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Tohoku (part 2): August

Riding south from Kakunodate, I found myself on a picture-perfect road called Mizuhono-Sato; and it just kept going for miles and miles, which was fine with me. The gentle twists and turns took me by old-style farm houses, vast open rice fields & an endless stream of ripening fruit orchards. Passing through all these orchards had me starting to crave some fruit, so I stopped for a break at one of the many fruit stands set up by the roadside. These little shops work on a trust system, so I chose some fruit, left a few hundred yen on the counter, and signed and commented in the visitors book (in English), which would undoubtedly give the family something to talk about.

Fruit stand on Mizuhono-Sato Road

As the sun made its way across the sky and I headed further south, the landscape began to transform. It began to look more like Vietnam than the Japan that I'm used to...and it was clear that yesterday's heat wave was still with us.

Somewhere in northern Japan on a very hot day

As I neared the sacred region of Dewa Sanzan, I discovered one of my favorite roads of the north; flat, straight, bright green rice fields to my left and to my right, and open road for as far as I could see, with absolutely no cars or people anywhere; a forgotten little farming plain locked in on three sides by mountain ranges and the Mogami river, which was now fading out of sight behind me. The temptation to open it up was just too much...

One of my favorite roads

Soon, I hit the mountains again and started to wind my way up to Dewa Sanzan. Dewa Sanzan, meaning 'The three mountains of Dewa', consists of three peaks; Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono, all in Yamagata prefecture. I was very close to Mt. Haguro so decided to call in at the main shrine...

Dewa Sanzan 1

Dewa Sanzan 2

Dewa Sanzan 3

I had been in the mountains now for about 48 hours, so it was time to hit the coast. And one of my favorite parts of the country was just over an hours ride away. The 'Nihonkai' coast (Japan sea coast), in northern Niigata prefecture is truly magnificent and offers some fantastic coastal riding. The coast road weaves its way past sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, every so often passing through old rustic fishing villages that directly face the sea. Today was extremely hot, so it was difficult to imagine how it would be in February with the Siberian winds from the northwest blowing in. The simple wooden homes that stand courageously by the sea must be constantly battered by the elements for months on end during the long winter months. But today's heat was offering up its own set of challenges.

After stopping off for a swim at one of the sandy beaches, I was soon back on the bike again and headed for Niigata city. I had heard of a famous old house in Sekikawa village some 30km to the east of Niigata city, and the road that leads there was supposed to be a nice one, so I took the detour...but sadly the 'Watanabe residence' was under construction and closed, so I will need to stop by and see it another time.

Storm clouds had gathered since my ocean swim and the sky, which had been looking ominous for some time, suddenly decided to let me have it. I took one quick photo just as the heavens opened...

The heavens about to open

There were clear skies ahead so I put my head down and fought my way through the beating summer rain. Thoroughly soaked, the skies cleared and the warm Niigata air quickly began to dry me out. By the time I pulled into my hotel in the center of town I was completely dry, but quite ready for some ZZZs.

The last day of my trip was to be more or less a straight shot home, but my inquisitive nature always tends to get the better of me, so I found myself staying off the highway and following the coast road south from Niigata. Although, more developed than the coast to the north, it still offered some nice riding.

Coast road south of Niigata city

Coast road south of Niigata city 2

Time was ticking so I left the coast and headed through the hills to meet the highway that would deliver me to Tokyo. As usual though, Japan's unforgiving mountain ranges slowed me down. There is hardly a straight road anywhere in this country (which is one of the main reasons why the riding is so great). I rode through little rural communities that seemed to rarely see an outsider, especially one that looked as foreign as me.

Lost in the mountains of central Niigata

Eventually, still with a little energy left in my tank to get me from the hills of Niigata to the highrises of central Tokyo, I joined the freeway and headed home.