Thursday, 3 April 2014

The long drive home

Date: Thursday 3rd April 2014

Weather: Superb … until I got close to Sendai. Once north of Sendai it started to rain ... a lot; still, by the time I got north of Sendai the sun had set and so I couldn't see anything anyway.

MP3 track of the day: Paper planes - MIA

I woke up five minutes before my alarm was due to sound. Having had a shower, packed and bought today's breakfast last night, it took no time at all to get dressed, check the room to make sure that I hadn't left anything and hand in my room key. I was therefore within my car at 6:45am heading out of my hotel's underground car park.

Driving out of the dark underground car park my eyes had to adjust quickly to another bright sunny day. Unlike yesterday (or the day before) I didn't drive in the wrong direction and within ten minutes I was clear of Nagano. I then got comfortable, delved one hand into my bag of 'breakfast goodies' and prepared for the long drive north.

If I'd managed to complete my planned route to Nagano, I would have entered the city from a north-easterly direction. Today I was heading straight north until I hit the sea. As the temperature was in the high 'teens', I was confident that any sea road would not be closed due to snow therefore, I would hug Japan's western coast and continue north to Niigata (this is where I went, to catch a ferry, to Sado last August). Once in Niigata I would stop for lunch before proceeding east through the first mountain range. I would then head north before, once again, heading east through some more mountains. After this I would hit Japan's eastern coast therefore it would just be a case of driving north until I hit Miyako.

Things started very well indeed. I had already told you that I managed to leave the city of Nagano without incident. Well, I now found myself driving along at a very decent speed. I was worried that I may get caught up in the 'morning rush' however, because I'd left Nagano early, I spent the 7-8am rush hour period within the middle of a scenic valley gazing upon a huge mountain which seemed to remain fixed in a north-western position. Thoughts of the drive to Nagano did fill my head however, as the mountain remained just west of me, I found myself driving around it until, once I'd hit the coast, it filled my rear view mirror.

The mountain remained behind me all the way to Niigata. This was good as I found myself surrounded by beauty. I found myself driving a long a road which had been laid between the 'Sea of Japan', to my left, and a continual line of coastal rock shooting straight up, to my right. Behind me was said snow-capped mountain and the weather was stunning. The road twisted as it hugged the coast and fortunately, traffic was light. My gaze mostly fell upon the sea, which was a beautiful light-blue colour. This part of the drive reminded me of my trip back from Sado last year, and I was loving it as much now as I did then.

All too soon I found myself entering the city of Niigata. When I say 'all too soon' I really meant it; I thought that I would be within Niigata's city centre around midday however, here I was, driving around the cities council offices at 11am. It mattered not; I still performed the tasks I had planned to do, which involved filling up the car and having lunch. For lunch I went to McDonald’s. This McDonald’s is located right in the centre of the city and, I think, they have had a problem with people using their free car park and then heading into town to shop. The reason I say this is because as I pulled into a parking space a camera – from a small green box – in front of me flashed and then red Kanji appeared in a small screen below. Worried that the red kanji meant that this parking space was closed due to snow, I moved my car to another space however, the same thing happened. Once I'd ordered my meal I was given a coin which, once put in the car parking machine, would mean that I wouldn't be charged for parking. I quickly consumed said meal, put said coin within said car parking machine and as I approached my car, I noticed that the Kanji had turned to a pleasant green. I drove off heading north.

Now; at this point I was coming to the end of my 'great push north' and soon I would have to turn east for the first time. Back in McDonald’s I had studied my road map and the '113' – the road I had chosen to take me east – seemed okay. As far as I could tell the road didn't climb that much and it seemed to follow a large river which, looking at how far the contour lines were a part, I assumed said road was in a valley. Logically, I felt that this was a very wise choice however, as I turned onto the '113' (and my car compass pointed east) I was as worried as a badger in a dessert, and as alert as a hawk as I searched for closure signs.

None came. I was actually put at ease quite early into the journey as the traffic level was quite high. Japanese number plates have the 'prefecture's name' of where the vehicle was bought and, though not a great guide, I guessed that not all of the people using this road were local. The journey was fine though, as we moved further east and into the first range of mountains, snow did start to appear. Also it was quite slow going; I guessed that not many 'east-to-west' roads were open and therefore, I got stuck behind quite a few lorries. It would appear that, along the '113', the Japanese had ran out of white paint and the whole road had a continual orange line down it preventing over-taking. I therefore just had to wait.

Once on the other side of the mountain range I started to relax. There was still another mountain range to go over however, as it hadn't been a problem going, I didn't think that it would be a problem on my return journey. However, before crossing that said mountain range I still wanted to head a little further north so that I would hit Japan's eastern coast above Sendai.

The '343' was my chosen route to cross the second set of mountains. The time was now 3:55pm (this is the same time I got stuck on my way to Nagano) and so progress had been good so far. Once again I looked at the map for any indication that it might be closed however, I found none. Though the road, on paper, didn't look as inviting as the '113', I couldn't see any big amounts of ascending. I therefore turned onto the '343' only slightly worried. The levels of snow were getting higher and higher but I kept going...

until I saw a sign with flashing lights and red kanji. As I drove past said sign I saw the 'winter kanji' and in my heart, I knew, that this road was closed. I however continued as the traffic level was still good however, ten minutes later, only one other car and I remained heading east. I therefore turned around and headed back the way I'd come.

On my return journey I found a police car coming the other way. Now I'm not sure if you are suppose to flash your lights at an oncoming police car but, flash my lights I did. Once pulled over I had a lovely chat with two police offices, one of which was a lady who spoke English well. The male policeman confirmed that the '343' was indeed closed however, the alternative route he suggested wasn't too much of a detour (maybe an hour at most). We then had a little chat about the weather, where I was from and whether penguins could really 'look up' without moving their heads before the police officers wished me a safe journey and I, having thanked them, gingerly pulled back onto the road and drove cautiously until out of sight.

My 'de-tour' saw me heading even further north before taking the '47', which then headed in a south-easterly direction and met up with the '343' on the other side of the mountain. The road I had to take north concerned me a little as it wasn't a main road. Also, once on it, a flashing sign with red kanji appeared however, I could not see the winter kanji. As I was now driving parallel with the mountain range I didn't think it would be a problem and then, once I saw a lorry in front of me, I felt as though I should be fine however, it wasn't until the ascending had peaked that I truly started to relax.

Before joining the '47' I had to wait for a line of lorries to pass by before I could turn onto the road safely. You would have thought that I would have been annoyed being at the back of a line of lorries however, you couldn't be more wrong. With this amount of commercial traffic I knew that the road must be open and so, finally, I was crossing the final mountain range before I hit the eastern coast (though, I was crossing it at a slower pace than normal). As the high peaks gave way to more gradual inclines I looked back at one of natures more impressive creations thinking that, sure they are beautiful; but they are also very annoying.

The sun had set as I entered the 'Miyagi prefecture' (the prefecture south of my home prefecture). I'm not a massive fan of this prefecture as traffic is usually terrible here and today, was no exception. It was raining hard and it took me forever to enter the city of Ishinomaki (this is where I stopped for breakfast last Sunday). This city marked the end of my travels east and, to celebrate, I filled up my car once more (petrol is cheaper here than in Miyako) and did a bit of 'foreign food' shopping. Being 6:45pm (exactly 12 hours since I started; my route home, so far, has taken four hours less that my route going) the traffic was bad entering the city however, my route out was pretty much traffic-free. I therefore made okay time as I travelled back to Miyako. Once again I was driving in the dark so there was very little to see. It wasn't until 10:45pm that I started to see familiar sights and at 11pm I pulled into my apartments car park.

Having driven for 16 hours I decided to leave the bags in the car (a part from some cheese I had bought in Ishinomaki) and just head straight to bed. Tomorrow I will worry about unpacking.

So that is the end of my spring holiday. I've had an excellent time and I've seen a lot. If it wasn't my 30th birthday and, if I'd knew about all of the closures, would I still have gone? No, probably not. Honestly I think Nagano is just a little too far to drive to within a day. Also I think it would be more productive to leave this area until the summer however, it was my 30th and with northern Japan completed this was one of the only places I could have gone to and, honestly, I really liked Nagano.

I don't have any holiday plans until late July / August of this year so until then...

Toodle Pip!

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