I was heading toward Matsumoto where I was going to make my fabled Japanese Alp crossing. I had started looking at my Honshu maps while on the ferry ride down and decided that a bike tour of Japan really isn’t a bike tour if you don’t cross the Alps. Plus, what could be more fun then trying to ride a 60 pound loaded touring bike up and over the Japanese Alps? Well, I discovered what could be more fun.
The day that I planned to tackle the first half of the alps it started raining, lightly. I was in Matsumoto, foot of the Alps, and decided to wait a bit to see if it let up. I gave myself an abort time of 10am. If I hadn’t left by then, I would have to camp the night in Matsumoto. However, by 10 it looked like the rain had stopped, so I decided to make my push for Kamikochi, the half way point and where I wanted to camp for a few nights and do some hiking. I had heard only marvelous things about Kamikochi in my travel book. And so, I began the ascent, after of course buying a few pounds of apples that I thought would come in handy.
As I made my way up, what had appeared to be clearing skies turned out to be darkening skies, and the rain once again began. And this time, it didn’t seem like it would stop and it was too late for me to do anything about. I donned my rain jacket which meant that as I pushed hard up the hills I would sweat and basically get soaking wet regardless. From the light drizzle to a steady downpour, I toiled upwards as the cars and trucks splash, sprayed and generally caused me extra havoc as I couldn’t see with the water in my eyes and my tires slipped on every metal sewer cap or bridge joist I came across.
Somehow, I made it to the last tunnel I had to squeeze through to Kamikochi. This tunnel proved to be consistent with those I had previously encountered so far on my Honshu journey; that being a tunnel with no shoulder or sidewalk, four lanes of speeding angry cars that sound like trumped up spaceships hell bent on doing one thing: hitting me. And this one had an 11% incline and was slippery. I did the saddest, wettest, coldest thing: I walked my bike. The entire 2 miles of tunnel. Two Miles!!
At the other side of the tunnel is was still raining, and getting to be late afternoon. As I was freezing at this point, I jumped back on the bike and tried to go a bit faster so I could attempt to get warm, but the rain and slippery twisting road, sometimes uphill then strangely downhill wasn’t having any of it. I did arrive at Kamikochi, to the cheers of one group urging me onward to the campground (and by “campground” I actually mean swamp land). An hour of heartbreaking searching got me to a small tangle of tree knots that weren’t under half a foot of water, and so I began removing the largest of the stones in the area I could find and thought I might be able to scrap enough flat ground to pitch my tent.
It was still raining, so I thought what could be more clever then for me to try to pitch the tent with the rain-fly attached to the body to keep it from getting wet inside. Being in the initial stages of hypothermia, this didn’t work out as well as it did in my head. The stakes didn’t hold. The poles refused to go upright under the fly. And so, 15 minutes of agonizing, shivering, gut wrenching almost-giving up-ness, I had a pitched tent filled with water. A few mumbled (a few yelled) profanities and I threw all my gear in the tent and waded over to the one highlight of the campground: the bath house.
The Japanese Bath house is, after the first experience, one of the most pleasant, relaxing things. The basic principle is this: You enter the bath house to a locker/changing room where you remove all your clothes. You then enter the cleaning area where, sitting on a small stool, you wash your body very very well. There are little faucets and shower heads, and usually a thing of soap. All the men are sitting on little stools washing themselves as well, its a big room. After washing and rinsing, you are now ready to get into the bath. Traditionally fed with actual hot spring water, it can range from soothingly warm to blood boiling hot, sulfurously smelling to obviously just heated water. No matter what, once you are in, its 20 minutes or so of just relaxing and letting the hot water do its thing.
So I found myself at the end of this wonderful ritual, dreading getting out of the hot, anti-hypothermic water and back into my wet clothes and back to that sopping wet tent. So I sat for another 20 minutes. Eventually, I got out, dried off and put on the cold wet clothes. The rain was a little less, but still coming down. A row of sinks by my tent was roofed and I had left my bike there so I went over to it and saw the only other person camping cooking some food. He noticed me and thankfully asked me in better English than I speak Japanese if I wanted any of his soup. I said no, but he did heat up some water for me and gave me some sake and hot water. I gave him an apple. We talked for a bit, him giving me more and more sake, and eventually we headed to our tents.
Having the lulling effect of sake in me, I zipped open and zipped closed the tent quickly, grabbed anything with sponge like qualities and pushed the puddles of water to the edges of the tent and quickly sank into the wet cold earth under my tent hoping to never relive this day again.
I learned one of the hardest lessons I learned during my tour the next day. I awoke to clearing skies, birds chirping, and a musty wet tent. But getting out and seeing the sun, hanging up everything to dry and going for a hike, I felt elated. I realized that the day before was most likely the most miserable day I could go through, and while it certainly sucked, there was still the element of the experience, of living. It took the sunshine, the birds, and my stinky stuff to dry over the next few days for me to see that the miserable day was actually a test, a gentle way for the universe to make sure that I was paying attention and truly appreciated what I was doing. While I certainly didn’t pray for rain afterwords, I realized that when it rains, I get wet. But I keep biking. Of course, that is unless a typhoon comes along…