The Rapha Continental: Tohoku

In the spring of 2011, Rapha Japan set up a charity ride and asked for your help. We all rode for Tohoku. Everybody in Japan would like to take this opportunity to thank those who contributed. A little over a year later, general tourism is still out of the question in this area but for cyclists, there is no shortage of great roads to ride here.

On every Rapha Continental ride we arrive at night, so pedalling out the following morning is always an exciting moment, with a fresh view of unknown roads, buildings and local citizens. This time was no exception but we were not sure how we would react to the coming scenes, or to the folks we would run into and what we might say to them. We headed up the deserted road along the coast, away from Ishinomaki. The pace didn’t pick up because we were too busy absorbing the disaster-movie surroundings. It was incomprehensible. We rode with our mouths agape, not from the effort but from the stark realisation of the scale of the damage. Unusually, there was no conversation.

The gravel roads here are perfect – and it’s very difficult to find perfect gravel roads in Japan, with smooth, nicely curved, fine-sized dirt and not large rocks. We spent hours staring at the map, searching through blogs and photos of adventurous people to find routes. But none of the roads we used are on any maps. Every time we descended down to the bay, the rough tarmac would change into a smooth gravel road. Temporary roads made after the Tsunami hit the shores on 11th March 2011, sweeping everything along the coast. We heard several local survivors say similar things:

“[It’s] ironic, but the morning after it was the most beautiful scene I have ever seen, and I have been living here for over 50 years.”

Heading back into the woods well above waterline, it’s lush, with fresh leaves and here the roads wind and pitch constantly. Every few hundred metres there is a corner and it feels like a rollercoaster. The land meets the sea in a geographical labyrinth, contributing to this country having the sixth longest coastline in the world, with an area similar to that of California. For bike riding, a perfectly-tuned derailleur is a must around the Ojika Peninsula. Odometer metrics pile up within a very small area. There was only one clear peak on our 200km route, stacking the vertical numbers so slowly that fatigue sneaks into our legs. Given all this area has been through, we daren’t say ‘tired’ or use the word ‘pain’.

With few food joints in operation, we were soon rationing our provisions. Besides the convenience stores in Ishinomaki, I recall passing only a few places where food was available. Outside a small, self-built shack with beef tongue searing on the grill, there was no ignoring a plywood wall filled with messages of condolence. The owner, having survived the tsunami, immediately rebuilt the shack to serve the local delicacies: tongue and shark-fin soup.

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