Sunday 30th March 2014
Weather: Everything! Rain, snow, sun, more rain, wind and fog
MP3 track of the day: The long and winding road – The Beatles
Though this blog is being written the morning after the day in question (this is usual; it's so that what is written here is as accurate as possible) it is being written on a brand new computer. Yes, it's a sad day but the machine I took around the world with me; the net book which has accompanied me through Europe, North America, Australasia, Asia and for 2 years here in Japan has been left on the shelf and replaced with an 'Acer P3' (link). Towards the end of our time together it was taking 45 minutes or so to load up, the 'w' key didn't work very well (which is an important key when it comes to the internet) and life was slowly slipping away from it's battery cells. I will of course miss it and will never throw it away. Therefore, like every award at the Oscars, this blog has been dedicated. It has been dedicated to my old net book; my 'Acer one'.
So far, 2014 has been a very good year with many, many good things happening to me. I knew it couldn't last, but I did wonder just how long my good luck would hold out...
… That question was answered at 3:55pm today however, there are many hours to write about before then, starting with the 4th hour of the day, which is when I got up. Having all bags packed – plus I had a shower the previous night – it took no time at all to have a small breakfast, turn off the water and electricity, and get into my car. I left my Japanese home town of Miyako under a veil of darkness and headed south, along the '45', towards Sendai. Being early in the morning, and pitch black, there is little I can tell you about this trip other than I made good progress and traffic was none-existent. I made it into a city called 'Ishinomaki' around 8am where I stopped for '2nd breakfast'.
Now, this was the bit of the journey which I was worried about the most. Miyagi-ken (which is where Ishinomaki and Sendai are) is notorious for it's huge amount of traffic. It was only 8am and already, I knew, that I was at a part of my journey which could make, or break, it. Fortunately, with it being a Sunday, there was little in the way of 'work traffic'. Also, with the sky pouring down buckets of rain, the 'day trippers' must have been put off because traffic was extremely light and I soon found myself in Sendai, travelling south along the '4', towards Fukushima. Apart from the constant 'red' lights, the traffic moved on at quite a pace and so things were going well. This was good because the '4' is not at all 'picturesque'. This road runs all the way up the country from Tokyo to Aomori and, it would appear, that the same shops, squared buildings and industrial units repeat themselves all the way down the road. With the constant traffic lights I wanted to leave this road as soon as possible and what made it worst was that, in the distance, I could see mountains and forests calling to me.
At around midday I stopped heading south and turned west towards Aizu-Wakamatsu. You may remember but I visited Aizu-Wakamatsu for my summer holiday last year and loved it. I remembered the city but I had completely forgotten about the beautiful lake, which had to be driven around to get to the city (well, it would have been beautiful if it would stop raining).
I was hoping for quick 'pit stop' in Aizu-Wakamatsu (I had a few jobs to do there; get money, have dinner and fill the car) however, once there, I had completely erased from my mind the billion sets of traffic lights which plague each street I turned down. Seriously, I was on the very long, and very straight, main street and I could see 14 sets of traffic lights, all red, running into the distance. It therefore took me an hour and 15 minutes to complete my jobs. For food I went to a 'Big Boy' restaurant; I have seen this 'restaurant chain' everywhere in Japan but I had never tried it. Once inside the place was rammed with parents taking their children for a 'special treat' however oddly, it was a woman – who didn't look that Japanese herself – who stared at me the most. Once I had placed my order (a hamburger steak with cheese) I looked around and failed to find the attraction. The food was expensive and the portions were quite small. There was a free salad bar and soup area which, it would appear, the Japanese used continuously to make sure that they got their 'monies worth'. The only saving grace was that the food didn't take that long which meant I could leave this 'expensive nursery' and carry on my way. The time was 1pm.
Now, the drive to Aizu-Wakamatsu wasn't that interesting because I had done it before. From this point on I was into uncharted territory. I was therefore nervous of missing the road which I required, but also very excited; my whole trip had been planned around the next road (the 252) because - according to my map – this road wound it's way past huge lakes, through forests and up mountains. In effect, this road looked like paradise to me and I wasn't going to let the rain, plus cloud, spoil it. Soon after I left Aizu-Wakamatsu, I joined the 252 and headed south-west.
The road was superb. The traffic was non-existent and I wound my way through small villages not really caring what my speedometer showed. There wasn't a single car insight and huge piles of snow could be seen all around me (however the road was as clean as my mate's – Francis' – apartment … spotless). This road would go on for 2 hours or more and with that in mind, my smile grew and grew. The time was 3:53pm and the fog was closing around me though, visibility was still good. I had my music set to 'loud' and life was great. I turned a corner and slammed on my breaks. I stopped hardly believing what I saw. A JCB was parked across the road with barriers preventing me from going any further. The road was shut due to snow.
I realised then why traffic had been so light; there must have been a sign at the beginning of the road which told motorists this but, being in Japanese, I had no idea. I got out my map, pinpointed my location and then my eyes almost fell out of their sockets. You see; I was approaching Nagano from a north-easterly direction; between Nagano and I were the Japanese Alps (the start of said Alps were here). Being Alps they were huge and went on for miles to the north and south of me. In effect I was in the middle of the range and there were no other road for miles. I had to make a choice: do I go back to Aizu-Wakamatsu (2 hours away) an travel around the northern edge of the Alps; or do I head south and see if any other mountain passes were open (there were two on my map). Seeing retreat as mark of failure I headed south. At first I was laughing to myself and seeing this all as a bit of an adventure. It wasn't until the fact that I realised that this closure had cost me '3 to 4 hours', did I start to feel a bit down. I turned the music off, put my foot to the floor and passed all of the beautiful scenery I'd seen before however, this time, it didn't look quite as nice.
With roads blocked, traffic was light. I made great progress however, once at the second pass I discovered that this too was shut. Another look at my map detailed another mountain crossing however, this was really far south. Having no choice I headed south towards Nikko, which is only 2 hours north of Tokyo, thankful that I'd filled my car with petrol in Aizu-Wakamatsu.
The day was drawing in and the time was around 6pm. I must say that the scenery had been stunning all day and now, with the sun going down the mountains, lakes and forests looked even more beautiful. The rain had stopped too!
Before entering Nikko I decided to use a small 'toll road' (£2) which helped me by-pass the sprawling (and probably 'traffic light' ridden) town of Nikko. A cheery old man collected my money and told me where I was on my map. We had a chat for a minute or two and he was completely confused in regards to where I was, in relation to my starting point and terminus. I explained the situation but I too was a little at a loss on how it could have gone so wrong. He told me to take care and with that, I put my foot hard to the floor and zoomed along the road in front of me.
Having quite enjoyed my 'toll road experience' I joined another one (£1) and zoomed towards my next, and final, mountain cross (any further south and I would be going around the Alps). As I started to climb once more I started to worry about what I would do if this road was closed. The time was 7pm and, by now, I should have been entering the city of Nagano and here I was, 200km away with a mountain range in the middle. I started to feel depressed; I couldn't take another closure … I just couldn't.
My spirits started to rise when I had completed the drive up the mountain and the road started to level. Maybe this road would be okay...
… then signs in red started to appear. Instead of ignoring them (like earlier) I tried to see if there were any Kanji I could recognise; there was one. This Kanji '冬' means winter. A kanji meaning winter, written in red, could not be good. I stopped, within a small village, at a local police station where the officer confirmed my worst fears; the road was closed. I thought, at this point, quite a lot of 'naughty' words may have slipped from my mouth followed by actions which may have landed me with a free night in this policeman's cell. However I remained calm. With the policeman, we planned a route which took me even further south (which, when the policeman saw just how long my detour was, brought the policeman out in fits of laughter). I thanked the policeman and in return he told be to drive safely. I slowly left the police office, got in my car, gently pulled out onto the road and drove at a very safe speed …
… until I was out of view.
It was at this point that I hated my compass. The needle never moved from 'south', which was now the wrong direction from Nagano. Finally I made it to the '353' which would, I hope, take me north-west. As the road hugged the edges of the Alps it did rise and fall however, never to any serious degree. The biggest problem was that this road had a continual 'orange line' in the middle (same rules as double yellows) which I was overjoyed about considering I got stuck behind a petrol tanker – going up a hill – and numerous lorries. The hours were ticking by and luckily for me the wind was picking up (so much so, that tree branches had been broken and were occasionally in the road). I was now getting close to Nagano and, as I peered at my map (I was getting quite good at driving and navigating at the same time), I realised that I had finally cleared the mountain range. I got onto the '144' and headed north.
About 60km away from Nagano I had to climb yet another mountain. God – if there is one – having seen that snow, rain, gale force winds, slow moving traffic, unreadable signs and missing signs had not stopped me decided to throw down dense fog as I drove down a very windy road. With my speed reduced to 30km, and visibility reduced to a couple of arm lengths, I gingerly 'S-bended' my way down this final mountain. At the other end I was awarded with a sign that said 'optional Toll road to Nagano'. It was now 10:30pm and I couldn't care about the cost. I got on my third toll road of the day (only ever been on one before; I like these roads) and cranked my engine up to 110km. As I screamed my way to Nagano I thought about the bible story where, God I think, brought down 7 (??) plagues upon Egypt; one each day. That's nothing, I thought to myself; today I've had hundreds of problems within 24 hours.
In no time at all I saw the exit for Nagano. In the dark I could see the lights of the city and finally relief poured out of me. As I approached the toll gate I had my eyes closed however, when I was told that the cost was only 750 yen (£5) I was a quite happy and I decided, there and then, that I may use toll roads more in the future.
Being close to midnight the city was deserted. I found my hotel with ease and parked within it's car park (13 minutes before said car park closed for the night). I went into the very posh hotel entrance and asked for my key. While in the entrance I used the internet (no wifi in the rooms) to find out that Lewis Hamilton had won the Malaysian GP (finally; good news). I then went upstairs to my lovely room and collapsed on the bed. Having driven for around 18 hours today tomorrow will be very relaxed; I will get up late, chill in the hotel and then maybe go for a walk around the city.
I will not be driving!