Cycling in Southern Niigata - Japan 2003

Visitor number (since August 2003):

Time warps, broken dreams and endless greenery...

Travel has always provided us some great adventures, plus obviously some great stories. Well, nothing could provide greater adventure for us than the events of Summer 2003 and the birth of our first child. This was the trip of a lifetime, a time of joy and great expectations. Not being able to venture far we spent more than two months of summer in Myokokogen. Occasionally I was able to have a few hours on my bike exploring the area and these are the notes and pictures.

The Trail of Broken Dreams - Following the Sekigawa

When one alights from the train at Myokokogen station it's easy to see a ski ground, major hotel and ski jump just at the rear of the station. To me this seems like an ideal location but the consumer gods and failing Japanese economy obviously thought otherwise. As I trailed my bike along the front of the hotel one could see from the obvious handiwork of vandals and the entanglement of vines on the rusting lift pylons that 'Panorama Park' had seen better days. I decided from there to coast alonside the Seki gawa (river) - a pleasant stream gently flowing with the remnants of spring snow - something that belied it's destruction of much of it's surrounds during floods in 1995. I stopped at a small village with narrow moss covered steps that ran up into a small copse of fir trees that obscured the small temple within. Moving further on from there I stumbled across 'Alba' - a now disused golf driving range and testament to the bursting of the 'bubble economy' more than ten years ago. Inside it could seen where the owners had one day just walked out. Clubs still littered the deck with thousands of golf balls loose like rampaging mice. Lights hung loose and the remnants of nets dangled limply in the breeze. I could not resist the opportunity to drive some balls into the jungle that had now replaced the formerly prim fairway. I continued on, and after consulting my map, decided to head up toward Sekiyama where the local townsfolk were holding their annual matsuri (festival).This was somewhat disappointing from my particular point of view - apart from when one participant put firecrackers on the privates of his prostrate sleeping friend. Luckily for the gentleman concerned, and his future generations, he was able to wake in time and escape serious damage to his manly functions. I followed the old road back up to Myoko and as the sun disappeared behind the mountains the fireflies swarmed out of the roadside bushes to light my way home.

The Back Way to Nojiriko (Lake Nojiri)

Maps are not always that useful. Especially when they are in a language you don't particularly know that well. Crossing the rail tracks I took the left fork and headed off on what I presumed was the road to Nojiriko. Shortly after this I came across a gravel road heading up hill and decided that taking that route may be a good option, or even an adventure. It ended up being a trial that constantly broke in false dawns. I would think I was about to broach the mantle of the hills when the next bend would offer only more hard work. After several kilometres I stumbled out of a forest road onto the bitumen. Now, to left or right? Left was going down, a favourable option. I consulted my map at various angles and was still not sure. I hesitantly decided to go right. A couple of kilometres breathlessness later I came to the turn off to the Nojiriko Prince Resort and found myself looking over a wonderful vista down over the lake. Rushing downards toward the lakeside I found the surroundings beautiful but quiet. Nojiriko and its population appeared to lay sleeping awaiting the masses of summer tourists that would shortly overwhelm it. No boats were out, many shops were closed and even people seemed to be scarce. I dallied for quite awhile at the lakeside with a coffee and some chocolate then took Route 18 home past the Sekigawa Guard House. In the olden days all visitors coming from Tokyo to the Echigo Plains had to pass through this point. I topped off the ride with a bath at the local onsen, before sloshing home through a teeming rain storm.

Look - a gaijin! (Suginosawa)

I thought I may ride up toward Ikenotaira and have an onsen at Landmark. This is only about three kilometres up hill. Once I arrived some locals felt it strange to see a gaijin riding around but remarked to each other that I was probably taking part in the Nojiriko Triathalon which was on that day - and obviously lost. I felt liking riding a bit higher and then coming back for an onsen so I first set off toward Ikenotaira ski ground just a short distance away. I have snowboarded here quite a bit, but without it's winter mantle of snow the whole place looked rather weary and rundown. I coasted down toward the delightful Imori ike (pond) and after a short break cum repast weighed up my further options. After a temporary loss of direction (not an unusual occurence for me) I found myself heading further up to Suginosawa. Here the locals seemed even more surprised to see me. As I wandered into the local onsen the attendants had to pick their jaws off the floor before relieving me of my 500 yen admittance fee. Feeling refreshed and happy with my afternoon outing I had an easy run back down the main road to Myoko.

The Hot Spring at the End of the Fog (Akakura, Seki and Tsubame)

Akakura is a beautiful little village located up in the mountains from Myokokogen. This day I took the right fork toward Akakura rather than the left toward Ikenotaira. It was a foggy day with just a light mist falling which was refreshing more than anything else. Once again I found myself wanting to explore higher and I set off toward an onsen that could be seen on the town map. The road wound agonisingly upward as the fog grew thicker. It was so thick by the time I reached the onsen that I missed it completely and not long after found myself at a tunnel that marked the end of the village/resort and the closeness of Tsubame - a delightful but small one street town perched on the edge of Mount Myoko. Here there is a free rotemburo (outside onsen) - but I didn't discover that till I was told when I got back home. I had a bath at a local hotel then skidded back down to Akakura through the rapidly worsening rain via Seki and a small waterfall. Not before I hurtled through a another very long tunnel that had quite amazing acoustic qualities. The only difficulty was deciding which song to sing loudly as I went. Once back in Akakura I had myself a coffee and chocolate while I rested up at the free foot spa. Not that it was terribly easy finding a HOT coffee. The spa is normally a quite busy venue but given the unseasonal weather I had the place to myself. From there once again is was an easy downhill coast into Myoko.

Memories (Naoetsu to Omi)

When I lived in Omi one of my favourite rides was the Kubiki bike trail that runs from just past Naoetsu to the outskirts of Itoigawa. It was a beautiful sunny morning as I lifted my bike aboard the train heading for Naoetsu. After a quick break for some carbohydrates at McDonalds I headed down through what I call 'The bikkuri (scary) tunnel'. As you head out of Naoetsu toward the bike trail you have to first negotiate this rather long tunnel. The footpath is narrow and their is precious little shoulder on the road for cars to pass. Without nerves of steel and/or a death wish it is best to either walk to this tunnel or take the long road over the top of the hill. As I exited the tunnel my water bottle broke off and I had to spend some time on running repairs.

From there things only got better. It was a glorious sunny day and both the sea and sky were blue. I passed through several of the old rail tunnels before coming upon an old reconstructed village in Nou. I didn't remember it being there before, but it has been at least six years since I last did the ride. I finally arrived in Omi and spent some time riding around to see what changes there had been in my absence of three years - new apartments on the seafront, some more shops closed down and the rising spectre of the new shinkansen that will run right past the the baseball field of my old school. I pondered for a moment what danger might be posed to unknowing passengers if a high fly ball came at the wrong time? Down on the seafront I caught up with some old friends for the annual Omi hanabi (fireworks) and then missed the train home because Kinya-san, my old supervisor, wanted to me to come back drinking at his home. I crashed the night at my friend Takeshi's home then wondered in the morning whether I should ride back from whence I came or take the train. The train won. The Omi station attendant was not fussed about me taking on my bike. The train attendant suggested it was okay, but much better if I had a bag. The Naoetsu station attendants were vociferously opposed to my even thinking about not having a bag. Luckily I had mine still sitting in a locker there from the day before. I arrived back in Myoko tired, happy and very very smelly.

Deep in the Jungle Mists - The Road Less Travelled to Pine Valley

Once more I biked past the abandoned lifts of Panorama Park but this time headed up the hill rather than down the river. Coming to a fork I took the high trail which led me past several abandoned lodges. At one I made my way up the precarious and rotting stairs and found what was once obviously a fine building now falling apart rapidly. Inside were abandoned bike, TV's, and other chattels that nobody felt useful any longer. All that remained now was a home for some swooping bats. Later when I got home and showed the pictures My wife remembered staying there on field tours as a junior high school student. Slightly higher up was another small cabin that was a virtual time capsule. Futons still lay airing across the loft rail. Dish clothes hung out to dry. Skis were carefully packed away for the summer. On the table lay a dusty paper from 1994. For whatever reason the owners had walked out at that time and never returned. Now with the skiground closed and nothing but remote dirt roads leading to it and several other buildings there seemed little reason to return. Perhaps they could be sold to a sect from Montana?

I came to another fork and decided to take the road obviously less travelled. As I moved higher and higher the overgrowth became thicker. At some points it was even difficult to see if I was still on a path or not, it was so dense. But I could not bear the thought of turning around and hoped that every jungle I crossed might be the last.Finally I came to a road but had to pose the question again, "left or right?". After much indecision I plumped for left. Shortly thereafter I came across some workman and just about scared one shitless as my brakes squawked me to a halt. They said I was on the road to Pine Valley and thus I made my way there. They are a bit jumpy apparently because of the occasional bear that thrusts itself unexpectedly out of the bushes. Now if I had only known that on my ride up. Perhaps better I didn't. Pine Valley is an immaculate resort but like Nojiriko lay quiet awaiting the summer hordes. I rattled on a steep downhill run past 'Alba' then up a steep incline and through some rice fields before landing at Sekiyama station and the train homewards.

Over the Top - The Summer Mountain Road from Sasagamine to Otari, Nagano

I've spent many an hour poring over maps of the local area trying to see if there was a path from Myoko over the mountains to the Himegawa which leads out to the sea at Itoigawa. It was a fine Sunday and I decided to check out my theory that a road must lead somewhere in that direction from Sasagamine (past Suginosawa). One can cheat a little here. There is a summer bus that can be taken up to Sasagamine (saving 20km of uphill riding) - but in this case My wife gave me a lift.

We stopped at a dam before parting ways. I rode across the causeway which led to a tunnel downwards. There was a sign and light chain drawn across the entrance forbidding anyone to enter. Only in Japan. In other countries the walls would be graffitied, the lower reaches would be a crack house and anything of value would be stripped at the earliest opportunity. Returning across the causeway I set off along a concrete path that soon became flooded and led nowhere, apart from marshland, and I praised my decision to buy shoes that didn't mind getting wet. I turned around and took a higher path that eventually led to Suginosawa Bridge. So far so good. A sign near the bridge showed that the road did indeed lead on to Otari but I would have to traverse another range if I chose to go there. Having come this far and not wanting to waste the effort I stopped at one of the many roadside springs to refill my water bottle then pressed on. The water tasted a little strange but I put that down to it's purity. Maybe not, as several hours later I found myself with a huge case of the runs.

As I continued on the map I had in my pocket 'ran out' and I could only rely on my memory of the roadside sign. I spent an hour climbing up a narrow gravel road and came to a tunnel. This was the summit of my climb and on the other side lay Nagano Prefecture. Several parties of climbers were scattered on the approaches to the tunnel and were quite surprised (to say the least) when a lone gaijin on his bike came rumbling past. The vista from the top was amazing and from there I jolted downward before finally reaching paved road again. Coming to an intersection I stopped in the Kochi no ki nei onsen on the corner where I was surprised to find the manager, Itai-san, very keen to practice his English. He told me to put my bike up on the steps so he could watch it then ushered me toward the baths. His establishment was very small, as was the onsen, but the water was very clean and refreshing. I felt more relaxed coming out of the rotemboro than I have for a long time but had to press on. I would highly recommend the place to anyone finding themselves in these parts (phone 0120-026057).

Downwards I rushed again through some beautiful rural scenery. Unfortunately I had a head wind but that made little difference to my progress. Some time later I came into Nakatsuchi - a place so very quiet there was not even a shop open to buy a snack. If indeed a shop even existed. I contented myself with a Pepsi from a vending machine and waited for the train. I decided to go via Itoigawa because the train via Matsumoto took much longer. However I did not figure on the lousy connection times which ended up being more than an hour in each of Itoigawa and Naoetsu - ruining an otherwise perfect day. It took over five hours to get home. The small one carriage train heading toward Itoigawa was packed with train buffs and hikers. It seemed that in my six year absence from the area it had now become a tourist train. Arriving in Itoigawa brand new trains could be seen waiting ready to plow the line and so the old cars days must be numbered. Along the way I was able to view the familiar orange sunset that I had seen so many times from my apartment window in Omi. I got off at Tanihama and rode to Minami Takada just to kill time instead of hanging around the station at Naoetsu. I enjoyed that, apart from the bikkuri tunnel of course. One weekend I must just do the whole round trip on bike. Watch this space....

Further related reading by the same author: The Shanghai Bikeman / Ode to my Jitensha