After leaving the farm, we set our bearings to take us south. This marked a bit of a turning point for the trip – we had been heading along the Sea of Japan for most of the journey through Honshu and it was time to make our way south to see Fujisan.
The trip out of Azumino City was one of the toughest physical days we’ve experienced so far. We were a little bit unsure of the terrain between Azumino and Lake Suwa and didn’t really have a sense of just how busy the roads would be.
There was a particularly rough climb for about 8 kilometres out of Shiojiri that we didn’t consider in our planning. More importantly, the rain that hit us hard made things really challenging. The ride itself was almost 55 km – by no means our longest day – but something about the climbs and the traffics and the cold rain put a damper on things.
By the time we got to Suwa – though the rain had mostly stopped – we were effectively wrecked. Bronwyn was chattering and shivering from the day-long soak and it would be the first time on the trip that we would book a hotel out of necessity instead of as part of a larger plan.
The comforts of the hotel meant that we could relax into the late morning before really making a solid plan. We had anticipated (and partially arranged) to stay in nearby Hokuto City with a Warmshowers host named Tatsuya, but we really overestimated how “nearby” the city actually was and left late. There were batteries to charge up, people to FaceTime and a whole lot of groceries to eat before we left Suwa. It ended up being well after 2 p.m. before we set out.
It was a rookie move: in leaving so late we found ourselves caught in the dark on unfamiliar roads about 10 km away from where we needed to be. Had the weather been bad, I don’t know what we would have done. This is where the joys of Japanese generosity came to save us.
22 km from our hotel in Suwa, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Nagano prefecture and without any means of getting to where we were supposed to be. Somewhere in Kobuchizawa, there was a man we had never met waiting for us to arrive, and he was likely expecting us sometime before 4 p.m. Instead, we were near Otsukoto sometime after 6:30 p.m. Sweaty, starting to panic and without a sense of what the next 10 km was going to look like if we didn’t simply stop, we halted the trip leg.
Normally, I travel with a front light, a rear light, a spare headlamp and a LED-lit reflective jacket. Three out of those four lights had stopped working properly over the course of that day. Bad timing.
After deciding that it would be unsafe to press on to Tatsuya’s place in Kobuchizawa, we looked for the first lit-up building we could find in the hopes that there would be a payphone we could use to tell Tatsuya not to expect us. We were a little bit turned around, burned out and not really prepared to go on, but we didn’t want to leave him waiting up for us to show if we knew we weren’t going to make it. A building at the bottom of a dark hill, which turned out to be a physiotherapy clinic called Yatsugatake Conditioning Support, would indirectly come to our rescue.
I went in to the Yatsugatake clinic and tried to explain what had happened to us. We needed a payphone (which, like in most developed countries with widespread mobile phone adoption, had become rather rare) and we simply couldn’t go on to where we needed to go because of how dark it was. The woman working at the clinic was extremely nice and offered to let us have a seat to troubleshoot our problem. One of the other women tracked down a Japanese map of the surrounding area, made a photocopy of the relevant page and circled where the closest gas station (and hopefully the closest payphone) could be found.
I didn’t want to be rude and ask to use the office phone to call Tatsuya (all calls in Japan, landline or otherwise, are paid for by the person making the call), but I explained that we were in a difficult situation because it seemed unsafe to bike another 500 m in the blackness of the night that had descended.
Perhaps after finally getting a sense of our desperation, the first woman we spoke with at the clinic generously offered us her personal mobile phone to call Tatsuya. If that wasn’t enough, she actually made the call herself when she learned that our friend was Japanese as well. She called Tatsuya and explained who she was before handing me the phone.
Touched by this stranger’s kindness towards us, I was further floored by the fact that Tatsuya (whom we had yet to actually meet in person) told us to stay put and he would come and get us. From the neighbouring prefecture. In the pitch black of night with a truck for our bikes.
If the emotional ringer of the previous two challenging days wasn’t enough, the kindness that these people showed us in a moment that felt like defeat was enough to nearly bring me to tears. It was a weird combination of gratitude and embarrassment coupled with physical exhaustion.
Twenty minutes later, a small white truck pulls up to the clinic and out jumps this wonderful man in coveralls and a headlamp, already illuminated. We introduce ourselves and apologize to the best of our ability. I mean, not only is this guy opening his house up to us as strangers, but now he’s been dragged all the way out here with his truck to rescue a couple of foolish foreigners who left their cushy hotel too late to get to where they needed to be on time. He was totally awesome about it. We made it to his place and had a shower and a bath before getting into bed. Tatsuya, if you’re reading this, thank you. You’re totally awesome and you saved us that night. It was a rough day and you renewed our faith in humanity.
Once strangers, now friends. We hope we can return the favour if Tatsuya ever visits Canada.
Next post: the journey to see Fujisan!
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