Kobe/ Amanohashidate/ Kanazawa/ Noto Peninsula/ Shirakawago/
Hida Takayama/ Matsumoto
The day I thought would never come, came. I sold the Ducati. It was a beautiful machine; really a chic two-wheeled sculpture that rocketed me around Japan on a number of tours. It was a real workhorse with ample storage space, power and style but after long rides I just felt numb. My wrists. My lower back. I felt like some of the Japanese gals I see around town hobbling around in boots that you know are killing them but they endure it because it's all about the show. I definitely got a lot of attention with the ST2 but it was time to make a change. A friend of mine had recently bought a Buell XB series bike and recommended I try one out. His wasn't really set-up for touring but he suggested the Ulysses model. After one ride it was a done-deal. The seat is built for a business-class can and the bar position upright and comfortable. Perfect! Time to really check it out. This time I wanted to do Kobe and then the richly historic area of Gifu before heading through Nagano and then back to Tokyo. I had a week so it was time to move!
I hopped a ferry in the evening from Tokyo for Kobe via Tokushima, Shikoku. I was traveling during Obon so the ferry was quite crowded which meant I should've made reservations early to reserve a bed; that didn't happen. I had to settle on the carpeted community room, which was really no big deal but a good nights' rest in a comfy bed the night before a long ride is nice.
There was a family camped out next to me of at least 4 generations that I could count. The father of the young kids that were making all kinds of racket had a punch-perm and was also really irritating me with his funky ring tones audible key-pressing and incessant emailing back and forth to god knows who. I managed to get to sleep as did the family, finally. The next morning Grandma offered me some animal crackers and I quickly forgot about the annoying night before. Incidentally the punch-perm e-mailing fanatic now has ME on his mailing list... oh dear!
We arrived in Tokushima around 2 p.m. and I immediately headed for Naruto north of Tokushima where I could ride across the Onaruto Bridge to Kobe. I stopped off to see the whirlpools that area is famous for. Pretty cool. They've created a viewing platform under the bridge that you can walk at least a kilometer out on and see the ocean swirling and churning hundreds of meters below you. There are glass windows you can walk across, stand on and peer through. Got vertigo? Don't bother.
Up at 8 a.m. Today's destination, Amanohashidate; one of the 3 most beautiful places in Japan. (well according to the locals anyhow). I've got over 100 of the most beautiful places in Japan in mind and counting. Not sure how they whittled it down to 3, but I digress.
Kobe is situated just outside a nice mountainous area so had some great riding north on route 428. Saw a lot of scenic villages with rice fields and stately old Japanese homes. And no traffic − always a treat! As with anywhere in Japan there is always a convenience store when you need it. And I needed it! Got some water and snacks and came out to find a middle-aged man sniffing around the bike. He was friendly enough and spoke decent English. Turned out to be a bit of a nutter though. He was touching the grips and rubbing the seat and caressing the speedometer like it was a Faberge egg. Needless to say, I got outta Dodge real quick.
I arrived at Amanohashidate in the late afternoon and found a great campsite right on a canal that runs into the water that surrounds the sandbar known as Amanohashidate or 'Heaven's Bridge'. The name is derived from the view one gets when you look at the sandbar upside-down between your legs from a certain lookout point. Back problems? Forget it! There are viewing diagrams around town that will shed some light if you aren't sure what to do or if you are just freaked out by what others are doing around you. But the general idea is that it looks like a bridge in heaven.
Up at 8 a.m. and on the road by 9. Today's target, Kanazawa. As I rode through Fukui I stopped at some outstanding rock formations in a place called Tojinbo. Incredible pillar-like formations that shoot straight up from the ocean far below. Lunch at a cute little roadside cafe serving fresh-made gyoza and soup. Great food is everywhere! I find that I can always eat when I'm on the bike - something about the open road that works up an appetite; so I stop often for light snacks here and there.
I wanted to get in to Kanazawa fairly early so after a few hours of coastal riding I decided to blaze up the freeway for a quick arrival in Kanazawa. Oh and by the way, the Ulysses is performing like a heavyweight champ! Very comfortable, well-balanced, and tear-your-head-off torque and acceleration. I fitted it with a GPS unit that I pre-programmed with some major attractions and scenic roads before heading out on this tour − it's working out real nicely.
I got into Kanazawa around 5:30 and found a cheap ryokan for the night near Kenrokuen Garden- considered (here we go again) one of the 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan. I had to see for myself, so the next morning's exercise would be in the park! The obasan at the ryokan whipped up an amazing dinner included in the 6000-yen fee. 6 courses in all. Crab, miso soup, sashimi, some kind of purple potato, scallops and rice. Time for bed. Tomorrow the park.
Up with the birds at 5 a.m. this morning. I read that if you enter Kenrokuen Garden before 6:45 a.m. it's free and it was! I took a bicycle that belonged to the ryokan to the garden and was pleased to see only a couple of people milling about the 25 acres of meticulously maintained grounds. It really is a beautiful and impressive garden even if gardens aren't your thing. The fact that it took nearly 200 years to complete is impressive in itself! This place is as Japanese as it gets. Replete with its lanterns, fountains, traditional bridges and ponds, it's definitely worth a morning stroll − even an afternoon one! Headed back to the ryokan for my prearranged 8 a.m. breakfast, took an onsen and was back in the saddle by 10.
Up at 6:30 this a.m. Had a great Japanese breakfast at Togetsuan. Salmon, pickled veggies, natto, rice and miso soup. Definitely needed a teeth brushing after that combo! Today I'm going to put a few miles on the clock. Destination, the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Shirakawago. It's a magnificent little village that I can never get enough of.
It was pretty warm today so I dreaded putting on the long pants, but safety-first right? From Wakura, I rode down through Toyama which has scads of great mountain roads to investigate − never a dull moment. I like to get off the main arteries and explore the smaller mountain roads that always have something brilliant in store. One road in particular had a very impressive stretch of wide winding turns that I love. I'm not big on the tight twisties so I was particularly pleased by these and the views were spectacular.
It was early afternoon and I was hot, sweaty and hungry. I made it to Gokayama, which is an awesome thatched-roof village nestled in the mountains of Toyama and another UNESCO site just north of Shirakawago. My favorite part about this place is the real feel for rural Edo-era Japan (1603-1868) and the rice paddies that surround some of the well-preserved homes.
Up at 5:45 a.m. Bit sleepy but dragged my butt out of the futon and put on my running shoes. Had a great jog west up the river a bit and back for an early breakfast and then back on the Buell. I'm really loving the bike. It's a bit more stealth than the Ducati was that's for sure, and as far as road fatigue goes, far superior.
Next stop, Hida Takayama. I wanted to get in early there and enjoy an early evening of sake and beer. Takayama is a fantastic town steeped in wooden Edo-era architecture and is known for it's sake brewing. Since Takayama isn't too far from Shirakawago, I decided to take an out -of-the-way mountain pass that is closed in the winter. High altitude spells cool temperatures and great views to me! I headed south from Shirakawago past Miboro Dam and around Miboroko Lake and over Morimo Pass. This is what riding is all about! No traffic and great scenery.
Got in to Hida-Takayama around 3 and went straight to tonight's accommodation; booked a room at a Buddhist Temple! This was a really cool place! It's an International Youth Hostel discretely disguised as a functional Buddhist temple. It's called Tenshoji and it had everything one could hope for in accommodations; internet, laundry facilities, showers, onsen, etc. I got a tatami mat room to myself for about 4500 yen including breakfast. I chose not to have dinner there because I wanted to eat out at a brewpub I know along the river that has live music.
After a couple of beers at the pub I decided to try my luck at one of the several sake breweries in the old town area. The places that actually brew their own sake are indicated by 'sugidama' (balls made of cedar branches) that are hung over their entrances. Good stuff! As curfew at the Hostel was around 9 p.m. (the only drag about staying there) I decided to head back up the hill and to home for the night. A buzzing end to an excellent day of riding.
Staying at a Buddhist Temple means you get up EARLY! I was up at 6 and watched a woman chanting and praying in the main part of the temple, which was next to the community eating area. It was a sparse breakfast, but enough to get me going.
I rented one of the temple's bicycles for an hour and rode to Hida Folk Village which is about a 10-minute bike ride from the temple. It's an open-air museum that displays a complete hamlet of fully restored, A-frame, thatched-roof buildings. More thatched-roof houses you ask? Well what can I say, I dig 'em! Had a brief stroll around there and got more insight into local rural life in the Edo Period.
Today's destination, Matsumoto. I'd been to Matsumoto before but never had a chance to go through the castle there which is really an impressive site. It is one of the most complete and beautiful among Japan's original castles and one of the few that are built on the plain rather than on a hill or mountain. Matsumoto is a very picturesque castle town and it was beckoning − time to fly!
I had some Ks to put under my belt so got packed up back at the temple and was off. My plan was to stop and have lunch around Kamikochi in Nagano- an awesome area for nature sights and mountain riding. But first I took a slight detour and hit the Norikura Skyline. Man that is one road that CAN NOT be missed! High in the mountains with stunning views out over Gifu and Nagano, this area is chock full of amazing vistas and excellent riding. Norikura kogen(heights) is largely closed to vehicles during the winter season due to an abundance of snowfall but in the warmer months it can't be beat!
Homeward bound! It's been a great trip but time to get back and earn some money. I got up 'early' at 7:00 and was remarkably fresh considering the amount of beer I drank the night before. Had breakfast at Seifuso, the ryokan I stayed at, and bid my farewells to Matsumoto. Today I wanted to ride the back way home via Utsukushigahara (beautiful plateau) and get in some last-ditch mountain riding and views before hitting the Chuo Expressway for home.
So I headed east out of Matsumoto and got to the top of Utsukushigahara around 10:30. On a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji from here along with some other excellent views, but it was a bit hazy already. I should've gotten up earlier. Watched the cows grazing for a bit, which worked −up an appetite.