Day 2 - The temperature had dropped, and the skies had completely cleared. From my hotel window I could see the clear outline of the mountain ranges that surround Nara city. Breakfast was from seven and I was there right on time, but so was the rest of the hotel. This kind of weather had everyone planning a big day.
After a pleasant breakfast spent chatting to a couple of US scientists in town for a conference, I loaded up the bike and layered myself up to fight the early morning chill. Using my built-in compass, I made a beeline for the skyline to the east of town to catch some early morning views. Crisp and clear, and at 8am just 5 degrees near the top, there were some nice views of the city.
The road out of Nara
I had a lot of miles to cover today, and a lot of route scouting to do. This is how we make sure everyone who opts for one of our special JBR 'Scenic Explorer' self-guided tours is on Japan's finest roads. And with so many gems to uncover along the way, I always find myself pushed for time.
So, I set off south toward Asuka; another of Japan's ancient capitals (538 - 710 A.D.). This part of Japan is a treasure trove of history and culture. On the way to Asuka, I passed through a number of interesting little villages, the most note-worthy being Hasedera. There was no bypassing the town even if I'd wanted to. The open road quickly narrowed and the streets were now lined with ricketty old stores selling their trinkets. I stopped at the entrance near Hasedera temple wondering if traffic was actually allowed down what appeared to be a walking street, but there was no other option. This was in fact the main road. I slowed to a crawl and chugged my way past the street vendors, dodging local residents and camera-happy tourists. But then within minutes I was back at speed on the open road again on my way to Asuka.
Rice drying in the warm autumn sun
The sun was climbing higher in the sky and I could see this was turning out to be a very special riding day. It was one of those crisp clear autumn days that offer such awesome views and magical riding. The temperature was rising and it was time to remove some layers. Everywhere I looked was a photograph waiting to happen. Almost every rice field looked the same; no longer the bright greens of summer. The rice had all been harvested and was now standing in organized little stacks (like cylindrical huts), drying in the warm autumn sun.
Our BMW F800R
I rolled into Asuka around 11am, and it was the architecture that immediately caught my eye. Nothing much is left of the Asuka of the 7th century as all the old buildings and royal palaces were constructed of wood, and have sadly burned down numerous times since then. However, the people of Asuka have been living here ever since and much of its ancient past can still be felt today. I motored slowly down Asuka's old streets, taking in the unique architectural design of the area. The roofs particularly are quite spectacular.
An interesting building in Asuka
Typical Asuka architecture
Next, and just a few kilometers down the road was a place called Inabuchi. Inabuchi is famous for two things; its beautiful terraced rice fields and the Ishibutai tumulus; Japan's very own Stonehenge. It looked like the tumulus was being visited by a group of elementary school students, so I skipped the madness and took one of the small roads up into the orchards above the town...and wow, what a view.
View of Inabuchi
From up here, I could see the whole area laid out before me. I parked next to a farming couple, both over 80years old, who were picking 'kaki' (persimmon) and laughing about something (probably me). In the distance I could see Asuka. Directly below I could hear the screams of an overly-excited group of kids trying to figure out how their ancestors had managed to pile such large stones on top of each another, and to my left a simply magnificent view of the stepped rice terraces that this region is so famous for. And the whole valley beneath me was ablaze in autumn color.
Looking back toward Asuka
I sat there for a while and just took it all in. I'm sure I could not have arrived at my spot at a more perfect time. But that's how I find it usually goes whenever I ride in Japan. Every day in the saddle offers up a certain high point, and this was to be mine today.
Inabuchi rice terraces
The distances I had in mind for today meant that it was time to hit the road again. Yoshino was to be my lunchstop and I was getting hungry. Yoshino is/was somewhat similar to Koyasan; a religious center of worship situated high up in the mountains; its isolation ideal for introspection, refection and meditation. Wind your way up into the hills from the Yoshino river, and you'll find Yoshino. And the first thing I looked for and found, was a hot bowl of 'sansai soba' (buckwheat noodles with mountain vegetables, served up as a hot soup). Ahhh, just what I needed.
Kinpusenji Temple grounds
It was now well past noon and I knew I had to keep moving, so instead of walking along the beautiful old street of Yoshino, I broke the rules a little and motored my way up to save time. I wish I'd had more time. In fact, this place really warrants an overnight stop. The village has plenty of quality minshuku and ryokan (guesthouses and Japanese style inns).
Kinpusenji Temple entrance
At the end of the long and steep 'walking' street you'll find Kinpusenji Temple, one of the main temples that make up the Kii peninsula pilgrimage route. I also learnt while I was there that this is the second largest wooden structure in Japan, meaning that I had visited the top two in the last 24 hours.
Somewhere east of Yoshino
The sun was starting to drop fast, as it tends to do at this time of year. I had a long way to travel and not much light left, so it was time to ride. This was the Kii peninsula at its finest. Kii is one of the most isolated regions in Japan, especially if you head further south. But to do so would mean days of weaving my way through the mountains and the time required I just did not have unfortunately.
'Koyo' - autumn colors, late afternoon
My destination for today was to be the coastal town of Toba, famous for its pearl diving traditions. Now the roads were basically all mine. I cut a course due east and then headed over a a small mountain pass and down towards the freeway....civilization at last. The highway here is just a few years old and has started to open up the region, which has up until now been left behind due to the impenetrable mountain ranges. Further south however, there is no highway and the mountain culture and traditions exist as they have for centuries. The Kisei Expressway had me passing over the top of little old farming villages, colorful valleys and through many a tunnel that cut straight through the mountains. Toba was drawing closer.
The road twists its way through the mountains of the Kii peninsula
I had set Toba port as my destination on the GPS and just as I arrived the last ferry of the day was preparing to leave. The choice was to either stay the night in Toba, or to jump on the ferry and head across to the Irago peninsula in Aichi, which would have me that much closer to home. The adventure of the unknown once again drew me in. With no time to think, I rode onto the ferry. A couple of guys strapped down my bike while I went and bought a ticket (4000yen for the crossing). Everyone watched as I put a dint in the typically strict Japanese timetable.
Once back on ferry, the doors closed and we were off. Time for a 'cup noodle' and a bit of a rest in the tatami area, where everyone was as usual fairly amused to see a foreigner forging his way through the outer realms of rural Japan.
Another great day of riding in Japan