Wednesday 6th August 2014
Weather: Superb … until I got close to my destination for the night. For the whole day I had received blue skies with fluffy white clouds however, once I was closing on Toyama a short, sharp tropical storm arrived; and disappeared almost as sudden as it had started. Annoyingly it left behind a very humid environment in which I had to finish my journey in.
MP3 track of the day: Proclamers – 500 miles (when singing along; please change the word 'walk' to 'drive').
My day started as soon as the sun got up. Today I had to travel across half of Japan and arrive at my Ryokan (a Japanese style B&B) before the 11pm curfew. The route I had planned was the same route I had taken when I drove back from Nagano in April of this year however, I hoped that road closures – due to snow – wouldn't be an issue this time.
Before proceeding out of my parking space I got myself comfortable; I put on some of my favourite 'tunes' and made sure everything I needed was within easy reach. I had one final look at the map and then I set off.
Of course, due to the time being before 7am, I flew along roads which, later, I knew would be congested with the 'morning rush'. My initial aim was to get across Japan's main island (Honshu) to a city called Niigata; once there I would head south keeping Japan's western sea to my right at all times. Takaoka – a city joined with Toyama – is located next to the sea and so, I hoped, that this ancient navigational technique - of using the sea - would still work within the 21st Century. However, like I said the time was before 7am and I wasn't thinking about my end goal just yet. My current goal was to beat the 'morning rush' and get into Japan's central mountains before 7am. This I achieved and once there, I found myself on one of the most beautiful roads I have ever had the privilege of using.
The '347' was the very road which was closed – due to snow – on my last crusade across these central mountains. Though there were quite a few sets of road works, the road was open and I even had two other vehicles to share this experience with. We wound our way along this road, forever heading upwards, none of us impeding the other as we all seemed to want to go the same speed. The mountains were tall and sharp creating a pool of shade. The alpine forest clung to these mountains like how a frightened toddler clings to his mothers leg. I was having so much fun, twisting through this range, that I didn't even notice that I was now descending at quite a rate. At this point the car behind over-took me and I decided to travel at a slower pace. On this side of the mountain range the sun beat down reducing the mountains shadow, which in turn lit up the forest all around me. Lakes soon appeared and with the blue sky above, it was very pretty.
All too soon the road levelled and I found myself within the middle of Japan. Here the mountains gave way to a small area of flat plans however, mountains could be seen in every direction making this area hot and extremely humid. I recognised almost immediately the place I had turned around last April (it was here, in April, that I spoke to a policeman who said the '397' was closed).
Though this area is flat, it is just as pretty as the mountainous area which I had just travelled through. If you looked at my car from the air, it would have looked as though I was driving though a plain of grass. Apart from some small communities – and of course the road – every inch of this flat land had been cultivated and now, the rice crop was blooming. A rice paddie, in full bloom, is one of the strongest greens I have ever seen.
Once through the central plains I discovered that I had to pass through another set of mountains before I hit Japan's western coast however, instead of going over them, the road meandered it's way between them following a river which has done so for many years. I had travelled along this road last April, but now in summer this road was just as beautiful as the '347'. The only problem with this road was the continual 'orange line'. In Japan a orange line is the same as a double-yellow in the UK and it would appear that, when they came to 'lining' this road, they had no other colour. Still it didn't matter; I knew this was the situation and, because the road was following the river, it was a lot straighter than the '347' with fewer corners meaning that the lorries kept up a good pace and, because the road was perched next to the waters edge, it allowed for a great view of the valley which never got boring. Again the mountain sides were steep with flora and fauna. At first the water meandered at a quick pace but, as I travel further and further west it slowed to a gentle stroll; it was as if the water was fighting the current to stay within this beautiful place and I, for one, couldn't blame it.
Once again the mountains receded and I almost crashed into Japan's western sea. I then hit my car's indicator leaver and turned left; the sea was now on my right and would remain there for the rest of my trip, or so I hoped. As I drove further south beautiful white sandy beaches fought against the continue attacks of the sea; this new landscape was certainly different from what I had seen so far, but just as welcome. What wasn't so welcome was firstly, the black clouds which I could see in the distance and, secondly, Niigata upon the horizon. Niigata is a large city which, though it looks interesting, I have passed through it three times but never really stopped. It is a large city and I was entering it from the north, and wanting to exit from the south. I knew that traffic, quick lane changes and traffic lights were in store, none of which I was looking forward to. Traffic built up on the outskirts of the city and then, all of a sudden, the rain came down hard. I would like to have blamed the rain on me opting for the wrong lane, getting lost and having to turn around however, it wasn't really the rains fault. Once I had corrected my mistake I found a petrol station with good prices and filled up my car (£14 for 6 hours driving … not bad) before proceeding into the heart of the city.
The rain stopped almost as sudden as it had arrived. I pulled into the McDonald’s I visited in April for lunch, before proceeding on my 'less than merry' way . The time was about 1pm and I was so looking forward to getting out of Niigata.
All of a sudden the city just … stopped. I found myself surrounded by sea, sand and tiny villages again. The dark rain clouds too had disappeared and I was enjoying myself once more as the road clung to the coastline as it meandered south. The only problem with this road was, once again, the continual orange line and this time, the corners were indeed sharp; this resulted in a 'less than satisfactory' average speed however, there was little I could do. I therefore tried to relax, sat back and enjoyed the view however, I was always conscious of the time and my Ryokan's curfew.
At around 4pm I found myself with the small town of Joetsu; a town famous for little, a part from this is where, last April, I met the coastal road I was currently travelling along. Last April I had come from the city of Nagano, two hours south of Joetsu. Today I was heading to Toyama, which was west of Joetsu. This meant that, from now on, I would be in new territory however, more dark clouds were strategically positioning themselves in the distance therefore, I wondered just how long left I would have to view the coastline before it got consumed within another storm. I drove on.
The road ahead was just as beautiful as the road before however, small mountains had pushed their way to the coastal edge making the road anything but flat. Once again the orange line continued and I found myself looking at the back of a lorry carrying some sort of plastic tubing for the best part of an hour. Still, looking back, I would have preferred that scenario to the one which greeted me once I left the mountainous coastal road and found flatland once more.
Due to most of Japan being mountainous, all flatland is used without a square foot being wasted. A lot of land within the north of the country is used for agriculture (which is fine) however, a lot of land within the south is used for big urban settlements (which is not fine). It was here that no less than five medium sized cities had sprawled so much that they actually connected with one another. Add to that the 6pm rush, a torrent of rain and more traffic lights than the A38, and you can visualise my idea of what hell might look like. I was tired, my legs were aching but above all, I was fed up. My map was now open on the final page; I could see the finish line and yet, for another hour, I crawled past shops and pachinko halls which, after a few choice words, I repeatedly asked myself the question, why were they lining this main road.
There were moments when my speed-o-meter passed 40km per hour however, these were few and far between. I pressed forward, changing lanes a long this dual-carriage way more times than Carl Pilkington has looked miserable. At this point I just didn't care about 'everyone should wait in line'; any advantage and I took it, which meant that I got pipped at once (however the lady in question was driving whilst talking on the phone and so I didn't give it much thought).
Finally, heroically, I saw the sign for Takaoka and pulled off the highway...
… one junction too soon. I therefore found myself in God knows where trying to get myself back on course. Having little patience for being 'independent', I asked a taxi driver where the train station was (as my Ryokan was near the train station) and, fortunately for me, I was able to follow him as that was where he was going.
Like most Japanese cities; the city centre was filled with small, narrow streets and, luckily for me, my Ryokan was down one. I missed the road the first time however, after finding somewhere to turn around, I came back and, once I was on the right road, I found my Ryokan with ease. As mentioned earlier, a Ryokan is a Japanese style B&B (however I hadn't paid for breakfast); I was therefore shown to my room which was a huge tatami room with a futon already set out and a large oak table next to it (I though that, tonight, I had booked myself into a dorm however, once I looked at my 'booking confirmation' I was pleased that I had booked a single room; I must have known that I would have been tired).
Once I had filled out my check-in card, I got on with charging all of my 'electrical's', un-packing my 'night bag' (as I am only staying a night, I prepared a 'night bag' which had everything I needed for one night and no more) and firing up my computer to start work on my blog however, I was so tired I soon gave up. I also gave up on the idea of dinner and therefore, at 8:30pm, I was in bed and soon asleep. Tomorrow I would wake up at 6:00am and complete this blog before getting ready and leaving in the direction of the Noto peninsula; my first main sightseeing area.