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Part3 - Kongo
On the edge of town we come up a rise to an entrance to a small tunnel, on either side of the road the forest with countless cedar trees, their trunks slender but tall, letting very little light through to the ground. It is dark here and the cloud above looms very low almost smothering us. Through the tunnel all we can see is this whiteness, there is no horizon, no silhouette, nothing. We just glance at each other and go “whoa”. We pause before we enter into this void. Part way through, the road dips down and at the entrance we take a sharp left and then road drops dramatically down. No point stopping to enjoy the view. The fog has obliterated the view. Off we go, immediately we are on the brakes leaning right then left hanging onto each others wheels as the road twists and contorts, the surface is changing from rough to smooth, wet and dry in some places. You must always be vigilant for a loose rock or branch that has fallen from above onto the road. Don’t want to hit one of those at 65km/h. We lose half of the day’s elevation gain in 10 minutes. Then the road eases along side a river, we are close to the valley floor and following the river. In the summer time riding close to the river is always 5 to 10 degrees cooler than elsewhere. But in winter it just feels even colder.
At the next junction we go right and go upriver slowly climbing the whole way. It is noticeably warmer down here and we peel off the layers and begin to race each other a little bit. We are only past halfway. We pass through small villages admire all the old large houses. Their heavy tiled roof stand the test of time and withstand any typhoon that may blow over. Though it is their weight which can causes the collapse in an earthquake. Folk’s laundry is hanging out to draw.
Little toy sized tractors are parked in their sheds. It is still too early to till the soil in preparation for the rice crop. We hardly see a soul the whole time and that includes a car. Since we left Koya san and come 30 km only one car has came by.
Energy levels are starting to drop, Seiichi and Yufta are wanting to know how much further to the top of the next climb, Yuji is wishing aloud for a” jihanki “ A blessing or a curse, it is hard to decide, the proliferation of vending machines in Japan. You are able to go for a ride and not worry about liquids, since you will inevitably come across a vending machine. What’s the curse you may wonder, the waste they encourage, both trash and electricity. The blessing, on a freezing cold day in the middle of nowhere, your fingers and lips numb from the cold. You can, at the push of a button, immediately have a “hot” can of sweet coffee, tea, cocoa or even corn soup. It'll even say "good morning" and "good evening" depending on time of the day. It is a different culture here.
Sugared up, we head off again about to tackle our day’s longest descent. All the better with the sun, now out, the roads dry and a marvelous view to be admired. This was a great example of the sweet expression,” it’s all downhill from here”. This time we did stop to admire the views, the clouds and the sunlight as they played.
Daylight was coming to an end but our ride wasn’t. We still had to cross the river in the valley below and get back over the first mountain range we crossed through Kongo san. The long shadows of the afternoon danced with us as we began our way up out of the town into more orchards and chicken farms and finally into the dark conifer forest. The hillsides here are typically steep and roads here climb by means of short pitches following the contours until it switchbacks around. A straight stretch longer than 1 km is rather unusual. I like these kind of climbs since the viewpoint ahead is never constant. You can often see a guardrail of the road, up above you, and before you know it you are there looking back down. This our final climb everyones fitness levels for this time of year clearly became evident and despite every ones equal desire to get up this hill some would endure it for longer than others. We were on route 310 on the south eastern side of Kongo san. It’s claim to fame being the highest peak in Osaka prefecture. We soon splintered into solitary riders our minds filled with either dread or elation. My demons from Mizugaki well and truly exorcised. The climb is much longer than I remember being more that 10 years past since I flashed up here. At one of those breaks in the trees I look back down and across the valley. I pause and watch the shadow of the mountain slowly creeping across it’s floor. Below I make out that little pink speck flitting along , so much like a butterfly.
Then I look back and see Yuji coming up, today I let my old competitive juices get me going again. I push off, beginning to count 100 hundred strokes as I stand on the pedals. I know it’s not much further and I only want to end this part as quick as I can. I reach into my pocket and grab another snake to munch on, keep the sugar levels up, two more corners and I can make out the tunnel entrance. I’ll stop there and wait for everyone else. Not long really for Yuji, soon comes Yufta then Seiichi, Daisuke finally makes it just before that big shadow reaches the other side. Together now we have a race, this one was not against each other but the light. We surge through the tunnel and hit the rain slick roads on the other side, picking our lines through the plethora of road markings painted across the tarmac. We are just pushing it as hard as we can. Tired but elated for there is no need to further conserve ourselves, because it really was all downhill from there……