We’re having fun, I swear. It’s the trip of a lifetime, no one’s making us do it. Every day we have amazing experiences, ones that I’m sure we’ll tell our grandkids about. Some days, though, it takes a lot to remember that this is fun, and not some forced endurance challenge, or a kind of torture. Unfortunately, today was one of those days.
Although we should have started the day well rested, none of us got more than five hours sleep. Andrew fell victim to the easy computer access at our net cafe, and ended up working on the blog until late at night, and Scott and I went out to see Osaka’s nightlife. While all of us had a good time, rolling out of our computer cubicle/bed to make the cafe’s 9am check out was a bit of a struggle. But today was the day to be sleepy, because the map showed an easy, straight 30km to Nara, where we would recharge by enjoying the famous temples in Nara Park. We could just glide sleepily along and reach Nara in no time without working too hard, right? Right?
Wrong. A combination of our navigator (me) not checking the terrain of the route and Google Maps neglecting to factor altitude into it’s directions meant that our nice straight route went straight over a mountain range. As the rise came into view on the outskirts of Osaka, I told myself there must be a way around, or a low pass, or something I’m not seeing. Surely the road can’t go over that. We stopped at the last convenience store before the foothills to check one last time that our route would indeed take us to Nara. The clerk confirmed that, then mimed a cyclist flipping over backwards on a steep incline, and told us to take care. He knew what we were in for.
The next 3 hours were not something I enjoy remembering. We managed to ride for about 15 minutes past the store, before the road got so unreasonably steep that we were forced to walk our bikes up the slope, under the pounding sun on a windless day. The “highway”, boldly drawn in stout yellow on the map, turned out to be a twisting, narrow road barely wide enough for one car to pass us on the shoulder. The going was so strenuous that we could not push for more than a handful of minutes at a time without a breather. Finally, exhausted, we reached the crest of the road, complete with a small souvenir shop and rest stop, and the border into Nara Prefecture. We were too exhausted to be excited, but at least we were satisfied. Surely, the worst was behind us.
By the end of the day that proved to be true, but not by as much as we would have liked. Coming down off the mountain, while easy on the legs, was hard on the nerves and brakes. Now we were taking occasional stops to cool down our brake pads. Our route, the straight and true 308 running all the way to Nara City, meandered down into a valley town, and disappeared. Once we realized we were no longer on the right highway, we had to loop back and try to pick it up again as it wound through town along narrow streets in umarked turns. It also seemed to seek out the steep hills, and more than once we were again forced off our bikes, pushing.
We persevered though, and eventually reached the City of Nara, and the end of our path along the deceptive 308. However, much to our disappointment, our easy 30km had taken the better part of seven hours, putting us on the wrong side of 5:30pm, which is when the temples of Nara Park, which we had come solely to see, closed. We went for a despondent ride through the Park, but the blowing sakura and famous ubiquitous deer could only console us so much.
Thankfully, the day ended on a much more positive note. As dusk was gathering, we made our way to an okonomiyaki restaurant that Andrew had been to when in Nara before, and that he in turn had had recommended by his friend Craig Stanton, who had walked the length of Japan some three years prior. Dinner there was ridiculously delicious, complete with what I’m sure were abnormally large portions for us worn out cyclists. The proprietor, Mr. Jun Ohashi, chatted with us amicably about his restaurant, okonomiyaki varieties, and our trip while preparing our fare, and even investigated as to where we could camp that night in the area. We were sent off happy, with full bellies and good directions to a riverside area a little ways down the road, where we could stay in peace. Even better, when we reached the river, we found a small bamboo forest right beside the bridge, shady and well-sheltered, and set up camp there. And there ends our unexpectedly challenging, somewhat disappointing day, as we settle down amidst the creaking, knocking bamboo and rustling leaves. Tomorrow, I’m sure, will be better.