Nagoya – Nara – Tsu

Back in 2002 I cycled from Tokushima (徳島) in Shikoku (四国) to Nagoya (名古屋) over two days on my now well-used Nishiki mountain bike. I remember the ride being in two distinct parts. Firstly, the journey from Tokushima to Wakayama (和歌山) by ferry, followed by a great day riding through the countryside of northern Wakayama and Nara (奈良) prefectures. This was a pre-Garmin, Google Maps, or smartphone time so I simply headed east until I saw signs for places I recognized and navigated my way to Nagoya. Day two also started off well as I managed for the most part to avoid an approaching typhoon before a long and fast decent via Nabari (名張) into Tsu (津) on the coast of central Mie (三重).

This is where part two of the journey commenced. It was horrible. I rode along Route 23 all the way to Nagoya on a horribly busy road in the August heat, truck exhaust fumes filling my lungs and glass and debris in all the gutters and on the pavements.  Whether it’s the constant stream of trucks heading between Nagoya and Osaka (大阪) or the underwhelming scenery, there is something about the area of Japan that stretches from Nagoya to Osaka, including northern Mie, that makes cycling in the area a drag. Even Lake Biwa (琵琶湖) isn’t as much fun as the photos make out.

Of course I knew all this when I decided to plan a route from Nagoya to Nara for my first trip of 2017. Perhaps I’d missed some of the quieter, more scenic routes way back in 2002 and if planned correctly the ride could be just as enjoyable as elsewhere in Japan.

Unfortunately I was wrong. It was just as I remembered. Trucks, industrial estates, and indistinct mountain passes that wouldn’t even register in other parts of Japan. Sure, there was less traffic in places this time, but that just took away the adrenaline rush and replaced it with prolonged boredom. Iga Ueno Castle  (伊賀上野城) was a pleasant distraction, especially if you like ninjas, but as I’d been there before I didn’t stay for long.

So my advice for anyone wanting to ride between Nagoya and Nara (or Osaka) is simply to catch the train instead. Either that or start from central or southern Mie, starting from Kameyama (亀山) at the very least. Southern and central Mie and anywhere south of Nara city are great places to ride a bike.

In Nara city I met up with Danny from Kinkicycle and Brad from Fixed in Nara for a coffee and a chat. Nara city is a nice place and if you hook up with Danny or Brad you’ll get an insight into the local cycling scene as you ride around the streets and through Nara Park while avoiding the deer and selfie-stick tourists.

For the return ride I rode from Nara to Tsu. That too failed to produce any inspiring scenery but it was at least lacking in trucks and industrial estates.

To summarize – catch the train or start as far south as possible.

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Kasugai – Nara

Kasugai – Nara 156km

Elevation gain – 1502m

Hotel – Hotel Nara Annex ¥6200 including breakfast. Don’t bother though, I booked a non-smoking room but they gave me a smoking room despite my complaints.

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Nara – Tsu

Nara to Tsu – 87.5km

Elevation – 1300m

Train from Tsu to Nagoya – ¥1010 for the local train.

Nagoya – Nara – Tsu

Kii Nagashima to Shima

With winter approaching and the higher mountains seeing the first snowfall of the season late autumn to early spring is a good time to head towards the Pacific Ocean coast to enjoy a change of scenery. Coastal villages, quiet fishing ports, shorter but punchy climbs, fresh seafood and majestic ocean views are abundant throughout the Japanese coastal areas and the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島) – only a couple of hours train ride away from both Nagoya (名古屋) and Osaka (大阪) – provides all of the above.

The route from Kii Nagashima in Mie prefecture (三重県) to Shima (志摩市), host to the 2016 G7 Summit, is a great way to spend a single day riding or as part of a larger multi-day tour. If you’re on a longer bike trip from Tokyo (東京) to Osaka for example, you will probably have considered this route anyway as it’s only a short ferry ride from Irago (伊良湖岬) in Aichi prefecture (愛知県) across the Ise Bay (伊勢湾) and doing so avoids most of the built up areas around Nagoya. Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮), one of the most important shrines in Japan, is also nearby and well worth a visit.

The route below was actually ridden a couple of years ago but I have chosen to post it now due to a niggling back injury meaning I have not done any bike packing since Hafudake (破風岳) in October (keep those muscles stretched people!). Better to post an older route now than disappear into the blogging void.

I rode it by starting in the west and heading east but it can just as easily be ridden from east to west. There’s a section of old disused road starting at 58kms that is not really suitable for road bikes but this can be avoided by staying on R260. If I rode it again that’s what I’d probably do. Bring lights as there are plenty of small tunnels that are unavoidable.

Distance – 102kms

Elevation – 2280m according to Ride With GPS but that doesn’t take into account the tunnels. In reality it was a lot less.

Approximate train fare – ¥4920 from Nagoya to Kii Nagashima / ¥4200 Osaka – Kii Nagashima / ¥3180 Nagoya – Shima-Shimmei

Camping – N/A as I rode it on a day trip

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If you would like a copy of the route file either download it via RWGPS or leave a comment below.

Kii Nagashima to Shima

Kii Nagashima – Kumano

With a rugged and beautiful scenic coast, tiny fishing villages scattered along the shores, an abundance of isolated and rarely ridden mountain roads, and the Kumano Kodo (熊野古道), an ancient walking trail through the mountains, the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島) has been an area of Japan I’ve wanted to cycle in for a long time. The plan for this trip was to spend three days heading south along the east coast but due to bad weather and an approaching typhoon (always a possibility in September) the trip had to be cut short after only one day.

Early Saturday morning I took the train from Nagoya JR Station south to Kii Nagashima (紀伊長島), just north of Owase (尾鷲). I’ve cycled from Kii Nagashima once before but that time heading east along the coast to Shima (志摩), host of the recent G7 Summit. The original plan this time was to head south through Owase, along the coast, down through Kumano and Shingu (新宮), before reaching Kushimoto (串本町) at the tip of the peninsula, then do a sharp u-turn and head north inland over the mountains back to Kii Nagashima. As already mentioned, due to the bad weather, I only made it as far as southern Kumano, a stones throw away from the Mie (三重県) border with Wakayama (和歌山県).

Despite being much shorter than I had originally planned it was an enjoyable and pleasant day’s ride. Still pretty hot and humid for this time of year but as it was cloudy all day worrying about heatstroke or sunburn was not an issue.

There were plenty of short, punchy up-down climbs between the numerous fishing villages but nothing that ever got out of hand. The R778 south of Owase was the only long isolated climb but it offered wonderful views over the ocean and I didn’t pass a single car or cyclist at all on the mountain. In fact I only saw one other cyclist all day. Beautiful beaches also scatter the coast where it’s possible to camp at night as there is no shortage of covered picnic areas to sleep under if you choose to ride without a tent. I chose to camp on the beach about 350m south of Atawa train station (阿田和駅) south of Kumano but in hindsight it would have been better to sleep a little further north on the beach at Atashika (新鹿) as it was much quieter.

I awoke on day two to torrential rain and the forecast was for it to remain that way all day so knowing what heavy rain is like in September in Japan quickly decided that it would be better to catch the train home and try again another day. And I do plan to return pretty soon.

A few things to bear in mind are that the large stretch of beach from Kumano to Shingu is closed to vehicles during autumn as it’s where sea turtles come to lay their eggs. I’m not sure how this applies to cyclists and camping but I did see a few people fishing and running along the beach just before sunset. I made sure to camp in an area that was well used among fishermen and daytime picnickers.

Also there are quite a few tunnels along the route but for most of them there was usually a seperate tunnel for pedestrians and cyclist that run parallel to the car traffic. Even so, lights are essential as there are still a few mainly shorter tunnels that you have to share with traffic.

Finally, day two of my original route goes through the small town of Taiji (太地), an historic whaling town infamous for its annual dolphin hunt that runs from September to March. Apparently there’s plenty of tension between the local fishermen (including the rightwing nationalists that have tagged along) and both Japanese and foreign activists. If you’re cycling through I doubt there would be any issues but it is worth being aware of the current situation all the same.

As for equipment I realised that for me, carrying a tent is just not worth the hassle. It’s heavy, takes up too much space in the bags, and even in mid-September while camping on the beach can be pretty hot inside. It’s much better to take a small inflatable mat and sleep in a covered picnic area, or even a cheap hotel. A friend of mine sometimes sleeps in shelter bus stops while riding in the mountains and that makes more sense to me now after this trip. Participates in this year’s Japanese Odyssey bike race are also finding creative alternatives to tents that we could all take a few ideas from. If it’s not possible to sleep in a picnic area or sheltered bus stop I’d much rather pay to get a good nights sleep and shower in a cabin at a campsite, in a guest house, or even a hotel as I did on day two of my ride to Matsumoto earlier this year.

Overall a pleasant days ride and one that I hope to continue in the near future.

Distance – 106kms

Elevation – 1286m

Camping – rough camping along the beach near Atawa. ¥0 (Consider Atashika as an alternative)

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Kii Nagashima – Kumano