- Day 36 – Niigata to Aizu Wakamatsu
- Distance: 118km
- Ascent / descent: 970m / 744m
- Weather: Sunny and hot
- Accommodation: Couchsurfing hosts Victor and Veronica
Today was a great day leaving the seaside and cycling into the mountains. I left Niigata at 6:30am and made my way through the morning traffic passing young children walking to school and soon I was weaving through rice paddies with a clear view of the mountains ahead that I would need to cross.
After a few hours I made my first stop at a Michi-no-eki called Aga-no-Sato for a mid-morning snack and to rest my bum (still sore!) It was a large Michi-no-eki with quite a lot to see inside. Initially I thought I would buy something to eat and sit outside, but something made me change my mind and I ended up ordering a rice dish and sitting in the restaurant. After a few minutes I looked up and realised I was looking directly at a wall dedicated to Isabella Bird – a Scottish woman who came to Japan in 1878 (10 years after Japan had opened to the rest of the world) and travelled from Yokohama to Hokkaido. I first learnt about Isabella Bird when I was walking the Iseji trail (part of the Kumano Kodo) in 2017 by a Japanese man who said he thought I was the Isabella Bird of our time. When I got back to England after that trip, I looked her up and read the book she published about her time in Japan, called ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan‘. I found it fascinating that she had travelled to Japan by herself, as well as many other countries and written many more books, and although the language she used would certainly not be considered politically correct today, it was wonderful to get an insight into a country I love, at a time when things were changing so drastically from the Edo to Meiji periods.
Since this time, I’ve often thought about following in Isabella’s footsteps from Yokohama to Hokkaido, but I had decided that that wouldn’t be on this trip. So I was a little surprised to look up and see the ‘Isabella Bird information wall!’ I had her book as a PDF on my phone, so I found the pages where she described this area and learnt that she took a boat along the Agano River from a litter further upstream all the way to Niigata. I would even be going through the town where she boarded the boat so I decided to do a little exploring.
Tsugawa is the town where Isabella spent one night before boarding the boat to Niigata. It’s an old-fashioned looking town and using her description I could easily find my way around the town.
‘We walked through the town to find something eatable for to-morrow’s river journey, but only succeeded in getting wafers made of white of egg and sugar, balls made of sugar and barley flour, and beans coated with sugar. Thatch, with its picturesqueness, has disappeared, and the Tsugawa roofs are of strips of bark weighted with large stones; but, as the houses turn their gable ends to the street, and there is a promenade the whole way under the eaves, and the street turns twice at right angles and terminates in temple grounds on a bank above the river, it is less monotonous than most Japanese towns. It is a place of 3000 people and a good deal of produce is shipped from hence to Niigata by the river.’ Isabella Bird – Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
However, I couldn’t find the exact place she stayed. I visited the local tourist office to enquire whether they knew, but unfortunately they didn’t know for sure.
Funnily enough, I had missed the turn to Tsugawa so I actually had to turn back in order to visit the town. When I turned back, I passed a young guy on a touring bike and we said hi but that’s it as we were going in opposite directions. After looking around the town, I continued along Route 49 and eventually came to a 7-Eleven which I stopped at for a late lunch. The young guy was there – Sander from Belgium – and we had a great chat about cycling around Japan. It turns out he started the day after I did from Kyushu and we have similar plans for the rest of Japan, before flying home around the same time too. And, he hiked the PCT last year, thus the fact it looks like he’s out on a day trip, with a very minimal bike packing set up on his Surly bike. I look like I’m carrying the kitchen sink because I just assumed the bike would do all the work, not my legs 😉 We swapped contact details and continued on our way, he’s doing double the distance I do daily so I doubt we’ll ever cycle together though!
Route 49 was very busy with trucks and it was a long climb over three mountain passes to eventually reach the basin of Aizu Wakamatsu. Once I did reach it, just like Isabella said, it took forever to actually cross the basin. I was headed to reach the main city and my accommodation for the night with my couch surfing hosts, Victor and Veronica from Belarus. I have my own room in their apartment and we were up late having a wonderful chat. They’re incredibly kind and welcoming hosts and I feel very fortunate to have met them.