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WORDS: Daisuke Yano | PHOTOS: Brian Vernor, Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji
The sun has completely set, not even a faint ring of light over the 3000m south Japan Alps. There is no point in putting street lights where people do not go out after dark. It's just a few degrees celsius and will be minus ten in a few weeks.
Yuji's patience had run out, and he could only think negatively, preventing him moving his bike forward smoothly. My motivation to pedal hard in the car-light-lit street wasn't just coming from weighing a few more kilos, but more so that I could get away from his complaints.
Rapha Japan has it's office in Nobeyama, on the mild eastern slope of Yatsugatake mountain: A farmer's village of only 3500 population, the summers here create the best batch of wine grapes. Harsh conditions of 1400m elevation, with huge temperature differences from day to night makes highland vegetables unusually sweet. Cabbage, lettuce, and nappa cabbage from this area are considered to be the best and traded at high price for those who live in the metropolis. We eat for free, of course, as neighboring farmers leave them at the door every cool summer morning.
The Japanese are particular about having something "number one". Nobeyama has the right to brags about having the highest rail crossing and train station (the two must come in a set) in the national rail system, the highest elementary school in the country and so forth, making it the highest village in the country. Only 2 plus hours from Tokyo and Nagoya and 5 hours from Osaka, the number two city, access is very good. With only 25 people per square kilometre of land, cycling here is also the best in the country.
There are problems, however, riding out of Nobeyama: Any ride will start with a down hill and must finish with a climb, a big climb. If you live on a hill, you would understand this dilemma on every long ride home. We managed to finish the ride with a descent from Hirasawa pass, but at a cost of 900m climbing prior to that…and little did we expect to do 50kph in pitch dark.
The ride starts off from Nobeyama at Rapha Japan head quarters. A kilometre away from the train station. The Route takes us through the desolate mountains of northern Yamanashi prefecture (state). Though we come close to the Kofu city, we really never hit the valley or any real civilisation. An undulating wander through the deep mountains, with constantly changing elevations.
There are no grand passes with the deep history of Europe like those told in Rouleur Magazine , or the endless wide open roads of North America told in the Rapha Continental . What we have here, typically, are mountains, very steep ones and ocean. Almost every city has mountains within an hour of riding. Traditionally, building roads is considered symbols of political power and as a result this country has thousands of kilometres of "unnecessary" roads spread across the most desolate parts of the country like capillaries. But these deep mountains separate regions and prefectures like borders. Japan is a similar size to California in the USA, yet offers surprisingly contrasting cultures throughout the country.