I set off for Tokyo station, my back-pack on, feeling super excited but a little apprehensive at what lay ahead. After packing up my bike at the station I boarded the Shinkansen, the bullet train, for the quick 160km trip up to Nasushiobara where I was to meet with Tetsuya-san and my fellow cyclists for the start of our trip across the Tochigi prefecture.
Testsuya-san’s shop, an easy 10 minute ride from the station, was a serious set up and full of bikes; roadies, e-bikes, mountain bikes and fat-tired trail and snow bikes. It was an impressive site with bikes and tours available to suit all types of riders; from serious roadies wanting to smash it up the local mountains, to mixed ability families with e-bikes available for the newbies or slower riders.
After grabbing a coffee at the nearby Starbucks I met up with Tetsuya and the other 3 riders who I’d be spending the next 5 days with. A lovely bunch and I could immediately tell we’d all get on well as we shared our passion for cycling, the great outdoors and Japanese culture.
After a quick briefing and changing into our complimentary ‘Ride Experience’ cycling jerseys, we headed-off with Tetsuya-san leading the way.
The first day was a steady 50km warm-up loop around the surrounding countryside. The first ride meant for Tetsuya-san to get a sense of everyone’s abilities and make sure no one was going to get left behind. For us, it was a chance to shake off city life and breath in the fresh air of Nasu as we cut through the rice fields, ancient farmlands and villages. We all rode well, stopping en route to admire the six Roku Jizou statues adorned with red hats and capes knitted by the locals to protect them from the elements. The six stone figures are said to represent the six realms in which you can be reborn. I’m not sure which realm, if any, I would be destined for, but being out on the bike always makes me appreciate this life!
Thankful for packing a lightweight gilet, we continued onwards, taking a leisurely spin through the valley and then a short sharp climb to test out the legs. It was enough to get the heart racing and my lungs had ran out of puff by the time we hit the top. It felt good to be pushing myself again and feel the rush of endorphins. It had been a long time out of the saddle but this trip was the perfect way to get reacquainted with being on two wheels!
After crossing over a river on a rickety wooden suspension bridge, we rode through an old onsen (hot spring) village with beautiful but abandoned wooden hotels where guests, in bygone times, would’ve come to enjoy the hot springs. We stopped outside one empty timber ryokan with old hand-blown glass in the windows and rather splendid tatami rooms on the ground floor that had seen better days. It was a glimpse into a more affluent past but the charm was still there in spades.
A few kilometres on and Tetsuya-san turned right. We’d arrived at our first lunch stop. From the road, you wouldn’t have known a restaurant was there at all. An old wooden building sitting out-of-sight behind a tall hedgerow. A simple, hand-painted sign lent against the porch. Sliding the door open we ventured in and were met by the smiling husband and wife owners who gestured us to sit on the wooden floor around a slow burning pile of smoking embers. This was where lunch would be cooked. In the fire pit at our feet. I ordered a set-lunch that included locally grown vegetables and fish from the nearby river, caught by the owner that morning.
The fish arrived as fresh as they could be, still wriggling on the skewers as they were placed over the glowing coals. It was quite a sight, even for four Japan-hardened foreigners. Still, cooked with salt and served with tasty udon noodles and a tray of side dishes, it was delicious.
After thanking our friendly hosts we headed off again. The sun was out and life was good. Not much further up the road we stopped again. This time at a cool ice cream shop, complete with bike racks out front, that was being run in partnership with the local dairy farm. It was hard to say no to a sweet pudding topped with fresh, creamy ice cream. I was rather hoping I might lose a few pounds on this trip but I was starting to see that was going to be tough!
Cycling on, the surrounding Nasu highlands were stunning, with gorgeous views of Mt. Nasu in the distance; a teaser of what the rest of the week had in store.
Back at Tetsuya-san’s shop we packed the bikes into his support van and drove up to the Matsukawaya Nasukogen hotel where we’d be staying for the next two nights. The hotel staff were waiting for us to arrive with a customary, friendly Japanese welcome and we were shown to the bike rack they’d set up for us in the lobby. After dropping everything off in my huge tatami room, I changed into the provided Yukata and headed for the onsen. There’s no better way to end a day of cycling or hiking than washing off and relaxing in the hot springs before catching up and swapping stories over a cold beer!
hat evening, we met in the hotel restaurant and were served up the most stunning Japanese full-course dinner, kaiseki-ryōri. Sashimi, pickles, cooked fish, tempura, salad, tofu and beef shabu shabu. I was going to sleep well!
Opening the curtains the next morning I was struck with the 180 degree view of the Nasu countryside with woods and valleys stretching for miles in every direction. It was a stunning landscape from high up on the mountainside. After a hearty but very healthy breakfast we set off for day two. This was a change of pace as the plan was to ride the gondola up and then hike the Nasu mountain trails. After arriving at the windy mountain top car park and exiting the van I quickly realised I’d come completely unprepared for a windy mountain hike.
Our guide led us through the woods and, after checking out the deep gouges left by a clearly huge bear on the side of a tree, we turned a corner and emerged into a clearing. We were surrounded by hills of reds, yellows and oranges. The autumn leaves, koyo, had arrived and it was breath-taking. Every tree a different shade.
Tetsuya-san had brought upmarket bento boxes (Japanese lunch boxes) for us all and we ate sitting at a wooden table surrounded by the splendid koyo. I was starting to get cold from not moving and was grateful that one of my fellow travellers had come far more prepared than me and kindly leant me a spare jacket. Tetsuya-san, always thinking of everything, had also brought disposable cups of filter coffee and a hot flask. So, after a welcome cup of coffee and warming up, we headed off again, traversing our way back down the mountain, grateful that we’d witnessed the splendid autumnal scene.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a mountain waterfall before walking down a hill-side track to old onsen hotel, once featured in the Japanese movie ‘Thermae Romae’. It was like stepping back in time. The hotel reception looked like it hadn’t changed in a hundred years and the adjoining hotel shop was like a scene from a Japanese version of Harry Potter; pots, trinkets and painted boxes were stacked up on shelves and curious wooden toys were mixed in with old tools, fishing rods and paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. The whole building had a magical air to it and you could so easily imagine travellers of old coming in from the cold and sheltering around the stove and huge kettle that still hung in the doorway. Walking through dark, creaking wooden hallways we arrived at the outhouse that held the onsen bath. Huge ‘Great Tengu’ masks hung above us on the old timber walls. Soaking in the natural spring waters under the old wooden beams with the massive, red, long-nosed masks staring down from above, was an incredible and unique experience and was just like a scene from the movie.
Just next to the hotel was an Onsen shrine so we decided to stop and take a look around. The walk up took us across the dry riverbed of the Sanzu River where you could smell the sulphur gas emitted from the ground below. Standing next a huge rock (called “Killing Stone”) we heard of the legend of the Nine-tail-Fox, a mythical fox entity originating from Chinese mythology. According to folklore, the mischievous shape-shifting fox would take the shape of a beautiful woman and seduce men with the aim of destroying the nation. At some point in time, rumour had it that the same nine-tailed fox was abducting young women and girls in the Nasu district and, upon hearing this, the Imperial Court sent an 80,000-strong army to rid Nasu of the fox. After putting up a vicious fight the fox was finally killed by an arrow and changed into the form of the giant rock and emitted a strong poison. We were stood just where it all happened, apparently!
Back at the hotel onsen we soaked away the day before feasting on another delicious Japanese course dinner that included more sashimi, tempura, fish and, tonight, some local Nasu-bred ‘wagyu’ melt-in-the-mouth beef. What a treat!
The next morning we arose to a beautiful sunrise and, back on the bikes, we headed off down the mountain. The first part of the day was an easy, albeit chilly, 30km downhill run. Coasting though stunning woods, Tetsuya-san taught us the wonderful Japanese expression of Komorebi; roughly translated as ‘the sunlight as it filters through the trees’, The word being made up of the kanji characters for tree (木), shine through (漏れ), and sun (日). A perfectly poetic description of the morning.
Our third day was about 80km with 700m of gentle climbing and, as we pedalled our way through the countryside, we were bombarded with the endless sights of historic buildings, stunning forests, statues, flowers, temples, mountains and big, open sky. Tetsuya-san leading us on paths that few would travel. A feast for the senses. It was another glorious day in the saddle with just enough short efforts to feel like we were earning the evening’s dinner and drinks!
Tonight we would be staying in a beautifully restored 200 year-old country house called Iizukatei. The house had once belonged to the family of a successful local businessman and owner of the regional bank and post office and had since been donated to the town as a historic cultural site. It was a stunning project and a rare opportunity to stay in such a place. Earlier that day we had stopped at a small Sake factory at the side of the road and, unbeknownst to me, Tetsuya-san had bought a bottle and stashed it in the support van. So, as we feasted on yet another gastronomic delight, we sipped the local sake and listened to the hotel manageress tell us all about the history of the building, the family and the local area. After one too many sake’s I turned in for the night, my sleeping quarters being one of the converted stone store buildings.
The next morning though, it was chucking it down with rain. We’d got lucky with 3 fine days but a typhoon was heading towards Japan and the wet weather had arrived in advance.
We enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast, copious amounts of freshly ground coffee and heard more fascinating insights about the area from our hosts before deciding, reluctantly, that the rain had defeated us. Rather than risking injury, broken bikes or just being miserably wet; we would take the chance to visit a local wood block museum before loading the bikes into the van and driving along the famous cedar-tree lined road into Nikko.
As we entered the town, we stopped at an old shop and producer of miso & soy sauce. The larger-than-life owner, dressed in his traditional garb, insisted on showing us around his house and the old factory site that extended out the back of the shop. The business had belonged to his family for generations and, when his parents were old, he’d returned from living in Tokyo to take on the business. Walking through the house and the outbuildings at the back was an eye-opening experience. Years or paraphernalia, junk, factory machinery and family memories were piled high with barely room to walk through. It was simply too much for him to deal with and the cost of disposal meant it was here to stay. His warm hospitality was quite something and I felt honoured to have been shown around his home and hear him proudly sharing his family story.
A few hundred metres up the road, right next to the famous red wooden bridge of Nikko, was our final hotel. The fabulously grand Nikko Kanaya Hotel. Opened in 1873, it was the first ‘western’ resort hotel in Japan. A delightful mix of charming, slightly colonial and Japanese styles, the hotel is one of Japan’s ‘Registered Tangible Cultural Properties’. Everywhere we’d stayed had offered us a unique view of Japan and this was no different.
That evening we enjoyed a five-course French dinner and chatted the night away. Another splendid evening of fine food, wine and great company.
The weather the following morning wasn’t much better with the rain still beating down. Day 4 was meant to be an 80km ride with 1,000m of steady climbing but the rain thwarted our plans again. Nevertheless, after another lazy breakfast, we headed off on a shorter route to ride the famous ancient Samurai road heading into Nikko. After stopping for group photos along the route we headed for lunch at a local restaurant before Tetsuya-san and team dropped as off at the station for the journey back to Tokyo.
After travelling out to Nasushiobara on my own, I was now travelling back with newly found cycling buddies and the only thing left to do was plan our next trip back! Collectively, we’d lived in Japan for over 5 years and, between us, cycled tens of thousands of kilometres across the country. Still, this trip had been something special. Tetsuya-san had shown us deep Japan. The sites, inns, nature and cycling routes you’d never find alone. We’d been treated to the finest Japanese cuisine and the most welcoming Japanese hospitality.
For me, the trip had begun as the kick I needed to get cycling again. But it was so much more than a bike ride. It was a gastronomical cultural journey through nature.
What a ride. What an experience!
By Ben Watson