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Kampai! Racing ‘Cross in Japan’s Yatsugatake Mountains

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“Kampai?” I surveyed the faces around the table while holding up a black can of what promised to be a Kirin Stout. “No,” they replied. “Not really. Sure, you can say kampai, but that means you have to finish the entire drink.” Turns out that kampai is slang for “bottoms up!”

Words & Images: Andy Bokanev

We were standing around an oversized dining table, set in a room heated by a wood stove, somewhere in the middle of a valley in Japan’s Yatsugatake Mountains. I think it was about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tokyo, but I spent most of that drive passed out in the back seat of the van. And while the folks in the United States were gathering around their dinner tables for Thanksgiving, we were on the other side of the world for the Rapha Super Cross Nobeyama race.


The race has been organized for a number of years by Daisuke Yano, who runs the Japanese branch of Rapha that’s based out of an office a few doors down from the dining room we were standing in. Daisuke also happen to live in this house with his wife, two kids, a dog and a cat. And just for this week, the house had become a hostel for a number of cyclocross racers from around the world, including Tim Johnson, Zach McDonald and Ben Berden.

Any preconceptions I had about why anyone would want to live in the middle of nowhere got dispelled the morning after we arrived and went for a ride. The storm clouds were billowing around the mountains, sending over squalls of snowflakes that hovered in the subdued winter sun. The roads were surrounded by farms and intermittently covered in mud and puddles, making the whole place feel a little like Flanders—if Flanders had snowcapped peaks.


The race itself is a two-day affair that brings people from all over Japan and transforms this quiet farming village into a bit of a cycling festival. There were food vendors, bike demos and plenty of beer. The course itself combined fast, paved sections with twisty and technical grass portions as well as a few sections of mud, which changed consistency throughout the weekend. A few of the riders still seemed to have a bit of a hangover from the previous year’s race, when all of the grass sections turned to mud and the venue became more of a skating rink than a bike-race course. There was also a flyover, followed almost immediately by a small run-up. Seemingly, the course had every imaginable part of a cyclocross parcours with the exception of sand.

When it came to the elite races, Lisa Jacobs, the three-time Australian ’cross champion took a dominating win on both days in what turned out to be her last UCI race before announcing her retirement. On the men’s side, local favorite Yu Takenouchi took the win the first day before succumbing to Seattle’s McDonald 24 hours later.


Back at the dinner table I came to the realization that somehow I had gone 34 years without ever shot-gunning a beer. Exactly three seconds after the side of the can touched my lips and the cold carbonated liquid started pouring down my throat, the guy next to me yelled “Done!” and slammed down an empty beer can, following it up with a hearty belch. I made a mental note to up my pre-bed Advil intake to four and look around the room one more time: “So, kampai?”

This time there was no discussion as everyone repeated in unison: “Kampai!”