Thursday, October 19, 2006

Matsumoto, Japan

Friends: These Japanese Alps are not misnamed. They are a vast array of stunning, snow-streaked peaks that rise dramatically and spectacularly above the tree line, piercing the sky with their knife-edged summits. They are all the more beautiful adorned by the colorful fall foliage. They could cozy up to L'Alpe d'Huez without any fear of an inferiority complex. They offer a host of beyond category climbs that would have had Henri Desgrange drooling to impose upon the Tour peloton.

The seven-mile climb from Ogimachi out of the Shokawa Valley on route 360 to Takayama was
mostly one-lane wide with a grade of ten per cent. There were mirrors at every hairpin turn. There was little traffic, as most opted for the nearby toll road. I was lucky the descent was a little wider and I didn't have to hold my breath in fear of on coming traffic or be as brake-happy as I would have if I'd been descending what I had climbed. I had Lance in mind, as it was on such a road outside of Nice where he crashed head-on into a car as he was training for the Sydney Olympics. He fractured a bone in his spine, but competed anyway.

The climb out of Takayama towards Matsumoto went on for over 20 miles, was broken by a tunnel and a couple mile descent, and then had a final coup de grace of five miles to over 6,000 feet. That was another largely one-laner at tern per cent that most traffic avoided by taking a long tunnel that was forbidden to bicyclists. The views were so spectacular that at least half the vehicles driving it were taxis. At just about every bulge in the road one had pulled over for picture-taking.

It was on this road that I received my first offering of food from a motorist in Japan. I may have willed it, as I had just been thinking about Thailand and how often Laurie and I had been given food and drink by passing motorists, especially on the climbs, even though none were as
challenging as this. The Japanese are as cordial and considerate as the Thais, but much more reserved. As I was pondering the contrast between the Land of Smiles and the Land of Bows, I came upon a woman stopped along the road collecting flowers. She saw me coming and stepped out holding a can of drink. I had passed her earlier, where I also noticed her foraging. I didn't care to give up what little momentum I had and took hold of the can while bowing and saying "arigato, arigato." But then she held out a plastic bag as well, forcing me to unclip from my pedals and stop. The bag contained a couple of warm brown eggs, as if they had just been boiled. She could well have submerged them in one of the hot springs along the road. They would be my first eggs of the trip. The convenience store sell hard boiled eggs, but at 63 yen, they are beyond my budget.

The woman spoke no English and did not test my Japanese, just returning to her car and driving off as I popped open a most welcome can of carrot juice and drank. I would have cracked into at least one of the eggs as well, but there was less than an hour of light before dark and I had no idea how much further it was to the summit. I needed to get over the top and descend at least a couple thousand feet. It was well that I saved the eggs for later as they were only soft-boiled. Still, they made a nice supplement to my nightly bowl of noodles. The summit came about 15
minutes later and I had time to plunge nearly 3,000 feet and 15 miles through a gorge before turning off the main road to a clearing for my tent along a stream feeding the main river. It concluded another superlative day of cycling.

Enough Westerners come to this city of Matsumoto to see its castle, that free English guide service is provided. One of the volunteers, a 50-year old woman taking the day off from her department store job, was available for me this morning. The castle, dating to 1600, has been designated a National Treasure. There are so many noteworthy castles in Japan that instead
of the usual grouping of three, there are four such castles deemed National Treasures. Only two of its original three moats remain. They are home to swans and carp. This castle has six levels. It was not a residence, rather a place to retreat to in case of attack. There were slots to drop stones on invaders and narrow windows for archers and riflemen. The archery slots were about twice the size as those for muskets. There were displays of the armaments and battle gear. The guide pointed out that the armored samurai warrior looked like Darth Vadar. We had to remove our shoes before entering the castle, but were given a plastic bag to carry our shoes in. This castle had an adjoining moon viewing pavilion. The moon could be viewed in three places--the sky, its reflection in the moat and its reflection in a sake bottle.

My guide said she too liked to travel and had been to the U.S. and Europe, but had never been to Hokkaido or Sado Island. Nor has she climbed Mount Fuji, just viewing it. She frequently visits Takayama, sixty miles away, as it retains its aura of the past, unlike Matsumoto and most Japanese cities, which are thoroughly modern and generic. The busloads of Japanese tourists at Takayama certainly testified to its appeal.

Later, George

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