Hamaichi

Selfie of three cyclists with vermilion Japanese bridge

I hit on this ride by searching for a good one- or two-day course that would not be too challenging but at the same time be enough to give us a sense of accomplishment. I’ve come up with a few two-day, there-and-back-again routes starting in Tokyo — last year we did Shirako Onsen about this time — but they inevitably are some combination of ugly exurb riding in traffic and fairly challenging climbs (once out of the city and into the mountains). José suggested we instead find a route where we drive outside of the exurb crap and then start riding where the conditions are a lot better. And hence with some searching about I came up with this route: Hamaichi, or once around lake Hamanako in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The course on Garmin

The ride looked pretty good on paper: 85km total, mostly flat but with a healthy dash of climbing; some traffic, but a lot of dedicated cycling / walking course and sparsely traveled rural roads. It had the makings of a good ride — if the weather cooperated.

Planning and execution

Hamanako is four hours or more from Tokyo by car, which is a lot of driving when added to a six hour (estimated) ride. So we decided to make it a three-day weekend: drive out (with sight-seeing) on Saturday, ride on Sunday, and drive back (with more sight-seeing) on Monday. The original plan was for José, me and Tomo as riders, with Nana and her mother coming along for the sight-seeing and onsen stay. José quickly decided he’d rather drive by himself (planning some other activities around the weekend that came to nought in the end), so I booked a van that would carry four passengers and two bicycles. Nana started casting about for the hotel, trying to find the best price for a place with good food and — most importantly — a nice bath for relaxing after the ride.

I spent some time going over the route, checking it as much as possible against Google Street View, familiarizing myself with the waypoints. As the days slipped by, Fearless Leader Joe expressed an interest in joining. As he had a shorter distance to drive, he said he would come just for the ride on Sunday. And then Tomo dropped out. That left us with three riders — the same number as originally planned.

Ten days prior to the ride, the forecast was for a very rainy day. We all watched and updated each other daily — sometimes twice daily — as the forecast slowly improved. Finally, our various sources locked into agreement: if not sunny and bright all day, at least no rain.

Chuck it in the back

I had planned to pack Kuroko in a travel bag for the trip, but had some difficulty removing the rear wheel. In the end I just wheeled her to the car rental agency and chucked her in the back of the van. There was ample room to lay the bike down on the load floor. I stuffed my backpack under the rear wheel to stop it squeaking against the bare metal side of the van with every little bump in the road, and it was fine. José rented a sub-compact, and wedged his bike in the rear by just folding the seat down. He had a nice carpeted space, so no worries about scratches.

FLJ pulled into the hotel parking about 8 a.m. on the day. It took us some time getting the bike out of the rack in the rear of the car, inserting the front wheel and clamping the handlebar back in place.

Three cyclists on gravel drive with palm trees
Departure from Arai Benten

Windy

We finally set out just before 9 a.m. It was about 4C and calm as we left the hotel, but as soon as we got into the open near the lake, the wind slowed our pace considerably. FLJ had warned me the evening before I left Tokyo that it could be quite windy, but the forecast I was checking had 1.5-2m/s — not much of a worry. Of course FLJ turned out to be right: It is a lake, and it’s at the edge of the ocean, and parts would be quite windy. It turned out the first bit was the worst, and the wind never overpowered us or gave us second thoughts about the ride.

Almost before we knew it, we’d reached Kanzanji about 16km into the ride, and stopped for a cup of coffee before continuing on.

The wind improved quite a bit after that, and after a brief climb we returned to the cycling course / pedestrian walk around the edge of the lake, enjoying the scenery as we went. We were nearing the 40km mark and looking forward to lunch when the Garmin directed us towards a fairly iffy-looking path, and we decided to remain on the road parallel to that instead.

Unfortunately, after a couple of kilometers, the road diverged from the lakeside and began to climb. We took a turn by a large gorilla statue and let the Garmin lead us back to the bike path — down what turned out to be a fairly steep descent through loose gravel, followed by a staircase (which fortunately had a ramp for the bikes). From there it was a couple of kilometers more of winding paved path — and weaving in and out of a number of older people out for a midday stroll — to our midpoint at the roadside station.

… which turned out to be closed.

5km from everything

While José checked Google Maps, Fearless Leader Joe asked the counter help at the way station. The answers were identical: We were about 5km from the nearest convenience store, in pretty much any direction we chose to travel (except out over the lake, I suppose). There was nothing for it but to shrug and continue on.

We’d actually ridden a bit more than 5km by the time we came to a convenience store. (We could have found one a bit earlier if we’d been willing to leave our course, but we decided another 2km was worth it to stay on our track.) We spent about 20 minutes gobbling down some much-needed energy and watching the skies grow more and more grey and feeling the wind get increasingly biting.

After a last mouthful of pork bun, I stashed my sunglasses in my cockpit bag and we continued on.

Now for the climbing!

FLJ had been asking me repeatedly when the climbing would come, and I kept replying it would be at the 60km mark. I knew it might be a bit sooner — I just remembered that when I was going over the course on Google Maps, at 60km we’d be up in the hills overlooking the lake. But I was sure that the climbing started immediately after the only tunnel on the course, and so told FLJ to keep that in mind.

In fact we passed through the tunnel and turned right into the hills at just the 55km mark. The first cut was the steepest, with a thankfully brief 10% grade lofting us 25m above the surf, followed by a more gentle rise to 55m, and then a dip before grinding further on up to reach 100m elevation. We stopped at several points along the way for photos of the scenery (and finally near the top just to catch my breath as the others went on ahead).

And down! and up! and down! and up!

The plateau at 100m lasted about 2km, and then we were flying downhill, the wind bringing tears to our eyes. For nearly the next 20km, we were descending into civilization (traffic, stop lights) and then climbing again into rural obscurity, before once again descending … and so on. On one gradual but longer uphill stretch, I stopped to catch my breath and José came to stop beside me. “Go on … I’m just … having a breather,” I gasped. Nor was I the only one suffering. José had worked his way down to his easiest gearing, a rare event for him. (At that it’s still quite a bit higher-geared than my lowest on Kuroko.) And he was weaving across the pavement at the steeper parts, trading gradient for distance.

Fearless Leader Joe, by contrast, continued on sitting ramrod-straight, elbows out, cadence barely above 20rpm, while still leaving us in the dust.

Race to the bottom

The final descent of the day didn’t look like much at first. But after a squirrelly chicane at the start, it was a long, uninterrupted straight drop, allowing us to build up as much speed as we liked. I tucked in my head and my elbows, and soon noticed I was passing the traffic on the adjacent highway. Mr Garmin reports I topped 58km/h here.

We turned under the highway and continued on the flat shore by the ocean until we were just 5km from home. Then it was back into traffic, but still smooth and flat. FLJ and I checked back over our shoulders when traffic allowed and saw José was trailing behind. We waited at the turnoff to the hotel, and when he came into view he waved us on ahead.

We reached the hotel just a couple hundred meters shy of 85km on our respective clocks, so FLJ and I continued on just enough to ensure we’d click past that mark as we turned back to the hotel. We found José there already changing by his car with his bike leaning up against a nearby tree.

Fantastic ride

GPS record of cycle route
Hamaichi

Overall it was a fantastic ride. There was more climbing than I’d expected (and I probably had the best idea of the three of us from the start), but it was not as challenging as I’d feared. The wind was another bugbear that turned out less daunting in the end. Meanwhile we had a mostly trouble-free ride with well-paved, winding paths. The trafficked parts were not as scary as they looked — in fact the intersection where an over-eager driver nearly popped me was almost deserted. And finally, the views through it all were splendid, just amazing.

In all we took 5 hours 32 minutes to complete the ride, with 4 hours 20 minutes moving time for an average of 19.6km/h. We’d planned on getting back to the hotel by 3 p.m., and in fact made it back at 2:26. When I messaged Nana that we were back, her reply was, “Already?”

We will all certainly be back for another go, perhaps when it’s just a bit warmer.