'It was a cold, dark and windy night...' or so went the 'scary bedtime story' I heard so often from my late father George. Good memories from a... well, not so great bedtime story teller, but good memories nonetheless. Well last Friday night truly was a cold, dark and windy night, but the forecast called for clear skies on Saturday and I was itching for a weekend ride.
I made reservations at one of my favorite ryokan, Sunnide at Lake Kawaguchiko for a friend of mine and me. I love this place for the view of Mt. Fuji which is stunning, and it has nice rooms and very reasonable rates. Being late December I knew we'd be in for a chilly day out but you can't beat the clear days and crisp clean air you get in November and December in the Kanto region.
Ohayo! Ride and shine. Only drag about an early ride is draggin' your can out of bed at 6 a.m. - whatever it takes to avoid the Toyko traffic. We decided to head out on the Shuto Expressway out of Tokyo and then onto the Chuo Expressway. There's nothing like the Shuto when there is no traffic- weaving in and out of Tokyo's skyscrapers at Mach I is a real thrill. Of course light traffic on the Shuto is rare most times of the day, so worth getting an early rise.
Our usual plan on this ride is to stop off at the massive rest stop about 25 k out of town on the Chuo. This place is unbelievable; they've got all kinds of food stalls, vending machines, souvenirs and free green tea(worth a stop in itself). Reminds me of my dad who used to drive about 40 miles up into Washington State to a rest stop that served free coffee. I'll never forget overhearing a call to his friend Steve once; 'Hey Steve, you interested in a drive up North? There's a rest stop there that serves free coffee.' They were on the road a short time later. As it were, unbeknownst to ole George and Steve, this particular rest stop was a hangout for homosexuals looking for more than a free cup'a joe. I think they got it to go - the coffee that is.
Incidentally, this is the same guy that countless times brought the family car to a screeching halt to pick-up a returnable aluminum can off the side of the road. I guess in his frugal ways, his carbon credits have evened out. Burning a boatload of gas for free goodies but also a campaigner for recycling. (don't let the 5 cent deposit fool ya).
Back to the rest stop. Another great thing about this place is the preferred parking for bikers. YES! We roll past all the cars jockeying for a space, park, lock-up and are sipping our piping hot green tea before some folks can set the parking brake. One of the many booths at the rest stop is an 'authentic' Indian food shop. Couple of Indian guys work there (as you do) and serve a pretty nice selection of stuff. I decided to have a Tandoori chicken wrap. I watched as the guy making it squirted a mess of mayo on it before wrapping. I kindly asked the guy at the cashier if I could order one without the mayo; he asked the chef. "NO" came the reply. What the hell!? Man we're in this together. We're both foreigners... nearly brothers for God's sake. "NO!??" One thing you learn here in Japan is rules do not get bent. Even something simple like adjusting the menu is forbidden. But this was another foreigner... brethren! I settled on a rice ball next door... thank you very much.
Back on the road we headed for the Katsunuma exit of the Chuo. From there Route 34 is a very pleasant winding ride that snakes through heaps of grape fields and small wineries serving their poison to tourists. This area is best seen in the spring/summer/fall as winter serves no foliage for the eyes, but the ride is great.
Continued on through to the Ecoline which is a beautiful road with great open views of farms, fields and distant mountain peaks. This connects to route 36 and takes you up and over a pass where you get plenty of excellent turning practice. I swear these mountain roads were built to the specs of a biker. Some guy on the highway planning committee, rides - that can be the only explanation.
Mountain Peaks along Ecoline
Route 36 connects to an excellent little road that runs along the Ashigawa river, but watch out for that hairpin turn...it's a doosey! We stopped off at the little market here at the crotch in the road and loaded up on veggies and dried beans at a fraction of the cost in Tokyo. Massive bag of kiwi fruit was only 500 yen and a sack of potatoes 400. Crap, I wish I had ridden with the top case- I'd a gotten even more. In hindsight the kiwi investment was a mistake- kiwi in December are a bit too bitter around here. They make your teeth feel awful.
Loads of shanty but character-filled villages along the river here and a couple of temples worth poking around if time allows. About 45 minutes along this road opens into a splendid wide-open valley; it was around this time that I started to realize that I didn't bring enough warm clothes. December rides around Fuji can get chilly if you aren't wearing the proper riding clothes, which neither of us were. Jon at one point had put on about 8 layers of t-shirts, turtlenecks and Members Only jackets, along with a scarf or two- He could barely turn his head, he was so bundled in. A few layers of quality clothes makes a HUGE difference on a winter ride.
Wound around the outer edge of the valley for a bit and decided to take a shortcut which was nothing spectacular, however the cheese-ball Chinese Temple we discovered made it all worthwhile. Sprawling and painted in all its Peking glory this is a must-see for the sheer WHY? factor. It's funny how they build some of the weirdest crap in the middle of nowhere. Gotta wonder what their MO is sometimes.
After that burst of splendor we got on to route 409 and headed up into the hills to check out Lake Shibireko. We're always looking for camping ideas and this place was touted as a good place to camp in the on-season. It's a beautiful little lake set within a heavily forested basin. And it has SWAN BOATS for rent; just like the one my main man Paul and I paddled out on Lake Ashi (Hakone) in, to deep six my dad's ashes. You find these ultra cheesy paddle boats on just about every 'resort lake' in Japan; leftovers of the booming bubble days of the 80's. They also have cabins for rent if that's your cup of green tea.
We parked the bikes and had a look around. We were the only ones there, as after all, it WAS December. Popped into the restaurant to see what was cookin...nothin'. Had a chat with the ice-queen running the place and got nothing more than a bad taste and a cold shoulder. I asked if I could use the restroom and was directed outside to an outhouse that had a very precarious hole in the floor that I fought to keep from falling into. You try doin' no. 2 with a heap of riding gear on. Meanwhile Jon is paying queenie a 400yen fee for 'PARKING'. What an outrage. We were the only ones there and were just looking around the joint. That kind of treatment really leaves a bad taste and gives you no reason to ever want to return to the place. It's too bad too because it is a beautiful area.
Off we went down rt. 414 - this is a narrow winding road that bobs and weaves through many rice and vegetable farms. I'm not a huge fan of really tight turns so the gentle winding of this area is welcome; quite pretty and relaxing. We often see snow monkeys along this route and today was no exception. Off in the distance I saw what at first I thought was a bunch of cats crossing the road but as we got closer, realized it was a large group of monkeys. What do you call a group of monkeys? A herd? A pod? There were at least a dozen of them with bright red cans and faces. Love seeing those things in the wild - it's a real treat. In case you were wondering...it tastes like chicken.
We continued on to Route 9, which then connects to 300. More great riding here. Hands were a bit numb at this point. Kind of regretting not taking the K1200GT out - heated grips and seats.. now that's amore! Long tunnel dead ahead. Tunnels are always a nice respite to both extremes- summer and winter. Always a bit cooler or warmer and some of the tunnels that plow through the mountains here in Japan go on for kilometers.
Just out of the tunnel is our first view of Mt. Fuji, and what a view it is. Gorgeous as always. Layer of snow on it's peak and unobstructed. The Japanese really love their Fuji and with good reason. Much like my alma mater Mt. Hood in Oregon, Mt. Fuji has terrific form and is just as picturesque and photographic from any side. Amateur and pro photographers alike had their tripods set up at the viewing point where we took a little break and soaked in the views.
Mt. Fuji from Lake Motosuko
Our next main stop would be Lake Saiko for lunch and to visit the historic village, Nenba. We continued on rt. 300 then rode around the north side of Lake Motosuko (one of the 'Fuji Five Lakes') before veering onto Rt. 21 which leads into Lake Saiko. (pronounced PSYCHO) *NOTE: don't expect to find Norman Bates OR the Bates Hotel around these parts. Nothing but traditional Japanese inns, AWESOME views of Fuji, and a swan paddle boat here and there.
About 3:00 p.m. we pulled into our usual watering hole for, well, food and green tea. They do a real nice no frills soba noodle set at this place and the owner is a very nice middle-aged lady that looks like she may've been a real firecracker in the day. She was a bit surprised to see us there so late in the season. Man that wood stove really felt good. We sat and thawed and ate and watched a couple over in the corner get to know each other. The guy was leaning in riveted to her every word doing everything in his power to entice her. Truth is, had they actually already been a couple they'd be sitting comfortably in their chairs, checking their cell-phone email and not speaking a word to one another. When they left he sealed the deal by letting her in her side of the car first and then a slow jog around to his side. Guy, you're working too hard!
After lunch we went for a stroll up the road to the recently restored historic village of Nenba. Nenba was destroyed by a landslide in the 60's and restored to it's original gasshou-zukkuri splendor about 5 years ago. Gasshou-zukkuri are thatched roof houses; and there are some amazing examples of that in Nenba. A visit to this place gives you a feeling of stepping into an old Japanese village. Some people actually live in the village homes whereas the others are strictly for tourism purposes. Bottom line, it's a cool place to have a walk around and from which to take some great shots of Fuji.
Historic Village Nenba
Stomachs satiated, we headed back out on the bikes on Rt. 21 towards our destination for the night, Lake Kawaguchiko and our pad for the evening, Sunnide. It's a nice leisurely 30 minute ride from Saiko to Kawaguchiko, and man were we looking forward to that onsen(hot spring) after a long days ride. After checking in to our room we arranged to have dinner at 7:00 p.m. in the communal hall, and then hit the onsen. Sunnide is great because it has an unobstructed view of Mt. Fuji from the rotenburo (outdoor spring) onsen. Felt great to thaw out in that hot water let me tell you. I equate it to the blissful feeling of taking off your tight boots after a long day of snowboarding.
Dressed in the super-starched hotel-provided blue and white yukata (Japanese robes), we headed for the mess hall. Foreigners just look weird in traditional Japanese attire. It's too bad because I love yukata and other tradional clothing, but we look weird. Dinner was outstanding. First the appetizers; two ice-cold bottles of Sapporo beer. Winter and summer alike, beer goes down so effortlessly after a ride. We then had a generous serving of maguro and thai sashimi, along with crab, tempura, chawamushi(a seafood pudding of sorts; not the Jello-Brand snack that mom used to make, I can promise you that) tsukemono(pickled veggies), soba noodles, and for dessert, manju(a small ball-like semi-sweet cake with sweet red bean paste in the middle) Superb.
Exhausted from the long ride and drained by the hot spring we turned in early to our Japanese-style room and set the alarms for 7:00 a.m. Breakfast the next a.m. was standard fare. Miso soup, salmon, rice, natto (fermented soybeans- which I love but most foreigners don't; has something to do with the gym socks aroma I reckon) and green tea. We decided to take a spin around Lake Yamanakako before heading back to the freeway. Usually we don't take this particular route because it can get a little congested on weekends, but we were in the mood for 'DODONPA' at Fujikyu(Fuji Q) Highland, the amusement park in the area.
Japanese-style room at Sunnide
'DODONPA' bills itself as the worlds' fastest roller coaster, and that fact I don't doubt. CRAP! After waiting in line for an eternity, and watching the sometimes crying, sometimes thrilled folks returning from their 120km in under 4 seconds hell ride, we were seated in the front of the group of cars. It is a high pressure air-powered explosion that rockets you through a straightaway (leaving your soul back in the staging area), up a 90 degree track that gives you a second or so of hang time, and then back down and around to pick up your soul again. Total time elapsed, about 25 seconds. Worth the long wait? YEP! Fuji Q also has the world's highest vertical climb roller coaster 'FUJIYAMA'.(Mt. Fuji) We passed. Back to the bikes.
Jumped on the expressway and stopped at the massive rest stop located directly opposite the one we hit on the way out the day before. Just as big. Just as much variety. Just as many people. No Indian food. Quick bite to eat and headed for home.
All in all an excellent ride. Fuji rides in December are great. Air is crisp, clear and generally sunny 90% of the time. Only thing I'll do differently next time is dress a little more warmly... or ride the BMW with heated grips and seat if it's available.
Next ride, Izu in a couple of weeks. May try out one of the new bikes - Kawasaki GTR 1400. Should be a winner!