From Japan (Part 15): Thru Tunnels of Doom and over Monkey Mountain, It’s Matsumoto or DEATH!

this weekend I had intended to ride STP. I’m not saying that I had been training super-hard, but I had felt that Japan had toughened me up enough for me to roll those 200 miles in a single day. But then I ate something bad earlier in the week something really bad. I’ve barely eaten anything in four days and I’ve been chronically dehydrated which by the way, is NOT the optimal preparation for STP. Instead of STP, I am posting a little more of my trip in Japan


So there we were on the road out of Takayama, headed east through the mountains to Matsumoto. We roll through little neighborhoods of modest houses and rice paddies, the road almost imperceptibly growing steeper as it led us to the first climb of the day. Homeboy says it’s only 870 meters total elevation, but to be honest, all these numbers are meaningless to me. The total distance in kilometers makes no impression on me .. I can’t see my cyclo-computer because the map case obscures it and as a child of the flatlands of Florida, I don’t even understand vertical gain in either metric or US measures. All I know is that it’s gonna be steep and long today, but I don’t know if my knee is gonna let me do it.

We go steady up the narrow road, which homeboy charted specifically to avoid truck traffic and tour buses. Trucks are wide with limited visibility, but the sheer length and crap turning radius of tour buses can automatically force cyclists off the road on these twisty mountain roads. It’s Monday however, so the tour bus traffic should be less than peak.

The other hazards we try to avoid are tunnels. The tunnels are two-lane but they ain’t all that wide. There is a curb on either side that would accommodate pedestrians, not cyclists. It’s not that the tunnels are inherently dangerous, it’s just that we’re afraid of getting run down by the afore mentioned trucks and buses. Some of these tunnels are up to a kilometer in length. The tunnel entrances sit agape in the mountain face, swallowing bikes, riders, and light. But the roar of an overtaking truck rumbles all through the throat of the dragon the instant the lumbering vehicle enters. We might have half the length left to escape the tunnel, but we can hear those trucks coming for us a half click behind us. It sounds like the truck is already on your neck, but it never seems to pass you. You want to see how far back it is, but you’re afraid to look behind lest you swerve into the truck’s path or into the curb. It’s a special flavor of hell, a dark pit where you endlessly flee before some unseen demon. We’re Tolkien’s hobbits fleeing the balrog down in the mines of Moria. And all about us the sound of terror.

You desperately search for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, all the while contemplating your mortality. You actually have conversations with your deity like this:

Oh Great One, I accept whatever fate you may graciously bestow upon this humble soul, whether it be a blessed life of joy in the fair light of day or a violent, rending death in the jaws of these mechanical beasts, my grave this cold wound in the mountain’s side .just stop f#*king toying with me and get it over with “

The tunnels weren’t the only horror awaiting us on the big push to Matsumoto. No, there was something else to fear, something I hadn’t even considered despite Fraulein Nele’s sighting in Takayama: monkeys. At about 1400M on the big climb, I was convinced that my knee was strong enough to power me on to our destination. I had even taken over pace setting from homeboy. The air was still but heavy in mists. Standing pools swarming with tadpoles lined the single lane road, and the forest clung closely to guard rail. That’s when I heard a sound like a lap dog being strangled, and homeboy called out: Monkeys!

Sweet Jesus! Of all the nightmares to find me in foreign lands, it had to be monkeys. I don’t know why everyone wants to anthropomorphize monkeys into cute, entertaining creatures like Curious George. To me, there really are few things in this world more disturbing than monkeys and baboons. To be sure, they are somewhat bipedal, have eyes on the front of their heads, and have opposable thumbs as if they were fuzzy, little people, but when one looks into their eyes..those windows to the human soul all that is seen are swirling pits of insanity!

When I was a child, I learned that during a famine in Africa, hoards of ravenous baboons had surrounded settlers in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. The people had to close ranks and fight off the waves of hunger-maddened baboons intent on devouring their living flesh. Not an ideal vacation.

Now, I know full well this mountain that we’re on now is not Kilimanjaro and that these are not baboons but why take chances? Our bikes weigh half a metric ton and we’re wearing cycling cleats clearly our ability to retreat is severely hampered and we are not on defensible ground. Those red-faced snow monkeys can move through the trees with considerable ease, though I wouldn’t say with grace. Still with the width of the road, the break in the trees, and the relative flatness of the road immediately in front, we can probably put enough distance between us to ..what?….what’s homeboy doing?…’re stopping to take pictures?…..are you f#*king crazy?!!!!


Somehow despite homeboy’s deathwish, we manage to escape, but we still have a few hundred meters of vertical gain to go, or so I’m guessing.

Neither of us knows exactly, since there are no landmarks to compare to the map. These roads are disorienting because the steepness of the mountainside means you can’t see how the road loops back and higher and higher. Everything is just impossibly lush and green, flush with water brought by the mountain mists and countless streams. This country Japan I’ve never conceived of a land or people that could control and commune with water elemental like this. Every house, rice paddy, gutter, dam, and mountain stream has been carefully sculpted and tuned by the Japanese. I think that water thus goes wherever they ask it to go. And up here on this mountain, I am winding up through the source of all that water which is the life of central Japan. For the first time I can feel how one could be satisfied living in a place so remote. These green mountains fill me with a sense of peace that I have not found in the Appalachians, Rockies, or the Swiss Alps. I’m just saying that I can feel it, not that I want to live the rest of my life here .I know myself better than that .I do like my bright city lights and supermarkets and rock shows and

What the f#*k? What’s homeboy doing? HOMEBOY ATTACKS!

Homeboy launches an attack, stomping on the pedals like it’s a KOM sprint nay, like it’s a stage finish on the f#*king L’Alpe d’Huez! Are we at the top of the pass? Can he see something that I can’t? I’m the one with the map! Map, map, map .where are we? Wait a minute, I still don’t think we’re quite there yet. Should I tell him? Nah, he’ll figure it out .just let him blow up first. At 8-10% grade, he can’t keep that up for long.


A hundred or so meters later homeboy calls for rest break. I work to hide both my labored breathing and my little chuckle of schadenfreude. Hee hee.

Eventually we get to a wet right-hand hairpin that is unmarked but has a carpark and lookout. Beyond, the road wraps onto a new face of the mountain and tellingly slopes down. Gentleman, we have the achieved the summit, the mountain is ours!

We haven’t seen a car in in a very long time, and below us nothing but an ocean of green. Thus the line of enormous powerline towers seems especially out of place on the verdant mountain peak…like a marching cloumn of giant aliens filing straight down this moutain face, through the valley, and climbing out of view into the flowing curtains of mist. In the damp and otherwise silent alpine air, we can hear the powerlines sizzle.

After the obligatory stretch and snapshot opportunity, we mount up and begin a wet descent. Homeboy leads at a prudent pace, no doubt aware of the distance yet to be covered and the physics of a heavily laden bicycle on rain-slicked hairpins. There is a long way to go and actually one more climb on the way to Matsumoto, though of much lesser diffi .MARK ATTACKS!

My knee feels good and I want to go, go, GO! I just have to punch it out of the turns and hit the binders deep in the turns gravity will do the rest! Whooo-hooo! BONZAI! Super-president! TWO HOURS of climbing up that pass, let’s ride this bitch all the way to Matsumoto! SUPER-PRESIDENT! .uh, where’d homeboy go?

Hey, I lost you back there….did you see more monkeys or something? What’s that? You’re afraid of crashing and dying? You say that like it’s a bad thing. Really, now you’ve got to get over this irrational fear of death.


After three major passes, 125km, 7 hours and just 2 Coca Colas, we arrived in Matsumoto…

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