This is the first article in a three-part series on my trip to Akita Prefecture, Japan. Click to read Part Two: Lake Tazawa and Part Three: Climbing Ski Slopes.
Akita (秋田) means “autumn fields”, and if you visit in October, it’s easy to see why.
Over three short hours on a bullet train, you’ll watch Tokyo’s grey metropolis transform into the green fields of eastern Japan before giving way to the vivid oranges of Akita’s forests.
Akita Prefecture is located in the northwest of Japan’s main island, Honshu. It’s a rural area whose economy is dominated by the traditional industries of rice farming, forestry and fishing. The eponymous capital city lies next to the sea, but for cyclists, it’s the quiet countryside that holds the biggest allure.
This autumn, at the invitation of the local government, I had the opportunity to explore eastern Akita by bicycle. I’m hardly a seasoned cycling traveller. This trip would be the furthest I’d ever flown with my bike, eclipsing last year’s journey to Singapore.
From what I hear, most tourists stick to the popular areas of Japan: Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Hokkaido’s snowfields, and the like. I didn’t know what to expect from this little-known part of the country. What I discovered was surprisingly wonderful.
I was based in the town of Kakunodate in eastern Akita, on the banks of the Hinokinai River. During cherry blossom season, the tree-lined river erupts with vibrant pink sakuras. In October, it’s dressed in understated earthy tones.
Being a former castle town, Kakunodate is famous for its medieval buildings, especially in the old samurai district. I’d have to wait until later to admire the architecture, because my first ride would take me into the forests east of town.
I was joined by professional cyclist Tiffany Cromwell, CyclingTips editor and The Climbing Cyclist blogger Matt De Neef and photographer Damian Breach. This quartet of Aussies unpacked their bike bags, built up their steeds, and headed off into the Japanese countryside.
The colours of autumn
Where, exactly, were we going? No idea.
Tiffany, with the power of Google Maps, had identified a route with potential, featuring small roads near a lake and up some hills. I entrusted myself to the pro and followed her down the road.
I wasn’t disappointed.
As soon as we turned off the main road – just a hundred metres from our lodgings – we rode straight into an autumnal wonderland.
Quaint little villages.
Charming bridges over trickling creeks.
But, oh, the colours!
Maple leaves of orange and yellow enveloped us like a rustic blanket, dotted with bursts of flaming vermillion. Riding in the valley, our eyes were drawn up towards the hills, which appeared ablaze with vibrant reds.
The road took us in and out of the forest trees, each subtle change in scenery blowing us away afresh.
It didn’t take long for us to arrive at a gem of a spot: Dakigaeri Gorge, where a scarlet suspension bridge hung in stunning beauty. Below, the crystal-blue river sparkled in the afternoon sun; above, the red and gold hills continued their enchanting dance.
We’d barely ridden for ten minutes, yet already we’d seen the most spectacular scenery I’d ever laid eyes on from a bicycle saddle. Welcome to cycling in Akita. What a beginning.
Gravel and mud – if in doubt, try again
From Dakigaeri Gorge, Tiffany led us off-road to explore an unmarked gravel path. My road racing bike is not designed for gravel, but the desire to explore these beautiful forests overcame any hesitation.
The surrounding leaves continued to stun us with their beauty, but as we climbed this unknown road, the small gravel pebbles underneath soon became large, bumpy rocks. As the path grew steeper and steeper, the surface became more and more slippery thanks to recent rain. Those same beautiful leaves, when fallen underfoot, could be treacherous.
After a few minutes, we decided this was a no-go zone for our poor little road bikes. Turning around, we descended oh-so-carefully back to the main road, wary of any slick tree roots. Thankfully, we all kept it upright.
So, that little gravel road wasn’t rideable, but it was worth a try. Chalk it up to experience. Next time, we’ll bring mountain bikes.
Unperturbed, we followed Tiffany down the main road towards another potential trail. Even on the larger roads, riding here felt safe. Traffic was sparse, and the few cars we encountered passed with ample room. The famous Japanese politeness seems to translate into their driving, too.
A few kilometres later, Tiffany led us off the main road and onto our second gravel path. Once again, on the quiet back roads, those brilliant autumnal leaves engulfed us.
Fear turns to fun
Did I mention Tiffany’s a pro cyclist? As we flew along in her wake, I thought it best not to bring up the fact that this was my first time riding on gravel. I was nervous – petrified, even – on my slick 25mm tyres. Surely a puncture was just a matter of time; or worse, sliding out on a wet corner, shredding my skin on the stones and ruining the rest of my trip. With fear, I concentrated on following my companions’ wheels, stiffly steering around loose pebbles while grey mud splattered me from below.
As we continued, however, I made a distinct effort to dispel those negative thoughts. Pushing the fear out of my mind, I relaxed on the bike, trusted that I could stay upright, and focused on enjoying the ride.
Once I’d stopped thinking about the worst, I was able to appreciate the best. We were winding through a pretty forest, and the colours dazzled. At one point, we stopped to overlook a glittering lake through the golden trees. A little further on, we came through a cool, haunting concrete tunnel – a touch of Japanese engineering amid the most beautiful of nature.
The joy of adventure, the thrill of discovering new places and roads – this is why I ride.
With newfound confidence, I followed my companions as we turned around, retraced our steps down the gravel trail, rejoined the main road and headed back for Kakunodate.
Dodging the rain
As the skies greyed overhead, we hosed off the mud at a nearby service station. The friendly local attendants all too willing to help. We ducked into a convenience store just as the clouds unleashed a downpour. The timing was perfect: as I finished my onigiri, the rain stopped and a rainbow appeared in the crisp sky. As if Akita wasn’t colourful enough.
When we set out for home, we discovered the temperature had dropped dramatically. I shivered in those final few kilometres to Kakunodate, hands frozen to the bars, unable even to click a gear lever.
Thankfully, our lodgings were close by, and the warmth of the onsen awaited.
We arrived at our hotel, left our bikes by the front door (rural Japan is a remarkably safe place) and, at least in my case, plunged into the hot waters of the onsen, or Japanese bathhouse. As my mind and muscles relaxed in the steaming baths, I reflected on what had been an exceptional afternoon on the bike.
The local governments had invited us to promote their recommended bicycle route, but we hadn’t even looked at their guidebook yet. We’d set out with just a sense of discovery, a willingness to explore, and a glimmer of optimism. We’d come back cold, wet, but immensely pleased. If these are the kinds of roads one simply stumbles upon in Akita, I couldn’t wait to see what the locals were going to show us over the next few days.
Click to read the next instalment in my trip to Akita – Part Two: Lake Tazawa.
Strava: click to view my Strava activity for this ride.
The author travelled to Akita as a guest of Jams.TV Pty Ltd.