Tour de Nagano to Niigata


Maximum Pace
Sep 24, 2007
Once again Ludwig and I decided to head into Nagano to enjoy some of the best scenery this country has to offer. 4 days of cycling over some great climbs, including Norikura, Utsukushigahara and Shiranesan, speeding down exhilirating descents and meeting some lovely people along the way has left me with many unforgettable memories. Yet another incredible cycling tour.

Total Distance: 500km
Total Ascent: 10,200m

Day 1 - Chino - Matsumoto via the Venus Line

Distance : 82km
Ascent : 1500m

After my last tour of Nagano I learned my lesson and decided to ease into the tour with a moderate rolling first day, rather than a 200km slog. It was my first time on the Venus line and I have to say it was an extremely pleasant ride, especially on a weekday with little traffic. The intial climb out of Chino was very hot, with temperatures reaching up to 41c on the road, but once I got a bit of elevation it wasn't too bad at all. For those of you who haven't ridden here I highly recommend it, although the weekends are perhaps best avoided because of all the motorheads in sports cars or on race bikes.

On the way I passed Lake Shirakaba (白樺湖) as seen in the photo below. The Venus Line is supposedly like Europe.....


From there I climbed up to Kirigamine (霧ヶ峰) 1925m and Tobira Touge (扉峠) 1610m enjoying the panaroma.


Immediately after Tobira Touge I took a right turn that went under the Venus Line and headed down a very steep and technical descent (R67) all the way to Matsumoto where I would stay for 2 nights. The business hotel was very reasonable at 8000 yen/night including a very nice Italian 4 course dinner and breakfast. Of course they had a washing machine and dryer for the all important kit washing ritual. Here's the link if anyone's interested:

Day 2 : Matsumoto - Kamikochi - Norikura - Matsumoto

Distance : 150km
Ascent: 3200m

I was joined by Ludwig from this day at 5am in hope of avoiding the worst of the traffic along R158. Things worked out perfectly and after passing through all those tunnels we arrived at Kamikochi at 7am on the dot. The most interesting tunnel was the one on the Kamikochi road, with a gradient around 10% and 3km long! Luckily it's open only to buses and taxis, which at that early hour were almost zero. It was my first time in this mountain range and I was stunned by its beauty. Simply breathtaking as you can see below. It was a bit chilly at this time in the morning, around 14 degrees, making jackets necessary for the descent.



On the way down from Kamikochi we went through the 10% tunnel again but this time it was all downhill and made for a roller coaster type ride, one where I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. I think we both reached speeds up to 70km/h in a tunnel! However the grin didn't last long as just before we hit the Norikura Skyline my front wheel started making some strange noises. Upon closer examination we concluded it was a bearing. I reversed the wheel which seemed to help quite a bit but it still made me nervous, especially with a 20km descent coming up. As I was doing some final adjustments Ludwig told me he'd go on ahead and meet me 300m up the road. No probs was my reply and soon after I left in pursuit. After a kilometer or so with no Ludwig in sight I was wondering if I had taken the right road, after all I'd been busy with my head down doing the mechanics! After about 3km's of climbing I was relieved to finally see him taking pictures as usual. After a quick chat I realised that his 300m comment meant altitude, not distance, and then of course I realised how stupid I'd been because if you've ever ridden with him you'd know that this German never talks in distance, only in meters climbed (a true sign of a mountain goat). After a few laughs we were rolling again and on the Norikura Skyline.

A word of warning to those doing this ride, there are absolutely no vending machines on this road until the very top, and NO running water streams to fill bottles. Being very low on water here, we asked the guy working at the gate and were directed to the office 3km up the road. If we hadn't been told about it we might have ridden straight past as it's not on the main road. Thanks to the patrol officers there who filled our drink bottles, it couldn't have come at a better time.

I was feeling better than the previous week, still not great, but good enough to look around and enjoy the view.



On the way down the other side we stopped at the same restaurant from the previous week. There we had some much needed soba and luckily missed a bit of rain while we ate. We were joined by a couple of other cyclists for lunch with one of them doing the race the following Sunday. It was nice chatting to them and the lodge owner while the rain softly fell outside. Refuelled we headed back out into the elements and begun the descent in earnest. My wheel was holding up well and only making intermittent sounds allowing me to grow in confidence and enjoy the descent. In no time we were off Norikura, through the tunnels and heading home to Matsumoto along mostly descending roads.

Once back in Matsumoto we went to my hotel and had the girl behind the desk help us find a bike shop. She did a sterling job and directed us to an ex pro's shop who rode with the likes of Miguel Indurain in his day. A very helpful guy who with a bit of persuasion popped open the seal on the faulty bearing and regreased it. Unfortunately he didn't have the right size replacement in stock and this was the best he could do. I was told to expect more noises but it should be good enough for teh rest of the trip. Apparently some grit had gotten in (probably on the last trip in that storm) and had done some damage. Once agan my HED wheels had failed me....only 6 months after replacing the exact same bearing! Will I ever learn my lesson and buy different wheels? NO, because I love the way they roll and especially how they look on my baby. The guy only charged me 400 yen for the service, what a great bloke! Feeling more confident we headed back out into the heat of Matsumoto and literally 500m down the road Ludwig got a puncture, making the old saying 'when it rains it pours' seem very relevant at this stage. After installing the new tube and inflating it a bit we rolled back to the shop to the owners surprise and borrowed his pump. He probably thought he was never going to get rid of us.

Day 3 : Matusmoto - Utsukushigahara - Kusatsu Onsen

Distance: 140km
Ascent: 3300m

After a later than expected start due to me and the Matsumoto castle we attacked the Utsukushigahara climb first off the bat. We followed the same route as the hillclimb I raced in July and the weather was much better this time round. On the way up we rode with a couple of guys from Kanagawa, one of whom works in the hospital my university is attached to. How crazy is that! He was young, fast and with no 7kg backpack weighing him down easily outpaced us. His mate however was easy prey for Ludwig and myself and was soon off the back. Anyhow, it was easy to control my killer instinct knowing what lay ahead in the heat, and also because I'm riding liking a complete muppet at the moment. The view on the way up overlooking Matsumoto was very nice indeed and helped take my mind off the young dude speeding ahead.


Once at the top (2034m) we were pleased to see that there was indeed a road, although it was gravel in sections it was completely passable and we never needed to dismount. There was a really nice meadow with cows, with #3050 in particular taking a real interest in my bike. Glad to see I'm not the only one who appreciates pure beauty and I was forced to move just as the drooling started!


We bode farewell to the cows and descended to the Venus Line. Being a Staurday it was much busier than the 1st day and with the amount of idiots driving at ridiculous speeds we decided to change the plan and get off ASAP. Before long we were back on the Nakasendo、then R94 climbing up to Jizo Touge (地蔵峠) 1732m. That is a brutal climb completely exposed with very long sections around 10%. In the heat it was excruciating, and we were forced to stop a couple of times to avoid heat stroke. Serioulsy, that was not a safe place to be at that time of day. By the top I was pretty much spent with still 30km of riding to go before we made Kusatsu. Somehow with a few more rest stops and by sucking onto Ludwigs wheel we made it to Kusatsu Onsen.


At our Pension that night there was a group of music students staying due to a musical festival/workshop. Apparently it goes for 2/3 weeks and we were invited to watch them practice in the lobby. Ludwig, a Biola player (a middle sized voice between the violon and the chello apparently) joined in and was a huge hit. To my ears he sounded very good, and later it was revealed he'd actually played in an orchestra! The many talents of the man! It was a great night and with the hot spring it was a perfect way to sooth aching muscles. I don't usuallly (well to be honest, never) listen to classical music but I really enjoyed their performance. I found myself lost in the music, dreaming of the scenery I'd seen over the last few days. What a friendly bunch they were, and it's something I'll never forget, especially seeing Ludwig in a Yukata going for it with a Viola! Priceless.


Day 4 : Kusatsu - Echigo Yuzawa

Distance: 135km
Ascent: 2200m

The moment we started climbing Shirane San I knew it was going to be a difficult day ahead. My legs felt heavy and I had very little power. I told Ludwig to go on ahead and enjoy taking photo's as I just needed to suffer alone on this day. We'd actually worked very well together on other days, grabbing one a anothers wheel when we were in difficulty. I just needed to ride at my own pace on this ocassion, sorry I hope you understood Ludwig. The scenery was certainly different from the race I attended in May. Everything was very green and exposed from the snow I'd previously witnedded. I found a nice tempo and made my way ever so slowly to the top. Again, could the scenery get any better than this?



Towards the top the traffic seemed to get a bit worse and once again we came across idiots driving like they were racing car drivers. Why the hell the police don't patrol these mountains more is beyond me! One guy coming in the opposite direction overtook another car on a blind corner just before I came around! Needless to say I was happy to begin the descent and get away from the summit, although we did pass the highest point on a Japanese highway. Ludwig pointed out to me that while Norikura is the highest road in Japan at 2700m, it isn't a national highway like Kusastu.


Once off the descent we passed by Shiga Koen and headed along the road for Nozawa Onsen, but took a right onto a forest road through a cool well shaded river valley. I'm sure these are roads never ridden on by any TCC'ers and made feel a bit like an adventurer.


Not soon after we entered official Niigata territory and as Ludwig pointed out the villages and roads definitely had a different feel to them. Mountains gave way to large rice fields and rolling hills, and the heat and humidity once again set in, feeling as if it was pushing us down with it's weight.


It was right here, at this picture on the right, just as we were getting within touching distance of our final destination that disaster struck. Ludwig having a toilet break suggested I roll down the hill first. Not wanting to seem like a pervert I naturally obliged thinking that it was straight ahead all the way down. Unfortunately I couldn't have been any more wrong and missed the turn completely. A little unsure I decided to stop and wait. After a few minutes I pedalled back up to the first junction to find no sign of my partner in crime. Of all the times for this to happen it couldn't have come at a worse moment. All day I'd been following the map, assisted by Ludwig's GPS, but always knowing exactly where we were. After a long and hot ride through rice fields with little energy I'd begun to rely totally on my partner for navigation, after all he had a GPS! I hadn't counted on being seperated and after looking at my own map I realised 3 things:

1. I had no idea where I was within a 50km radius on the map.

2. Ludwig had gone on thinking I took the correct turn.

3. I had no reception as per usual on my crappy Softbank phone!!!

To be totally honest, I panicked a bit as time was getting on and I still had around 40km on foreign roads ahead. I knew where I wanted to get to, that road down there you can see in the picture above, but there were so many farming roads I found myself running into a few dead ends. Also there was nobody about and it took a while just to find someone to ask. Finally I found the right road and descended down to where I was supposed to be but there was no sign of Ludwig. Still with no phone reception I was forced to roll to the biggest town so I could locate exactly where I was on the map. Unfortunately that wasn't for another 10km or so and by that time I finally had reception back. I promptly contacted Ludwig and learned that he had given up searching for me thinking I'd gone on. What a nightmare! We were forced to ride the last 40km solo with me trailing by a good hour. As Ludwig had a dinner appointment with a friend in Tokyo he had to leave on the earliest shinkansen and I was left to make my way home hansolo. After a fantastic 4 days cycling I felt a little down finishing off the trip so unceremoniously. Anyway, it was just one of those things that can't be helped. After a beer or two on the shinkansen I felt a bit better. All in all it was a fabulous cycling trip, and thanks to Ludwig for your company, navigation skills and great photo's as always. I can' wait for our next adventure.


Speeding Up
Oct 9, 2008
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Mike, thanks for the nice report, and of course for riding together.

It was unfortunate we lost each other so close to the end. I suspected relatively soon that you had missed the turn but thought you had just gone on, knowing that road would actually also lead into the Tashiro, the village we had looked at from the top. I was hoping you would be ahead of me in the village and stop for water somewhere. But no sign of you. So I took it very slowly, stopped a long time for water, asked people for signs of you. By that time I thought you should have really go to the village, and if you didn't, you were probably ahead of me. So I went on, but slowly, just in case. Eventually I reached the end of that side valley, the point where we had discussed at the top we would turn into the other valley. I stopped at the shrine next to the road, prayed for your arrival and safety (my biggest worry then was you had crashed somewhere and were bleeding to death...), tried to call you and left voice and e-mail messages. I myself didn't have reception with my DoCoMo phone until that point - I had already checked earlier. How glad was I when you finally called as I was about to reach the climb to the tunnel.

The whole thing was quite unfortunate. Normally we wait for each other at unclear turns. But neither of us were clear this was one - you because you saw only the road straight ahead, and me because the GPS told me to turn...

Hopefully it won't happen again, but it is of course always best to be prepared for the worst.

Nonetheless, I hope all the great scenery, exercise and company made up for this - it certainly did for me.

Cheers, Ludwig


Maximum Pace
May 25, 2009
Jealousy factor overload guys!

Stunning views of what I consider the real Japan. Ludwig I knew you were a musician but seeing you actually play is a revelation.... that one girl seems rather impressed!


Speeding Up
Jun 13, 2007
I am speechless, Mike - very cool pics. Make me want to plunge into all this scenery and absorb it all into my body! :) Congrats on completing it "10,000 meters of total ascent", very impressive!


Maximum Pace
Apr 8, 2008
Mike, Ludwig, great ride. And fantastic pics.

All those roads I've done myself but never on back to back days. It must have been something special.

There is actually a race "the tour of shinshu" which takes in lots of those roads. It's a stage race organised by a cycling manga writer and based on the mountain stages of European stage races. It's all quite low-key in the Tokyo~Itoigawa kind of way. We were talking about getting a foreigners team together to ride in it but it seems to have been off for the last couple of years.

I guess the guy who helped you in Matsumoto was Ooishi san? In addiion to the shop he also has a team. They too organise some low key events including one on Norikura:

Shiga Kogen and Nozawa onsen aren't too far from me so next time you penetrate into Niigata, I'll try to join you!