Mizunami – Tatsuno – Akiba Highway

Mizunami – Tatsuno – the Akiba Highway

Sometimes rides don’t go according to plan. This trip was certainly one of them. This one had both positives and negatives which added up to probably the most epic day in the saddle I’ve endured for a very long time.

The original plan:  Day one – catch the train to Mizunami (瑞浪) in Gifu prefecture (岐阜県), cycle through Hiraya (平谷) into Nagano prefecture (長野県) and up the R152 following the Tenryu River (天竜川) towards Komagane (駒ヶ根). Head west and stop at Tatsuno (辰野) for the evening.

Day two – Cycle over the mountains near Tatsuno to Fujimi Panorama (富士見台), head north over Mugikusa Pass (麦草峠) and on to Kusuatsu Onsen (草津温泉). Sleep the night there.

Day three – Head out of the mountains around Kusatsu and down to Nagano station (長野駅) to catch the train back to Aichi.

This is what actually happened.

Day One

I caught the train to Mizunami as planned and cycled through Hiraya towards the Tenryu River. As soon as I crossed into Nagano prefecture the heavens opened and I was welcomed into the ‘real’ mountains with a huge downpour that continued for the rest of the day. I’d checked the weather forecast and was expecting clouds but no rain. On the R418 I had to take a detour due to a closed road. I then missed the bridge that would take me across the river to the R152 but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. So as the rain continued I chose to stay on the R151 through Iida (飯田) and all the way up to Tatsuno. As I was soaked through to the skin I chose to stay at a business hotel where I would be able to dry my clothes, get a decent breakfast and a good nights sleep ready for day two.

Total distance – 170kms

Elevation – 2600m

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Day Two

Checked the weather and all seemed fine although the following day looked like rain. Because of this I chose to alter the route and instead of continuing north to Kusatsu, instead hop across to the R152 which I had planned to ride the day before, take a detour up Mt. Nyukasa (入笠山), used in the Japanese Odyssey race, and then head south as far as I could before jumping on a train and heading back to Aichi, naively thinking that it was pretty much all downhill to Aichi. After 15 years of cycling in Japan I should have known better!

The first climb of the day took me along a gravel road following the Sawasoko River (澤底川), over a solid climb and into Chino (茅野). With roughly 4kms of gravel riding and a freshwater spring that promised a longer life to anyone that drank it, and a picnic area to take a nice breather at, it was a steady and enjoyable climb that got me motivated for the day ahead. This was after all one of the reasons I bought the Fairdale bike – to not have to worry about road conditions and to be able to cycle anywhere, within reason of course. After the tricky descent on the other side (an MTB would have been better) I passed Suwataisha Shrine (諏訪大社), hooked up with the R152, also known as the Akiba Highway / 秋葉街道) and headed south over the second climb of the day towards Mt. Nyukasa. The signpost at the junction showed that it was still a 17kms climb to the summit so this is where I had the idea instead of cycling all the way to Toyohashi (豊橋) in southeast Aichi on the Pacific coast. I sent a message to my wife to let her know the change of plan and set off in high spirits.

All was going well until I reached the base of the Bungui Pass (分杭峠) when I noticed the the river I was following was actually running in the opposite direction to the one I was riding. I was supposed to be going downhill. Underestimating the climb, it was at least an hour of solid climbing before I reached the top, but was rewarded with a long descent towards Oshika (大鹿村) where I had one more climb to contest before what would surely be the start of the long decent into Aichi and on to Toyohashi. Checking the time I noticed that it was already past midday and I hadn’t even done 100kms. Slightly concerned I weighed up my options and concluded that if I ran behind schedule any more I could always head east after the next climb towards Iida and catch the train there, or continue south as far as Shinshiro and jump on the train there. There was still plenty of time ahead so I made a mental note of my options and filed them away and continued riding.

The following climb up towards Shirabiso Heights (しらびそ高原) I had done before and knew it was going to be hard. Due to a landslide years ago (it seems to have been closed forever!) part of the R152 is closed so the only option is to climb up and around the landslide on the western slope of Mt. Otaka (尾高山). I’d ridden it on my road bike previously but this time underestimated the time it would take due to the extra weight of the Fairdale and the gear I was carrying. After a solid 90 minutes or so of constant climbing to reach the junction towards the top of the pass I could finally descend and rejoin the R152. As it was late afternoon by this time I decided to go through the tunnel on the R474 at the bottom and take the shortcut back to Iida. However, when I reached the tunnel it was clearly signposted stating that mopeds and cyclists were not permitted (I knew this. I’d seen it on Google Maps but for whatever reason I’d forgotten). Oh well, I thought, I can still descend towards Tenryu Village (天龍村), then either skip across to Urugi (売木) and Hiraya where I had come from the previous day or continue south (and surely mostly downhill from now) to Shinshiro (新城). I still had about 90 minutes of daylight left and I’d brought front and rear lights, as well as my bright yellow Rapha brevet reflective gilet, so even if I had to cycle in the dark I’d be fine.

Yet another climb. Daylight finally disappeared when I reached Tenryu Village so after a quick freshen up I rode the R418 in complete darkness. A narrow and winding climb out of the valley and into Urugi, it proved to be surprisingly enjoyable despite the darkness. There were a few cars and trucks that passed by occasionally so I knew that I wasn’t in complete isolation despite never riding the road before.

The R418 / R151 junction was the final place where I had to choose whether to head up and over the Urugi climb, back to Hiraya, and eventually back to Mizunami, or continue heading south towards Shinshiro and catch the last train from there. I’ve been on both roads before and wasn’t particularly keen on going back the way I had come the day before as I knew it was a considerably hilly option. The route south, I told myself, would be mostly downhill and therefore faster.I still had three hours before the last train and with only 80 kms or so to go I thought it would be a breeze. Somehow, however, I’d forgotten about Chausuyama (茶臼山), Aichi prefecture’s highest peak and another solid climb, the fifth of the day.

Aichi prefecture is renowned throughout Japan as being one of the industrial heartlands of the country, mostly due to the presence of Toyota. This means that the popular image of the prefecture is of factories, concrete, cars, and anything else that concept of ‘progress’ tends to imply. However, it is simply not true when it comes to the northeast region of Aichi.  It is a different world to the western region and one wonderfully suited for ‘hilly’ cycling.

Once I’d reached the summit pass on the R151 it finally evolved into the long decent I had dreamt of way back earlier in the day. Throw in an almost totally clear night sky and the sense of freedom at coasting downhill off a mountain at night under the stars, and it instantly became an experience I’d never forget. I’ve been told by other cyclists about the thrills of night time riding in the mountains. I was understandably apprehensive at first but now I’m already itching for more… That decent, those stars, the silence, the darkness made the whole day worthwhile.

I eventually reached Shinshiro station at 10:25pm, ten minutes after the last train had departed. I had my mattress and sleeping bag with me so contemplated sleeping rough – and in hindsight should have – but as I’d returned to the ‘city’ didn’t feel particularly thrilled with that option. Instead, I chose to follow R1 west until I came across a business hotel where I would crash for the night. There are usually numerous business hotels along most major roads in Japan and as I was following the national R1 and the Tomei Expressway (東名高速道路) I was confident that I’d find one. I didn’t. There were love hotel options but they did not interest me in the slightest. When I finally reached Okazaki (岡崎) at 1am my lights died. It was at the same time that I received a message from my wife saying that if I hadn’t found somewhere to sleep then she would come and pick me up. As it was only a 30 minute drive on the expressway I swallowed my pride, asked for a lift home, waited at the nearest convenience store too exhausted to reflected on the day that I’d just had.

Now though looking back on the weekend I’d probably do it all again, although I’d keep the distances a lot more manageable. And of course, I would do all I could do avoid being rescued at 2am in Okazaki.

Total distance – 260kms (if felt like a lot more).

Elevation – RWGPS says 5400m but I think it was more like 3500m

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Mizunami – Tatsuno – Akiba Highway

Nomugi Pass & Mt. Norikura

It’s no secret among cyclists in Japan that Mt. Norikura (乗鞍岳) is the highest road passable by bicycle in the country. Some call it the Japanese Alpe d’Huez but I think comparing mountains is somewhat silly. All mountains differ, and all mountains have the potential to change character within minutes.

Most road bike cyclists start from the car park at the bottom of the Nagano side where you can expect to be riding for about 17kms and gain over 1000m until you reach the dizzing heights of just over 2700m at the car park near the summit. Starting from Matsumoto on the Nagano side, or Takayama on the Gifu side is also possible although both sides will add another 40+ kms to your climbing and the tunnels on the Nagano side are some of the worst I’ve ridden through in Japan. One other lesser used route is from Nomugi Pass (野麦峠) in south up and over Shirakabe Pass (白樺峠). It’s a fairly isolated road without much traffic but plenty of wildlife. I saw wild monkeys, native Japanese deer (Nihon shika /日本鹿), and I was given a bear bell at the local campsite to scare away any of the larger wildlife that roam the area.

Camping, giant moths, Nomugi Pass – made famous in this old film – and the eery climb up Shirokaba Pass makes for a solid weekend of riding. I made a short film for my friends over at First Over Everything about a recent trip. You can watch it here.

Distance – 87kms

Total Elevation –  approx. 2400m

Campsite – Takasome Campsite  ¥1540

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Nomugi Pass & Mt. Norikura

Kasugai – Gero – Matsumoto

The good thing about living in central Japan is that you are only a few hours away from the Japanese Alps. The bad thing is that these mountains make planning a bicycle route pretty difficult at times. The Minami Alps in particular are tricky to navigate from the Tokai area. This means that, for the most part, you have to go around mountains to get to your desired destinations or brave one of the many valleys that are more often than constantly flowing with cars and trucks. Of course, if there is a road over the top you could take that too.

In April 2016 I decided to ride to Matsumoto (松本) in Nagano prefecture. For me the obvious choice for getting to Matsumoto was via Nakatsugawa (中津川) and the Kiso Valley (木曽谷) , a beautiful region of Japan famous for the Nakasendo (中山道), an old route from Tokyo to Kyoto. Unfortunately R19, which runs right through the valley, is popular with the aforementioned cars and trucks. With that in mind I chose to ride north to Gero in central Gifu instead, head east over Mt. Ontake (御嶽山), an active volcano that last erupted in September 2014,  then through Kaida Highlands (開田高原) and on to Shiojiri (塩尻), before heading up Utsukushigahara Highlands (美ヶ原高原) and down to Matsumoto Station to catch the train home.

I planned for 3 days and I would ride my Fairdale Weekender Drop carring a tent and all the necessary equipment for the trip.

Day one – Kasugai (春日井) to Hagiwara, Gero (下呂萩原)

Day one was cycling through familiar territory. I have cycled on the roads plenty of times and knew exactly what to expect – quiet forest roads with challenging but not overly-difficult climbs through small villages and occasional towns. It was nevertheless a full day’s climbing as I slowly made my way towards the foothills of Mt. Ontake and the Chuo Alps. Both R63 and R85 are quiet enough to enable a leisurely and pleasurable day’s riding where you will eventually reach Lake Kaneyama. From there it is a pleasant descent down into Hagiwara just north of Gero city. It was in this area that I had planned to spend my first night camping.

I originally planned to camp rough along the lake but as I did not have ample food and water for the evening descending into the town was the sensible option. After the descent I rode along in the centre of town looking for a place to camp. I remembered seeing a sign for a nearby campsite on a previous occasion when I had driven through the area and sure enough on my lefthand side I found it, so went inside to make a reservation. The campsite was actually a small garden in front of a Japanese minshuku (民宿) called Akakabu (赤かぶ) and the owners were quite surprised to see me, mainly because they considered it a little early in the year for camping.

It was pretty windy by this time and getting colder so they suggested I sleeping in ‘the train carriage’. Train carriage!? With absolutely no idea what they were talking about I was shown outside to a disused carriage at the end of the garden. It saved me having to put up my tent, sheltered me from the wind and at ¥1000 I had a solid roof over my head for the night. I declined the opportunity to participate in the owners origami show later that evening as all I wanted to do was crash for the night ready for the following days climbing.

Distance – 121kms

Total elevation – 1274m

Camping – Akakabu Minshuku ¥1000

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Day two – Gero to Shiojiri (塩尻)

Day two promised to be the big day of climbing as I was going to head east up and over the northern slopes of Mt. Ontake. The previous year I had caught the train to Takayama and then cycled the same route over the volcano and down to Agematsu before catching the train home. This time I planned to do a similar route but instead continue north and camp at Fujimi Panorama Resort near Yatsugatake.

From Hagiwara I headed north along R41 for a few kilometres before turning right and into the mountains via Suzuran Skyline (鈴蘭スカイライン) and R441. Both roads are some of the best roads in central Japan with breathtaking views of Mt. Ontake, Mt. Norikura (乗鞍岳), and Nomugi Pass (野麦峠) among others. Late April and early May are good times to cycle as the weather is usually just right. It’s a pity that you only see a small number of cyclist, if any, when cycling in the area.

It’s a long but steady climb up to 1970m on the northern slope of Mt. Ontake followed by a long descent into the Kiso Valley below. There are none of the usual shops at all after turning off the R41, with only a small resort at the top of Suzuran Highlands, and a ski resort on Mt. Ontake’s northern slope. There is a fresh water spring as you approach the top of Mt. Ontake but if you need to top up on supplies you’ll need to do it in or around Gero or Hagiwara.

Once you descend to the Kiso Valley try to avoid using R19 although it’s hard not to in certain places. The R19 is the main national road running from Nagoya north to Matsumoto so there are plenty of places to stop and buy supplies.

The original plan again was to camp but as it was running late and I had taken a lot longer than expected I called ahead an booked into a business hotel instead. Business hotels are pricey compared to campsites but most have a buffet style breakfast where you can fuel up to your hearts content for the day of riding to come.

Distance – 150kms

Total elevation – 2784m

Camping – Business hotel in Shiojiri (breakfast included) Approximately ¥7000.

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Day three – Shiojiri to Matsumoto (松本) (via Utsukushigahara Kougen / 美ヶ原高原)

As day three was going to be my last day and as I hadn’t used the tent so far I decided the night before to send any equipment I was no longer going to use home. For ¥1000 my tent, sleeping bag, camping mat, as well as battery chargers, dirty kit, and other things were sent packing back to Aichi. My knees and lower back thanked me for it while climbing up the Utsukushigahara Highlands later that day.

Utsukushigahara Highlands like the Suzuran Skyline and R441 has fantastic views of the mountains, especially Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳) and is well worth cycling up there if you can. However, on weekends there seems to be an endless stream of motorbikes riding the Venus Line and it if you don’t like the constant noise of motorbike engines whizzing past then it’s probably best to stick to weekdays. There’s a lot to explore up there and there’s a nice little lookout with a small shop that you can take time out on. If the weather is cooperating then it would be wonderful to take a book or Kindle and relax at the top.

The descent down to Matsumoto Station is straightforward and can get quite fast at times so make sure your brakes pads are in good order.

Distance – 68kms

Total elevation – 1516m

Camping – Business hotel in Shiojiri (breakfast included) Approximately ¥7000.

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Mt. Ontake from Bike Packing Japan on Vimeo.

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

Kasugai – Gero – Matsumoto