I made it! I managed to climb up to the Fuji five lakes area yesterday, and according to the cyclocomp it wasn't even close to the hardest day of the trip. That's likely because the total distance and time weren't as high as other days. If I had continued my ascent for a full day it would have been quite insane.
My ankle hurt yesterday morning, and the evening before. Cycling's always fine, but as soon as I start walking it starts popping and making funny sounds, and I end up walking with a slight limp to not put too much stress on it. It's happened a few times during this trip, but yesterday's was particularly bad. Something that's also happened a few times, including yesterday, is that as soon as I get on my bike and rotate the pedals a few times, my ankle hurts once, cracks once and is then perfectly fine for the entire rest of the day. It feels great right now. Strange.
The morning started out fantastic, with a blue sky, not a lot of traffic and a great view of Mount Fuji in the distance, still hidden behind the mountain range that separates Kofu from the five lakes area. I stocked up on drinks and breads at the conbini and set off to do the cycle.
Before yesterday I had been worried quite a bit about the climb, because the only other time I ever climbed up to the five lakes area it physically drained all my energy to the point where I literally couldn't go on and had to sit to regain my strength.
That was a long time ago, and right at the start of the trip, which is the weakest point. I've gotten better since then and my trip is nearing the end, so I'm used to climbing now. Still, I spent quite a bit of time researching which route to take and what kind of challenges I would face. I came across one blogpost of a guy who had tried to take part of the route I was taking, but turned back because of a tunnel. I had already found a better route around that tunnel, so that didn't bother me much. Plus, you can't really do any serious cycling in Japan if you're afraid of tunnels. It's just inevitable that you'll have to go through some tunnels at some point during your trip. Best to just suck it up, get comfortable and claim the road as your own. It's up to cars to deal with you as best they can, but if a tunnel is the only way to get from A to B then you and your bicycle are perfectly in your right to take that road. (Even though it's dark, narrow, cold, windy and scary..)
That said, if there is another way that doesn't involve a tunnel, I would absolutely take that instead. Even if the climb is a bit tougher. The more indirect the way is, the less traffic, and it was exactly like that for the first leg of my trip yesterday. The road I had chosen took me through a mountain pass following a river upwards. I had hoped to do most of the climbing on this nice and quiet road, but no such luck. When the quiet road rejoined the main road at the end of the tunnel I avoided, I had only climbed 200 meters, with 500 meters still to go. That's definitely within my doable range though, so I was quite happy with that.
That happiness didn't last long because the main road got damn steep soon after I rejoined it. A near-constant 8% incline leading up to the one tunnel I couldn't avoid. Not impossible, just very, very energy-intensive. I knew I didn't have to go too far yesterday so I took my time and took breaks along the way, taking photos. I just can't pace myself when climbing a hill. I either have to give it 100% and go at whatever speed that lets me go, or I just go slower than that but still feel like I use the same amount of energy. My compromise of pushing at full power with breaks in-between seems to be working well enough for me.
Whenever I climb a hill these days I'm reminded of this article I read about storing electricity by pushing heavy train carriages up a hill. When you want to get the energy out, just roll the carriages downhill again and capture the energy from friction using dynamos. Every time I climb I'm storing a buttload of energy from my carrying all my luggage to the top of a hill. Given that the five lakes area is at around 900 meters altitude, I've got a fair bit of energy stored and ready to release when I go down to the Tokyo area again.
There wasn't much traffic today so the tunnel at the end of the climb wasn't too bad. It sloped down in the end and I rolled down a gentle downhill right into view of the first lake, and moments later a beautiful gigantic Mount Fuji appeared into view. Woohoo!
Then I saw something strange, and I still don't know what it was. I was cycling along the road, with a steep cliff on my immediate left side, with some small bushes and foliage in-between, but maybe only about a meter between the road and the cliff. I spotted something moving along the cliffside maybe 50 meters away. It was some kind of animal.
It was almost the same color as the cliff, with brownish-grey fur. I've seen plenty of monkeys around roads in Japan so I assumed this was also a monkey, so I slowed down a bit and got ready to take my camera out. When I got closer I realized that this thing was kind of big for a monkey. It kept facing away from me, seemingly wanting to get up the cliff but not being able to. It didn't make any sound.
This was right at the lakeside, and on the other side of the road, a few hundred meters back, there was a parking lot with a bunch of cars, and a few people fishing. So when I realized that the thing was kind of too big to be a monkey I assumed that maybe it's a dog, belonging to one of the fishermen. But even when I got really close it still didn't seem very dog-like. And anyway, Japanese love tiny dogs, not big ones.
Then, as I was about to pass it, or stop to take a photo, as I was planning to do, it occured to me that it might be a bear cub. That sudden realization came as a surprise to me and I immediately sped up again to get past it as quickly as I could. As I passed it I seem to recall seeing something of a 'snout', and it somehow reminded me of a hyena, which would be an extremely unlikely thing to see in Japan.
I still don't know what it was. Likely not a hyena. A bear cub seems unlikely because it was in an area very close to humans. A dog could be possible but then I didn't see any of the fishermen go looking for it, and it was well away from anything. So I guess the most likely explanation is a large monkey. I guess I'll never know.
Although I was back in the five lakes area I didn't quite feel like being on 'home territory' until I reached the Fugaku lava cave in the forest on the way to lake Kawaguchi, so that's where I headed. On the way I passed a massive traffic jam of sad Japanese people all going the other way. Yup, I'm back in tourist town. But it felt good to be back in familiar territory.
I had to climb a bit more to reach the lava cave entrance. I was so excited I pushed myself a bit much and was quite out of breath when I reached it. I parked my bike smack at the entrance of a busy forest path and sat down on a bench, surrounded by random white people and tour buses full of Chinese tourists. Yup, I am definitely back in tourist town. But I didn't care. I made it.
After a short break I cycled leisurely towards lake Saiko and followed its southern road towards lake Kawaguchi. Saiko lake was fairly quiet and peaceful. I quite like it. When I went through the tunnel to Kawaguchi lake I had to descend quite a bit, something I had forgotten about, and I was soon surrounded by tourists again, this time on bicycles. Kawaguchi area is mad touristy. The word that comes to mind when I want to describe this is 'pompous'. I can't say I like that.
Crowded, touristy places have never been very high on my list of places I would like to be at, but it's gotten more extreme over the years. I just don't see the point of, for example, visiting a really famous temple that's utterly crowded with tourists where you're hardly able to move, versus going to a slightly lesser-known temple in the middle of nowhere that's still pristine and quiet. Or, another example, waiting in line for half an hour to enter a famous restaurant when another restaurant that's 95% as good is completely empty right next to it. I think people underestimate the value of not being surrounded by people. Also, when a place becomes a tourist attraction, it becomes a tourist attraction. That famous temple is no longer a famous temple, it's a famous tourist attraction. And that's just shit.
I had lunch in a lakeside park in a remarkably quiet spot, just relaxing and enjoying the scenery and feeling of accomplishment. After lunch I took some time to give my bike some well-deserved maintenance. I replaced the rear brake blocks, tightened the front brakes and cleaned both rims. I had been intending to replace the front brake blocks as well, but decided to try just the rear ones first as sort of a trial run. If I somehow mess it up then it's better if the rear brakes fail than the front brakes. I also cleaned and greased up the chain and sprockets, which had gotten nastily dirty. Afterwards I cycled over to the hotel I pre-booked, and that's where I'm writing this from now.
Sadly the weather has caught up with me. I had planned some interesting expeditions while I'm in the five lakes area, but it's expected to rain for the next three days. Looking at the grey sky and impending rain I didn't feel like doing anything today, so I took a break day. It'll give me time to do some backups, some laundry and to give my body some rest. The weather report hasn't been very reliable when it comes to predicting weather a few days from now so I'm hoping there's a chance it'll clear up tomorrow.
There's still some challenges ahead. I need to get down to the Tokyo area, which is a 900 meter downhill that I hope my brakes can take. Then there's the final cycle day to get to Haneda airport. I'll have to bag the bike and get it checked in at the airport after cycling there, but I think I can manage. I've got some time now to explore, to do things without being weighed down by the luggage. Now that all the mandatory luggage-hauling is over I suddenly remembered that the reason I booked this trip was to lose weight. So I can't just sit on my ass and call it quits now. I'll have to do some active things while I'm here. It's not over yet :)