Safety


Safe cycle-touring in Japan is pretty much the same as safe cycling anywhere else: wear a helmet, look both ways, make sure the cars see you (bright clothing and a headlight and illuminated rear reflector for nighttime and tunnel transits are strongly recommended), make sure the cars trying to pass you know that YOU see THEM... and so on. But it also involves careful planning and forethought so you don't get yourself in unsafe situations in the first place.


To prove that even experienced cyclists have things to learn about cycling safety, here are a couple of cautionary tales.


(This first one courtesy a friend's email:)


When you leave Kamikochi and climb up to Abo Toge at 1812m, think about the story I told you when M. and I left Ueda the bright, sunny morning of March 20, 1989, and started up the pass at 12:30 p.m. I still remember the look on the tunnel construction worker's face when he yelled that we couldn't go. We figured there might be some snow, but... Within one mile it was ankle deep, then in a few hours - of walking - it went to thigh deep. Lift the bike, throw it in front of you, take a step. Repeat. We reached the teahouse at the pass at 6:30 p.m and tried to break in through the second floor windows, but couldn't. So, we headed down the other side into the darkness. Took refuge in a shack well down the valley, expecting to freeze through the night, till M. spotted some irregularity in the snow field ahead and found just 50 meters in front of us that the banked snow was where they had plowed to. And the ride down into Hirayu Onsen at 11:00 p.m. was frighteningly painful - soaked and freezing and crying... I remember clearly: while wondering why my body was so damned tired about 10 p.m. that night as we paused again to catch our breath as the wind was rising...damn, we have all our clothes on, I mean all, and we're still freezing... gotta keep moving or we'll freeze. My buddy M. had low-cut socks on, nothing long in his gear, and sharp ice had cut the shit out of his ankles, but he couldn't feel them anyway. He did lose 3 or 4 toenails... We found a place serving noodles and slurped while some drunks remarked that we must have been the craziest guys on the face of the planet. A very kind obachan took us into her minshuku at midnight. The bath was torture. I never did immerse myself. Sleep was with the gods. I went to look for that grandma and minshuku on [the] @@@ Gifu ride in '96, but it had disappeared.


(And, more recently, one of my own harrowing experiences:)


After ten years of cycling in this country, on all sorts of roads and under all sorts of conditions, I thought I knew all there was to know about cycling safety. But after the situation I found myself in on the last trip, I've had to seriously re-evaluate my assumptions. For one thing, I've made a belated New Year's resolution to become a more trusting individual - specifically, to BELIEVE people and signs that give me vital information on road conditions.


I'm including the entire story here in the hopes that other people may benefit from my experience... and stay alive.


It was a beautiful sunny day in Kanazawa. I was headed southeast, toward the Shirakawa-go area. It was the first day of a Golden Week cycling trip, near the end of April, and I had not planned to cover much distance - less then twenty kilometers to the turnoff, then one mountain pass (Bunao Toge) and a bit up the road. I'd even hoped to get down to Shirakawa and see it and then cycle back up to the minshuku in Gokayama near the junction with the pass road. Accordingly, I'd allowed plenty of time. In retrospect, that was what saved me.


At the turnoff leading to the pass, there was a sign on the road: there had been rock slides, so it was closed "for the present" (tobun no aida). But as I'd cycled on closed roads numerous times in the past, and always been able to get through, I continued on.




In a way, it was an honest mistake. The workers in the tunnel that was under repairs, just after the turnoff, saw me go by with a loaded bicycle, and none of them said anything. For the first several kilometers, there were lots of people along the way: campers in 4WD vehicles along the stream; fishermen in the streams; and, quite far up, one old man walking down along the way, over the pass I thought (but in retrospect, with his limp, he obviously lived on this side of the pass). Again, NOBODY warned me what to expect. Maybe they didn't know.


The road soon started to show signs of disrepair: rocks and tree limbs scattered over the surface and cracks in the asphalt. At one point, it narrowed considerably and was only about a meter wide, with a straight 70-meter drop off to the left. Wow, I thought, this is a bit unnerving. I still had no idea.


After a few more kilometers, the central flaw in the information on the road sign was apparent. It had warned of rock slides.


It hadn't mentioned the SNOW.


The authorities may have thought it was obvious. Apparently anything higher than 800 meters or so will still have snow as late as early May. Bunao Pass is 990 meters. Now I know enough to do the math. But even the cyclist I'd met just before that turnoff, whom I'd told my route, had only said offhandedly "Bunao Pass? There may still be snow up there." No real problem, or so I'd thought.




It started to appear in small sections across the road, steadily growing larger and larger until the entire road was covered. I kept on going. It was still quite early (around 3:00) and I could see the pass (or what I thought must surely be the pass, later confirmed as correct) only a few kilometers up ahead. Surely it couldn't take that long to get there.


Up to now, at each point I'd seen a potential obstruction and said "OK, nothing I can't handle." But suddenly I rounded a bend and stopped and said to myself: "OK... NOW I'm scared." The snow completely covered the road, sloping down at a 45-degree angle... right up to the edge with a straight drop into the river gorge far below.


I took a deep breath and then, with the bicycle on the mountain side so I could use it as a hiking cane, trekked to the highest possible point on the slope and hiked carefully across until I got to more level ground.


From that point, it got hard to see even where the road was. I started picking the most likely direction and checking the sides carefully. Thankfully, in most places I was able to find a yellow reflector pole poking out here and there. There were also red and white poles marking the edges in some places, but most of them were under the snow.





I had plenty of time to check for road signs; it was slow going. While the snow was hard-packed, my thin road tires cut right into it, meaning I had to carry the bike the whole way. It was exhausting work, particularly since it was a steep uphill in most places. I had to stop several times, out of breath.




Eventually I reached the top of the pass, completely under snow. There were a few tiny cabins, apparently for hikers. I started down and was able to go faster, letting gravity move the bike forward. Along the way was another sloping angle above a straight drop, though not as steep an angle as before. At one point, I scared a large animal - mountain goat, perhaps. It disappeared down the slope too fast for me to identify it.




Finally I saw two things that made me heave a sigh of relief: a lake and buildings far below through the trees, and the ending of the snow on the road. I stopped to take a photo to commemorate the end of the adventure. I didn't know yet that the road was just playing with me, and the worst was yet to come.


I rounded the bend and saw the snow start again -- and, a few meters further on, a true nightmare: the road was completely gone in a section about one and a half meters long - a giant hole with a drop a hundred meters straight down.




At that point, I was out of options. It was after five; there was no way I could have carried the bike back over the snow across the pass and down the other side before dark.


But, thankfully, it wasn't necessary. I saw that there was a piece of snow-covered rock midway in that missing section, on the mountain side, that could be used as a foothold. I stepped on it without the bike to be sure it was solid. Then I rested, waiting until I was focused (there was NO margin for error), and, carrying the bike on the mountain side, walked across in two precision steps. In the first movement, I stepped on the small rock foothold with the bike; in the second movement, I stepped near the base of the missing section and hooked the handlebars of the bike on the top of it. Then I let go of the bike and scampered on top and pulled the bike up from the safety of the solid roadbed. Only THEN did I take a photo to commemorate what was by far the most dangerous thing I have ever done on a cycling trip. (In the photo, you can see the second location at which I placed my foot, in the center of the photo on the far right.)


At that point, I noted it was getting a bit darker, so I began to chance riding the bike down on the sections with no snow to make faster time. Each time I came to a curve, I prayed it would be passable. Luck was with me, and they all were. I soon got a slow leak in the front tire from hitting too many stones, but stopped only to pump it with air and then sped on. At last, I reached the junction with the main road. It seemed strange to see people and other vehicles again.


I knew I'd had a close call. But only later, when I thought about it, did I realize HOW close:


What if that last section had truly been impassible?

I may have had to spend the night there. My shoes were soaked and my feet numb and freezing, and my fingers (outside the bike gloves) not far behind. I carried no camping gear. Stupidly, I didn't even have matches (I carry them now, at ALL times). But probably I would have survived. I would first have tried to carry the bike back up to the cabins at the pass and attempted to break into one. Failing that, I would have walked back down, leaving the bike there. I had a headlight and plenty of batteries. So I PROBABLY would have made it.


But let's speculate a little further:


Suppose I had arrived at the pass an hour or so later and had tried to get down the other side of the pass in the dark?

Even with my relatively powerful bike headlight, would I have seen the hole in time? The black of the hole may have looked like the black of the roadbed. On most roads, the authorities put up barriers in such places to protect hikers. Stupidly, they had not done so in this case - making this road a true death trap.


And one more possible scenario:


Suppose there had been no snow at that point, and I'd been on a mountain bike?

I'd have been zipping down the mountain, trying to make it down before dark. More than likely I would have seen the hole too late and been unable to stop...


Terrified yet? I am, in retrospect.


To summarize some of the important lessons here:


- If signs say the road is impassible, BELIEVE them and make your plans accordingly. Talk to local people and try to find out exactly what conditions you might encounter. If you do decide to proceed down a blocked-off section:


- EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION along the ENTIRE length of the blocked-off road.


- Do not travel along blocked-off roads at night under ANY circumstances.


- Think particularly hard before you continue along a blocked-off mountain pass or other place where height is involved.


More general precautions:


- Be particularly careful if you might encounter snow. Many roads in the Japan Alps, even major ones, are not plowed and so are impassible in any season except summer and possibly VERY late spring / early autumn. At other times, confirm your route beforehand to make sure the roads are open. Just in case, carry warm clothing and matches at all times. In fact, it might be best to make a simple rule: wherever snow is involved, plan for the possibility that you may be forced to spend the night outdoors.


- Plan and cycle carefully if you intend to travel alone on roads far from human habitation. Remember that if you have an accident no one may come along to help you for days or even weeks.


- Give yourself plenty of time. Time is the one thing that will always allow you more options.


And perhaps most importantly:


- Think carefully and consider your options at each stage. Beware of situations that suck you in gradually, removing your options one by one until you have none left.


Plan ahead and use common sense and you should do fine.

Have a great trip!