“The best way to be a frugal traveler is to learn to truly love the things that don’t cost a lot of money, like eating honest, simple food, gazing at unfamiliar scenery or making new friends.”(Matt Gross, New York Times)
Almost every year I’ve been doing a bike ride in Chichibu, a rural basin surrounded by mountains in the west of Saitama prefecture, to see the autumn leaves there, but I also enjoy it in other seasons. A week ago I had planned to head back there, but changed my plans due to the rainy Saturday forecast, as the rainy season was still not over. Since then the summer heat has invaded us with high humidity and temperatures of over 30 C every day.
Instead of that Saturday ride I joined two friends on Monday for my first true summer ride this season. The temperature hit the high 30s. I drank plenty of water, but was still exhausted when I got home. In the latter part of the ride I passed Senzoku-ike, a lake in Tokyo that I had never visited before. I took pictures at a Shinto shrine (Senzoku-ike Benzaiten) on a small island accessible via a bridge. There were ajisai (hydrangeas) growing at the park and the bright red shrine looked relatively recently renovated. I enjoyed discovering a new spot I had not seen before.
The following weekend my friend Jack, with whom I had ridden in Chichibu several times before, announced he would head back there for a some cycling with a friend, so I decided to join him. We initially wanted to do the old “Ghost Town Loop”, a ride past a deserted mining town, but then found out the road leading there was closed due to repair work on some tunnels. A phone call to the office in charge in Chichibu confirmed that the repairs would still take a couple more months. Our friend Mike suggested we might head to nearby Mistsumine shrine instead, which neither of us had been to before.
On Saturday morning I loaded my Elephant NFE into my Prius and drove out to Chichibu. Unlike with my Bike Friday, I still don’t have a good way of taking my NFE on trains, due to its front rack and fixed fenders that don’t make for easy disassembly to get a smaller package that’s easier to carry on.
After a 2 hour drive I parked the car in the parking lot of the Michi-no-Eki (Road Station), which has ample space and is not far from Seibu-Chichibu station, where Jack and his friend would arrive. After unloading the bike, changing into my SPD shoes and putting on my helmet, I filled up my water bottles at the tap of nearby public toilets. Next to the toilets there was a public fountain where people were filling up as many water containers as would fit into the back of their car. You see this kind of thing a lot. Even though tap water in most places in Japan is very good, some people swear by specific sources in the mountains and use the water from there for making tea or cooking soba noodles, for the very best taste. They will even drive there regularly, like every week.
Next I stopped at a nearby convenience store to get some food and have a cup of coffee, as I was still early: I had left enough time, just in case the roads were congested but they hadn’t been. It was only the second time I had taken to the car to Chichibu for cycling and the first time on this particular route (via National Route 299 from near Hanno).
Then I cycled the last km to the station and looked for Jack. He and his friend soon arrived. It turned out to be Kuba, who I had known online for years, but who now lives oversees. He had been a very strong cyclist in the past but recently he had not been riding much. Consequently we picked a very moderate pace, which suited all of us fine in this heat. It was a sunny day, with a forecast high of 34 C, but usually with the tarmac soaking up the sun the air temperatures above the road will be hotter than the forecast, unless the road happens to be shaded.
We followed the familiar route west out of town towards the ghost town, avoiding the main road as much as possible in favour of small back roads. That made it easier to ride side by side and to talk. After about 24 km we got to the t-junction where a right turn used to take us to the ghost town and for the first time we turned left, unto an unknown road signposted for Mitsumine Shrine.
At a shaded place up the road with one of the ubiquitous drinks vending machines we stopped and filled up our water bottles and talked for a while while we cooled off again.
Soon we got to Futase dam and Chichibu lake behind it. After taking a few pictures we followed the road across the top of the dam and started climbing on the other side. It was a steady uphill, some of it quite exposed to the sun. We all climbed at our own pace but reassembled every now and then, to cool off in the shade together and talk. It was around 35 C and not even noon yet. There were quite a few cars and the odd bus heading up towards the shrine, which we knew was a major tourist attraction.
The distance numbers on the road signs were getting smaller and finally the climb leveled off as we got close, now at about 1,000 m elevation, about 750 m above where we had started. The shrine was not visible from the road, only a big car park with cars, motorcycles and buses. We headed in there to use the toilets and to fill up our water bottles again.
We discussed visiting the shrine, but Jack was also interested in visiting Gelateria Hana after we’d get back to Seibu-Chichibu station. On several rides to the ghost town he always made it back too late to still be able to do that. So we decided we’d give the shrine a miss and instead head on, to increase our chances of ice cream, pizza and espresso at Hana.
There was almost no traffic on the road beyond the shrine (I had heard that side was closed to cars but saw no sign prohibiting entry to motor vehicles and we did actually encounter a handful of cars). After 2.5 km we reached a tunnel through the mountains at about 1150 m above sea level. The cool air inside felt so pleasant. We could almost have staid there, but then we wouldn’t have seen the views that awaited us… Such as the stunning panorama presenting itself after the tunnel exit!
We were high above the valleys below, near the peak of Kirimogamine (霧藻ケ峰), and could see the Chichibu basin spread out to the north. For me this one view alone was worth riding a 70 km loop and riding uphill 10 km on a hot day 🙂
As we continued, there was a lot of sand on the road, perhaps still left over from the winter service. I proceeded very carefully until the road was clear again, as I didn’t want to wipe out in a corner. My companions got ahead of me but I knew they would wait for me somewhere.
This side of the mountain was beautiful, very green and shaded. After a while the road joined a mountain stream which then merged into the wild Ochi river. We descended for over 10 km, giving up about 750 m of elevation.
Climbing up this way would be scenic but hard. I’ll try a reverse loop one day!
Eventually we crossed the Arakawa and rejoined the main road. Since it was almost all downhill from there to Chichibu, we could keep going pretty fast and didn’t take the same back roads. Still, Jack concluded that by the time we got back to the station, if he were to visit the ice cream shop before taking the train back, it wouldn’t leave enough time for their existing evening plans, so he dropped Gelateria Hana — again.
Meanwhile, I was intrigued enough about it that when we finally made it to the station after 16 km in the sun on the main road, I told my friends that I’d give the cafe a try.
Chichibu is famous for its many temples and shrines, which inspire both pilgrimages and shrine festivals (o-matsuri). I passed a shop displaying traditional masks used at shrine festivals.
Route 11 to the cafe was easy to follow and flat until the last few km, but once it started climbing, it also entered the shade of the forest and the air felt pleasantly cool. Nice!
Soon I arrived at the cafe, which is popular with cyclists. There was a bike rack in front. I got a table on the deck outside in the back with a view of the river.
I tried some blend coffee with plain waffles and their chocolate-mint ice cream. It was a nice treat after the ride.
The staff was very friendly. The waiter had asked me where I was from. When I went to pay, his colleague expressed regret about Germany’s misfortune at the football (soccer) world cup 🙂
His sympathy for my country’s team was a nice gesture, but to be honest I’m not actually interested in football. This is not as uncommon in Germany as the stereotypes would have you believe: According to consistent annual opinion poll results, of the German-speaking population aged 14 and over some 36% are “not particularly” or “not at all” interested in football, outnumbering both the less than 35% that are “especially” interested in it and the not quite 30% that are “also but not that much” interested.
There you have it, only a minority of Germans has a strong interest in football and that’s whether their country’s team wins or loses!
The ride back to the car was easy. There I changed back into my non-cycling shoes and got into the car. I decided that, before I drove home, I’d still visit Mt Buko, the tall mountain that dominates Chichibu city. One side of it is scarred by a huge limestone quarry. It really stands out in the mountainous skyline of Chichibu from far away and it looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings to me… It was an interesting drive, but I’ll save that report for another time 🙂