January 12, 2014

Snowy Ride at Mt. Hinode

I haven't always been a married with two children, bearded, bicycle commuter. There for a time I was a single, bearded, mountain bike racer. As you know young men with adrenaline addictions can be a little blasé when it comes to their personal safety, which is how we came to be mountain biking down Mt. Hinode in the dead of winter.


After taking the Chuo line out to Musashi Itsukaichi station in the foothills of the mountains west of Tokyo, we rapidly assembled out bicycles before jumping in the saddle and cycling directly to the nearest 7-ll for coffee, nikuman and burritos, the food groups that powered many a winter ride in and around Tokyo. Fully fuelled we began our climb by road, first heading back east, passing under the train line, before turning north to follow a fast flowing river up the slopes of Mt Hinode.

Its quite flat in the beginning giving our legs a chance to warm up, but by the time we reached the Tsuru Tsuru Onsen hot spring we were peeling off the layers. Sure the day was cold, but the it was also bright and there was no breeze. It felt good to be riding up a mountain in the winter still feeling warm wearing only short sleeves.

Three of four turns from the highest point on the road we hit our first ice, and I rapidly hit the ground. Being Australian, ice isn't my thing. The ice soon turned into hard packed snow with grooves of ice forged by the passing of vehicles. For me at this point it was smarter to get off and walk, but the snow offered little challenge for my cold climate colleague.

On the last turn from the top I spotted what appeared to be a burst water pipe. With icicles jutting out at all angles glittering in the sun it looked like an explosion had been literally frozen in time. It was beautiful. I took a picture with my state of the art 1990's era digital camera. I'd share it here, but its the size of a postage stamp.

We regrouped under a high tension power pylon which marked the point where we left the road to continue into the forest. From here there was no climbing, just a narrow trail hugging the side of the mountain with a frighteningly steep drop on the left hand side. I walked this often when it wasn't covered in snow, there was no way I'd ride it today. But, again, that didn't stop my friend from the far north.

One moment my friend was ahead of me, the next he wasn't. My initial thought was there was no way he could have ridden out of my sight in such a short time on such a narrow trail. Then I heard his call on my left. In the second I took my eyes off him he had tipped off the trail, and slid just a meter down the slope before managing to grab a tree with one hand and his bicycle with the other. He swung his bicycle up towards me and I used that to help pull him up the slope.

At the end of that nasty little goat trail is an intersection, right to the summit, left to make the descent. I don't remember why we chose left but the climb was worth it as the view from the peak was spectacular on this bright winters day and we had it all to ourselves as not even the hikers were up for a walk to the peak of Hinode that day. Panning our view from North to South we could take in Saitama, Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama, an endless expanse of cities all meshed into one. Being such a clear day we could easily make out clusters of buildings identifying Ikebukuro, Shinjuku in Tokyo, and Landmark Tower in Yokohama. In the foreground we could see aircraft landing at the Fussa Airbase.

Stay still too long and you get cold. So we began our descent into hell ...

Sorry, I was being dramatic.

The trail was muddy, sometimes icy, often slushy, rocky in places, in others crossed by gnarled roots. There are sections of the hiking trail where I still had to get off and walk, but today with fresh, soft, welcoming snow banked up on each side of the trail a fall meant leaning just a little to either side only to become devoured by a huge pile of snow.

That day I rode like a madman without fear of falling or injury. I fell many times. Doof! was the sound we made wiping out on corners launching ourselves without care into the soft snow. On that ride I went over the handle bars for the first time I could remember since my childhood only to land in a soft snowdrift. Despite, or shall I say because of, the snowy conditions that had to be one my fastest, and hands down the most enjoyable, descents of Mt. Hinode.

But the best was yet to come. It involves a climb, back towards the peak, over road we covered in the morning. Back up the hill to Tsuru Tsuru Onsen to warm our bodies and soothe our muscles in the exquisitely hot, hot springs. If we hadn't been regulars I fear we would have been turned away as covered in mud and dirt as we were, but we washed off before soaking for ages in a hot bath overlooking the mountain that had given us so much enjoyment that day.

In reality we weren't prepared for the snow and ice. I didn't tell anyone where we were going, my parents were half a world away, and other than more cycling buddies I had nobody else in my life at the time to tell. We had little food, no means to stay warm and only the clothes on our backs as we'd left a clean change of clothing in a locker at the station to be picked up on our way to the onsen. Looking back we were more than a little foolish.

It was an incredibly fun day, I remember it with fondness, but also with a little fear as it could have quite easily turned out differently.

Given the chance to do it again, I don't think I would, but I'm glad I did it the first time. I guess that's what it means to be young.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.

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