I woke up and it was already very bright outside. I glanced towards my helmet, hanging from the tent ceiling as a makeshift basket. My phone was inside and the alarm clock obviously did not go off. This was not a very good start to our crossing of the Japanese Alps.
And then I heard boots cracking small sand grains over the raw concrete floor. The light was not the Sun as we were camping in a half-built hut and there was obviously someone around. I woke Guilherme with a hand over his mouth to prevent any noise and made sure he listened to the steps. Then I started to open my sleeping bag and the steps immediately stopped. Naturally we were not expecting to have any visitors before our alarm clock went off at 6am so we left most of the gear outside the tend and the bikes were simply locked to each other. I opened the tent and jumped out ready to apologize or fight, whatever was needed and most appropriate. I heard people running away but all I could see outside were footprints in the mud and, moments later, the sound of a car engine starting.
Our first impression was that it might have been construction workers or someone related to the camping ground so we packed as quickly as we could to leave before they returned or the police showed up. We jumped on our bikes, cycled back to route 30 and only stopped at the next convenience store. This was not the best start for the day which was promising to be quite long. I needed two Suntory Boss black coffee cans to even feel my legs as I quickly dumped into an adrenaline hangover. Looking at the positives, however, my phone’s battery was now completely depleted so the alarm would probably not have gone off at all. Well, everything had a good outcome: we had a massive breakfast, a early start to the day and were feeling ready for a day of steady climbing.
We started with a good pace on the first 25km of a slight incline and then looked up at the first serious ascent in our trip: 25km climbing at an average of 3%. It was there, relentlessly going up through this long valley that did not hide anything from us: get to the top and then drop to Nagano. It was hot and we couldn’t even feel the slightest breeze. Leaving the seaside behind meant that we were truly feeling the summer for the first time. Half way through the ascent we stopped to buy liquids: I think this was the point where Pocari Sweat won our undisputed preference following our ten day experimentation phase. We found its flavour to be a bit strange in the beginning but now it was definitely the one that was the least obnoxious after continuous consumption.
As we got to Lake Nojiri and the climb was briefly interrupted we were surprised with our condition. Over these past days we have been steadily improving our biking skills and increasing our endurance (or maybe just pain tolerance). Nevertheless, there we were riding happily near the top before midday. Here we decided to abandon route 18 to choose a mountain pass that would take us directly to west Nagano from where we would then take route 19 to Matsumoto, a beautiful continuous descent along river Sai. Just before the descent we found a rather beautiful soba restaurant where we decided to have lunch. We had no choice but to eat the handmade soba, using local grain, but only after a private lesson on how to properly eat soba given by the chef who insisted that we drank the water used to boil the soba mixed with the remaining sauce after we finished: to “give us strength for cycling”. We would later learn that soba tasting is a thing in Japan and that some aficionados travel the country searching for different grain varieties and can easily tell where and how some soba was made just by tasting it. In my layman opinion it was very good but I still believe that a portion twice as big would have been even better.
After the magnificent lunch we jumped back onto the saddles ready for the descent. And what a descent it was! We could see Nagano from above as we serpentined down a small two lane road as fast as cars dared to go. We were soon in downtown Nagano trying to avoid the confusion around the central station and soon finding river Sai. This is when we started laughing to each other. We were both absolutely convinced that we were going to be descending from Nagano into Matsumoto. However, the river was flowing in the wrong direction and this was not exactly what we expected. This small mistake in map reading had a very simple consequence: we would be climbing steadily next to river Sai for the next 70 km until Matsumoto instead of a very nice descent. We warned our couchsurfing host that we would be arriving considerably later and tackled the new challenge with the best spirit we could muster. This was not too hard while the Sun painted the valley and the beautiful river kept us company turning left and right. We cycled under the sharp eye of the birds of prey that claimed the place for themselves with loud cries echoing through the valley.
We finished this stage with a 20 km sprint into Matsumoto, Sun long gone, trying to arrive at the central station in time to meet Masahisa. He quickly recognised us and, probably impressed by our tired gaze, quickly led us home and let us go to bed. The futon was amazingly comfortable and the feeling of my legs floating weightless guided my way into quickly falling asleep.