Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road

Two cyclists posing in front of Kashima Jingu Nishi no Ichino Torii

Last weekend after some rather elaborate planning, we loaded the bikes into a rental van and set off for Ibaraki Prefecture and the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road. I’d originally planned a couple of rides using Kasumigaura as a home base, but it turns out there are no onsen there to relax in after the ride. After a bit of searching I came up with Itako as a base, with two rides — Kitaura and Kasumigaura — using that as a launching spot.

It was a long weekend, with holidays on Thursday and Friday. We decided to beat the rush, though, arriving at the hotel on Sunday and doing the shorter of the two rides — Kitaura — and then staying through Tuesday. This turned out to be the winning plan. When we arrived (after enduring a couple of deluges of rain on the way) it seemed we were the only guests at the hotel. There was plenty of parking space, and we set about decamping the bikes and changing into our riding gear.

Two cyclists assembling a bike against the backdrop of a van
Assembling Tomo’s bike

Tomo had packed her bike into a travel bag in order to meet us at the car rental agency near home, and so we need to assemble it — simply a matter of putting the wheels back on and making sure all was in order. Meanwhile, the Halfakid had ridden his bike to our flat in the morning (in pouring rain, it should be noted) and so no assembly was required. On the other hand, we noticed that his headset was loose. As I coached him through the process of tightening it up, it became apparent that the tightening bolt had been only finger-tight.

Two riders tightening a bicycle headset while an onlooker with bag looks on
Fixing a loose headset while Nana’s mother supervises

Three cyclists in helmets and masks posing at start of ride.
And they’re off!

With the mechanicals sorted (or so we thought) and the course loaded in the Garmin, we set out to circumnavigate Kitaura. Within 1km, though, it became apparent that Kuroko’s tires were too soft. I’d just filled them in the morning before setting out in the rental van, mindful that they were still seeping air following the conversion to tubeless tires. Here we were, a scant five hours later, with the tires below 30psi. I quickly pumped them up again to 45psi, at which pressure they’re nice and firm, but I worried if they would hold the pressure through two days of riding.

Two cyclists posing in front of Kashima Jingu Nishi no Ichino Torii
Kashima Jingu Nishi no Ichino Torii

We made good time under mostly sunny skies, at first, and came to our first break at Kashima Jingu on the eastern shore of Kitaura lake. Our progress at this point was neither outstanding nor worryingly slow, but just right. Soon after this stop, though, the sky turned dark under the shadow of an enormous cloud with a black underbelly, and we worried about the weather we might encounter. For the most part, the weather held, and we soon outpaced the big scary cloud.

We continued on in hot, steamy, occasionally windy weather, until we came to a convenience store in the middle of nowhere (but not far off the path) and stopped for a lunch of Nana’s world-famous onigiri supplemented by convenience store treats such as ice cream to beat the heat.

Well, a little bit of rain after all

We felt a few sprinkles as we stood outside the convenience store scarfing onigiri, but the rain didn’t really start until we’d rounded the top of the lake and began the trek home. In the end, it could have been worse. We had about 15 minutes of steady rain, and that not heavy enough to soak us through. Just enough to legitimately say it had rained.

Close-up of bicycle bottom bracket spattered with mud
Some muddy bits

The rain added to the puddles we’d encountered in the stretches of gravel path. For whatever reason (the Halfakid suggested unscrupulous contractors), there were often gaps in the pavement at each inlet onto the lake, with a stretch of 100-150m of gravel, usually featuring more than a few potholes filled with muddy water. I was fine with my fat gravel tires, but Tomo and the Halfakid had a bit more challenge on their skinnies.

Rainbow above a lake
End of the 40-day rainy season — promise!

We took a rest in a pavilion just as the rain was letting up, and then continued on without issue (although sometimes into the wind) until we found ourselves back at the hotel. We were about half an hour behind our predicted time overall, but still in plenty of time to relax in the bath before dinner.

Kitaura Route
Kitaura Route

Same shit, different lake

Cyclists wave at camera as they set off on road next to river
Au revoir!

On Monday morning we set off immediately after breakfast with the goal of circumnavigating Kasumigaura, a longer route of about 135km total. Mindful of Tomo’s struggles in the wind around Kitaura, we were keeping in mind a number of contingencies. The first was to take the only shortcut available, across the Kasumigaura Ohashi (bridge). Eyeballing Google Maps in the morning, we estimated this might shave 20km off the total. And we resolved to have a break every 5km, and to turn back whenever Tomo said she’d had enough.

Protected fishing area at edge of lake
A day of promise

The going was smooth, although the wind remained an issue at times. There were no gravel sections separating the bike path from the proper road as at Kitaura. We came across Kasumigaura Ohashi just a couple of kilometers after Google Maps had told us to expect it, and stopped for a brief palaver.

Cyclists pose in front of Kasumigaura Bridge
Kasumigaura Ohashi

We had a few options at this point (apart from attempting the entire 135km route): continue on our selected path, and then turn back when we’d had enough; or crossing the bridge, and hence cutting perhaps 20km off the route, but still trying to circle the lake (and alternatively still turning back when we were tired). Tomo suggested that the Halfakid and I continue on the original route, while she crossed the bridge, knowing we would catch up with her at some point. But I said we should stick together. In the end we crossed the bridge, lopping off the northeastern lobe of the lake, and picked up the path again.

The going remained smooth, with perhaps a bit less fighting the wind. We continued to stop every 5km to rest our hands and backsides for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I was starting to feel hungry, but — thinking it was still about 10 a.m. — I didn’t say anything to the others. At the next rest break I handed out snacks I’d bought at the convenience store in the morning: baum kuchen. As she nibbled on her cake, Tomo said she was starving. I checked the time and it was already past 11:30. So we consulted Google Maps and found a convenience store just another 8km ahead, nearly to Tsuchiura. The Halfakid guided us from the path towards the shop, but we found that all the direct routes were little more than gravel-and-mud ruts for farm vehicles to pass between the fields. We eventually found paved roads, adding another kilometer to the distance traveled to get lunch.

GPS route of Kasumigaura cycle ride
Kasumigaura Route

After lunch we had another consultation. Thinking we’d shaved off around 20km by crossing Kasumigaura Ohashi, it looked like we were facing at least 65km remaining if we continued around the lake vs 45km if we turned around. Tomo didn’t take long to decide: let’s take the shorter route home! And so we doubled back.

Having made our choice we stuck with it, although it was soon obvious that Tomo was feeling quite a bit stronger after having had some food. Our average pace increased from 15km/h to nearly 20. (It’s also possible we were benefiting from a tailwind at this point.) There’s also the psychological “We’re heading home!” factor that I first saw in Tomo at the Tour de Tohoku last year, when she kicked it up to 30km/h in the final stretch. In this case, though, we still brought it back to 15km/h during the stretches where we faced a headwind.

In the final 5km, the Halfakid announced his intention to go ahead and continue past the hotel to reach a round 100km. He shot past us and was soon a dwindling red speck in the distance. I remained with Tomo, pacing her through the remaining kilometers, and we pulled up to the hotel just half an hour later than our original estimate. I touched fists with her and then said, “Actually, I … ” and she finished for me: “You want to do 100km too.” So I sped off after the Halfakid.

In the final 9km (4.5km out and back) I turned up the heat and was soon averaging 25km/h and going as high as 28. It felt good to stretch out and bear down, and I knew I could keep the pace up for the paltry few kilometers remaining. With less than 2km to go before my final return to the hotel, the Garmin beeped with a message from the Halfakid: “Where’s Guy?” Followed by a response from Nana: “Oops.” Fortunately the Garmin lets me reply (choose from a list of canned replies) without stopping, so I messaged, “Be home soon.” And then there I was, rolling up to the Halfakid who was waiting in front of the hotel for me, 101km on the clock.

What mechanicals?

Our two days of riding were blissfully trouble-free. After we assembled Tomo’s bike and tightened the Halfakid’s headset on the first day, our only issue was the slow seeping of air from my not-quite-yet-sealed tubeless tires. I took care of that in a couple of minutes at the start of each ride, and then once again on the way home during day 2.

Egrets, I’ve had a few

All along both courses we were treated Sunday and Monday to the sight of egrets — sometimes in pairs — in the rice paddies, occasionally taking wing as we sped by. Unfortunately I was never quick enough with the smartphone to catch one.

The only other (r)egret of the ride came when I checked the course again after returning home to Tokyo. By taking the Kasumigaura bridge on the second day, we’d actually shortened the route by 30km rather than our estimate of 20km. Which meant we’d have had just about the same distance to go by pressing onwards around the lake rather than doubling back as we did. Well, it gives us a reason to return to the Ring-Ring Road at a future date.

Disaster strikes

Description and map of Lake Kasumigaura Area

With travel restrictions looming back in March, I wrote that my Ohio plans might be canceled. As a back-up plan, I chose the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring Ring Road and floated the idea among my usual cycling friends.

Now we find ourselves in June, going on July, and the Ohio trip is definitely out. I started looking more carefully into the Tsukuba situation, and the first speed bump I encountered as the lack of onsen. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a long soak in a hot tub — even in the summer — at the end of a long ride, and a nice onsen will offer that as well as a fantastic meal.

I looked again at the official site, and soon arrived upon Plan B: the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course and the Kitaura Area Circuit Course are both near the town of Itago, and I soon located several likely onsen in Itago to serve as a base for both rides. So the new schedule will be to drive up as early as possible Sunday morning and cycle the shorter Kitaura route. Monday will be spent circling Kasumigaura, and we’ll return to Tokyo on Tuesday.

At Nana’s urging, and with her help, we’ve booked an onsen in Itako, Ibaragi, at the end of July, and a large van to carry both bicycles and passengers. The Halfakid and Tomo are in, so it will be three bikes and five or six people in the van.

Here’s where the disaster part comes in

I knew that I had a route map for the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course, but I didn’t have one for the Kitaura Area Circuit Course. The course maps available from the site are more descriptive than they are effective route guides.

But I knew that the Japanese version of the site included full route maps served by Yahoo’s excellent LatLongLab. So I started looking around in Japanese.

And I looked.

And I looked …

At last I remembered that I’d posted the LatLongLab routes previously, so I went back to that original post to see if it would offer me any clues. But when I clicked on that route … Disaster:

Screenshot of Yahoo page stating that LatLongLab is closed
LatLongLab is closed

LatLongLab is closed as of 31 March 2020. All the data and images have been deleted.

A huge blow, and a small consolation

The loss of LatLongLab is a huge blow to the cycling community in Japan. The organized rides I’ve participated in — Tour de Tohoku, Bike Tokyo — have used this, and I’ve taken advantage of a number of other routes that cyclists have posted there. The small consolation for Kasumigaura is that both routes are very straightforward: just keep the lake on the left (or on the right, if going around clockwise).

It’s a good thing I’m checking now, a month before the event. I have plenty of time to plot out the routes and load them into the GPS.

Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road

I’ve been planning a ride with friends this summer in Ohio, but I haven’t booked anything yet given the current state of travel and restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. In case things fall through, I’d like to have a back-up plan.

Assuming things don’t get dramatically worse for us here in Japan, one option would be the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road, one of three Japan national cycle routes. (Shimanami Kaido is another one.)

Cyclist riding a course under ume plum blossoms
One draw in early spring is the Ume Festival

The Ring-Ring Road includes several courses, most originating from Tsuchiura, a small city in Ibaraki Prefecture about 80km from Tokyo. Given the proximity I thought it would be possible to spend a day biking up to the starting point. But when I reviewed the route on Google Street View, it was clear it would be some very unsavory cycling: lots of traffic and very little scenery (but at least mostly flat). When I spoke with coworkers yesterday about the idea, one said she was from the area. Her cousin had ridden from Tokyo up to Ibaraki several years ago, and the experience was so bad he decided to leave his bike there and take a train home. (He collected the bike later by car.)

So if we go this route (if my friends are interested in joining, that is), the most likely course of action would be to rent a car to carry our bikes up to Tsuchiura. Depending on the size of the entourage this time, some people may need to go by train.

The official website has information in English and links to route maps. Two of the courses stood out to me: the Former Tsukuba Railway Course and the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course.

Former Tsukuba Railway Course

This 44km course runs on a former railway right-of-way, so it’s flat and straight through rice fields. Given the length and the lack of attractions at the terminus, we’d ride it round-trip in one day to bring us back to our starting point in Tsuchiura.

Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course

The lake circuit course is 127km of small roads and cycle paths around Japan’s second-largest lake. The circuit winds around a bit more than the railroad course, but it’s just about as flat. As with Biwako (Japan’s largest lake and the third of the three national cycle routes), the directions are easy: just keep the lake to your left and you’re good. (When the Three Gaijin-teers did Biwako back in 2014, we went clockwise around so we kept the lake to our right. But the principle is the same.)

A portion of the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course features in this month’s episode of Cycle Around Japan, an NHK series.

Schedule

For the moment, the likelihood of us going on this route depends on the coronoavirus situation (at least as much as we’ll know if it by mid-April) and the availability of onsen at Tsuchiura. But I’m thinking one day to drive up with the bikes. Day 2 would be the ride around the lake, and Day 3 the shorter railroad route. We’d have the option of returning home at the end of Day 3, or staying another night at the spa (assuming we find one).

I’ll also see if Fearless Leader Joe and Sanborn would like to come along. Ol’ Paint’s restoration should be complete by then, insh’allah, so I can offer one of them a ride. And there are rental bikes available at Tsuchiura. If FLJ and the Halfakid decide these courses are too tame, then they might like to take a day to follow in Michael’s tracks and cycle up Mt Tsukuba.