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

2017 & Trip to Australia

Happy New Year.

For BikePackingJapan.com last year was simply an experiment to see if this blog concept had any life in it and I’m happy to say I’ve had numerous emails regarding bike packing and cycle touring in Japan. My aim for 2017 then is to ramp up the content and make the website a solid resource for anyone wanting to experience Japan by bicycle. More on that below.

Apologies for the absence of recent posts, I’ve recently taken a few months off bike packing here due to the winter weather (not a valid excuse I know!), a cycling-related injury (lower back problem), and a two week trip to Australia. However, I did ride a couple of times solo into central Gifu and also with a friend but it has been the trip to Australia that has stood out since I last went bike packing in the Nagano/Gunma mountains.

This is a website devoted to cycling in Japan so I’ll keep it brief before moving on to general aims for 2017, but wow! if you’re a cycle commuter in Australia you have it made. Seriously. Wonderful cycle paths, fairly courteous drivers, and laws to protect the cyclists. I never felt unsafe once while cycling in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast. I’ve heard Sydney is different but I haven’t ridden there so can’t say. I also rode in the hills west of the Gold Coast and northwest of Brisbane. It was a lot of fun going off the beaten track, despite the heat, and exploring some of the gravel/dirt roads that seem to be everywhere satisfied the longing for adventure that most cyclists crave. I tried not to get carried away as I didn’t know either area particularly well and the last thing the Australian rescue services needed was another lost Brit in the bush in the middle of the scorching summer. Taking the Fairdale fitted with new Hunt 4 Season Gravel wheels and Schwable G-One tubeless tyres was a great decision. It meant I could ride pretty much anywhere I wanted without having to worry about punctures or getting stuck on difficult trails.

Anyway, back to Japan. In 2016 I mostly concentrated on the central regions – Nagano, Gifu, Ishikawa, Aichi, Mie – but for 2017 the plan is to ride further afield and for longer. Nara and Wakayama prefectures in particular are easily within range of Nagoya and have plenty of mountains to explore, and in Wakayama’s case, numerous coastal villages too. Way back in 2001 I lived in Shikoku and the isolation of Japan’s smallest main island is also something that needs to be revisited in the near future.

It goes without saying that Hokkaido is on the list too. I just need to find the time.

I’d also like to find someone else to collaborate with so that it becomes easier to cover more parts of Japan. If anyone is interested please get in touch.

All the best for 2017 & keep pedaling.

2017 & Trip to Australia

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

Matsumoto – Hafudake – Kusatsu

One of the benefits of living in central Japan is that most places are within a reasonable distance in relation to cycling and bike packing, and with the JR Chuo line (中央線) running from Tokyo (東京) to Nagoya (名古屋) around the Minami Alps it doesn’t take much time and effort to get out into the mountains.

For this trip I wanted to head to the southern tip of the Kita Alps (北アルプス) so planned a route that started in Matsumoto (松本) – an easy train ride from Nagoya on the Chuo line – northeast towards Mt. Shirane (白根山), a currently active volcano, before heading down to Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉) famous for its outdoor hot spring and onsen resorts.

As I was fairly new to the area I contacted Julien at Fairmean who regularly camps out in the region, and Adam from Ride Japan to get some advice on places to sleep, as well as to confirm whether some roads were open. Julien recommended sleeping at the top of Hafudake (破風岳), southwest of Mt. Shirane, while Adam confirmed that the Manza Highway (万座ハイウェイ) would probably be open. I planned on taking the R292 up and over Mt. Shirane, but if that was closed I could make a detour on the Manza Highway.

The ride from Matsumoto to Hafudake was fairly straightforward with only a couple of average climbs to conquer before the final more challenging ascent to Hafudake at 2000m which would be where I would sleep for the night. A cycle path runs along the Chikuma River (千曲川) in Nagano (長野) that you can follow to get the the base of the final climb. It’s easy to follow but you do have to detour at times and use the much busier R403.

At 2000m the temperature would be roughly 20C cooler than at sea level so, along with a sleeping bag and mattress, I packed two jackets, a winter cycling hat, gloves, and other cycling gear that are usually put aside for the colder months. In the evening it all got worn and I was glad I brought them along as the bivvy bag recently ordered from Locus Gear hadn’t yet been delivered and the temperature at the top was close to freezing.

I arrived at the summit after sunset after choosing to take a forest road (林道) in Takayamamura (高山村) that was closed off to normal traffic. Before leaving I’d checked the route and distance of the road and noticed on Google Street View that it was all gravel. I managed to ride about half of it on my bike but had to push the rest. In hindsight, an MTB or even fatbike would have been much better on parts of the trail and it definitely fell into the Type 2 category of adventure activities. Next time, however, I will use the other road a few kilometers northeast that is open to normal traffic.*

After setting up my mattress and sleeping bag it was time to settle down for the night behind a large rock to shelter from the wind. Fortunately it was a fairly calm night and sleep came easily. As it was almost a full moon that evening it meant the night sky was too bright to get a good glimpse at the stars so for future visits it would be a good idea to check the phase of the moon before planning a trip. I don’t have the ability to put into words how it feels to sleep alone at the top of a mountain under the stars – just get out there with the appropriate equipment and give it a try.

The view first thing in the morning was simply stunning with nothing but mountain ranges as far as I could see south. It still amazes me that in a fairly small country that has a population of 120 million with one of the highest population densities in the world, if you know where to go, you can be alone in the wilderness with nobody around for miles. While camping on top of Hafudake it’s hard to imagine that places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya exist.

After spending a good hour or so admiring the view and packing up it was time to head east towards Manza (万座)  across into Gunma prefecture (群馬県) to wait for the gate to open at 8 a.m. so that I could take the R292 over Mt. Shirane and down into Kusatsu. Mt. Shirane is active and as of writing there is an alert in place so it’s important to check beforehand to make sure that the road is open. No pedestrians are allowed (there are signs in English) and cars are not allowed to stop. Environmental agency personal are scattered along the road too keeping one eye on the volcano, and another on the car day-trippers.

The decent into Kusatsu from the summit reminded me of the upper slopes of Mt. Norikura (乗鞍) – open, winding, breathtaking views, and fast! Unlike Mt. Norikura though, the R292 is open to regular traffic so you need to descend with care. Motorbikes, as usual, can often be a nuisance.

The road will drop you off in the centre of Kusatsu which has ample coffee shops, convenience stores, restaurants and more to freshen up and relax after a solid weekend in the mountains.

Getting back to Nagoya is a more of a hassle from Kusatsu as I had to take a bus to Karuizawa (軽井沢) , the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) to Nagano (長野), and then the JR Shinano on the Chuo line back home. Getting to Tokyo is much easier as there are more regular buses to Shinjuku (新宿).

*The route below does NOT include the gravel/forest road but instead goes up the normal road open to traffic.

Distance – 140kms (over two days)

Train fare – Between ¥3000 – ¥6000 depending on which train you take.

Elevation gain – 2000m

Campsite – rough camping at the top of Hafudake.

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Want the files for any of our routes? Get in touch and we’ll be happy to send them.

Matsumoto – Hafudake – Kusatsu

Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys

I’ve been reading travel and adventure books for as long as I can remember but I don’t think I’ve read a travel/adventure book that makes adventure sound so easy and accessible as Microadventures.

I first came across Alastair Humpreys quite recently when I saw a post on Instagram in which he had begun an adventure by following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee and attempted to earn a living from playing the violin in Spain. It was suitably insane enough to get me hooked on his endeavours and learn more about his past adventures.

As the title suggests, the books is based on the now fairly familiar concept of a ‘microadventure’ which is described by the author as:

adventures that are close to home, cheap, simple, short, and yet very effective. A microadventure has the spirit (and therefore the benefits) of a big adventure. It’s just all condensed into a weekend away, or even a midweek escape from the office. Even people living in big cities are not very far away from small pockets of wilderness.

http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/product/microadventures/

And that is exactly what the book is about – microadventures that can be done pretty much anywhere, anytime, with little or no money. Perfect, not only for UK in which the book is aimed, but at Japan too which shares similar lifestyles and population densities.

The concept of 5-to-9 runs throughout the book, in which you make the most of evening/early morning hours between work, has already got me considering short cycling trips into the local hills. In fact, to the author’s credit, I’m even beginning to question to the value of weekday road cycling just for the sake of racking up distance and hours. Sure, it keeps me fit and healthy, but wouldn’t it be even better to add a splash of adventure and just cycle without having to worry about getting home the same day? Much better to turn it into an adventure by picking somewhere new, packing the sleeping bag and bivvy and sleeping under the stars.

Until recently I’ve been struggling with the concept of cycling to campsites while hauling a tent up and down all those steep mountains just so I can pay for the privilege of sleeping next to complete strangers more attached to the latest camping gear and cans of Asahi beer than the surrounding environment. Why limit yourself to campsites or even hotels? I dreamt of that kind of freedom when I was travelling in my early twenties but even back then I mostly remained confined to Australian backpackers hostels and Indian guest houses. 

Of course wild camping is nothing new, even in Japan, but it’s always made me feel somewhat awkward. Microadventures, and in particular, Alastair’s admiration for the modest bivvy bag has changed all of that, and the book has made me realize – if somewhat overdue – that it is fine to not have any plans whatsoever, that it’s fine just to ride until dark, sleep, get up and repeat. Just don’t litter. It’s quite fitting that there are a number of chapters geared directly towards cyclists (any kind of cyclist).

The book concentrates on the UK but it can just as easily be adapted for Japan. In fact, with all these mountains and trains, I’d suggest it’s even more suited to Japan.

Buy it, read it, do it.

I bought the Kindle version and read it on my iPad. 

Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys

Ena – Kasugai (avoiding Route 19)

Route 19 which runs through the Kiso Valley (木曽谷) from Matsumoto (松本) straight down to Nagoya (名古屋) is a horrible road to ride your bicycle on. Unfortunately many cyclists are unaware of this and think that it’s the only way to get to Nagoya from the mountains. The Kiso Valley, which the Route 19 follows, is extremely narrow with not much room for anything other than Route 19 itself, the Kiso River (木曽川), the JR Chuo line (中央線), and a few houses and rice fields scattered along the river banks.

Fortunately there is another way. Starting in Ena (恵那) you can follow another river, the Toki River (土岐川) – which for some reason changes it’s name to the Shonai River (庄内川) as it reaches Aichi prefecture – all the way into Nagoya.

There are a lot less cars, the scenery is much nicer, and as a bonus it’s almost all downhill. This is a route that you take your time over and stop off in any number of small cities along the way to enjoy Goheimochi (五平餅), a famous sticky rice and miso paste delicacy from the region before rolling into Japan’s fourth largest city later in the day. You can also stop off at Eihoji (永保寺), a nice Buddhist temple and garden on the outskirts of Tajimi (多治見) and only a stones throw away from the route.

This route starts at Ena Station and ends where the Route 19 reaches the Nagoya city boundary in Kasugai (春日井).

Distance – 63kms

Elevation – Less than 400m

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Want the files for any of our routes? Get in touch and we’ll be happy to send them.

Ena – Kasugai (avoiding Route 19)