Working on the Old Road to Jikkoku Pass

Last weekend, we headed to Jikkoku Pass to work on the old road that has featured in several Bicycle Quarterly adventures. Tokyo’s Yama Sai Ken, or Mountain Cycling Club, has ‘adopted’ the road and goes there twice a year to maintain it.

For us, this was a remarkable trip into the Japan of tales and movies. The melancholy as we passed through vestiges of the past was balanced by the joyful promise of early summer.

Like most cyclotouring trips here in Japan, it started by subway, with our bikes in their Rinko bags.

When you buy an old-style cardboard ticket to board a small train, it feels a bit like traveling back in time.

After we un-Rinko’ed our bikes at the final station, the mountains beckoned with fresh green.

The roads became smaller and smaller, until they were just a single lane. I remarked to Natsuko that anywhere else, this amazing road would be famous, but here in Japan, it’s just another mountain road.

We had brought some food for a picnic lunch…

… because there are no stores along the way. The next town was a mining town, but nobody lives there any longer. The old post office is the only building still operating, albeit not on Saturdays.

We explored the abandoned buildings.

The schoolhouse still had a blackboard and the teacher’s desk.

It could have been spooky, but the cherry trees were in full bloom. On a day like this, the world seemed young, and it felt completely normal that people had left after the town had outlived its usefulness.

Upvalley from the mining town, the road was closed for cars, but on our bikes, we could continue. After an hour of climbing, we crested the tunnel at the top of the pass.

We let our bikes fly down the descent. As we rounded a corner, we found the road blocked by a rockslide. Good thing our brakes worked well! Now we knew why the road was closed for cars. For us, it was only a minor obstacle.

A fast, winding descent brought us to the valley, where we joined the other Yama Sai Ken members on the riverbank. We pitched our tent and joined the campfire.

The next morning, we rode up to the village of Ueno-mura. The new road climbs at 14%, but we took the old road that is even steeper, because it’s shorter and nicer.

Nobody seems to know how steep the old road is, but it certainly is steep. After a while, we surrendered to the grade. Even when walking, it felt like I was pushing my bike up a vertical wall!

We joined the other members and the villagers on the old road to Jikkoku Pass. If you watched the video of riding across the pass on New Year’s Day, you saw the sea of dry leaves covering the road.

For many years, the Yama Sai Ken members have worked on removing the leaves, clearing small slides, and generally rebuilding the road. The local villagers also worked on the road, and they wondered about the invisible elves who sometimes already had done some of the work. Only three years ago did the cyclists and villagers finally meet on the trail. They decided to join forces and work together from then on.

As we used hoes and rakes to clear leaves and debris, I recognized the spot where, three-and-a-half years ago, my front wheel lost its footing, and my ‘Mule’ plunged into the ravine. The bike somersaulted more than 30 m (100 ft) down the steep slope, flying higher and higher each time it bounced off the ground. I thought my brand-new ‘Mule’ would be destroyed, but the bike only suffered a few minor dents – even ultralight steel is incredibly strong! I was unharmed, too. Today, I worked doubly hard to make sure the trail was in good shape here, because it’s not something I want anybody to repeat.

After we finished working on the trail, we joined the villagers for a delicious lunch. They told us how previous generations used the old road to carry rice across the pass.

After lunch, one of the ladies took us around the village to show us the flowers and vegetables. She told us another story from the history of the village: When Christianity was outlawed in Japan (the missionaries were feared as the vanguard of colonialism), the villagers took in Christians who did not want to renounce their faith. When Christians died, their gravestones were marked with disguised crosses. We went to the cemetery, where we found the old gravestones. (I didn’t take photos, because in Japan, it’s not proper to photograph graves.)

Then it was time to go. We cycled down the valley…

…climbed another mountain pass on a backroad that turned into narrow gravel trail…

…before arriving at the train station for the long trip back to Tokyo. What a wonderful weekend it had been!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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31 Responses to Working on the Old Road to Jikkoku Pass

  1. John says:

    Almost every trip you report on, I mark down in my ledger as this is something I’d like to do in the future. Here’s a business idea: I would buy either digital or print versions of itineraries, which contained the map, short descriptions of the roads, and places to see, places and contact info of the accommodations where you stayed, and connection information (like train info) and a GPX route. You’re doing most of this work when you plan your trips so it may be worthwhile adding a little more packaging and offering it for sale.

  2. John Williamson says:

    A nice morning read, thank you Jan!

  3. Monty Richardson says:

    Thank you Jan. I love these posts and live vicariously thru them

  4. First time I see Mr. Heine without his helmet!

  5. Andrew Cohen says:

    Yes, like a fairytale! Thanks for taking the time to post your adventures!

  6. Rick Thompson says:

    Thank you for these trip reports. This is a part of Japan I never see from working trips to Tokyo.
    Hmmm, Google Maps is saying Jikkoku Pass is a 145 km ride from my customer’s office in Shinagawa. I have no idea how bad riding through Tokyo traffic would be, but that is not out of the question. (I know, take the train out of the city.)

    • Tokyo traffic is fine – since everybody takes public transit, there aren’t that many cars – but finding the way can be tough – navigating Tokyo and its suburbs isn’t straightforward. There are some great rides within easy reach of Tokyo, like Yabitsu Pass (rideable from the city) and Utsukushigahara (need a train). We’ll try to publish some of them in the future.

      • vankempf says:

        I use Komoot generated gpx files to find my way around Tokyo and provided you set Komoot or a similar programme on “city bike” and not “racing bike” it comes up with very pleasant cycling paths and routes in and out of Tokyo. Another trick is to follow the rivers. There is plenty of green space (and sporting facilities) along the banks of the rivers.

  7. David Litt says:

    Jan – Do you have a GPS track? I’ve been over Jukkoku several times, and also Shigasaka, and know where the “ghost town” is located, but have never done the “small roads” you mention and would love to know where they are.

    • Thank you for the link. This route goes over Jikkoku Pass, but is quite different otherwise (much longer). I am sure it’s nice, too. You can see the old road as the dashed hiking trail on Jikkoku Pass. The turn-off as you descend the pass is difficult to find, unless you know where it is – that is why Japanese mountain cycling articles often include hand-drawn maps for these hard-to-find details.

  8. David says:

    What is the bike Natsuko is riding? (Definitely not her usual Hirose!)

  9. sisyphus says:

    Another account about the essence of cycling; leveraging the body forward on a machine that becomes more organic with each lean on the pedals. Thank you for another great read.

  10. Joe Wein says:

    Jan, regarding “I didn’t take photos, because in Japan, it’s not proper to photograph graves”: I am curious who told you that, because it does not match my personal experience and I have lived here for almost a quarter of a century.

    I have also checked several online references for proper etiquette for taking pictures in public in Japan and not a single one mentioned graves or cemeteries in any way. While there are various restrictions on picture taking at temples and shrines (some of them verbally announced by staff, some with signs), families here take pictures at graves without second thoughts. My mother in-law is pleased when I send her pictures from my visits by bicycle to her late husband’s grave that I take care of.

    The only time I heard this rumour before was from another foreigner who was not been a long-term resident. While I appreciate that customs may vary by region (and perhaps they’re different in Western Japan), around Tokyo I would classify this as a myth.

    • I asked Natsuko, and she clarified: Japanese consider graves somewhat sacred. It’s not a problem to take a photo of your ancestor’s grave, but just casually taking a photo because you consider it interesting could be considered inappropriate.

  11. Peter Evans says:

    I’ve been along part of that route, but I’ve never dared do it or anything like it while snow is on the road. Perhaps I’ll try — even though I’m not keen to break my first bone. Or perhaps I’ll chicken out and just sit in an armchair and enjoy snowy routes vicariously.

    One little point. You say: “in Japan, it’s not proper to photograph graves”. This greatly surprises me. People I’ve asked say it’s fine to do so.

  12. Eric Ernst says:

    The two front panniers(?) and the handlebar bag caught my eye as looking somewhat retro and aesthetically pleasing to SWMBO. Do you happen to know the manufacturer, please? Thanks in advance!

  13. Sark says:

    First: I love your logs in your blog and i even bought a couple of issues of BQ magazine!
    Consider this: i am a avid mountainbiker since 25 years who is slowly is getting more and more in to randonneuring through the influence of your work. 🙂 thanks!
    Ok, this is not why i am writing, but the “Tokyo mountain cycling club”. Do you have a contact or a homepage you could share?

  14. ryan giggs says:

    Thanks for the link to the club. Some great pics/places. My kind of riding.
    Would love to get over there one day. Can’t speak an ounce of Japanese though.

  15. Thomas Dusky says:

    Wonderful — thanks for sharing Jan

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