Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hakone/Fuji cycling weekend

November is quite possibly my favorite month in Japan. The days are cool but not cold. The leaves turn beautiful colors. Birthday planning has come and gone.

So I'm out on my bike. Every weekend. Both days if I have no other pressing social engagements and the weather is good.

Though stress at work has been ramping up as we prepare for finals (two more weeks-- so much to do!) and I'm at work 12+ hours a day far too often, the weekends are mine and I refuse to take work home. Well, I can bring it home but it can't come out on my bike with me. In other words, if I bring it home I won't do it, so why bother.

In the beginning of November, I decided to spend the weekend going from Hakone to Fuji and back to Tokyo. As I planned it last minute, I didn't have time to find people to come with me (almost another adventure with my crazy fixed gear friend, but not quite) so I set off on my own from Odawara.

Every January there is a relay marathon race called the Hakone Ekiden run by the fastest university running teams. Each leg of the race, starting in Tokyo, is a full marathon. The last leg goes straight up a mountain, grade between 5-8% but 725 m elevation gain. The runners do it at about 17km/hr!

Every year there is a group of cyclists (hundreds) who start in Tokyo or jump in somewhere on the course, trying to ride on the closed off roads but get enough of a head start that they can beat the runners off the hill. If the runners gain on you too much you get kicked off to the side of the road. Last year I got kicked off to the side of the road.

So heading out from Odawara up this course I wanted to do it as hard as I could to get an idea of if I could do better than last year. Soon I was up and around the hairpin where I got kicked off last year... and low and behold, the gradient lets up for a little after that. It gets steep again but I had a good mind set and felt strong, getting to the top with an average of about 13km/hr. Maybe good enough to beat the runners in 2011. ;)

Hakone is beautiful and a combination of traditional tourist attraction and kitschy nonsense like a fiberglass pirate ship that sails across the lake. Oh Japan, I love you.

I had a little to eat because though it was a beautiful sunny day, it was definitely fall and chilly by the lake and headed out to circle the lake towards Fuji. Unfortunately, the skyline road I had planned to take was very clear about not allowing bikes or scooters. Grumble grumble. My map doesn't say...oh, wait, I guess that is what that Japanese means. Well damn, I'll go back around... and as I head back down to the lake. Puncture. sigh. Well, I'm pretty fast at changing them these days. Another cyclists stops to make sure I don't need help and confirms, no bikes allowed on the skyline. I can see the road in the distance, it must have a beautiful view. Why do the lazy cars get to have all the fun?

Before long I'm rolling again along the north side of the lake. It's pretty enough and rolling hills but far more traffic than I like on my days off and slower than I'd like. It's hard to get the layers right because each uphill part is sweaty and each down hill part cold and I'm getting a little frustrated by traffic. So, when the split comes in the road, I take the round about way up Nagao pass and am instantly super happy.

Very few cars, beautiful leaves, view of the lake, easy climb... heaven.

And then, when you get to the top, you go through a little tunnel and Fuji is huge on the horizon.

I start flying down the mountain. The road is good quality, two full lanes with a little shoulder in most places. Not much traffic. Steady but not crazy steep. Really fun corners. I get behind a car with an old driver sticker and they are going SO SLOW. Like not even normal car going slowly around corners slow... waaaaaay slower than they need to. I almost never pass cars going down hill because they usually pass you later and it can be dangerous... but this one, on this day. I waited until there was a clear corner and cut inside and got in front. (this startled the driver enough to hit the gas briefly...) And then it was smooth happy sailing down.

Maybe 15 minutes of beautiful banking around curves later I come up to a corner, I'm in my lane but towards the middle of the road and there are cars coming the other direction. The shoulder has disappeared and I want to give the driver more room in case they cut the corner a bit (who knows what some of these drivers will do...). So, as I'm already in the turn, I tap my brakes, adjust just a little....

and next thing I know I've lost traction and am sliding wheels first, knee and elbow along the pavement right towards the wheels of the oncoming car. My speed of maybe 30 of 40km/hr quickly slowing as I slide along. Thankfully, the driver of the car wasn't a million years old and he stops, gets out and asks if I'm ok. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for being alive and stand up (ouch!) and tell them I'm fine 大丈夫。。。。I pick up my bike. It's fine. (thank you bike gods!) thank you gardian angel. thank you biker gods, thank you thank you thank you. I'm fine.

I limp to the side of the road and the driver gives me a sincere "Be careful" before driving off. Yeah. I'm ok. But my tights and handle bar tape are torn to pieces. My knees and calf are bleeding and sting like a m*%#$F*&^&%. I hang out at the side of the road, torn up bits angled away from the road and take a few breaths to get my bearings. The old people I passed earlier drive by and give me looks of "stupid" and "serves you right" Who knows what these unpredictable cyclists will do... Sorry bringing the reputation of cyclists everywhere down a small notch. I'm sorry.

I then realize I also have part of my ass hanging out of my ripped bike shorts. Ooops.

I decide to put my pajama pants on over my torn up leg to hide my gore and the only thing to do is to keep going down the mountain. I head down carefully. I make it through the slog of traffic around Gotemba, stopping at a convenience store and not being able to find anything to bandage myself up. I head on towards the hostel. It's now getting dark and getting cold. I am not the happiest camper.

Any long distance cyclist knows the whiny voice in their head. It the voice that complains that you are tired, that it's cold, that you've got a big goddamn pass in between you and the hostel where you can curl up and lick your wounds. It's a voice that doesn't look up and see the beautiful sunset on Mt. Fuji or remain in awe of the autumn colors. My favorite song for that whiny voice has this lyric "what makes you so lavish that you can afford to spend every selfish moment feeling angry and bored?...you try and tell me this world just isn't beautiful enough?"

It was beautiful. I focused on that for a while. Until it got dark and uphill. Then crooning folk singers weren't enough. Then it was rapping Eminem, out loud, as loud as I could between breathing up that hill.

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it you better never let it go, you only get one chance, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a life time, yo. you can do anything you set your mind to man"

And with that rap, the endorphins started pumping and I passed two other cyclists going up. RRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRWWWWWWWWW ;)

By the time I rolled into town (after stopping at a convenience store as soon as possible again to get a new battery for my back light and finding some bandage stuff) it was hours after dark and all of 5 degrees C. The hostel people, as promised, let me keep my bike inside, Michael's hostel-- highly recommended. A shower (oh my god that stiiiiinnnnggggs), a beer, some soup and sound sound sleep.

I wake up the next morning, feeling a bit sore and the road rash still stinging, but happy to have another day to ride. I would tour on my bike everyday if I could. Regardless of flat tires or slow traffic or crashes... I'm happy on my bike sailing through these mountains.

That said, the desire to climb up to Mt. Fuji had nearly evaporated, in part because my tights were destroyed and worthless, in part because more down hill tight turns didn't sound like such a good idea.

So I sailed around Kawaguchiko and Yamanakako and headed home on Doshi-michi. At the turn off to Doshi-michi all I could remember was that the lady at the hostel had asked if I had a mountain bike to go over it (??) and some people on the TCC boards had said it was a nice 'rolling hills' with beautiful views. Who from TCC said that? Did 'rolling hills' mean it was like two or three Otarumi's (17min climb, max 6%)? Or like six? Or like two or three Kazahari's (hour climb, max 11ish%)?

I was so happy to find that Doshimichi is pretty much down hill the whole way back but not very steep and, indeed, beautiful Autumn colors. Occasionally, I could still catch a glimpse of Fuji farther in the distance.

Cutting over a small pass from Doshimichi toward Rt. 20 had me sailing past the big red pepper that TCC sometimes uses as a land mark and brought me to little back roads that I'd been on a handful of times. Returning back to the familiar roads of Yamanashi and West Tokyo make me realize how much time I spend out here and how much these roads are home. The view of life changes so completely when you realize you know your trails.

I stopped at Sagamiko to eat the rest of my snacks and decide whether I had enough energy to go over Otarumi back to Takao or if I should just hop on the train there. I figured I had either enough energy for one more climb OR to be able to go to the store after I got home. I, perhaps predictable, chose to climb. I remember going up that same climb in February and feeling like it was going on forever and ever, spinning up in my easiest gear and wanting to stop. I kept a good 12km/hr average up. It won't win any races, but it's a big improvement for me, especially after a long weekend. At the top of Otarumi, I looked out at the view, and too my surprise, there was Fuji.

I took the train from Takao, like I always do, and had about enough energy left for a shower and re-bandaging my oozing elbows and knee before going to bed. A very beautiful weekend.

Next summer, I want to do that whole ride in one long day. *grin*

Day 1 map
Day 2 map

3000m of climbing, 210km

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


October had many good things but a main theme was, unfortunately, nagging chronic migraines. I've had migraines before and went to a doctor in July or August because I was worried something might be really wrong with me. He told me ti was probably just stress and that I could have a bunch of drugs if I want. I told him that I would rather quit my job and leave my life here than take his stupid drugs. But I'm not quite ready to leave and I fear that I'll take my migraines with me, so I've been searching for alternatives.

I've been seeing a yoga therapist, meditating about twice a day (did you know that this can shrink the part of your brain that feels pain!?! cool), doing acupuncture once a week, given up coffee and wheat (no birthday cake this year) and for a while nothing got better. BUT, last Friday, the migraines kind of broke like a fever and I've been mostly ok since. I hope, I hope, I hope it lasts...

So my first free day and, as usual, I was out on my bike.

One of my favorite things about living in Japan is cycling in the mountains. I'm out almost every weekend. Occasionally both days if weather and social obligations permit. This week we had a national holiday on a Wednesday.

There were mountains and changing leaves and maybe 5 dozen cyclists working there way through the various passes and valleys. I ran into two I knew! Tokyo can be a very small place sometimes.

That's it for now. After a beautiful 100km, 1121m climbing, it's bedtime.