Cycling in Nagano
Previewing the Nagano Strong Bike Trip
We thrive on coordinating with races and sports events, but 2020 threw a wrench in our small business. So instead, we put our hearts and souls into creating alternative opportunities for training and fitness.
One of those opportunities was Nagano Strong, a two-day weekend cycle-palooza based out of Matsumoto, covering 230km with 3,300 meters of climbing. Unfortunately, a typhoon forced the cancellation of the bike trip.
Nonetheless, a crew of six (two in the support car and four cyclists) decided to do some recce work to explore the potential for cycling trips and training camps in Nagano – preparation for future Nagano Strong renditions, if you will.
On our first day, we took our bikes north of Matsumoto. The initial plan was to ride the 120km course of the Alps Azumino Century Ride. Since I had rode this course before, we modified the course to one which would offer less distance but more elevation gain.
We rode as a group of four with Haraguchi, a former keirin cyclist; Takeuchi, a colleague at Samurai Sports and our lone e-biker; Matsushima, who would be our support car driver on Day 2; and myself. We started off strong on the flats out of Matsumoto but the first 15km or so were often narrow and slightly congested roads that were not particularly memorable.
Once we began climbing, the roads gave way to mountainous scenery and fall foliage. With the steepest climb being approximately 300 meters over 10km, it wasn’t an outrageously brutal ride but rather, a great day of training outdoors.
On our ride, we stopped by the Ookiri Toshi (Google Maps), a uniquely photogenic landmark of a path hand-carved into rock. Once an important passageway connecting the Nakasendo to the Hokkoku Highway, the path also once provided travelers quicker access to and from the village of Omi.
We pedaled our way towards Hijiri Kogen (also home to the 2nd Altra Shinshu Tenku Trail Race organized by the KFC Triathlon Club just a few weeks prior), stopping by Cafe Terrace Momo for a quick but delicious lunch. As we reached the northernmost point of our ride before turning around, we admired the blue skies and breathed the crisp mountain air. More than ever, we were convinced that making Nagano Strong happen in 2021 was a priority.
Day 1 was a fantastic ride. Little did we know that Day 2 would be even more epic!
While we focused our ride on exploring parts north of Matsumoto today, we would venture south the following day. Our team had left Tokyo early in the morning to meet with the Nagano team at Lala Matsumoto, just off the Asuzawagawa exit. With free parking, an onsen, and easy access to the roads (for both car and bikes), Lala Matsumoto served as a useful start/end point for the day’s ride.
This route is full of Strava segments, and it’s a great ride for cyclists who feel comfortable with the distance and elevation shown.
bites and pints
We had lunch at Cafe Terrace Momo located at 1,289 meters (about 4,200 ft.), near Hijiri Kogen. The scrumptious smell of naturally sourced baked breads fill the crisp mountain air and invite you in to the cafe. We enjoyed a warm meal from their simple but filling lunch menu ranging from homemade veggie burgers to margherita pizzas and soups.
We kicked off the evening with a visit to one of two Matsumoto Brewery Tap Rooms. With a brew for every palate and both indoor/outdoor seating, it’s a great place to kick back with views of downtown Matsumoto.
at Shinmai Media Garden, Matsumoto (Google Maps)
Nagano conjures images of soba, game meats, and nozawana – all which are great, but you’d be amiss if you didn’t explore Matsumoto’s culinary offerings.
Filled with great restaurants and cute cafes, the city is home to a smorgasbord of quintessential Japanese cuisine, fresh local ingredients, and international fusion elements
The group of us tucked into a local izakaya for a hearty dinner. Packed with local ingredients, we were treated to a meal featuring everything from a hearty pork soup to tempura vegetables, fresh sashimi, and unique konjac kebabs paired with Korean-inspired beef sushi.
With the bulk of Nagano located at nearly 800 meters (about 2,600 ft.) in elevation, the end of October tends to see colder temperatures than many other parts of Japan. During the early fall months, the mornings and evenings are easily in the single-digits and can drop into the negatives, but the afternoon tends to be sunny and warm with temperatures reaching the high teens.
On our ride, we stopped by Suwa Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine complexes. There are four shrines to Suwa Taisha, and we visited Akimiya Shrine, which is north of Lake Suwa.
Located at the junction of the old Nakasendo and Koshu Kaido, it also served as the starting point for a very tough climb towards our destination, the Venus Line.
From left top: Making our way towards Lake Suwa before hopping on the Shimo Suwa Okaya Bypass; various images of scenery from the Utsukushigahara Highlands region, the Venus Line, and the Mt. Kirigamine area; the author triumphant at a lookout point on the Venus Line, adjacent to the Mitsumine resthouse (三峰大展望台) with a magnificent panoramic view of the Utsukushigahara Highlands.
After bidding adieu to Lake Suwa and Suwa Taisha, we very quickly began a series of steep climbs towards the northeast. Starting at 34km and an elevation of approximately 830m, we spent the next 80 minutes grinding just 13.5km to an elevation of about 1,667 meters.
At about 40km, we made a brief fueling stop at the Izumiko Koen Camping Grounds. We may only have spun our pedals for 6km, but that was quite possibly the longest 6km of my life. We set off on the second half of the climb – about 7.5km towards Mt. Kirigamine. Again, the climbs were relentless, steep, and brutal.
After a quick Japanese cafeteria-style lunch at the resthouse across from Kirigamine Ski Resort, we began our return trip Although we would encounter a few more punchy climbs over the next 20km, the toughest part was over. Eventually, what goes up must come down and we sailed back into Matsumoto before sunset, but not before the temperatures began to drop.
From left top: Some of the open rural roads that make Nagano such an amazing place to ride; making our way towards Lake Suwa on Day 2; cycling amidst Nagano’s beautiful outdoors; the fall foliage was just beginning to set in at the end of October; less than 50km and 1,500 meters of climbing before lunch.
While the mileage may not be impressive, packing more than 2,000 meters of climbing in under 90km was a satisfying end to our two-day recce. Next to climbing Norikura, this was one of my toughest rides. Despite the cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular fall views – it’s always Naga-YES for me.
All things considered, we spent a little less than seven hours on the road in temperatures ranging from the low-single digits in the morning, to the mid-teens in the afternoon.
The sun sets early in Nagano, so we wrapped up the ride a little before 1600, cleaned up at the Utsukushigahara Onsen (Shiraito no Yu), and drove back the 4.5km to Matsumoto station before going our separate ways.