Dam windy!

Three cyclists in selfie in front of Okutama railway station

Tomo, the Halfakid and I have been eager to reprise our Okutama ride, hoping for better weather. Last year we traveled to Miura Kaigan instead, a similar distance but what turned out to be a much less satisfactory ride as it was nearly all urban roadway.

Last month we agreed on the dates and Nana started looking for hotels. We waited a bit too long as we’d chosen a three-day weekend during the fall colors season and most places were booked full. Finally Nana found a minshuku about 3km from Okutama Station, and we finalized our plans. All that remained was to watch the forecast, which gradually changed from rainy to sunny as the date approached.

Saturday dawned clear and warm, but very windy. Tomo had the furthest to come to our agreed meeting spot at Futako Tamagawa, and set out at 7:40 for our 10 a.m. rendezvous. But we had a surprise when the Halfakid messaged at 8 a.m. from Futako, asking where we were! His mistake, and as there were no cafés open nearby until 10, he set off on a 40km round-trip to Haneda while he was waiting!

I finally set out at 9 a.m. with bags packed and a saddlebag full of Nana’s world-famous onigiri. When I arrived at Futako just before 10, the others were ready and waiting.

Bicycle in front of fountain
Fountain at Nishigawara Park

Immediately after departure we were beset by the strong wind and crept along at a fraction of our usual pace, occasionally fighting gusts that nearly knocked us off the path. We were somewhat compensated for this by a glorious view of Mt. Fuji as we crossed the Tamagawa on the Tamasuido Bridge, and soon came to our first break at Nishigawara Park. We prayed we might be spared the wind as we progressed further up the river, but alas, it was not to be. The wind remained … not with us, but against us until we reached our lunch spot at Hamura at 1:30. (We’d arrived there before noon on our previous trip to Okutama.)

Selfie of three cyclists in front of statue of Tamagawa Brothers
With the Tamagawa Brothers

Hamura Intake Weir
Hamura Intake Weir

On the road, out of the wind

After finishing our kombu onigiri and other noshes, we continued on the roadway. Immediately we left behind most of the wind — in exchange for a healthy dose of traffic, of course. The road started rising, however gradually, from this point, but we were able to pick up the pace somewhat in the still air, and after making sure that Tomo was on her smaller chainring (avoiding the mistake of our first ride up to Okutama where she was on the larger chainring the entire time). As the navigator and in the lead, I tried to set a steady, unchallenging pace. I’d been concerned that with the three-day weekend and the hotels being fully booked that we’d be in the thick of traffic the entire way, but it wasn’t bad for the most part. We simply soldiered on to our goal.

Okutama Station in the dark

We finally arrived at the hotel just before 4 p.m. and quickly took stock of our situation. We still had daylight, but it was waning fast. We knew it was another 3km to Okutama Station, with some up-down and a few tunnels to negotiate. We decided to go for it. Nana messaged to ask where we were and I replied, “Right outside.” Then explained we were going on to the station and should be back within about 45 minutes. We’d included in that estimate some time to pick up snacks and — if necessary — beer and other drinks, as the convenience store just outside the hotel was permanently closed. Lights on, we continued on our way.

The first tunnel came and went with no trouble. On the second tunnel, I decided to take the narrow road bypassing it to the left. This turned out to be a good decision as there was a fairly substantial climb though the tunnel. After a bit more up-down and another tunnel that was no trouble, we came to the final tunnel before the station: a 605m monster with a slight rise and a couple of bends. As we ground our way through the tunnel in the dark, we lived in dread of the vehicles overtaking us at considerable speed.

We came through without incident, and I flew down the slope towards the station. Just a couple of dozen meters before the crossing, I heard a loud pop and then a hissing as my rear tire deflated and sealant spewed in every direction. I quickly dismounted and signaled for the Halfakid and Tomo to go on ahead to the station, while I came along behind, walking the limping Kuroko.

Three cyclists in selfie in front of Okutama railway station
Okutama Station

What would Okutama be without mechanicals?

Or, indeed, any of Guy Jean’s wonderful adventures? After we took a quick photo of our arrival at the station, I set about to assess the damage to Kuroko’s rear tire and to see if the sealant would sort it out. Alas, the cause soon became apparent: a broken spoke, which was no doubt poking through the rim tape and opening up a hole that the sealant couldn’t gum over. There was no choice but to put in an inner tube that I’d brought along for just such an emergency (after mopping up most of the sealant and pouring the rest out onto the pavement of the station’s parking lot). While I worked, Tomo and the Halfakid apprised Nana (waiting back at the hotel with her mother) of our predicament, and Tomo assisted my efforts by turning her bike headlight onto the repair job.

I tried without success to remove the broken spoke. (I later looked up the multi-tool that I carry and discovered where the spoke wrench is hidden.) So, as I’d done on a similar occasion in England, I just wrapped the broken spoke about its neighbors to prevent it tangling with the derailleur or brakes. This time, with just the one broken spoke, the wheel was still mostly true and it was rideable — so long as I didn’t break any more!

With the inner tube in place and the Halfakid manning the pump, we soon had a fully inflated tire. I did my best to clean up (in addition to the latex, there was now road grit stuck to everything) and we mounted up in the dark to make our way back to the hotel. The roads were pitch black in places, but the tunnels that were frighteningly uphill on our way into the station were now downhill, and we flew along.

Three cyclists posing in the dark in front of minshuku hotel
Arrival at Unzenya

We arrived back at the hotel to find Nana waiting for us in the parking lot. It was the ladies’ turn in the bath so the Halfakid and I settled into our room with a can of beer each and plugged in our various devices to charge while we discussed the next day’s strategy.

Compared to the seized wheel bearings Ol’ Paint had suffered on our previous Okutama ride, a flat tire was no big deal — again, so long as I didn’t lose any more spokes on the way.

Japanese dinner featuring grilled fish
Minshuku dinner

The minshuku dinner was delicious and made up for some of the shortcomings of the hotel, such as the single bath (with 90-minute intervals for each sex) with a single shower head. After dinner we laid out our futons and turned on the heater, and I was soon asleep.

Day 2: the Dam!

Sunday morning we were all up early, and converged on the breakfast hall the moment it opened. As soon as we’d filled up on fish and rice, the Halfakid and I set off to climb up to the dam while Tomo remained to soak once more in the bath with the other ladies.

River gorge with autumn foliageRiver gorge with autumn foliage
View from Unzen Bridge

I’d been over the map and Google street view time and again for the climb up from Okutama Station to the Ogouchi Dam at Okutama Lake, and in the spring I’d driven it with Nana on a day trip. What I’d seen on the map and remembered from the driving indicated it would be a rather stiff climb with some scarily narrow tunnels en route. But I also remembered passing some cyclists along the way and seeing more at the top, including a couple of preteens, and so I knew the route was rideable.

The Halfakid and I made quick progress back to Okutama Station, electing for the sidewalk this time on the scarily long uphill tunnel. We arrived at the crossing (where I’d had the flat the night before) and marked the time at 8:33. From that point it was climb, and climb we did. I was not shy about shifting to the lower, and then the lowest gear and taking my time, saving my energy for the top. But the first few kilometers were not bad, with gradual (if long) rises, and occasional breaks and even brief descents. We passed over a couple of bridges and then rounded a corner into the first of seven tunnels. Traffic was still light at this point, for which I was thankful. The Halfakid plodded along behind me, patiently calling out encouragement as we continued upwards.

Chunky monkey

Along one straight and fairly flat stretch, we saw a monkey slowly ambling across the road. Our initial thought was, “That’s a chunky monkey!” But as we came closer we saw it was a mother, carrying a baby. She quickly reached the opposite side of the road and started scaling the erosion fence. A few meters farther on, another monkey emerged from the side of the road and crossed in front of us. It was quite a close-up view of wildlife, and just a bit worrisome as we’ve heard stories of feral monkeys attacking people. Happily, the second monkey heard or saw us coming and fled to the opposite side of the road.

Traffic began to pick up as we neared the halfway point of our climb, dominated by motorcycles and groups of sports cars as riders and drivers alike were eager to prove their cornering skills away from the prying eyes of policemen. But nearly all were polite to us, hanging back when needed and then giving us wide berth as they passed.

More tunnels came and went, and the gradient of the climb picked up a bit. I was counting tunnels as we passed through. We’d done six and I was pretty sure there was just one more when the road steepened again to a grade of 5 or 6 percent and maintained that. We came straight into the final tunnel, one of 400-some meters at pretty much the same rate of climbing, and then out the other side into a turn. The Halfakid passed me at this point and I could see him rounding the curve ahead of me as we finally came into view of the dam on our left and I knew it was a matter of a few hundred meters more. Finally I rounded the corner to find the expected sign to turn off for the dam, and the Halfakid was lazily turning circles in a parking lot there while waiting for me. A final burst of climbing brought us up to the lake and the top of the dam at 9:02, almost exactly 30 minutes since we’d left the station.

Ogouchi Dam and bikes
Ogouchi Dam and bikes

Arrival at Ogouchi Dam
Arrival at Ogouchi Dam

Lake Okutama
Lake Okutama

It had been less than 8C when we’d set out from the hotel in the morning and we were dressed for that. Arriving at the dam, though, we were both covered in sweat. The Halfakid removed his innermost shirt, but I had only the clothes on my back (having left my bag at the hotel for our eventual return). I also knew that, hot as we were at the moment, we’d cool off quickly on the descent. After snapping a couple of photos and letting the ladies know we were on the way, we took the plunge.

As can be expected, the return went a bit more quickly. I’d worried we’d have traffic lining up behind us as we entered each tunnel, and told the Halfakid to expect we might pull over to let the vehicles pass, but we were going fast enough that we didn’t even have time to think about stopping. A few vehicles did pass us, typically in the longer straight tunnels, but thankfully traffic was still light. I braked on a few occasions when there was a blind curve, and once coming through a straight tunnel that was paved with stripes of red paint that set up a hammering in my skull as we flew over them.

We came off the mountain and crossed the first of two bridges back into town. There was a big “30” painted on the road surface and I risked a glance at the Garmin: we were clocking 43kph at the time (and, as the Halfakid points out, the cars passing us were going about 70). That was certainly a bit faster than the 7-8kph at which we had climbed the last bits.

Three cyclists standing in parking lot
Ready to return

We arrived back at the hotel in less than half the time it took us to mount up to the dam. Tomo, Nana and her mother were waiting for us in the parking lot. I picked up my bag and we mounted up. Well, the Halfakid rode up the steep drive from the hotel back to street level, while Tomo and I pushed our bikes. We took a few snaps and checked traffic and then we were off.

Three cyclists posing for camera
And they’re off

Well, I was off, anyway. The moment I’d crossed the busy street I heard Nana’s mother shout, “Watch out!” I turned to see Tomo flat on her side next to her bike. Fortunately she was still in the hotel drive at this point and had not entered the roadway. She explained to me later, “I didn’t realize I was in the lowest gear, so I was expecting a lot more resistance when I stepped down on the pedal. As a result I lost my balance.” She was fine apart from a small tear in her tights and a corresponding scrape on her knee, and the bike came through with just a small tear in the handlebar tape.

The return was primarily downhill and the weather was once again fine — a very nice improvement from the rain we’d encountered on our previous return from Okutama. After a couple of stops at convenience stores along the way, we arrived at Hamura at 11:30 for lunch.

Almost as soon as we were back on the river, though, we were in the wind again. After fighting a headwind all Saturday, would we have luck and get a tailwind? The gods were not so merciful. A strong crosswind buffeted us once again, at times coming from ahead and only occasionally from behind. Once again our pace slowed to a crawl. We found ourselves taking breaks every 5km as the slow pace exaggerated pains in our hands and backsides. Any fantasies we’d entertained about an early return quickly evaporated.

Flag flapping in wind
That’s windy!

We finally crawled into Futako Tamagawa about 3:20. We debated about who would get home first. The Halfakid and I had nearly the same distance to go, in opposite directions. He had some more up-down on the way home, but I had the initial climb out of the Tamagawa valley. As I reminded the Halfakid, I always take a break at the top of the climb before continuing home. Tomo again had the longest way to go, and we knew she was the most tired of us.

With a round of bowing and thanks and promises to schedule another ride again soon, we went our separate ways. I messaged Nana from the top of the climb to expect me in about an hour, and I set off back through the city. I’d kept my GPS on the navigation view (although I well knew the way) just so I wouldn’t be constantly checking my average speed. Without the wind, though, I was certainly riding faster than I had since our descent from the heights of Okutama. I finally rolled into home at 4:26, four minutes before I’d told Nana to expect me. I checked our message group and saw that the Halfakid had arrived 18 minutes before me — the time I’d rested at the top of the climb and then some.

Nana prepared a bath for me and I climbed in with a cold beer and soaked away my aches. Soon we were sitting down to dinner and we had the same question: Where is Tomo? She’d messaged at 5 that she was more than halfway home from Futako, but she was far behind the expected arrival. She finally messaged at 6:20 that she was home, after stopping to get photos of Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge.


Here’s the spoke that caused all the trouble, after I’d bent it out of the way:

Rear bicycle wheel with broken, twisted spoke
I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that

GPS record of bicycle ride from Shinjuku to Okutama Station
Okutama Reprise

GPS record of bicycle ride from Okutama Station to Lake Okutama and return to Shinjuku
Dam Windy

Okutama Revenge!

Participants at Okutama Station

This ride has always seemed a no-brainer, and I first started planning it four years ago. The Tama river has a nice cycling course for the last 53km to the mouth at Tokyo Bay (near Haneda airport). But why not trace it further, up to the source? Okutama, an artificial lake created by damming the Tama river, is a beautiful location regardless of the season, but especially so when showing off autumn leaf coloration.

We planned out the route last year, with three of us riding and Nana and her mother taking the train to meet us there for an overnight onsen stay. But our plans were interrupted by a late-season typhoon, and we ended up all going by train. We enjoyed an abbreviated visit, beautiful foliage, and a nice onsen stay. As we enjoyed the relaxation, our resolve was fixed: next time, Okutama Revenge!

In preparation this year, I replotted the course. There’s a straight route out from Shinjuku, but it’s crowded with traffic and there’s little space given for bike traffic. On the other hand, there’s no need to take countless back streets in an effort to avoid the traffic. I searched routes others had posted and found an acceptable compromise: Not overly trafficked, from what I could see, and a minimum of turns. Climbing all the way from Hamura, which is the end of the cycling course, but not too bad overall.

Okutama to home
Okutama to home

There was the usual kerfuffle with the arrangements, but it soon became clear: a hotel was booked and the principals were all available on workable dates. Tomo had a new bicycle which was much more suitable for the outing than the one she’d planned on using last year, and the Halfakid was ready with Ol’ Paint, which was surely up to the ride. Right?

We met at Futako as planned (Tomo was a few minutes late as she lost her way) and set off in high spirits. I made my usual fast descent into the Tamagawa valley and then waited for the others to join me before we crossed the Tamagawa to the path on the Kanagawa side. We rode on without event and crossed back into Tokyo to our first rest at a park not far from the cycling course.

Mechanical No. 1

We suffered our first mechanical at the first rest stop, and it was entirely self-inflicted. A couple of years ago I’d bought a tire pump for Ol’ Paint, and I got the wrong size: It was just too small to fit snugly in the frame. I kept the pump as I thought it might fit Tomo’s bike. Her previous bike wasn’t suited, but when she bought a new one recently, I thought this was the chance. So I brought the pump along, and at our first rest stop I decided to see how it went. Tomo was curious about how the valve worked (it’s her first bike with Presta valves) and we went over that. And then we fit the pump to the frame and it was perfect.

But as we pulled away from the rest stop, she let out a yelp. The tire we’d been toying with was flat! With her skinny tires, it only took a little air to make a big difference. We spent a few minutes playing with the universal adapter on the pump and finally got it right. In the end, it took just a couple of dozen strokes of the pump to refill her tire.

After that, it was smooth sailing to Hamura, which is my usual turnaround point on this route. We stopped, took a few pictures and ate the onigiri prepared fresh that morning by Nana.

Three riders with Tamagawa Brothers
Three riders with Tamagawa Brothers

From there it was into traffic as the cycling course was at an end. Our first stop was Aso Shrine, which sells good luck talismans for cyclists. Then back on the route and onwards (and upwards!). We were glad to see the traffic wasn’t bad compared to Tokyo proper, and the streets had a usable bit of shoulder for bikers. Meanwhile, Nana and her mother had already reached Okutama by train and were sharing photos of the scenery.

Okutama foliage
Okutama foliage

I had to take care not to just leave the others behind, but in the end the climbs were not quite as bad as I had anticipated. Some of the route that I had plotted did not include the available tunnels, which were (for the most part) accessible to cycling, and that cut down on the expected climbing. Meanwhile, the Halfakid reported that Tomo was not using the smaller chainring on her new bike. She’s still adjusting to the sophisticated gearing, and she spent the entire ride Sur La Plaque.

As a result of having overestimated the effort required, and Tomo and the Halfakid keeping up with the pace, we arrived in Okutama more than an hour before the time I had allotted. Our triumphant arrival was duly noted by … er, ourselves.

Participants at Okutama Station
Participants at Okutama Station

From there it was a scant few dozen meters to the hotel. The concierge directed us to a parking lot where we could chain our bikes, and I signed the registry on behalf of Nana (who was still out exploring the scenery with her mother). Within minutes of checking in, we were enjoying the luxuries of a Japanese bath to soothe our aching muscles.

Why are there stairs?


(The first shortcoming of the hotel that we noted was that our room was on the second floor — and there was no elevator. Then the concierge informed us that the ladies’ bath was on B4 … )

Dinner was fantastic, and made up for whatever other shortcomings the hotel may have had (e.g., old and run down, staff that could probably inspire a roman à clef, lack of in-room facilities or indeed elevator).

Mechanical No. 2

Before we set out in the morning, the Halfakid asked me to have a look at his brakes, which had started dragging in the final legs of the previous day’s ride. I adjusted and loosened them, and gave the wheel a spin. “How’s that?” I asked. “A bit better,” he replied.

Three riders and their bikes
Setting out under cloudy skies

We set out under cloudy skies with the Halfakid in the lead, since we had several tunnels to pass through and he’d forgotten to charge up his taillight. He readily set the pace and we followed along to Kori, our first turning point.

After that the route turned downhill, and we soon noticed that the Halfakid’s bike was in serious trouble: Ol’ Paint was setting up a squealing that I could hear from 30m back. We pulled off the side of the road and loosened the brakes some more. That didn’t help. We checked that the tire wasn’t rubbing the frame. Finally it dawned on me that the bearings in the hub were going.

We didn’t have the tools, grease or parts to service a bearing in the field, so I did the only thing I could: I opened the quick release, slid the wheel out of the dropouts and then seated it again. Finally I tightened the quick release just enough to hold the wheel in, and no more. We gave it a couple of spins and it seemed to have improved.

Then came the rain

We’d no sooner got back on the bikes when it started to drizzle. “This isn’t so bad,” we thought, and continued on. Ol’ Paint seemed to be doing better, and at our next stop we discussed at which shop en route we could stop to have the bearing serviced, as well as how much the Halfakid would be willing to pay before it became more than what the bike is worth (putting aside sentimental value). While we were stopped I put the rain covers on my backpack and cockpit bag, thinking at the time it wasn’t really necessary.

As we rode on, though, the rain continued to pick up. We had our lights on, and I’d ditched my sunglasses. The Halfakid continued wearing his because they kept the rain out of his eyes, and he doesn’t have regular glasses as I do. We kept our pace moderate to avoid skidding, and did our best to stay out of the way of the other traffic.

In less than two hours, including the time spent dealing with the mechanical, we were approaching Hamura. At a convenience store we agreed it was too early for lunch, but a snack was definitely in order. We loaded our purchases into our bags and continued on to Hamura to rest and eat, and joke that the forecast had been for cloudy skies with rain in the evening.

After the break, the rain came down steadily. It could no longer be called sprinkling as our tires kicked up rooster tails to splash our backs with muddy water. In the lead, I continued to signal caution on descents and curves. It’s a path I’ve ridden many times and so I know its potholes, speed bumps and deceptions. I picked the next rest area for its large covered area — enough to get our bikes out of the rain — and restrooms.

Optimistic start
Optimistic start (with wobbly Tomo)

We were weighing the risk of heavier rain if we stopped to have Ol’ Paint serviced vs that of continuing on and having the bearing fail completely. As we were contemplating this, the Halfakid was checking his bank balance. “I’ll just buy a new bike,” he decided. Tomo told him she’d bought hers during a mid-summer sale, and he decided he’ll wait for the New Year’s sales. As the bearing was not complaining at this point, we continued on. The rain lifted for about 20km, and we started drying out quickly. There were still slick spots in the course, though: in particular the tiles on one of the bridges over the Tama river.

Following another convenience store stop for carbohydrates, the rain started again. We were just a few kilometers from Futako now and there was nothing to do but continue onwards. We were soon crossing back over the Tama river to Tokyo, and then I made a mistake in the traffic and we had to dismount and walk a bit before coming to the last good climb of the day. We had a brief rest and sipped water at a small park and then said our goodbyes. Despite the rain and the mechanicals, we agreed to meet up again soon for another ride.

In less than an hour, I was home, wet and tired. Nana accepted my muddy clothes without complaint and started the bath for me. When I got out of the bath, Nana informed me that she and her mother had decided that next year they would follow along by train when we biked to Otsuki.