Monthly Archives: June 2013

June Diary

It’s been a great June. We’ve done some riding, some planning and some interacting with other cycle tourists. Our summer tour to Hokkaido grows closer each day, and we’re getting more and more excited. This is what we’ve been up to this month.

Bikes, tents, beautiful scenery: it's why we do what we do.

Bikes, tents, beautiful scenery: it’s why we do what we do.

The month begain with an overnight trip to nearby Lake Inawashiro. We sent our gear in the car with our friends, and rode our unladen bikes over the Ou Mountains. On the other side, we camped for free on the shore of the lake. We ate amazing barbecue food, drinking beer and playing cards as the sun went down. There are some pictures here. A week later, we rode past the same spot on day one of the charity event Cycle Aid Japan. Over the course of 160km of riding, we made some new friends, and gave ourselves some pretty impressive tan lines. It was exhausting, but very satisfying. You can read our report here.

It was his butterfly handlebars that made me suspect he was a cycle tourist. It turned out that Ushijima-sensei has cycled all over the world. He gave us details of his homepage.

It was his butterfly handlebars that made me suspect he was a cycle tourist. It turned out that Ushijima-sensei has cycled all over the world. He gave us details of his homepage.

Things are falling into place for our summer trip to Hokkaido. Our bikes will make the journey there by courier, and we’ll take a slow train over a couple of days. Our travel plans are here. Exploring the volcanic Shikotsu-Toya National park is how we’ll spend the first week of our tour. Clare and Andy, our friends in Hokkaido, will join us for a weekend of riding, then our destination is Rishiri Island in the far north. More details here. Preparations are going well – we’re just waiting on a few deliveries right now. It’s only three weeks away, and our excitement is starting to build.

We’ve had some interaction with other cycle tourists this month. Stefano got in touch with some questions about cycle touring in Tohoku during August. We answered them in this blog post. Eric and Amaya from World Biking arranged to stay with us via the Warm Showers network. The idea of hosting them really excited us; we were looking forward to hearing stories from their seven years on the road. Unfortunately, the visit fell through. Maybe our paths will cross some other time instead.

Lastly, we’ve been experimenting with some other online services. Byron from the excellent Tokyo By Bike blog introduced us to Flipboard. This is an example of a cycle touring magazine we’ve curated. What do you think?

We’ve had a great June, and we’re looking forward to a great July too. Next month is all about Hokkaido. We’ll spend the first part of the month getting ready for the trip, and the last part riding around a beautiful national park. We can’t wait.

Reading List

Each month we collect a few articles that we’ve enjoyed reading lately into a list. Here are our picks for June.

Our top pick is Cycling Dutch Girl’s post about her trip to Hokkaido, Avoiding Bears, Finding Beers and Going Bare. We loved the photos, especially as we’re visiting many of the places pictured on our own trip.

Joe Cruz at Pedalling in Place wrote about an amazing day in the Dolomites. Find out here how he got on with his folding bike amongst a peleton of thousands of road bikes. Again great pictures, and a great article.

We really enjoyed this article by Devon and Charlotte of Travelling Carrs. Their two days in Albania were manic, it seems, but also a huge amount of fun. Very entertaining.

Finally, in the light of our CTQOTW about bear safety, we recommend reading Nick’s post about how he survived a bear attack. It’s harrowing stuff. Find it here.

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Please Mr Postman

Most of our equipment comes from retailers outside of Japan. This is partly because of availability. Our local outdoor store is more dedicated to wilderness chic than to real adventuring equipment. Our local bike shops cater for either road bikes or mami-chari city bikes, rather than expedition touring bikes. If we want a choice of sizes, colours or models, we usually can’t find them nearby. Partly it’s because of cost. Even with import taxes and delivery charges, we can often find what we want for a much cheaper price if we buy from Europe or the USA. And partly it’s because of our lack of Japanese language ability. Reading a product description in English is much easier for us than asking a shop attendant in our stuttering, stumbling Japanese.

Japanese_post_box

Image by FlickrLickr bot via Wikipedia.

Shopping online has been how we’ve bought pretty much everything except our bikes. With three weeks left until we set off for Hokkaido, we’re fast approaching the cut-off point for ordering any extra gear we need for the trip. We’ve already started. Right now, there are at least two packages heading our way.

Package one, from England.

We’ve ordered some adventure sandals from Keen that can be fitted with SPD cleats. We both have double-sided pedals, so we’ll try clipping in and see how we get on. The sandals should be comfortable in the warmth of the Hokkaido summer. This package, from Dave’s sister, will also contain a Kindle Keyboard 3G. Dave broke his original Kindle, and Amazon sent a replacement (to England) for free. This model includes free international 3G web browsing forever, which is going to be really useful for our journey across Asia and Russia next year.

Package two, from Germany

Laura wants more pannier space than she had on our trip across Honshu, so we’ve ordered a front rack and some panniers from Bike 24. We’re confident in the products we’ve chosen: the Tubus Ergo is the same model as Dave’s front rack, and the panniers are from the Vaude Aqua range that Laura likes so much. An Ortlieb drybag completes the expansion of Laura’s carrying capacity. We think her sleeping bag takes up too much pannier space, so we’re planning in stowing it, inside the drybag, on top of the back rack. We’ve also ordered some specialised headlamp brackets that fit around our cantilever brakes.

For the next three weeks, we’ll be leaping up every time the doorbell rings, running to the door, and hoping to see the postman standing there with a parcel. Two packages. Three weeks. Will everything come in time?

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Hokkaido Countdown

This time next month we’ll be in Hokkaido at the start of three weeks of cycle touring. Here’s an update on our plan so far.

Getting there:

We’re using the Seishun 18 Ticket to get to Hokkaido. It’s an amazing deal: unlimited travel on local trains for just over ¥2000 per person per day. We’re taking a leisurely journey from Fukushima to Hokkaido over the course of two days. Our first day sees us travel from our home in Koriyama to Aomori, travelling 512km in just over 10 hours.

Ten hours. Better find a good book or three for the trip.

Ten hours. Better find a good book or three for the trip.

The next day, we’ll travel through the Seikan Tunnel to Hokkaido, and then on to Date-Mombetsu via Hakodate and Oshamambe. We’ll collect our bikes, then begin the cycling part of our trip.

Cycling Part One: Shikotsu-Toya National Park

We’re spending the first part of our trip exploring the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. The park is an area of volcanic activity, with plenty of cool stuff to see. Its two large lakes, Lake Toya and Lake Shikotsu, give the park its name. We hope to explore the lava dome of Showa-shinzan, and to climb nearby Mt Usu. There are opportunities for canoeing on both lakes, which will make a nice change from exploring by bike. Volcanic activity means there are several onsen in the area, where we’ll be able to enjoy a soothing mineral bath. This guidebook can tell you more about what’s on offer in the park.

Shikotsu Toya National Park Map

Shikotsu Toya National Park Map

Cycling Part Two: Iwamizawa and beyond

Our friends Clare and Andy live in Hokkaido. They are pretty much the reason that we came to Japan. Their decision to leave England and sign up for the JET Programme inspired us to take similar steps a year later. In an unexpected twist, they have also developed an interest in bicycle touring during their time here. We’re aiming to get to their place in Iwamizawa by the 25th or 26th so that we can ride with them over the weekend. We’re not sure of a direction or a route yet, only of the fine company we’ll keep.

Cycling Part Three: Northwards to Rishiri Island

The final part of our trip is the most loosely planned. We’ll work our way up the west coast to Rishiri Island at the far north of Hokkaido, passing through other national and prefectural parks, and camping with our tent facing the sunset over the sea. Rishiri Island rises from the Sea of Japan, so we’ll get there by ferry from Wakkanai. If we have time, we might explore further, to nearby Rebun Island, or down the east coast of the Hokkaido mainland.

Getting home

We’ll send our bikes home by courier, in the same way that we sent them up to Hokkaido. Our general plan for getting ourselves home is also much looser. We’ll probably take several local trains using the Seishun 18 ticket, or maybe we’ll hop on a ferry to Sendai. We’ll decide nearer to the time.

The excitement is starting to build. Slowly, as things fall into place, I’m starting to look forward to our adventure more and more. Of course, we have a to-do list that’s as long as my arm. But for now, I’m just enjoying the anticipation.

Let us know your thoughts about our plans in the comments below.

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Reader Question: Touring in Tohoku

We received an email about cycle touring in Tohoku from Stefano. We thought we’d reply with a blog post, in case any other readers have similar questions.


Hello,

we are thinking of coming to Northern Honshu in August for some cycle touring. Do you know this area and what kind of climate to expect?!

Our ambition would be to visit some more humble rustic areas, not necessarily go great distances – maybe 40 miles per day for a week in a scenic area, arriving by train (with low geared Bromptons) from Tokyo.

Could you recommend any areas – preferably inland rather than coastal??

thank you,

Stefano


Hi Stefano,

Thanks for getting in touch. I’ll try to answer your questions.

First of all, we live in the Tohoku region of Japan. Tohoku consists of the six northernmost prefectures in Honshu: Aomori; Akita; Iwate; Miyagi; Yamagata; Fukushima. We live in Koriyama, a medium sized city in Fukushima prefecture. Much of Tohoku is rural, so if you’re seeking the rustic, you’ll have lots to choose from.

Some recommendations of things to do and see, and routes to ride:

  • Ouchijuku is an Edo-period postal town in the south of Fukushima prefecture, with straw roofed buildings and traditional crafts on display.
  • Nikko is a small town in Tochigi with several famous temples and shrines, including the mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns.
  • The Abukuma-do caves are limestone caves in Central Fukushima.
  • Riding along the Abukuma River was one of the highlights of our Honshu Coast to Coast tour. From Nasu, you can follow the river for 150 miles to the Pacific Ocean. The golden rice fields will look amazing at that time of year.
  • For inspiration on day routes to ride in Tohoku, take a look at the Cycle Aid Japan 2013 website. Many of the middle courses would fit inside your 40 mile daily target. We took part in the event last week.
  • August is a time of festivals in Japan. Most towns will have some kind of matsuri going on during the summer. The three big summer festivals in Tohoku are:
    • The Akita Kanto festival: many lanterns carried on spectacular bamboo structures.
    • The Sendai Tanabata festival: giant paper dolls decorate the streets of the city.
    • The Aomori Nebuta festival: beautifully painted paper lanterns illuminated by candlelight.

    Any of those would be an unforgettable experience. If you want something smaller, check the Prefectural Tourism websites via the links below to find out about local festivals too.

Climate: August in Japan is hot. For us, coming from England, it’s really hot. What kind of temperatures are you used to? Daytime temperatures in Fukushima regularly break 30°C during August, with the north a little cooler, around 25°C. It can also be very humid. Be prepared, and pack hot weather clothing, sunglasses and a cool hat. If you plan on camping, a light sleeping bag should be fine.

Trains: It’s great that you’re bringing Bromptons. It will give you a lot of freedom to move between different areas by train or bus. If you plan on making several rail journeys, it might be worth considering either the JR East Pass, which lets you ride the bullet trains and express trains, or the Seishun 18 Ticket, which only lets you ride local trains, but is much cheaper. Both are a good deal, and both can be purchased once you get to Japan. Bikes on trains in Japan must be bagged, but with a folding bike that’s not too difficult.

There’s a lot on offer in Tohoku in summer. Travelling by train and folding bike is a great way to experience this part of Japan. If you have any other questions, please let us know.

Have a great trip.

David and Laura


We’ve put together a reading list of useful links below:

Official Tourism Information in English by prefecture:

General information about cycling in Japan:
Kancycling: a great site that’s full of useful information
Japan Cycling Navigator: another excellent source of information
Tokyo by Bike: Byron focuses on issues affecting urban cyclists, and much of what he talks about applies to all cyclists in Japan.

Do YOU have anything to add about cycling in Tohoku? Please join the conversation in the comments below.

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Cycle Aid Japan 2013 – Report and Gallery

Last weekend we took part in Cycle Aid Japan 2013, a mass-participation cycling event to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster. Twelve rides of varying lengths were scheduled over two weekends. You can find out more about the event online (website in Japanese here). We chose two rides that were nearest to our home in Koriyama, and our friend Brad joined us.

On Saturday we started behind the Hideyo Noguchi house in Inawashiro town, and made a clockwise circuit of the lake.

Riders left messages of support on this poster at the start of the course.

Riders left messages of support on this poster at the start of the course.

A range of different bikes took part. As well as our touring bikes, there were several road bikes, a few mountain bikes, and a handful of single speed track bikes.

A range of different bikes took part. As well as our touring bikes, there were several road bikes, a few mountain bikes, and a handful of single speed track bikes.

We started to the sound of traditional taiko drumming.

We started to the sound of traditional taiko drumming.

The aid station, after about 22km, offered water and snacks. We ate soba noodles and grilled shiitake mushrooms.

The aid station, after about 22km, offered water and snacks. We ate soba noodles and grilled shiitake mushrooms.

Low clouds over Mt Bandai, across the lake.

Low clouds over Mt Bandai, across the lake.

Laura made honey and peanut flapjacks. Delicious!

Laura made honey and peanut flapjacks. Delicious!

Brad loves flapjacks.

Brad loves flapjacks.

Riding through the rice fields.

Riding through the rice fields.

A course steward follows behind us as we face the only climb of the day.

A course steward follows behind us as we face the only climb of the day.

Brad arranged for us to stay at a lakeside onsen that he knew. We made friends with Hideo in the hot outdoor bath, and enjoyed chatting with him as the sun came down over the lake.

The view from our room, over the lake. The outdoor bath looked out in the same direction.

The view from our room, over the lake. The outdoor bath looked out in the same direction.

Endo-san, our host, took care of us as we enjoyed a delicious meal at the ryokan. Brad and Sonoko have known him for many years.

Endo-san, our host, took care of us as we enjoyed a delicious meal at the ryokan. Brad and Sonoko have known him for many years.

As we relaxed in yukata, more and more food arrived at the table. We ate until we were stuffed.

As we relaxed in yukata, more and more food arrived at the table. We ate until we were stuffed.

Hideo joined us on our ride the next day, from Inawashiro town to Fukushima city. Most of the pictures here were taken by him or by Brad.

Hideo camped near the onsen. This rucksack contained all of his things. It was shipped from the start line to the finish of the course, so he didn't have to ride with it.

Hideo camped near the onsen. This rucksack contained all of his things. It was shipped from the start line to the finish of the course, so he didn’t have to ride with it.

L-R: Laura; Dave; Brad; Hideo

L-R: Laura; Dave; Brad; Hideo

Hideo also rides a Surly. His is a Cross Check. Nice handlebar tape!

Hideo also rides a Surly. His is a Cross Check. Nice handlebar tape!

The marshall gave us a countdown to starting to ride. Unfortunately, the Japanese word for “five” is “go.” I'm sure you can guess what happened.

The marshall gave us a countdown to starting to ride. Unfortunately, the Japanese word for “five” is “go.” I’m sure you can guess what happened.

Laura enjoying the morning sun.

Laura enjoying the morning sun.

Brad and Hideo on the cycling road by Lake Inawashiro.

Brad and Hideo on the cycling road by Lake Inawashiro.

It was a beautiful morning. Later in the day, the temperatures would climb to around thirty degrees.

It was a beautiful morning. Later in the day, the temperatures would climb to around thirty degrees.

The bright sun cast clear shadows.

The bright sun cast clear shadows.

Taking a break at one of three rest stops.

Taking a break at one of three rest stops.

The forest carpets the hills outside Bandai-Atami in green.

The forest carpets the hills outside Bandai-Atami in green.

Waiting in line to be checked out of a rest stop.

Waiting in line to be checked out of a rest stop.

It was his butterfly handlebars that made me suspect he was a cycle tourist. It turned out that Ushijima-sensei has cycled all over the world. He gave us details of his homepage.

It was his butterfly handlebars that made me suspect he was a cycle tourist. It turned out that Ushijima-sensei has cycled all over the world. He gave us details of his homepage.

The day ended with a steady climb of 300m over around 6km. Not too bad in itself, but exhausting after the 80km+ we'd already ridden.

The day ended with a steady climb of 300m over around 6km. Not too bad in itself, but exhausting after the 80km+ we’d already ridden.

At the end of the course.

At the end of the course.

The festival at the end of the course featured several cycling suppliers, as well as food and drink stalls.

The festival at the end of the course featured several cycling suppliers, as well as food and drink stalls.

Musicians performed in the auditorium, sponsors and organizers gave speeches, and tired cyclists watched.

Musicians performed in the auditorium, sponsors and organizers gave speeches, and tired cyclists watched.

We had a great time during Cycle Aid Japan 2013. It was a great way to see a beautiful part of Japan, and we enjoyed meeting other cyclists on the route. Best of all, we were able to spend time with friends, and to make some new ones too. What a great weekend. Now, where do we sign up for Cycle Aid Japan 2014?

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Summer Tour to Hokkaido – First Plans

From July 20th, we’ll be spending three weeks cycle touring in Hokkaido. This is a summary of our plan so far. We’ll say a little about Hokkaido, how we’re getting there from Fukushima, and what we want to do when we’re there. We’ve also included some useful links for other tourists who are planning a similar trip.

Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island.

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.

About Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and the most recently settled. It has a cooler climate than the rest of the country, which means that it can support a different kind of agriculture; uniquely in Japan, Hokkaido is famous for dairy products. Its cooler climate makes it a very popular destination for cycle tourists, especially during the summer months when the rest of Japan is hot and humid. Hokkaido is not densely populated, which further adds to its appeal for cycle tourists. It is home to several of Japan’s national parks, and has many areas of undisturbed forest, as well as dramatic volcanic mountain ranges. Its natural beauty is another big draw for us. We had a great time in Sapporo when we visited during Winter last year, and so we’re excited to see summer in Hokkaido too.

Hokkaido's warm summer climate.

Hokkaido’s warm summer climate.

Getting there

We looked into a few different ways of getting to Hokkaido from our home in Fukushima. This table outlines the costs and respective times for some different transport options.

Method Time Costs
(two people, one way)
Seishun 18 Ticket Two days ¥11,000 Train ticket for five trips
¥8,000 shipping bikes
¥4,000 shipping panniers
¥23,000 total cost
Ferry via Sendai 36 hours ¥18,000 passenger fares
¥6,000 bikes fare
¥4,000 shipping panniers
¥6,000 train to Sendai
¥34,000 total cost
Fast trains
– bullet train to Aomori
– express train to Sapporo
8 hours 30 mins ¥40,610 passenger fares
¥8,000 shipping bikes
¥4,000 shipping panniers
¥52,620 total cost
Hokutosei sleeper train
(Koriyama to Sapporo)
18 hours ¥51,000 passenger fares
¥8,000 shipping bikes
¥4,000 shipping panniers
¥63,000 total cost
Fly from Sendai 6 hours ¥62,000 passenger fares
¥8,000 shipping bikes
¥4,000 shipping panniers
¥6,000 train to Sendai
¥90,000 total cost

The Seishun 18 ticket offers the best compromise between speed, cost and comfort, in our opinion. We will ship our bags and bikes ahead of us, and travel by local train up to Aomori, where we’ll stay overnight, before travelling by local train again into Hokkaido.

When we’re there

Hokkaido has a lot to offer. We’re still trying to choose what to include on our trip, and what we have to leave out. What do we know so far? Our friends Clare and Andy are English teachers from the UK, who live just outside Sapporo. They are also keen cycle tourists, so we’re looking forward to riding with them for a few days. David wants to visit the northern tip of Hokkaido, at Cape Soya, and nearby Rishiri Island. Sapporo holds a annual summer festival, and this year it runs from July 21st until August 15th – roughly the same time as our trip.

Reading list

Here are a few links to do with cycle touring in Hokkaido.

Long Ride Home: Pete Gostelow’s Long Ride Home journal includes a section where he’s warming up in Hokkaido.
Peter Westcoast’s Autumn in Hokkaido journal
David and Adele Arthur toured Hokkaido on folding bikes.
Adam and Beth made this great documentary about their trip, Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail.

Can you help?

Do you have any tips on cycle touring in Hokkaido? Have you been there in summer? Is there something that you think is unmissable? Are there any horror stories you want to share? Please let us know in the comments below.

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Inawashiro Overnight Trip

Some friends organised a camping trip to Lake Inawashiro, and we decided to go there by bike. There’s no way to avoid the range of hills between our home and the campsite, but luckily our friends offered to take all of our camping and cooking gear in their car, which made our ride much easier.

The rice fields are planted, and the first shoots are starting to grow.

The rice fields are planted, and the first shoots are starting to grow.

"The next seven km has quite a lot of climbing." "No problem."

“The next seven km has quite a lot of climbing.”
“No problem.”

The lake is on the other side of those hills.

The lake is on the other side of those hills.

We left home on a familiar road, past the Culture Park and towards Naganuma. At the Laurel Valley golf course, we turned on to local route 67, and began to climb. The road narrowed as we pushed on uphill into the forest, and soon it became barely wide enough for a single vehicle to pass. It grew steeper and steeper still, and before long we’d worked through our gears, and were exhausted. We stopped and rested, then started again.

The road became steeper as we climbed the hill.

The road became steeper as we climbed the hill.

The road was narrow, and quiet. We only met a handful of vehicles as we pushed on through the woods.

The road was narrow, and quiet. We only met a handful of vehicles as we pushed on through the woods.

The forest on the west side of the hill had ferns amongst the evergreens.

The forest on the west side of the hill had ferns amongst the evergreens.

David is probably still a little heavy for this top.

David is probably still a little heavy for this top.

The twisting course of our route and the high trees made it difficult to get any sense of progress towards the top of the pass, so we relied on the speedometer to judge how far we had to travel. Eventually, the gradient defeated us, and we decided to get off and push our bikes over the final kilometre or two. The downhill route was full of blind corners, so our descent was measured and cautious. We broke out of the forest, to a stunning view of Mt Bandai in the distance, and a long straight road ahead of us.

Mt Bandai in the distance, along a glorious straight downhill road.

Mt Bandai in the distance, along a glorious straight downhill road.

There's still snow on the top of Mt Bandai.

There’s still snow on the top of Mt Bandai.

The hill we'd climbed over is in the background. With its gradient of 7% over 7km, it was probably a category 2 or 3 climb.

The hill we’d climbed over is in the background. With its gradient of 7% over 7km, it was probably a category 2 or 3 climb.

Through the small town towards the lakeside.

Through the small town towards the lakeside.

We camped on the south-east shore of the lake, in what seemed to be a semi-official but entirely free of charge campsite. There were toilet facilities, a dishwashing and grilling block, and a big parking area. But there was no office, no signpost, and nobody collecting camping fees. A family with a huge frame tent were set up in the woods, and not far from them were a group of younger people with small dome tents. We chose a quiet spot where the grass of the woods merged with the sand of the beach and set up our tents.

Our tents, at the edge of the grass and the sandy beach.

Our tents, at the edge of the grass and the sandy beach.

Eric grilling alongside Mt Bandai and Lake Inawashiro.

Eric grilling alongside Mt Bandai and Lake Inawashiro.

Bikes, tents, beautiful scenery: it's why we do what we do.

Bikes, tents, beautiful scenery: it’s why we do what we do.

Our barbecue was a feast: spiced belly pork; a whole chicken, spatchcocked, Jamacian jerk style; gourmet sausages; tender beef steak; garlic prawn and chorizo skewers; whole mackerel; langoustines. We played cards and drank beer as the sun went down.

Mist rolled across the lake at dawn, hiding the mountain from us.

Mist rolled across the lake at dawn, hiding the mountain from us.

The red buttons are hot drinks, the blue buttons are cold drinks. Let's have a coffee!

The red buttons are hot drinks, the blue buttons are cold drinks. Let’s have a coffee!

Our campsite was at the 5 o'clock position on the lake.

Our campsite was at the 5 o’clock position on the lake.

The next day we decided to go home a different way, so as to get to know two routes through the hills. We took local route 6, which is more direct, but goes through a long-ish tunnel. We climbed gently from the lakeside, stopping a vending machine for a hot coffee, and soon arrived at the start of the tunnel. A narrow pavement meant we pushed our bikes the full 1365m of its length. Once we’d cleared the tunnel, it was downhill all the way home. We stopped for sandwiches made from barbecue leftovers, and let gravity guide us back to our front door.

The tunnel took us through, rather than over, the hills.

The tunnel took us through, rather than over, the hills.

Tunnels often have decorative metalwork at the entrances and exits. Can motorists see them, or are they going too fast?

Tunnels often have decorative metalwork at the entrances and exits. Can motorists see them, or are they going too fast?

The metalwork boats on this tunnel wall show that the lake is on the other side.

The metalwork boats on this tunnel wall show that the lake is on the other side.

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