Rising Son: A Father and Son’s Bike Adventure Across Japan
By Charles R. Scott
In the summer of 2009, Charles Scott, a 41-year-old executive at Intel Corporation, took a 2-month unpaid leave of absence to cycle the length of Japan with his 8-year-old son, Sho, on a connected trailer cycle.
The pair covered 2,500 miles in 67 days and raised money for a global tree-planting campaign. Their trip was covered in magazines, newspapers, and TV shows around the world, and the United Nations named them “Climate Heroes.”
The following excerpt from Scott’s book Rising Son: A Father and Son’s Bike Adventure across Japan describes their attempt to cycle through the Japan Alps mountain chain.
Biking Japan’s Alps: Excerpt from the Book, Rising Sun
About seventy percent of Japan is covered by mountains, and some of the highest are concentrated in central Honshu. In his 1941 Climber’s Book, Walter Weston, an English missionary, dubbed this area “the Japan Alps,” and the name stuck. There was no going around them if Sho and I wanted to see Shirakawa Go, the third World Heritage Site on our itinerary down the length of Japan.
We rolled out of Takayama in the early afternoon with plans to cycle fifty miles to the town of Shirakawa Go. Covering that distance would not have been too challenging on flat roads, but two mountains stood in the way.
Spitting rain and strong winds slammed against us, as we left the last signs of civilization and headed into the wild. Route 75 looked like a major road on the map, but in reality was a deserted, narrow mountain lane dotted with potholes and sometimes no wider than a single car’s width.
In two and a half hours, a total of five cars passed us. We rode through a few lightly populated farming communities, but we saw almost no one as we traveled up one side of a mountain and down the other amidst heavy raindrops thumping against the forest’s thick canopy.
As we carefully descended the narrow pot-holed road, a steep drop-off just to our right, Sho complained, “Where is everybody? I’m starting to actually miss being passed by cars.”
“Be careful what you wish for.”
“Daddy, let me tell you all the reasons that Route 75 sucks. The road is too narrow, too steep, too wet, and has too many potholes. There are no stores with food, and no one to hear us yell for help!”
“Well, unlike you, I’m enjoying this quiet route. The climbs are challenging, but we’ve already proven that we can handle them. And the forest is beautiful. Don’t you love the sound of the mountain river below and the animals calling out in the trees all around us?”
“Maybe. But all the stuff I listed adds up to be way more suckish than the good stuff.”
Route 75 ended in a T-junction at Highway 360, which would lead us directly to Shirakawa Go, a small mountain village and well-known tourist destination famous for houses built with steeply pitched thatched roofs to handle heavy snow, the only examples of their kind in Japan. I expected some fairly heavy traffic along this section and a few rest stops with food. However, the town at the junction was spookily empty, as if everyone had fled all at once.
We rolled slowly past a few shops, all of which were shuttered. An erratic breeze shoved an old tin can across an empty parking lot in front of a boarded-up store. I suddenly recalled images from the movies “Omega Man” and “28 Days Later,” imagining that a group of crazed humanoids might emerge from behind one of the darkened buildings at any minute.
“What happened here?” Sho asked, clearly spooked as well.
“No idea, but my guess is that this used to be the main route to Shirakawa Go, and this town serviced travelers passing through. But people must have stopped coming this way for some reason. Maybe an Interstate was built that took away all the traffic.”
“Well, I don’t like the feeling here.”
“Neither do I. But we have a dilemma. It’s already five in the afternoon, and there is a big mountain between Shirakawa Go and us. We’ve got about two hours of light left, which is cutting it pretty close. We could set up our tent somewhere around here…”
Sho cut me off, no doubt with visions of zombies in his head. “I think we can make it over the mountain. We’ve already done one today. What’s one more?”I
knew it was foolhardy, but for some reason, I also felt like going for it. Perhaps I was becoming addicted to the adrenalin rush that came with pounding up the steep inclines, but I wasn’t ready to stop cycling for the day. It was as if the mountain was calling me, and I could not resist its siren song.
Let’s Do It
“Let’s do this thing,” I said, feeling particularly masculine, as we pedaled away from the eerie ghost town to tackle yet another peak. The rain had tapered off, and we were enjoying the cloudy, pleasant weather. We cycled past a roadside sign that announced the temperature in orange fluorescent digits: sixty-eight degrees. Perfect climbing weather.
The road was exactly what we expected: steep, narrow, and full of switchbacks and ten percent grade climbs. I noticed my legs tiring more quickly than I expected, no doubt exhausted from the previous four hours of mountain riding. And pressing down heavily, then pulling up hard on the pedals to maintain momentum up the steep climbs shifted weight to the ball of my foot and irritated my swollen big toe, which throbbed with each pedal stroke.
I shrugged off the discomfort and lost myself in the effort. Sho and I struggled to keep our heavily laden bikes moving up the ridiculously steep mountain road. A sheer drop off on our left served to concentrate the mind, and the elusive mountain pass taunted us from somewhere above.
We passed through one small village on the way up, and I saw a young teenage girl hanging up clothes by an open window. I came to my senses for a moment, recognizing that we needed to escape the dangerous allure of the mountain and just stop for the night. Continuing on would repeat the same hubristic mistake I had made a few days earlier when I challenged a sumo wrestler and ended up with a broken toe. Why was it so hard for me to admit when I was outmatched?
“Excuse me,” I said to the girl. “Do you know of any campsites or other places to stay between here and the top of the mountain?”
She retreated quickly and returned with her mother, who looked at me suspiciously and said flatly, “There is absolutely no place to stay between here and the top.”
“Hmm. That’s a problem,” I answered. “I’m not sure if my son and I can make it over the mountain and all the way to Shirakawa Go before it gets too dark to ride.” Hint, hint. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to ask bluntly if we could sleep in her yard. There wasn’t an obvious place to set up a tent, and I could tell that she wasn’t interested in hosting a bearded weirdo who was dragging his poor son on a bicycle up a mountain at dusk.
“I’m sorry,” she said and waited politely for us to move on.
Sho and I rolled away and did not see another person, house or passing car for the rest of the day. As the sun began to drop behind the tree line, and shadows began consuming the light around us, we pushed our weary legs harder and harder up into the craggy heights.
The road was so narrow, and the drop off so intimidating, that Sho pleaded with me to ride all the way to the right, next to the sheer mountainside. It meant riding in the oncoming traffic lane, but since there was absolutely no traffic, why not?
As the pass stayed frustratingly out of reach, I recognized that we were going to have to sleep exposed to the mountain tonight. The only option was to set up our tent on one of the turnouts located every mile or so along the road. But this seemed unacceptably dangerous. What if a car pulled into the turnout in the middle of the night and didn’t see our tent in time?
Every so often, I tried to keep up Sho’s spirits by saying through heavy breaths, “Not too much further,” and “Look how close the summit is!” I didn’t say it out loud, but the top seemed like it was still far away.
After a while, Sho was completely spent and could no longer pedal. He had been a tremendous help for the first hour and a half of steep climbing but had used up his reserves in the extreme effort. He munched on snacks and finally asked to walk for a bit, as I rode along slowly beside him. We were running out of daylight as he climbed back on his bike. I felt as if I already had used up all my energy for the day and had nothing left to propel us up toward the elusive summit.
After two hours of chugging straight up this mountain and four hours of hard riding before that, I could hardly manage to keep turning over the pedals. Sho sat exhausted on his bike, apologizing for not being able to help anymore.
“Don’t worry, buckaroo. You got us so close to the top, and I’m going to get us through this last little bit,” I said between heavy breaths, knowing that I was lying. The shadows were growing longer alarmingly fast. It was already too late. The mountain had won.
As the final glow of daylight began to fade, I hoped there weren’t bears in the area and started looking for a turnout where we could set up the tent. The road offered none, and I continued to pedal at an impossibly slow crawl up brutally steep switchbacks. By jerking the front wheel back and forth I was just able to keep the bikes upright while moving at close to zero miles per hour.
My head was bowed, and sweat blurred my vision. My bike’s frame creaked with a metallic groan as I cranked the handlebars hard in syncopation with each heavy pedal stroke. Sho said something from behind, but I was too exhausted to catch it.
“What?” I grunted, still staring down a foot in front of my bike and struggling to keep from falling over.
“Daddy, I see something!”
I glanced up and saw just ahead a large clearing to the left of the road. A small shack with a large orange A-frame roof peeked through the trees. Near it stood a sign announcing our arrival at the mountain pass!
Sho and I jumped off the bikes and began whooping and hollering. “We made it to the top!” I yelled, giving him a high five.
“Yeah baby, yeah baby!” Sho sang while doing a funny dance.
The shack was unlocked and had a wooden cot for two built into one wall, a table, and even a few hangers we could use to dry off our sweat-soaked clothes. We moved our gear into the hut, now needing flashlights to see, and spread out our provisions on the table.
Munching on our rations inside the comfortable enclosure, we congratulated ourselves on completing our toughest ride yet.
“I always knew we’d make it,” Sho said while chewing on a rice ball.
An hour later my leg muscles twitched from exhaustion as I lay on the hard wooden bed. Sho was snuggled up close with an arm draped across my chest, a contented smile on his face. We drifted into unconsciousness while the sounds of the mountain whispered softly outside.
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