A Steady Drift

The mountains surrounding the Hakuba Valley are known as the Japanese Alps for good reason. With 10,000-foot-tall peaks, endless valleys and a handful of ski resorts, one of which is developing a bike park, there’s no shortage of opportunity for trails. The author soars through the landscape on a newly minted jump line at Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort.

A Steady Drift Navigating Japan’s Winds of Change

In most parts of the world, you can usually expect a mountain bike trip to involve a little rain and wind.

But a typhoon, or tropical cyclone, can be a whole other matter. So, when I woke up last October to the news that a Category 5 “super typhoon” was ravaging Japan’s main island of Honshu—barely three weeks before a planned bike trip to the city of Tōkamachi—I was all but sure the trip would be called off.

After all, Typhoon Hagibis was the strongest tropical cyclone in decades to strike mainland Japan, and it was one of the largest typhoons ever recorded, at a peak diameter of 825 nautical miles. For almost a week, Hagibis dumped rain and unleashed 100-mile-per-hour winds on Honshu, causing catastrophic flooding across the Nagano region—just to the south of where we were due to ride near Tōkamachi. I first thought of my friends who call the Nagano area home, and then I wondered about the impact this would have on our planned bike trip with Scottish pro rider Scotty Laughland and American photographer Grant Gunderson.

With our fall riding escape in question, we called Bill Ross, an American expatriate who has lived in Japan for most of his life. As the owner of ski touring and hiking company Dancing Snow, Bill was well acquainted with the region’s trails, and he assured us that Tōkamachi had not been hit nearly as hard by the typhoon as Nagano. So, when the rains began to subside over the following two weeks, we decided to give it a go.

Just four hours before Grant and I boarded our last flight to Tokyo, we were watching the news of a Category 4 typhoon that was building off the coast of Honshu. We’d already come this far, so we decided to hop our flight and hope for the best. Some 10 hours later, as we were approaching Tokyo, we encountered some of the roughest turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and our landing was diverted. As I watched Tokyo disappear in the distance, not knowing exactly where we would land, I thought our trip was ending before it had even begun.

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