Kiso Valley to Nagoya

April 15, 2007
Distance: 70 km
Top Speed: 75 kph
Time: 12 hrs
Mood: Cheeky!

Nagoya is not a destination so much as a place of transit for most. It was not actually my destination, but I used it for one night and moved on. So far as I can tell, it is only known for it's famous shrine, and enormous (but completely re-built out of concrete) castle. It must have a warmer climate than Tokyo or anywhere in between because they had mosquitoes.

This was the best day I've had so far this trip!

It started off slow, as I was still shivering cold from last night. Horrible... but free. Geez, what depths will I sink to to keep it free? I wasn't that stupid, though. I had chosen the 24hr heated train station over the 24hr 7-Eleven to camp near in case of serious problems.

Well, this day I didn't feel so rushed as to get out right away, so I had the time to spread my stuff out and let it dry in the sun and the heated station room before the first trains had started at 6. My first mission was to eat the chocolate I had saved as my all-purpose "insta-heater" and to rush to one of the many vending machines to buy HOT drinks. Yes, all the vending machines have both cold, AND hot drinks. Seems silly, but once you get used to it, you can't imagine why every country doesn't do that.

The heated station room also had an outlet, so I charged up some batteries, and wrote some of this blog before packing up.

Second breakfast: 2 fried chicken, 1 fried fish, 2 fried unknowns on sticks, Pocari Sweat

I headed up into the hills on a very steep old samurai trail, and quickly found myself in remote hilltop towns. After my GPS corrected a wrong turn I had to walk all the way up the same damned hill to get back on the right road. The road was beautiful, and I never saw a single car. It wound in and out with the natural curvature of the mountains. It was sometimes wooded, sometimes bursting with spring flowers, and sometimes passed expansive mountain-top fields like those in Vermont. At one point the road itself was growing moss - a sign of it's light use. I was so happy on this road that I forgot to pay attention to my GPS and went a few kilometers past my turn off. When I came to the main road where I could have just coasted down to the town directly, I chose to take the samurai road again to lose myself in what, to me, biking is all about - discovering beautiful forgotten back roads, and taking your time to live in the moment.

I had the old Samurai road totally to myself!

The next town, Tsuwano, was the 2nd most famous/popular in the Kiso Valley, but it was totally my favorite! I arrived in this little Hobbitsville of miniature doorways and low 2-story homes, to see children playing in a tiny green yard across from the narrow cobblestone street of one of the houses. It's entire front wall and door open for all to see inside. Between the yard and the street was a swiftly moving boxed in stream that ran the length of the town. I walked down the small hill and looked in all the aerating houses. One had to step up a considerable step to enter - leaving your shoes outside of course. The stream occasionally diverted off to fill a pond filled with carp, or spin a water wheel, and it was always disappearing under bridges, and weeping willows. The cobble stone street ended at the bottom of the small hill and that's where the tourists started. It always astonishes me that these little gems can be so close to the tourist Mecca's, but the poor sheep can't even think for one second to take off their blinders and step outside the circle to take a chance in discovering something special they can call their own. But oh well. That's for them, and Hobbitsville is for me. The rest of the town was also beautiful and cute, and utilitarian. Though the cobbles turned to pavement, and the homes to shops, the same architecture proliferated, and the shops were full of curiosities even for the Japanese tourists. The tourist info center not only had an artistic photo show, and free English information and maps, but an impeccably clean new bathroom (Yeah!).

Tsuwano water mill

Every few houses or buildings were open to the public, thought none of the Japanese tourists wanted to enter, so I poked around all by myself like it was my own private tour (until I got arrested for trespassing... no just kidding. They really were open to everyone). Half way through the town they build the street to zigzag in the shape of... an adroit 'Z' (if such a thing can be). It was a defense against enemy invasion somehow. Maybe the enemies all drove buses that couldn't take the turn. Don't know, but it was one of the interesting things I learned from my handy English brochures.

Tsuwano post town

I stayed as long as I could and dragged myself away after consuming as many yaki (one of my favorite foods - only found in Nagano prefecture) as I could. I made my way towards my next mapped turn, but found a sign saying I could take another samurai road to the next town, so I took it. It wasn't as nice, because it was maintained more for cars, but it was still way better than the main road, and it passed a beautiful blue river in the woods. Once I linked up with the main road things were slow going. This was a beast of a mountain range, and they built the road in short, steep zigzags which just takes all the energy out of me. Ultimately I couldn't make it, but noticed the samurai road had turned into a hiking path that went over the pass. I decided if I was going to walk my bike anyway, I may as well see how the samurais used to do it, so I took my loaded bike off road for a steep walk through the woods. It was tough, but probably only marginally tougher than doing on the main road, and infinitely more beautiful. Everyone I passed gave a cheery "konichiwa", including a foreigner, which was nice. A group of Kiwi's chatted me up, and asked about the sign I'm carrying (oh, my bike has a sign built into it that advertises a Japanese organization of orthopedic doctors who help Afghani's who lost arms or legs in Afghanistan. I'm trying to do what I can to help considering I have no time to actually volunteer during this trip). I shortly reached the top and coasted to the last town. Technically it wasn't even in Nagano, or even the Kiso Valley, but it is by far the most famous, and popular. The Japanese love it because the whole town is build down the side of a mountain. it is just on long, steep road. Kind of a crazy scheme for a community, but I'm sure there was a reason. It was damn cute, but just too packed with tourists, and it looked like the houses had all been "well maintained" (read "completely restored repeatedly"). I'm sure they all were, but this was a particularly moneyed town. You could have sold toothpicks and made a living off the bus loads of tourists here. Again, cute, but I made my way through quickly.

Yaki served in a paper-thin sheet of wood folded and tied with a strip of wood string!

So this was the end of the alps and the beginning of the regular old mountains. They seemed like hills in comparison to what I'd been riding, but I guess the Japanese consider the big hills from here to Kyoto, mountains. Well, looks can be deceiving. I had a mammoth ride down the last of the alps and refilled my Pocari Sweat, but was brought down from my tree-hugging, camping hippy, Hobbitsville fantasy by the dreaded Route 19. This is the same highway I hated up in Matsumoto valley. The same one that had the tunnel of glass, and no shoulder. I thought I had escaped it, but here it was again in all its pseudo-urban glory. It was every bicyclist nightmare. Two and three lanes wide. Jersey barriers. No shoulder. Frost heaves. Major truck route. Mostly elevated. I tried to stay on the glass-covered sidewalk, but eventually it just disappeared down some stairs. I tried ridding against the traffic (trust me - safer in Japan - the truckers aren't as likely to maliciously hit you if you can see their faces first), but the shoulder just wasn't there, and a couple trucks almost sandwiched me. I tried riding with the traffic in the middle of the slow lane, and that worked. I only got honked at once, but when I got off the elevated part, and got a chance to rest, I pulled over into an abandoned gas station.

Post town built on a steep hill

My host in the next city had cancelled for the night before. That was just fine because I couldn't have made it anyway, but I emailed her 2 days earlier and hadn't received anything. I checked my email on my phone, and still nothing. I called, and she wasn't there. Her husband sent me some emails, and the grandpa answered once so I had to speak Japanese, and eventually they just gave me her mobile number (this is the way the Japanese do things - never direct, or pointed - always circular, and the long way around). So I call her, and she says, "ohhhh... I didn't know you were coming. I'm at my mother's. Sorry."

Yeah... um, sorry. Well, I never said asking strangers to host my dirty biker ass was a sure thing. So this just killed my motivation and adrenaline. I looked at the long, steep highway curving up and out of sight. I looked at my GPS and maps to get a good idea of where to go now that I didn't have to meet a host, and how far I could get. It looked grimm. I had spent too much time in the post towns, and I had planed a bum route on a highway for 50 kilometers. I reached for my ejection button - my trusty thumb.

Looking back on the mountains I cycled over while hitch-hiking through a bum stretch of highway

I disassembled my bike so it all looked a bit more manageable, and had a car pulling over for me within 10 minutes. It was clearly too small, so I pointed at my bike and said, "thank you, but... bicycle..." in my children's Japanese. He smiled, and drove off, but it was a good sign. I didn't have to wait another 5 minutes before the hitch-hikers gift from God pulled up. An ace-in-the-hole hot Japanese chick with an SUV. Why, oh WHY this girl pulled over, I don't know, but I wasn't about to ask any questions. Not only that, but she, like the guy 4 days earlier, was ACTUALLY going in the other direction when she saw me, and turned around to pick me up! And to top it off, after 20 minutes together she insisted on taking me even further than she originally offered! Amazing! We got along very well, and she coaxed more Japanese out of me than I ever knew I had in me. Somehow I managed to hold a semi-respectable Japanese conversation with her for about 40 minutes! I guess I've learned the secret to language learning... (and it ain't hitch-hiking). Well I'll resist going on and on about this fluke, but when I'm old, I hope I can remember that I used to be able to pull beauties like this... but sure as my two locks are gone, I'll forget it within a month... sigh...

So I had made so much headway that I almost thought I could just bike straight on to my next host. And if he was ok with me showing up at midnight, I could have. But since he probably was just hoping I wouldn't show at all, I doubt he would appreciate that phone call. Besides, I thought I should at least take a passing look at Nagoya instead of bypassing it all together. So I made my way to the domineering Nagoya castle and found a spot between 2 bushes in the shadows to pitch my tent. I was right on the castle moat and could see the castle and swimming swans from my doorstep. What choice real estate! And some people pay $200 a night for a lesser view. Pshaw! ...though they probably don't have to sleep with their bicycle or shiver through the night...

A view of a turret at Nagoya Castle from outside my tent


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