Shirako Onsen

Cyclists waving goodbye outside hotel entrance

Shirako Onsen is a small spa resort on the Pacific Coast of Chiba Prefecture, just east of Tokyo, and known for its natural iodine baths. We chose Chiba as a destination for our 初走り, the first ride of the New Year, with the intention of visiting in late January. But our chosen weekend turned to rain (and very cold rain at that), so we rescheduled for the first weekend in February. This turned out to be a good decision as the weather was sunny and warm, and the wind gentle.

Cyclist's musette full of plastic-wrapped onigiri
Bag o’ onigiri

Tokyo Tower from Shiba Koen
Tokyo Tower from Shiba Koen

Nana awoke early on Saturday to rustle up a mess o’ onigiri, three for each of the four riders, including the “furry” konbu onigiri with umeboshi centers favored by the Halfakid and Tomo. Our agreed meeting spot was Shiba Koen, a park in central Minato, Tokyo, near the iconic Tokyo Tower. For Tomo and me this was a short jaunt of less than an hour, but for the Halfakid and his Tomo, newly relocated to Kanagawa Prefecture to the west of Tokyo, it was nearly 30km. I received word from the Halfakid at 6:50 that they were leaving home to make the 9 a.m. appointment.

As I passed through Tokyo Midtown, the GPS beeped with a message from Tomo: I’ve arrived at Kanri Jimusho. “Great,” I thought. “What’s a Kanri Jimusho?” Imagining it was some mid-way point on her way to the park, I continued on my way. Within five minutes, I was relaxing in the park, sipping water, sharing location and photos with friends, and waiting for the Halfakid to arrive with his Tomo. I checked Google Maps meanwhile, and there were hundreds of matches for “Kanri Jimusho,” with the top result being 25km away.

The Halfakid arrived and soon put me straight: Tomo was waiting just a couple of hundred meters away, near the restrooms. We soon met up and were sharing greetings and snacks for our upcoming ride.

Central Tokyo

The first leg of our ride was through central Tokyo, passing by the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station on our way to Ginza and thence to Nihonbashi, where we picked up Eitai Dori to lead us eastward towards the Arakawa and out of Tokyo. It was all very flat riding, extremely urban (although thankfully not too heavily trafficked on a Saturday morning) and very smooth going apart from the frequent stops at traffic lights. The ride along Eitai Dori is one I often take in reverse, when returning from Tokyo Disney Resort after a jaunt down the Arakawa cycling course.

We made good time and soon found ourselves crossing the Kiyosunao Bridge over the Arakawa. We stopped immediately afterwards at a small park we know at the foot of the bridge in order to use the facilities and enjoy the first onigiri of the ride. In this way we avoided the crowds we knew would be waiting at the larger Kasai Seaside Park just a couple of kilometers further on.

Newly energized, we departed and worked our way down to Kasai through a crowd of weekend cyclists, joggers and strollers. The skies were clear and the wind almost non-existent, allowing us to enjoy the view over Tokyo Bay as we passed. Soon we were riding up and down the pedestrian overpasses that lead to the Maihama Great Bridge and hence to Tokyo Disney Resort.

Four cyclists selfie in front of Tokyo Disney Resort sign
Mickey was just out of the frame

After the celebratory photo and updating of Nana on our current location, we turned briefly northeast on Osankakusen and Niihama avenues to cross the Edo river via Myoden Bridge, trading a couple of extra kilometers in this way for a wide pedestrian and cycle way over the river and into Funabashi, Chiba. Once over the bridge, we headed briefly south again to pick up a pedestrian walk paralleling the Wangan Shuto Expressway. And thus began a length of what Fearless Leader Joe and I refer to as really rubbish exurb riding. We were out of traffic — marginally. Our only view was of warehouses to the left and highway traffic to the right, and we had to navigate frequent crossings, including a couple of pedestrian overpasses that required us to dismount and push our bikes up narrow ramps.

Exurb Chiba

We’d continued more than a dozen kilometers in this fashion when we agreed it was time for a break and lunch. We pulled off the road into a likely looking park, Yatsugahata, with restrooms and an unoccupied gazebo that we quickly commandeered to finish off what remained of Nana’s world-famous onigiri.

It was 12:30 when we stopped for lunch and nearly 1 when we resumed riding. Immediately we stopped as Tomo had a flat front tire. We quickly pumped it up and tested that it would hold air. We were back on our way in minutes, but I was getting worried as I knew we still had more than 60km to go, including a long uphill stretch, and it was all terra incognita.

Our next bit was a pleasant paved path through Narashino City Akitsu Park, with the sunlight filtering down through dense overhead foliage. It was a nice change from cycling immediately adjacent to a highway. As the route came to an end we turned to cross through the park to the other side, only to find we had to dismount and walk our bikes. Fortunately it was only a couple of hundred meters, and then we were riding again, this time through empty suburban streets.

Not long after passing through some urban roadway, a small park leading to what was probably private condo property and then more heavy urban riding, we crossed the Hanami river and then dismounted for a pedestrian bridge over the East Kanto Expressway. As we passed into the Masagodai 4 Park, the Halfakid raced me down to tell me that Tomo had come to a halt. I backtracked and found her waiting with a flat, and we decided to replace the tube at this point. The Halfakid eagerly did the lion’s share of the work, and my new pump really came in handy, allowing us to fill up the new tube with a minimum of fuss and effort. And we were back on our way.

Just before reaching Chiba Station, we stopped at a convenience store and loaded up on carbohydrates. Soon we were on the road again, deeply urban riding, past the station and hence out of Chiba city and then upwards, slightly upwards. But inexorably. We began climbing just before 3 p.m. and continued, gradually but nearly without break, until 5. The rise, ranging from moderately challenging to scarcely noticeable at times, took its toll. As I pressed on in the lead (thanks to my role as navigator), glancing frequently over my shoulder to see if Tomo and the rest were behind, I felt torn between the ticking of the clock, bringing sunset closer and closer, and Tomo’s obviously increasing fatigue. Finally, in a rare stretch of country road, my GPS beeped with a text from the Halfakid, 500m back: Stop at the next convenience store. I held up my thumb for him to see as I waited for them to catch up, and then led the way back to a rural highway and eventually another in our long string of convenience store stops.

On to the promised land

Without rechecking our route closely, I knew we were a bit more than 5km from the end of our long climb. That end would bring yet another convenience store rest stop, and then a precipitous descent on a winding two-way road with no shoulders and heavy traffic. I’d held out the downhill as a promised reward for the climbing time and time again, and now I did it once more. Just a few more kilometers! The final push! At the same time I messaged Nana that we’d passed Honda city (not that Honda) and I fretted: it was now 4 p.m. and we still had 20km to go. The daylight was fading fast as we set out once again.

Flummoxed

Immediately after leaving the convenience store, the GPS was flummoxed. We had just made our way a few hundred meters along the route we’d been following, when it started insisting we were going the wrong direction and should make a U-turn. I held up my hand to signal a stop, apologized to everyone, and turned around. We came to the cross street just after the convenience store and I turned. And once again, the GPS was calling for a U-turn. I sheepishly held up my hand again.

We stopped and discussed what was happening, and the Halfakid consulted his phone. “We’re just going to continue on 20 until we reach the Forest of Showa, right?” That’s right. Ignoring the GPS, we backtracked and then continued on our original heading. As soon as we passed the point at which it had been calling for a U-turn, it found our route again and we continued on, after dismounting once again for yet another pedestrian overpass. From there it was simply a matter of continuing to grind until we reached the crossing at the Forest of Showa.

We stopped again at the convenience store here but kept it short. We had perhaps 15km to go and it was obvious the light was failing. Our first order of business was the long-promised descent. Downhill is easy! And in fact, I hit a maximum of 48km/h on this one. It would have been faster but for the broken pavement and then the parallel grooves which did their best to try to pull Kuroko to this side and that rather than allow me a smooth and safe descent.

Rolling out at speed from the bottom of our mountain ordeal, we headed into flat farmland. If we’d relied on the course I’d laid out via GPS before, we’d have been well and truly lost now without it. Night fell as we sped along flat farm roads, hurried along by a welcome tailwind. It was fully dark when we arrived at the last rest stop at 5:30, still 9km from our goal. As I waited for the others to use the convenience store facilities, I updated Nana on our position. “We should get there about 6,” I texted. The reply was immediate: “Dinner starts at 6!”

Final stretch in the dark

The final stretch was in pitch darkness along straight but unmarked farm roads zig-zagging through rice paddies. I had my headlight on flashing mode, as always, to attract attention, but I soon found I couldn’t see the unlined roads as a result. I switched the light to a solid beam and that helped a good deal. We rolled to a stop just after hearing the loudspeakers announcing nightfall at 6, one hotel beyond our goal. We hastily backtracked and found ourselves at the destination at 6:10, Nana waiting for us in the entry.

GPS route of cycle ride
Shirako Onsen

Kaiseki dinner
Sumptuous dinner

With the blessings of the hotel manager, we carried our bikes up to the third floor hallway, outside our rooms for the night, then hurried to the iodine baths that the town is famous for. We just had time to wash off the sweat and splash around in the bath before we put on our gowns and headed to dinner. And what a dinner it was! There was so much food to be had that we all skipped the rice, even Nana’s mother!

Bicycles parked in hotel hallway
Accommodating hotel

After dinner we went once again to the baths to enjoy a leisurely soak. Thanks to Covid guidelines, the baths closed at 9 p.m. We gathered in one of the hotel rooms over vending machine beer and snacks, chatting about our day with Nana and her mother. Soon, however, the fatigue got the better of us and we split up to our separate rooms and quickly fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.

We were up in the morning not long after the baths opened again at 6. After a brief warm-up in the reddish iodine-impregnated water, we met in the dining room for a surprisingly delicious breakfast. The aji broiled on a small grill was an unexpected delight, as such hotel breakfasts usually include dried fish. We all had our rice in the morning, some of us more than one bowl. All the riders had come to breakfast in their cycling gear except me, still lackadaisically in my hotel gown. But as we rushed to prepare after breakfast for our ride home, I was not the last out the door.

Japanese ryokan style breakfast
Breakfast to rival our dinner

Mountain climb

We had a headwind first thing, offsetting our flat, smooth route back through the farmland. I refrained from pushing into the wind, knowing we still had the better part of 100km of riding ahead of us. Our route first took us back to the final convenience store rest stop of the previous evening, but then diverged.

Rather than try our luck at climbing back up the narrow and heavily trafficked two-lane road we’d descended on Saturday, I’d found a one-lane farm route back up that was steep but well paved, and unlikely to see much traffic. We nearly passed it by, even with the help of the GPS, but soon we were wending our way between farm houses and trending upwards. Once the climb began in earnest, I pressed on in my lowest Granny Gear, and continued for more than 100m before the fire in my thighs prompted me to pull over for a rest. I was soon passed by the Halfakid’s partner, and then the Halfakid himself, as I waited for Tomo, who had dismounted and was pushing her bike up the slope.

As soon as she passed by, I mounted up again and continued for another 100m or so. The road followed a cut through the rock wall of the mountainside, making the most beautiful scenery we’d had all trip. Unfortunately, the GoPro I’d been hauling all along the ride did not record this epic climb. Once again, I waited for Tomo to catch up with me, pushing her bike, before I mounted up and climbed the next 100m.

In this leapfrog fashion, we continued our way up the climb. Near the top there was a sharp descent, and then an even sharper rise. I forced my way up the final 200m to reach the crossing, where once again I awaited Tomo.

We took the path alongside the road now as it skirted the Forest of Showa. I’d expected the Halfakid and his partner to be waiting for us at this juncture, but they’d apparently gone ahead. Soon we were descending, and we passed a parking lot entrance to the forest. We looked around in vain for any sign of the Halfakid or his bike, and then continued along to the final big climb of morning. Halfway up the path, I stopped for a rest. As I texted the Halfakid, Tomo continued pushing her bike up the remaining climb.

The Halfakid’s response came without much delay: they had stopped at the forest parking lot, but we hadn’t seen them. I let him know we were ahead of them now, and after a minute I saw him climbing up the road behind me and I turned and continued on to the top.

We regrouped near the convenience store that had marked the end of our climbing on Saturday evening and the beginning of our sharp descent. This time it marked the beginning of our more gradual descent, back to Chiba city. I called a rest after 5km, just about where we had got turned around by the GPS the previous day, not because we were tired but because I knew we were about to enter a stretch of few convenience stores.

Another 10km or so later we entered into a large park where we’d had a brief stop the day before. I checked the time and was surprised to see it was almost noon. We should have stopped at a convenience store just before this park so we would have our lunch in a nice shaded location. But with all our snacking, no one was particularly hungry at this point, and so we continued downhill until we’d passed by Chiba station again. We stopped at a convenience store to buy something to eat for lunch, and then continued on to find a place to enjoy it. At last, at nearly 1 p.m., I spotted a small park with an empty gazebo, and we stopped and enjoyed our convenience store lunch while watching a nearby little league baseball game in progress.

Not as much progress as it seems

I’d been updating FLJ on our progress and he remarked that we were making good time. “It’s all been downhill so far,” I replied. I knew from the route and the time that we were not well ahead of schedule. And indeed, after lunch, although our course was flat, our speed lagged. Once again we were threatened with the prospect of finishing well after dark. I worried in particular about the Halfakid and his partner, who had so much farther to go than Tomo and I.

For the return trip I’d plotted the opposite side of the East Kanto Highway, riding with the flow of traffic. But when we found ourselves, after a pedestrian tunnel and pedestrian overpass or two, heading back along the same course we’d ridden out, I decided to stick with it. The GPS howled from time to time, trying to guide me back to the programmed route, but I knew that we had only 10km or so before the paths joined once again.

We turned away from the highway and came again to the bridge over the Edo river. It’s marked as a 7% rise, a good effort though not very long, and I paused at the top to wait for Tomo (and the rest behind her) to catch up. To my surprise, they were right behind me and Tomo nearly overtook me before I set out again in the lead. We stopped to rest just after the bridge, and the Halfakid informed me that when we reached Tokyo Disneyland (another 7km on from that point), he would go on ahead to his final destination. Knowing he had at least 25km more to go than Tomo and I did, I readily agreed.

Disney fantasia

It was a straight, flat road to Disney, and just 7km, but with the setting sun, the traffic and mostly, the traffic lights, it seemed our goal was receding in the distance. When we finally reached it, I was surprised to find there was still some light left. We took a quick photo to let Nana know where we were, and then said goodbye to the Halfakid and his partner.

Bicycle in front of fountain
Rainbow at Kasai Seaside Park

Nihonbashi
Nihonbashi

With just the two of us remaining, Tomo consulted her phone. We no longer needed to head to our original meeting spot at Shiba Koen. After a bit of negotiation, we agreed to split up at Nihonbashi. That would allow us both to shave off a few kilometers on our way home. My new route would be a well-worn one via Budokan to Yotsuya, then Shinjuku and home.

We crossed the bridge over the Arakawa, once again in Tokyo proper and following the Eitai Dori home. At the first traffic light we put our lights on. Tomo was making good speed now, whether because of the flat going or a combination of her fatigue and the proximity to home, a hot bath and warm meal, I didn’t stop to ask. We reached Nihonbashi at 4:48, only to discover there were no public restrooms. We said a quick goodbye then and sped our separate ways.

I continued towards the Imperial Palace at Otemon. Apologies for the lack of a photo of this iconic gate, but I planned to stop just a couple of kilometers further at Budokan. I climbed Kudanzaka in my lowest gear, not fast but in no risk of failing, and pulled up for a photo at 5:05 p.m.

Chidorigafuchi
Chidorigafuchi, the palace moat at Budokan

Night was truly falling now as I sped homewards along busy city streets. I was caught for an extra cycle of the lights at a particularly notorious intersection in Yotsuya, and cooled my heels. In my fatigued state, I knew that it was not the time to take risks. I set off again into Shinjuku with the light and the temperature both falling more rapidly than I was pedaling. Waiting for a light, I felt a raindrop on my cheek — the only part of my entire body exposed to the elements. A couple of minutes later, passing by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, I felt a couple of more drops. Fortunately, that was all the rain I encountered, and it was less than two minutes more that I was pulling up outside the tower that is home.

GPS route of bicycle ride
Return from Shirako Onsen

A brighter future

When we return to Chiba for another cycling trip, we’d like to try boarding the B.B.Base train with our bikes to reach our starting point, and thus avoid all the exurb rubbish that made this trip such a slog.

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