed shoulders and arms, and in any case, it’ll be snowbound for a while. But just like our friends planned this beautiful trip for us, I anticipate they will find a perfect route for my first ride, and I look forward to it!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. Bicycle Quarterly's sister company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., turns the results of our research into high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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14 Responses to Cherry Blossoms Below, Snow Above: Cycling Tsuchiyu Touge

  1. mike w. says:

    Beautiful!

  2. jprichard10 says:

    Sounds amazing!

    I do believe the snowmelt is caused by the darker tree trunks. There’s a similar phenomenon on snowfield and glaciers where little pebbles will leave the surface pockmarked when they heat in the sun. Giant boulders end up with gaping “moats” around them.

  3. B. Carfree says:

    Lovely story. Thank you.

  4. Joe Wein says:

    Have a great time here in Japan, Jan. I think you usually do🙂

    In the Kanto area, January is a great time to enjoy clear skies, especially views of snow-capped Mt Fuji from far away, because all the snow tends to fall on the other side of the mountains (Sea of Japan side) and at least down at sea level it never gets too cold to ride.

    I am looking forward to trying out Compass tyres on my new Elephant NFE when it arrives this month and expect to use them on my first brevet of the year in West Izu in February.

  5. Paul says:

    What sort of gearing are these folks using?

  6. The Coasting Frenchman says:

    There are certainly a lot of worse places to go cycling around than the one you describe in this post! I really do wish you all the best for your first ride after your accident, and I think all this shows something funny about your personality: you don’t seem to need somebody to tell you to take it easy not to compromise your recovery, and at the same time, nothing seems to be able to deter you from your goals; you have managed to keep posting inspiring stories for all of us, when a lot of people — me included! — would probably have stopped all activities waiting for better days.
    Thanks again for everything, and enjoy your Japanese stay!

  7. Jack says:

    Great photos, I particularly like the 3rd from last.

  8. Michael says:

    It appears that only the Americans are in (racing-style) helmets? Why?

    • Your question can be understood in two ways: Are you asking why the American riders wear helmets, or why the Japanese riders in the photos don’t?

      I think the answer to both questions is that helmets are relatively unimportant for cycling safety compared to other factors. I wrote about the issues of helmets and their contribution to safety here.

      • marmotte27 says:

        Good question, I hadn’t noticed the difference in the pictures. For me the helmet wearing percentage amongst cyclists is a clear indicator of the existence or not of an everyday cycling culture in a country. This is of course directly linked to the level of objective and, more importantly, subjective safety (does it feel safe even to less confident cyclists?) in that country.
        At one end of the spectrum you find countries like the USA, low objective and subjective safety, most people wear helmets, at the other end, the Netherlands, almost nobody, except the racing cyclists, wears a helmet.
        Of course, Jan has first hand experience of cycling in Japan, so he knows how it is there, but in my opinion, obejective and subjective safety must be pretty high.

        I’d be interested to know (providing I’m not completly wrong) if this is owing to well managed interaction between drivers and cyclists (and the existence of good cycling infrastructure), or more to a culture amongst drivers of respecting other road users.

      • Japan is an interesting case: Almost everybody cycles, but the government has almost totally ignored cyclists. So there is no cycling infrastructure, and cyclists sort of ride all over the place, often quite unpredictably.

        Perhaps the unpredictability, combined with a high demand on driver skill and focus (nobody would even think of talking on the phone or texting while driving) means that cycling is comparatively safe here. Basically, drivers are prepared for cyclists, and they have the skill to deal with them. This sort of validates the “Grant Petersen Weave” – basically, wobbling a bit on your bike when a car approaches in the distance, to show the driver that they need to give you a little extra room.

        On the bigger highways, it’s less pleasant. Many drivers feel that they have the right-of-way, and that cyclists should get off the road when cars approach from behind. Especially trucks pass very closely, too. It be a bit harrowing.

        Fortunately, the small roads in the mountains see so little traffic that it isn’t a problem, and there, both locals and tourists drive very respectfully.

        In summary, Japan is relatively safe for cyclists, but absolutely not because of the government doing anything for cyclists.

  9. I would love to know more about your coping strategies with the high winds. It is a serious problem for me 1/4 of the year here in Ireland!

    • Violent sidewinds never are much fun, and I can only imagine what it’s like to live in Ireland. I once cycled in a powerful storm on the coast of Germany, and it was interesting!

      Low-trail geometries help a lot, and fortunately, the Japanese builders have come to similar conclusions to the French constructeurs in this respect. I couldn’t figure out why low-trail bikes are less affected by sidewinds, until I read Tony Foale’s book on motorcycle handling. He pointed out that trail provides a lever-arm for the wind against the ground.

      A zero-trail bike will be pushed sideways by the wind, but the steering wouldn’t be deflected. You move a bit to the side, but still point in the same direction. That is easy to manage.

      A high-trail bike will also turn the handlebars when hit by a sidewind gust. Not only are you moving a foot to the side, but your bike also is pointing in a different direction!

      Beyond that, sidewinds are probably the only time when you need a firm grip on the bars, and quick reactions. Ride in the middle of the lane, so you have room when the bike goes to either side. Both the gust of wind, as well as the sudden stop of sidewind (when you are still leaning into the wind), are will affect the bike.

      Even with all these strategies and a good bike, violent sidewinds aren’t much fun.

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