Agematsu – Mt. Ontake

I did a short trip from Agematsu (上松) on the Nakasendo (中山道) to Mt. Ontake (御嶽山) recently, catching the late afternoon train from Kachigawa (勝川) north of Nagoya to Nakatsugawa, where I changed trains to Agematsu. Altogether about two hours of travel. From there I rode just under 40kms or so west towards Kaida Kogen (開田高原) before finding shelter in a small picnic area at the side of the road for the night.

These areas are perfect for bike packing in Japan – easy to find, sheltered from the rain, and quite often have toilets and amenities nearby.

I settled down for the night and surprisingly managed to sleep for a solid 8 hours or so. Maybe it was the calming sound of the nearby river or simply tiredness after waking up at 4am earlier that day.

After packing up I headed up Mt. Ontake to superb views of not only the volcano itself but also the ‘Alpe d’Huez’ of Japan, Mt. Norikura (乗鞍), and Ishikawa prefecture (covered in cloud) in the far distance.  From there I rode the R435 and R441 across the northern slope of Mt. Ontake (still erupting) down into Gero Onsen and back home. I’ve written about riding here before so take a look if you haven’t already.

Train fare – ¥1940 (single)

There is no planned route for this trip but if you want any help with planning your own please send me a message.

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Agematsu Station, Nagano
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Riding towards Mt. Ontake, Nagano
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Quick break, Kaida Kogen, Nagano
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Hotel for the evening
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Bike packing in Japan is easy
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Mt. Norikura (Japan’s ‘Alpe d’Huez’)
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Mamakodake (継子岳), Nagano
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Towards Ishikawa
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Mt. Ontake (still erupting in the distance), Gifu
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Fairdale Weekender Drop
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Northern slopes of Mt. Ontake. The snake-like formation is Japan’s largest ever lava flow apparently.
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Screenshot of day two
Agematsu – Mt. Ontake

Shimanami Kaido with First Over Everything

Bike Packing Japan hasn’t had a chance to ride the iconic Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道) route yet but Bradley from First Over Everything has and he made a video this time last year.

As it’s one of the most popular rides in Japan for foreign tourists it’s well worth taking the time out to watch.

As I haven’t ridden it yet I’m not in a position to offer advice on where to stay etc but as it’s so popular logistic shouldn’t be a problem. 

Shimanami Kaido with First Over Everything

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

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

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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Ena – Kasugai (avoiding Route 19)

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

Mizunami – Tatsuno – Akiba Highway