April 29th to 30th 2023 marked another one of those wonderful weekends – the 11th Coast to Coast Twistybutt, winding from Manazuru on the Pacific Coast of Japan, over to Joetsu on the Japan Sea coast.
This was my fourth run at this, and every single one of them has been different. My first run – solo – in 2017 took me over 14 hours, finishing in the dark and in the rain, having made hard work of navigation. My second run in 2018 was with a friend, and we made it in to Joetsu around 6.15pm after a decent run, and once again I did all the navigation, but I’d done more useful prep and we made good time. After a break for injury and COVID, I made attempt 3 in 2022, riding in a group of 4-5, but sadly one of our number had an accident requiring an ambulance (he’s long since recovered), and then another member of the groups’ bike died about 35Km from Joetsu, making us even later as we sat outside a 7-11 waiting for a recovery lorry to help jump start the bike, and ate fried chicken products. We finally trudged down main roads into Joetsu at near 8.30pm, but frankly, after what had happened that day, we considered that a success.
This year we were to ride mainly as a 3 person team, with BM meeting up with us at points, as he wanted to stop to take some of his excellent photos along the way.
My prep hadn’t been great – I’d been busier than expected for the few weeks leading up to it, but crucially I had gotten the bike an oil change, the front forks serviced, and I’d topped up coolant and adjusted and lubed the chain, so mechanically I was ready to roll. The next key part – the navigation – I really did fix up just 24 hours before launch, which is much later than I like, but at least it did turn out to be pretty much spot on.
All looked good at the 5am meet-up at Manazuru PA. Only the angling shop was open, but there were vending machines and toilets, and that covers a pretty decent percentage of the needs of many. This was new start venue too, and a nice one, just be careful crossing the road, since it was pretty busy even at that hour.
Despite fears and forecasts of rain for the day, as you can see it was a beautiful clear morning, and give or take that was mostly how the weather held up for much of the event. Of course you have to have some minor issue before kick-off, and for us, that was EP’s riding jacket blowing its zip and refusing to fasten. That’s not a helpful start, and the only makeshift fix we had was to have him put his rain jacket on top. Luckily his body armour was on a separate layer, so there was little real safety impact, but certainly not a good omen.
Just after 5am and we were away, skimming Odawara and on our way up to Ashigara. It’s a beautiful first 100Km, watching the low cloud and mist burning off the mountains, and the only people you see are the kind of morning people who are there purely to see it. These are all backroads, so there’s the odd farmer and locals just going about business, then there are some tourist areas as we skirt some of the lakes, before taking the back road up past the Tenkachaya tea and coffee house, and through the tunnel which has long been replaced as a commercial road by the much wider tunnel through the mountain lower down. It’s a beautiful view from the tea house, and a very nice set of twisties to go with it.
It’s normal to have other Twistybutters passing you – you usually end up leapfrogging each other as you all make stops – but this was the first time it felt like some of the overtaking was getting a bit over enthusiastic, and almost bombing in. I guess some people were keen, but as anyone will tell you – it’s a personal challenge and a bit of fun – it’s not a race. Have to see how that develops.
At our first konbini stop, we all added layers. Despite clear skies, it was chillier than expected, and we hadn’t even gotten close to some of the elevation we’d be getting into in the next few hours, so the Lawson toilets become something of a changing room as clothing was added.
It’s at times like this I like my top box. I used to use a dry bag strapped to the pillion seat, but eventually it would slide into my back, and after taking things out and re-packing, the weight always felt different. The top box makes for a much more consistent experience.
As we got into the middle section, we were at a higher elevation in some highlands, and we passed the corner where our friend had his off the previous year, and I think we all made a mental note. All it takes is one bad corner out of a couple of thousands, and your day can change in an instant.
This year, we were all going pretty steady, and despite the jacket issue, no one was really having any gear issues either, just sweeping through farming valleys, making the odd stop for railway crossings, then getting back to the serious business of admiring scenery, and taking the curves. Sometimes you’re just waiting for something to happen (spoiler: nothing bad happened).
That’s not to say there weren’t near misses. As we were going down one short straight section a lady just decided to start crossing the road carrying a couple of bags, and we three bikes coming down the road and our hooters (horns) going didn’t seem to faze her at all, nor even when we slowed and moved as far to the left as we could, she just kept coming, and she only finally stopped halfway across our lane and we passed at walking speed. She seemed completely unconcerned or aware. We also had a few vehicles who slowed for no reason, before suddenly turning left or right but that’s par for the course.
Then it was back up-hill as we went up to the highest point of the national road system in Japan. It’s not a secret either – there’s a large monument there to mark it. The road up also has the ‘snow walls’ which is a popular photo op too, and people stood next to the 2-3m of snow which often dwarf vehicles on the road. This year, they didn’t seem as high, and everyone in our group has already collected this particular photo, so we had no need to stop for this, or for the monument, which was probably for the best – I’ve never seen so much traffic up here – cars, motorbikes, cyclists and hikers all over, slowing us down, but also making it a little tricky to avoid people posing, and trying to position themselves for the best selfie. It’s worth saying that whilst these ‘set piece’ places do make good mementos, the whole area has just gorgeous vistas in every direction, so you have plenty of choices.
From there it’s sort-of down hill overall if you like, but for us, there were over 100Km of twisties left to go, and as we made our way through the ski resorts finally closing for the year we pulled over for a break and actually started peeling layers off again, as it really was getting quite warm.
Winding down from Shiga Kogen for me always feels odd, as I frequently snowboard in the area, and everywhere looks familiar and yet different, and you realise what everything looks like under all that snow in the winter.
We made it down into the valley and the resort support town of Yamanouchi before making a turn back into some lower mountains and the farmlands which make up the last 65Km of the journey. I actually love this area – quiet roads between rice fields, which look great as sunset approaches, and you can easily forget what I learned on my first Coast to Coast – that the beauty is in part because of little human interference – no safety features at the side of the road, no cats-eyes, no street lights. As we wound our way through it looked awesome. In a few hours it would look a lot less fun.
There is a point where you come out of the rice fields and wind down for the last time, giving you a view of the small town of Joetsu and the Japan sea, and you know you’re 95% complete and you just have to be a little careful navigating urban streets again and your done. As we got used to traffic lights and pedestrians, two of the group peeled off for their hotels and BM and myself made it to the beach as it was just coming up to 5pm – a very respectable run for me.
The only tour photo I’ve been missing was the ‘Joetsu Beach at Sunset’ one, and whilst it wasn’t a terrific sunset, I do finally have it, and so we sat in the local cafe (Umineko or ‘sea cat), had a nice non-alcoholic beverage and a burger until the sunset really had passed and we headed back to hotels.
The Day After
The day after a twistybutt there are many things people do – some head off for more days of touring, some do stretches of the previous days rides in reverse, some go to get some photos and then hit the expressway, and some go back on completely different roads.
However, it seemed like it had been raining most of the night, and was still coming down, with a lot of surface water.
My plan this year was pretty relaxed – leave around 9am, maybe stop at Lake Nijiri again, then head to my friend’s new house in Nagano-Ken and say hello.
As it was, I had breakfast and bumped into a Twistybutter I knew by name but whom I’d never actually met and we chatted for 45 mins., then I got my things together and after fuelling up bumped into a couple more twistybutters and exchanged tales of the previous day, and our plans for that day at the side of the forecourt.
I eventually hit the road at nigh on 11am, and the rain was still coming down, albeit not as heavy as before. The idea of a coffee break at the lake had long since been mentally dropped. I rode the first 40Km on the expressway with an old friend, and when he peeled off, it was just me on the expressway for almost 180Km. That’s a strange feeling after riding in a group though a ton of twisties the previous day.
The rain was off and on, and that’s one of the fun things about mountainous countries like Japan – it’s not like the UK where you can often see weather fronts moving over the rolling hills far in the distance, here you go into a 5Km mountain tunnel with rain coming down and puddles on the roads, and emerge into a completely dry but maybe windy valley. That’s why tunnels often have warning signs for people to prepare for coming out.
I found my friend’s new place (it’s truly awesome), and instead of a one hour chat and re-hydration, I chatted with him and his family for nigh on four hours! So there I was, waving goodbye and heading back down the farm tracks at 5.30pm, looking for the nearest expressway entrance.
Often the return journeys on C2Cs can feature some heavy traffic since it’s the first weekend of Golden Week – a collection of national holidays in Japan. However, this year, all of those holidays are bunched around the second weekend, meaning my run back was actually quite light on traffic, and those remaining 170Km fairly flew past with just a quick fuel top up, and a couple of tea breaks, pulling up at my house at 8.30pm.
All in all, an awesome weekend of almost 1,000Km of riding. The weather gods mostly smiled on us, as did the road safety gods, and you can’t say fairer than that for sure.
All the best to those at Touge Express for the route and help, and to EP, SM and BM for being awesome riding partners, and definitely looking forwards to C2C 2024.