Return to Utsukushigahara

Return to Utsukushigahara

When I returned from my first ride to Utsukushigahara, I was ecstatic about the amazing climb, the wonderful scenery and lonesome gravel road at the top, and the incredible descent where hairpin turns followed one another so quickly. But Natsuko was a little disappointed: “You didn’t go on the other gravel road.” It’s true, I had missed the turn-off for the “beautiful” gravel road that she had indicated on the map. I had realized my mistake only when I was already half-way down the mountain. So just before I left Japan, I snuck out for another ride to Utsukushigahara.
Two-thirds up the first, hour-long climb, I stopped at the stone statues that guard a particularly steep hairpin turn. It was autumn now, and clouds were covering the mountains. It seemed prudent to say a quick prayer and ask the gods for safety on this ride.
On this ride, you gain elevation quickly, and soon I was above 5000 ft.
I passed the little restaurant where the owner had given me two tomatoes with salt and pepper during my first ride, saying: “You need vitamins!” I recalled this nice gesture fondly, but on this weekday, the restaurant was closed.
I’d love to photograph the incredible road that scales the steep cliff wall leading to the plateau of Utsukushigahara, but without a helicopter, it’s impossible. Except when you ride a bike, and the hairpins unfold in front of your eyes as you cycle them, one by one.
The sun came out just as I reached the top, offering great views of the surrounding mountains. Up to here, I had just retraced my steps, but now my challenge was to find the “other” road to Matsumoto.
I had to try a few of the roads that led down the mountains before I found one that looked promising. I still don’t read enough Japanese to understand the wooden sign, but the forest track went in the direction indicated on my map.
It was the right road, and it lived up to Natsuko’s description. Flowing along the mountainside, it was fast and smooth in places…
…a bit rough in others, but always fun and challenging.
And when the forest opened up, the views were stunning. In fact, I enjoyed this road so much that at the end, I turned around, rode back, and then enjoyed the incredible descent to Matsumoto as a bonus.
The mountain road took me right to Matsumoto – I almost could have coasted to the train station. It was autumn now, so I just barely made it before it got too dark to ride safely without lights.
After dinner on the Azusa Super-Express – the Bento boxes sold on Japanese trains are excellent food – I arrived at Shinjuku Station in the middle of Tokyo. To think that just two hours earlier, I was still riding the old gravel road high in the mountains…
If you ever find yourself in Japan, I highly recommend the ride to Utsukushigahara. I put a map and route description of the ride on

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Comments (28)

  • Gugie

    Beautiful and wonderful, as always. You mentioned requiring a helicopter to properly photograph the ride. I’m wondering if you’ve considered using a drone to do this?

    December 10, 2016 at 10:52 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We’ve thought about drones, but carrying a drone on a bike isn’t easy! And they can fly for only 20 minutes or so…

      December 10, 2016 at 12:02 pm
      • Gugie

        MAVIC Pro, 83mmx83mmx198mm, 743 grams, would fit in your handlebar bag easily, 27 minute flight time. You could use it just for a few sections of interest…Perhaps The $1000 price tag for this might hold you back.

        December 11, 2016 at 8:48 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          We may investigate this, but so far, we’ve resisted the temptation to do “photo shoots”. What you see in BQ and the blog are photos of actual rides. If we have somebody flying the drone while we are riding, it detracts a bit from the experience and authenticity.

          December 12, 2016 at 9:15 am
    • Robert Cochran

      I guess I would not operate a drone outside of my country of residence, and even then only after applying for the necessary permissions. If I recall, in the USA, you need an amateur radio license of “Technician” class or higher to operate a drone. They are radio operated. I would probably discuss it with the local police and aviation authorities to be on the safe side, and comply with whatever rules are brought up.

      December 12, 2016 at 1:58 pm
      • Robert Cochran

        It does look like you cannot operate a drone in that specific location (Utsukushigahara at high elevations): drone operation above 250 meters is not allowed — if I understand the brief summary of the rules. Here in the USA, plenty of restrictions apply. For some classes of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, you need licensing and approval for flights.

        December 12, 2016 at 5:00 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I guess it’s back to renting a helicopter! 🙂 But thanks for pointing out that there are many rules, and we can’t just go and fly a drone.

          December 12, 2016 at 5:08 pm
  • C. Williams

    No handlebar bag?! 😉

    December 10, 2016 at 1:04 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Sometimes, I enjoy the feel of riding a racing bike, albeit one with wider tires. The feel of a “naked” bike is different, especially when riding out of the saddle. There is less inertia as I rock the bike from side to side. However, the saddlebag on the Firefly blunts that to some degree – I may experiment with carrying the load in the bottom bottle cage under the down tube to see whether I can get the “racing bike feel” even on rides that require carrying a few things. Jersey pockets are another option, but I prefer not to carry much on my back.
      For rides that require more luggage, may involve rain and/or night riding, I take my Mule, which is fully equipped.

      December 10, 2016 at 1:22 pm
      • kennethsamuel

        I’ve been happy using a medium sized frame bag on my bike. It’s easy to move between bikes, installation is fast, it has enough room for everything I need for an all day ride away from civilization.

        December 11, 2016 at 7:59 pm
  • Pi Manson

    Thank you for a really lovely post. It’s great to experience, if only vicariously, the riding in other parts of the world. Did you find yourself missing your dynamo lights and having to worry about the available daylight?

    December 10, 2016 at 1:05 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Riding in Japan: It’s really amazing. I highly recommend it, and I plan to document some of the rides so that others can enjoy them, too. I am lucky that Natsuko knows every mountain road in Japan, but even many Japanese cyclists don’t know some of the best rides.
      Lights: Yes, I wished for permanently-installed, always-available lights on that ride. I had planned to return to the station with easy daylight, but some technical problems (described in part in the current Bicycle Quarterly) had me run late. Fortunately, I made it just in time, but I was relieved when I pulled into the station square at Matsumoto.

      December 10, 2016 at 1:20 pm
  • Mike Arciero

    Thanks for sharing, Jan. Along with your ride report, is nice viewing the route on ride w/gps. (Perhaps posting these will be a regular practice?) I note that the climbing on this ride is in excess of the 100 ft/mile benchmark for “lots of climbing”.

    December 10, 2016 at 2:13 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Yes, the ride has a lot of climbing, but on a great bike, I find that it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Natsuko did the ride in two installments, staying at the top. That sounds like a pleasant way to do it. There also is a bus that could take you up the first hour-long climb. You’d miss the stone statues, but you’d get to enjoy all the other parts of the ride.

      December 10, 2016 at 2:26 pm
  • Yuzo yamamoto

    It was possible to meet that day for Mr. Jan at Utsukushigahara, and I was very lucky.
    And I read a wonderful report of the ride to Utsukushigahara and was moved.

    December 11, 2016 at 1:02 am
  • neil hyland

    Rawlands ravn ? sounds very interesting. Designed for 26 x 2.3 ,650B x48 or 700C x 40. Any chance of Bicycle Quarterly doing a test in the near future ? As an old racing cyclist i’m finding wider tires great to use but it’s hard to get over the old mindset of racing on 23mm tires at 120psi!!!

    December 11, 2016 at 1:48 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Once you realize that the road buzz you feel isn’t a sign of speed, but a sign of energy losses (suspension losses), your mindset will change. The best way to persuade yourself is by riding with friends. Reduce the pressure in mid-ride to 100 psi, and you’ll find that you are able to keep up with more ease, or surge ahead. It’s eye-opening…

      December 11, 2016 at 6:01 am
  • Robert Cochran

    The stone sign marking 2034 meters appears to have a wooden chest at its base. Do you know what is in the chest?

    December 11, 2016 at 6:31 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Good question. I was so taken by the view that I didn’t investigate the chest. Sometimes, these chests contain a stamp and pad, so you can stamp your journal. It’s a nice custom, and I’ve collected a fair number of beautiful stamps during my visits to Japan.

      December 12, 2016 at 9:16 am
      • Jon A

        That idea of having a stamp and ink pad is a nice idea, like birders tracking their sightings. When my daughter is older, it would be nice to combine her enjoyment of letterboxing with her enjoyment of riding.
        Beautiful photos of a beautiful ride, Jan.

        December 12, 2016 at 10:21 am
  • Jambi

    How you you fly your Firefly to Japan Jan? Do you take a carton box? Really curious to see how full-size bikes are “schlepped” around the planet!

    December 14, 2016 at 8:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Firefly traveled in the Ostrich OS-500 Airplane Bag, with a few foam insulation pipes for protection (and the rear derailleur removed and a dummy axle in the rear triangle). It’s been to Mexico and to Japan. I find that most airlines try to be careful with the luggage that passengers entrust them. Keeping the bag light and easy to carry helps – if it’s heavy, then airline employees prefer to protect their backs over our bikes.
      The best airline has been ANA – they really are careful with the luggage. They also don’t charge extra for bikes – which was great when I went to Japan with two bikes. I wish they flew all over the world.

      December 14, 2016 at 8:49 am
      • Vincent

        Hi Jan,
        We are going to Japan with my wife in May, and we want to ride bikes there : we are planning a 2 week trip.
        I was thinking of renting, but I cannot find a place with decent randonneur bikes.
        We are now planning to bring our 650B randonneurs… but I’m afraid of the cost. Are you sure that it is always free of charge to travel with bikes on ANA ? What are the conditions ?
        Thanks a lot 🙂
        Vincent, from France

        December 14, 2016 at 9:25 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You should check with ANA, but every time, they tell me that there is no charge, and they haven’t charged me, nor the others traveling with me. No conditions except it must be a bike. They measure the bag each time, and I get scared, but it’s only to make sure it fits in the luggage containers.

          December 14, 2016 at 10:03 am
      • Jambi

        WOW. So just a nylon bag! That is amazing. I use a big EVOC bag and that still gives me pause every time I check this in. Lufthansa baggage handlers are anything BUT careful.

        December 14, 2016 at 9:29 am
      • Robert Cochran

        Ship the bicycle by United Parcel Service, FedEx or DHL. They’ll deliver it to the destination and thereby save you all that lifting and lugging at airports and train stations, and worry about possible damage to the bicycle as it gets hurled onto conveyer belts or thrown into the hold from the ground. You’ll have more energy for bicycling!

        December 14, 2016 at 3:25 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          For travel within the U.S., this may be an option. Unfortunately, international shipping rates are incredibly expensive. Shipping a bike to Japan and back cost more than the flight itself.

          December 14, 2016 at 3:28 pm

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