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 RideWithGPS.com.
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