Niigata to Nagano – Cutting South

September 27, 2016

(Note: So this post was originally written weeks ago – even the details are old! I needed to get pictures sorted out and everything is made more difficult by working on an iPad. The good news: there’s lots more to talk about since this post and we’ll try to have it up soon since we’re taking a rest day!)

When we arrived at the the Toyosaka michi-no-eki at the conclusion of the day I described in our last post, it was nearly dark. We realize that we’re in an urban jungle for the first time in a long time. To compound the stress of all that, we’re filthy and it was a 96km day.

Frustratingly, there’s not a lot of promise to this space – we camp on the only private grassy patch we can find on the property – behind the public washrooms. We would have slept in the sheltered monument in the adjacent park, but there are a few homeless guys with their plastic bottle and can stashes up there and it appears as though they’ve already claimed the space. Regardless, it’s a restful sleep after a long and interesting day. When we wake up, we’re keen to get out of Toyosaka and moving. We have a hot coffee amongst the seven or eight Japanese men who have lined up at the michi-no-eki’s single restaurant for their morning soba dish and set on out. Unfortunately, the day takes us through the heart of Niigata. And it’s not such an amazing day.

I know, I know. We promised only amazing days.

But this will only be amazing in retrospect for the learning we get out of it. The day actually involves having a cool off on a bench near a Shinkansen track. It’s not so amazing at the time.

Once we finally get through the heart of Niigata – which, for what it’s worth, is probably a cooler city than we’re giving it credit for – we end up in this little farm town near Tsubame at a Michi-no-eki called Kugami and it’s really charming.

It was a good thing we got there when we did. Light was fading and the skies had opened up on us. The last two kilometres took way longer than they should have, but that’s hard riding through hard rain for you. Before figuring out our camping situation, we discover the onsen out back. It’s a public bath house and we need the hot soak after that long rough day and the really long ride the day before in a way that’s difficult to describe to mere mortals with mere words.

At this point, we do an unusual thing that we haven’t really done – we head into the hot spring bath house before our sleeping situation is completely organized. We did notice a little gazebo in a park behind the onsen before we enter, so we promise to investigate it as a possible sleeping spot.

While soaking in the outdoor tub, I notice that there’s a shrine and pagoda lit up behind the onsen. If you’re following our Instagram feed, you’ll recognize this spot. Bronwyn and I would get a photo in front of it before we set out again.

We decide after the bath that we need a real rest day. Kugami feels like the place to have it. The next day – after a beautiful sleep tented up in a charming gazebo, Christian wakes up early and takes some photos of the park and the agricultural land around the area at sunrise. It’s magic.

Bronwyn wakes up and we make apple pancakes.
What did you just say?
Apple. Fricken. Pancakes.

A Japanese man shows up at the gazebo as we’re eating our 7th pancake each and asks us if we slept there. We’re reluctant to outright confess our wild camp so we feign a bigger language barrier than there actually is. He asks if the bugs were bothering us at all – presumably while we slept, for our tent is already put away as we cook our unusual camping pancakes and it looks like if we have slept in the gazebo exposed – and we reply that we haven’t seen any bugs.

(This is true, actually. Christian’s legs are relieved.)

The now nearly-scripted conversation that we’ve grown accustomed to ensues: he wants to know where we’re from and where we’re going. Canada, we say. And Nagaoka, we say. It’s on our route. He seems concerned about the distance we’re going to go by bike, but we assure him that you can do anything if you eat apple hot cakes. He wishes us well with the usual “kiotsukette” that we hear from everyone we meet: take care of yourselves.

Our rest day involves some laundry, a foot soak in the foot bath, a lot of backup battery charging and Bronwyn manages to speak to just about everyone she’s related to on FaceTime. It’s just incredible that we can do that. I reel in the modern world.

What the heck – let’s do that same onsen again tonight! And we’ll have a beer each and eat udon and that’s what rest days are all about. We did.

The next day is back on the road and we head into a climb at the end of a day to discover that the michi-no-eki we’re looking for does not exist.

But not before I have to deal with a sliced tube and a roadside patch job. It’s oppressively sunny and hot. And these are brand new tires! What gives? The plastic liner inside my tire was a carry over from my old tires and it had worn down enough to slice my tube up. This would happen three times in three days before he decided just to change the tube.

But back to that annoying mountaintop Michi-no-eki. It’s not there anymore.

The michi-no-eki website says it’s there. The Touring Mapple book we purchased from a 7-Eleven says that it’s there.

Google says that it’s Permanently Closed. Google is right. It’s pretty much gone.

We’ve already travelled a long way, but we just had a rest day so we can push on a little bit farther.Through three awful tunnels in the fading daylight.

One is heinous enough that we walk our bikes through it, hugging the tunnel walls whenever an especially-wide truck drives by.

We finally end up at what actually looks like a closed down michi-no-eki called Yoshikawa Touji no Sato beside a 7-Eleven that, thankfully, is running strong. I ask the man working there if the onsen across the street is any good and what time they close. He assures me it’s good and they’re open until 9:00.

We need a bath. The onsen is not especially good, and it’s ironically one of the more expensive onsens we’ve been to.

Have your grandparents ever taken you to an old run-down ski resort somewhere they keep calling a lodge and tell you about how it used to be full of ritzy people doing ritzy things back in the 1950s and 1960s? This onsen is a little bit like that. It probably had a heyday, but I don’t think it’s had one for a good 30 years. Still, a bath is a bath and we sure needed one. We’ve had one almost every night in Japan so far. Good for the muscles and it’s amazing to go to bed clean after a long sweaty day of cycling.

The next day we bike to Shinano and it’s on the outskirts of Nagano, where Japan hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. And it was from there that we set out this morning, as I write this exceedingly-long testing-your-patience post. But there’s a twist!

Our goal was to get through Nagano and as far as Sakakita today so that we can arrive at our first WWOOFing host in Azumino City. But there was nearly a kilometre of vertical climb over a 15-kilometre stretch at the end of the day and we only had about two hours to do it. We make it to the top of the mountain and arrive at this cute little village called Hijiri Highlands. It’s part of a township called Omi.

As in: Omi oh my! It’s getting dark and we’re at the top of a mountain and exhausted with nowhere to camp!

We were tired, starting to get frazzled as the idea of a looming typhoon, and then we discovered a little park on a little lake near what appeared to be a little campground. There just so happened to be a picnic shelter right there. So we made it our campground. Next stop: our first WWOOFing experience at Tsubara Farm in Azumino City. Bronwyn will pick up our story from there.

Author: Christian

Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com

1 comment

  1. Comment by Patty

    Patty Reply September 28, 2016 at 9:08 am

    You go Guys. Sounds absolutely fabulous.

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