This trip to Japan was my third with a bike since 1995. Things have changed a little but essentially, the unique culture and landscape remains the same. This trip was for the Single Speed World Champs (SSWC) in Hakuba, Nagano prefecture on the main island of Honshu. I decided to ride to the event via some areas I had travelled previously and catch up with some old friends.
A couple of nights in Tokyo and then straight to Takayama (Gifu prefecture) by bus with my bike in a box. I built the bike at the station and headed straight up the hill towards the Northern Alps (Kita Alps). The season in Sept is autumn so the weather was perfect for riding. I travelled light, bikepacking-style, with a sleeping bag for emergency but planned on staying at ryokans (family inns a bit like a B and B but more like a small motel). The thing that still surprises me is the sheer steepness of the landscape in Japan. Especially in Gifu and Nagano. Virtually impossible to build on, the slopes rise almost vertically around you, making for spectacular rivers and streams and windy mountain roads.
As I got higher to around 1400m (ASL) the onsen (hot springs) signs began to appear. I got to Hirayu Onsen, hung a left and kept climbing to Nakao-Onsen – the end of the road and the place where some old friends reside. Roadside vending machines ensure constant hydration, although it was getting cooler as I got higher in altitude. Arriving in the dark, and with a couple of tunnels to travel, I appreciated my dyno-hub and light set up.
Nakao is surrounded by stunning vertical backdrops, 360 degrees. It is situated at the base of Yake Dake (Mt Yake) a volcano that can sometimes be seen smoking ominously. It wasn’t til the morning, greeted by blue skies that I saw this incredible sight, once again. The constant background noise of the water gushing was a nice reminder of the hot springs that are a daily routine in these parts.
I enjoy Japanese food in general, but staying in the ryokans mean you get to experience true home cooking. The meals are usually 6-8 separate dishes each with individual tastes. The food is usually seasonal and sourced locally too. It was chestnut season so black rice and roasted chestnuts were on the breakfast table.
The trip was going to take me to the other side of the Alps where the race was. I rode towards Matsumoto over the Abo pass. This is essentially crossing the Alps from Gifu prefecture to Nagano prefecture. There is a toll tunnel that passes through the mountain, but bikes are not permitted. I quite happily took the much quieter but longer and steeper route that switch backed up and over the Alps. Such a different forest than in Australia, very green and dense. I was in the clouds, literally.
I caught up with a Polish couple also touring on bikes. It was nice to have company and share the experience. We reached about 1900m and had a rest while I fixed the rear wheel of my new friends. They were heading to Kamicochi so I would part with them on the downhill route.
At about 1400m the rain started and I descended into the apple-growing district at the foothills of the Alps. Matstumoto, food, onsen and a warm greeting at the ryokan.
Next day was following the edge of the Alps to Hakuba, around 80kms with little elevation gain. I chose a quiet route and enjoyed the change in scenery, passing through small towns gradually making my way to the ski field town of Hakuba and Iwatake. The weather was hotter, around 25 deg C so I utilised the vending machines regularly for hydration, Pocari Sweat anyone?
Rolling into Hakuba and again a warm greeting at the ryokan. The village is nestled close to the mountains, ski runs visible. The next few days I hung around Iwatake, soaking up off-season atmosphere and resting. The people all seemed very chilled as they have a very busy three months of snow madness; I guess they were enjoying the calm and sunshine. Most of the lodges and restaurants were closed.
The following days up until the race, the mountains constantly changed. Often in cloud or hugged by moving mists, the autumn colours quite spectacular. The race entry was about 350 and I guessed there would be about 150 internationals. Thursday and I saw some of them arrive, like me a few rode in, bike-packing style. I greeted Andy from Scotland, Mike from Alaska and some Dutch crew.
The race is a whole other story but in a nutshell, the track was brilliant, starting with 30-40 mins of climbing. Overnight rain made conditions muddy and sometimes slippery. Very colourful and scenic. A Kiwi named Angus who lives in Europe won the men’s and Amy from South Africa won the women’s.
Japan is an overwhelmingly safe place to travel. Riding a bicycle means you will encounter the kindness, generosity and honesty of the people, without doubt. Oh and convenience stores will be your friends.
Damian Auton - YRMTB President