Akita is a land of varied terrain. Previously in this Cycling in Akita series, I wrote about the flat roads around Lake Tazawa and the gravel tracks of its forests.
When travelling around Akita, the open rice paddies are indeed a recurring motif, connected by a network of flat, straight roads. However, cast your eyes upwards and you’ll see snow-capped mountains, beckoning you to explore.
Spoiled by nature: climbing Tazawako Ski Resort
Akita Prefecture is home to Tazawako Ski Resort, a name that will draw a blank look for westerners, especially when mentioned alongside famous slopes like Niseko and Hakuba. It’s a smaller ski field just a short drive from Lake Tazawa, mostly frequented by local powder hunters.
On my third morning in Akita, our guides dropped us off at the foot of the Tazawako Ski Resort climb. Being 9 kilometres at just 4%, it wasn’t overly strenuous, though the crisp autumn temperatures made the early slopes tough on our cold engines.
As we spun up this gradual climb, Akita lavished us once more with its abundant beauty. The red-orange hues of autumn surrounded us as always, this time dotted with soft wisps of snow high above. We spotted the serene blue of Lake Tazawa down below, the centrepiece of a postcard-perfect landscape. We passed a trickling creek of cool, crystal waters. Towards the top, we turned a corner to be greeted with jaw-dropping views across a neighbouring valley.
Baths with a view: mountaintop onsen
The Tazawako Ski Resort is located just halfway up the climb, but we continued on to reach one of many onsens – Japanese baths – at the top. Bathing in its thermal waters is believed to be good for one’s health, and we returned the next day to experience it for ourselves.
Nestled in the hills high above Lake Tazawa, the onsen is a mountaintop retreat for weary souls. These particular baths consisted of about six traditional huts, their dark charcoal planks contrasting the vivid red leaves. After stripping off in a small changeroom, you plunge into the steaming waters, reclining beneath branches wreathed with those same bright colours. Immersed in the milky-white spring water, surrounded by the quiet trees of autumn, you’ll inevitably feel enveloped by nature, far from the noise of modern life.
For the unfamiliar, the onsen experience comes with a few caveats. Firstly, no swimming costumes allowed. It’s a strictly all-nude affair, so be prepared to let it all hang out as you share the mineral-rich baths with strangers. Context is key to overcoming culture shock. I reminded myself that this was a common past-time for the Japanese, perfectly normal behaviour. Once I’d blocked off that part of my upbringing that tells me not to walk around naked in front of others, it became easy to enjoy this quintessentially-Japanese experience. As long as I kept my gaze at eye-level, of course.
Secondly, the onsen smells of rotten eggs. Sulphur gives the mineral-rich volcanic springs their distinctive odour. You might screw up your nose upon arrival, but don’t worry, you’ll quickly get used to it.
Thirdly, the water is hot. Really hot. You have to lower yourself into it slowly – first to waist level, then the chest, then finally up to the neck. Even then, I could only remain submerged for 10 minutes, maximum.
Bathing in the outdoor onsen was a fantastic experience. In the therapeutic waters and still mountain air, you’ll lose yourself in your own reflective thoughts. The heat relaxes the muscles and soothes aches and pains. After an overnight flight and three days of riding in an exciting new country, it was exactly what the body needed.
Ohdai: Japan’s steepest climb?
After a fun (if a little chilly) descent from Tazawako Ski Resort, our guides took us for a sojourn through the flat valley roads. Soon, we arrived at Ohdai Ski Resort.
It’s a tiny ski field with just two lifts and a couple of short runs which end a mere stone’s throw away from the edge of a rice paddy. Compared to Thredbo, Perisher or any major international ski resort, Ohdai looks like a glorified toboggan run.
On a bike, though, and looking up from the bottom, it’s steep. There’s a service road that zig-zags up the hill, and when our guides suggested we have morning tea at the top, we laughed it off as a joke. Surely they wouldn’t make us climb up that?
But yes, they were serious. Up we went, and oh, how we crawled! A 1.6-kilometre climb averaging 15% gradient, with several pinches well over 20%! I wish I’d brought a compact chainset. I ground my way up at around 6km/h, stopping several times ostensibly “to take photos”, but really because my legs and lungs were screaming.
It was like nothing I’d ever climbed before. For a local comparison, think about the steepest part of Kissing Point Road at Turramurra – except 20 times longer and relentless. The legs screamed and the lungs gasped.
I resorted to the old paperboy technique, zigzagging backwards and forwards to flatten out the slope. Even still, I almost unclipped just to keep from falling over at those low speeds. It was tempting to get off and walk.
Still, slowly but surely, we crept to the top. Once we arrived, the view took what was left of our breath away.
Surveying Akita Prefecture
Spread out below was the entire plain of Akita’s Semboku region. Square rice paddies laid out next to each other, like yellow-green panels on a natural quilt. These were speckled with darker patches, being individual copses of trees. Dotted around the quilt were small villages, each probably home to a long-established farming family. In the distance, just visible through the clouds, unexplored mountains rose from the horizon.
We’d spent three days traversing this countryside by bicycle, and now, at the top of this ridiculous climb, we could survey it all at once. It was an awesome view, encapsulating the variety of landscapes. Low, straight lanes for fast rides through the rice fields. Tall, challenging climbs up to ski resorts. Spectacular lakes, pretty creeks and brilliantly coloured leaves.
Akita Prefecture is a delight for the bike rider. Its varied terrain offers something for every cyclist, whether you prefer going up hills, along flats, exploring off-road or floating along smooth tarmac.
After we flew back down the service road – a frighteningly fast descent with off-camber hairpins, slippery autumn leaves and metal drainage grates – I couldn’t help but smile at what Akita had served up in just three short days. Perhaps in years to come, as word gets out, the region will buzz with the energy of cycling tourists and training camps. For now, however, the quiet autumn roads of Akita Prefecture are simply a pleasure to ride.
Feature photo by Damian Breach. The author travelled to Akita as a guest of Jams.TV Pty Ltd.