Tuesday 10 September 2013

Day 17 Norikura Highlands to Takayama via Mount Norikura (2nd attempt)

42 miles, max speed 36mph (min speed 4mph)
Alt. approx 2950m (Norikura peak at 3026m)

At breakfast the next morning I noticed the meershaum (sp?) hanging on the wall of Pension Grindelwald and the photos of a young Japanese girl dressed as Heidi in the Swiss Alps. the owner explained it was his daughter from a family holiday many years before (she is now a famous Japanese singer - album '25 to 26').

We said goodbye to our new friends Takaaki and Yoshie, and to Brett and his wife Chiemi, over from Brisbane to introduce a new arrival to Japanese in-laws, and started back up the long climb to Norikura.

A different gatekeeper was there this morning, but he had been one of the wardens driving along the pass before dusk, so remembered us.

We passed the point where we'd stopped yesterday after about an hour or so, with more energy but realised we had been fooling ourselves the evening before. The curve we'd seen ahead was still miles from the top, and we would have been sleeping with the bears if we'd carried on the night before.

The road became steeper and the curves tighter. The odd cyclist began to appear, a couple passed us in Lycra (and no panniers) on the way up, and a couple more on their way down in full wind gear. It was definitely colder today which made cycling easier.

After what seemed hours more, the peak came into view, snow still sitting in its shaded hollows. The trees became stunted, tall beeches replaced by small firs and heathers. Japanese Grouse inhabit this area along with local mountain goats, but we didn't see any. It became eerily silent, too cold for even the flies, and we crossed over a plateau near the top with wind howling through the spokes.

At last, the top, signs showing that this marked the border between Nagano Prefecture and Gifu, as well as another bear warning.

Just beyond the peak, a small green lake and a hill station where the Highland buses turn around. We bought coffees and cake before the big descent down the other side.

As we came outside the hill station, things had changed. The clouds had descended over the peak and you could barely see the lake in front of us.

Deciding to push on, we cycled slowly, the road disappearing 20-30m ahead of us. It was freezing cold and we wore all the long sleeve tops and rain jackets.

It became steeper and suddenly hairpin bends appeared in front of us, the world past the bend obliterated by cloud. We carried on carefully, and as the clouds lifted slightly, or maybe as we descended below them, we were able to pick up speed.

Multiple hairpin bends (I counted over 30) came after short steep straights, so you needed to brake, release, brake, release, making sure the wheel rims didn't overheat and split. By the time the road eased out, both of us had cramps in our hands.

About half way down, we had to pull over. A snapped gear cable - luckily on the way down the mountain, on Coca's bike, required a temporary fix and we coasted the remainder of the journey, Coca struggling with only 3 gears.

We made it into Matsumoto mid-afternoon where the friendly girls from i-site, a local bike-hire & tour group gave us directions to a repair shop.

They organise sunrise downhill cycles on Norikura- basically driving you up to the hill station and then putting you on your bike to freewheel down. Excellent fun, but ours felt more well-earned!

We eventually found the bike shop open, but the owner could only sell us the cable and not fit it. After struggling with it ourselves ( it fed in to the lever ok but wouldn't grip or change gear) we had to give up.

No cycling tomorrow. This had been planned as another early start to take in the historic hill villages and on to Kanazawa. We checked bus times and went for a huge dinner instead. Local Hiba beef: steak marbled with fat which makes it incredibly delicious when grilled was a revelation.

Ps. Note: at the Japan Ukiyo-e (woodcut) museum, we enjoyed prints by some of the Edo period masters in our hotel slippers. Edo is characterised by 'floating' elements, and Hokusai's Red Fuji, (Japan's best known woodcut artist- famous for the iconic 'Great Wave'. Not Hirosage, sorry!

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