Tour d'Echoline


The Crank Engine
Nov 1, 2005
Last Saturday, September 13th, Shinobu-san, Sergey and I shinked to Sendai where we had officially concluded the Tour de Tohoku II just one month earlier. Part of our original plan was to tackle what''s called the "Zao Echoline", a mountain road that starts in Western Miyagi winding up to Kattadake-toge near Zao-san at 1.616 metres of altitude. Unfortunately - or looking back, rather fortunately - the rain had thwarted our plans back in August. "Revenge" was on our mind, and we got it thanks to the "Respect-for-the-Aged holiday": 420km in total distance from Sendai to Niigata, meandering through Fukushima and Yamagata for the most part, and 6.140 metres of climbing. I cannot think of a more appropriate HT training programme.

Day 1, September 13 (Sendai - Izaka-onsen, Fukushima)

Zao Echoline (R12) can either be reached from Sendai (40km of distance via R286, 457) or from Shiroishi where R12 in fact starts. It is about 26km in length, with about 15km of climb. Zao Echoline is called the "highway above the clouds".

It was actually a highway in the clouds: the weather was pretty chilly and wet on top of Kattadake-toge (1.616m).

Despite the wet roads and uncountable switchbacks the descent down R12 was sensational: it is exciting to set motorists'' nerves on edge by tailgating and eventually overtaking them. :D

Sergey, who has obviously taken a liking to hikling, found us a nice little, bear-infested rindo that was supposed to be a shortcut to R13.

Reluctant over the stern warning at the entrance to the rindo, we set out to what turned into another dramatic chapter in the TCC Annals of Advanced Hikling. Thanks, Sergey. The landscape was beautiful. :)

The last leg of Saturday''s tour was R399, a road that took us into Fukushima via Hatomine-toge (鳩峰峠): 8km of the most wonderful climbing without traffic, bears and nasty motorcycles.

R399 is a scenic road crisscrossing Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. It is very narrow on the descent from Hatomine-toge, but turns into some sort of "expressway" near Surikamigawa dam. We found shelter at Izaka-onsen, a spa just north of Fukushima City, where we had a "jolly good time" relaxing over a few bottles of local brew.

Distance 154,88 km
Av 22,0
Mx 63,6
Tm 7:00''56

Ascent: 2255m
Descent: 2166m


Kattadake-toge (near Zao-san) on the left, and Hatomine-toge on the right


Day 2, September 14 (Izaka-onsen, Fukushima - Onogawa-onsen, Yamagata)

After a hearty Japanese breakfast we started quite late heading southwest to R70, our next major climb - the Bandai-Azuma Skyline: The highlight of this scenic highway is the ''Azuma Hakkei'' (8 scenic spots of Azuma) named by Yasushi Inoue, an illustrious writer. The dynamic scenic splendours created by Mother Nature - including seasonally changing colors - are impressive and awe-inspiring.

The climb to the tollgate (8km in distance) turned out to be awe-inspiring as well. We still felt the aftereffects of "climbing Fukushima Tower". A few Cokes however helped us to get what we called "totally deejed up" - a state of agitated chattiness and irrepressible restlessness. The actual climb started after the tollgate. Fifteen kilometres of scenic switchbacks, beautiful vistas, sulphuric fumes and alpine vegetation - truly impressive. The Bandai-Azuma Skyline is famous for the crater of "Zuma-Kofuji" (Azuma''s Little Mt. Fuji).

Route 70 eventually descends into the Urabandai-kogen plateau with Lake Akimoto and Lake Hibara. Philip will be glad to learn that there''s a very popular Seven-Eleven at the southern shores of Hibarako where we refreshed and deejed up once again. I had more Coke in those three days than in the three previous years combined. However, I have to admit that it does its trick. We finished our late lunch around 4:00PM. Very late, as we still had to negotiate the climb along R2 "Skyvalley" up Shirabu-toge into Yamagata. Words cannot express the beauty of the landscape in these parts of Japan. We reached Shirabu-toge after 5:00PM, then descended down to Yonezawa.

As R2 was hellishly steep and wet, we had to be on our brakes all the time. We passed what must be one of the scariest tunnels I have ever encountered: dark, downhill, with wet and slippery road surface and slight bumps. Sergey was puzzled and wondered "what sadistic genius was able to come up with such a monstrosity of engineering". We finally made it safely to Yamagata, but decided not to head into Yonezawa, but stop over at a small spa called Onogawa-onsen (小野川温泉). That turned out to be a good choice. After settling down in a small minshuku we went out to satisfy our ravenous hunger. Not only did the restaurant owner treat us to beer, but another guest who was keen on practising his German skills invited us to Yonezawa beef. The gold medal has to go to Shinobu-san who successfully tackled Yonezawa beef, Yonezawa ramen and Yonezawa gyudon with onsen tamago. So much for culinary field studies.


At the inn we met a Japanese bicyclist who intends to cycle across Japan in a year. He has quit his job and aims at spending just 1.000yen a day by sleeping in a tent and drinking only water (take that, you isotonic-drink and beer-guzzling TCCers!). He did look anorexic though. His backpack weighed 35kg!

A plunge into the local rotenburo concluded another day of intensive climbing.

Distance 121,13 km
Av 22,2
Mx 61,2
Tm 5:26''01

Ascent: 2376m (2582m according to my Garmin)
Descent: 2125m


Bandai-Azuma Skyline on the left, and the Urabandai Skyvalley on the right


Day 3, September 15 (Onogawa-onsen, Yamagata - Niigata City)

Day 3 was supposed to be a peaceful day of commute and "TTing". Conceived by Sergey he had chosen a few mean Yamagata backroads with short, yet steep slopes - wonderful racegrounds and very hotaka-esque. Close to Kawanishi we were startled by a group of shrieking monkeys who occupied the road and only dispersed when they noticed I wouldn''t slow down. I don''t know who was more scared...

The scenic and idyllic backroads ended once we reached R113 and crossed into Niigata prefecture.

We avoided R7, the main traffic artery along Nihonkai, for as long as possible taking R272 and 290, but were soon confronted with signs such as the one pictured below - in Russian, English, Chinese and Korean! Niigata is an "internationalised" prefecture indeed.

While we complied with the warnings in the beginning crawling along agricultural roads we soon gave up and hit the expressway under Sergeys skilled leadership. I have to admit that R7 is definitely *not* made for cyclists, but the shoulder permits safe riding for the most part. We made it safely into Niigata in no time, got our shin tickets, omiyage and beer.

Stage One: Morioka - Sendai

Stage Two: Sendai - Niigata

Stage Three: still confidential (Niigata, we shall see you again!)

Distance 152,44 km
Av 25,7
Mx 69,0
Tm 5:55''41


Ascent: 558m (1304m according to my Garmin)
Descent: 856m