Every now and then, Samurai Sports staff and friends write about their experience around Japan. From long rides to trail runs and mountainous hikes, you'll learn the endless possibilities when it comes to exploring Japan actively.
Throughout the day, the weather had been unstable with scattered drizzles, moments of sunshine, and fast moving dark clouds. After a late lunch at Chiroru, we decided that the Nomugi Pass route on the other side of the ominous clouds would be worth a try. Back at the Guesthouse Raicho, just two of us hopped on our bikes while the other two decided to escort us in the car. Another decided to take a nap. Smart guy.
From Raicho, we biked about 35KM through villages, past rice paddies, and up steep roads to the summit at about 1,700 meters (about 5,575 feet - Denver is at 5,280 feet). There weren't many vehicles but the roads are open to traffic so it's best to stay alert at all times. Once we started the climb, the air gradually became wetter and thinner. Whether it was due to the movement of the clouds or the shade under the trees, there were several darker and cooler spots that added a slightly bleak, if not eerie ambiance to our surroundings. Visibility would turn in a snap as clouds of mist rolled in and out silently, engulfing us in a transparent fog.
Midway through our climb, I heard some loud rustling beyond the guardrails, followed with some angry grunt-like snorts. Ha, I may have grown up in the city but I knew damn well that whatever was behind the guardrails wasn't going to be a cute teacup piglet or a friendly doggo. I instinctively increased my cadence. It was not my day to die a horrendous death on my roadbike and without firearms, I refuse to meet a wild boar or its crew, ever.
Eventually, we reached the peak of Nomugi Pass in one piece. Thanks to the unstable weather, we were the only ones at the top where the borders of Gifu and Nagano prefecture meet. What would probably have been stunning mountain scenery was blocked by fog. The soba store was closed, the vending machine was abnormally expensive, and little gnat-like flies surrounded the new shipment of supple, fresh meat. We decided to make our descent almost right away.
We had barely moved when we heard the familiar jingle of the Japanese public service announcement declaring a heightened state of alert due to bear sightings. It was not my day to die a horrendous death on my roadbike and without firearms, I refuse to meet a wild bear or its crew, ever. We hopped off our bikes, loaded them on to the top of our support vehicle, and rode back to Raicho in the comfort of the plush seating of a Toyota.
About Nomugi Pass
Nomugi Pass is not nearly as well-known among cyclists but it has an interesting (if not downright depressing) history worth knowing in itself. During the late 19th and early 20th century (Meiji and Taisho periods), the pass served as a convenient and necessary but treacherous link among neighboring cities. Specifically, Nomugi Pass was most often used by women and girls traveling to silk-spinning mills. The paths then were dangerous and with the extremes in weather, a safe passage was never guaranteed.
On the side of the road, you'll see the occasional stone arch entrance which were built to harbor travelers from the elements. However, these entrances are also rumored to provide access to secret passageways and tunnels throughout the pass. We didn't stop to find out but the creepiness factor was 100% there.
After a damp day of drizzle and inclement weather, we woke up to clear blue skies and the sun beaming. Small victories. With the weather on our side, we hopped on our bikes and left Guesthouse Raicho towards Mt. Norikura. We started at an elevation of just below 1,500 meters and gradually pedaled our way up about 1,200 meters. The roads at Mt. Fuji stop at around 2,300 meters so at a smidge over 2,700 meters, Norikura is the highest point one can travel by road in Japan.
In a bid for nature conservancy, private vehicles have not been permitted on the Norikura Sky Line road since 2002. However, taxis and buses still roam the roads (carefully) so cyclists must stay vigilant on both the ascent and descent. Naturally, the roads are steep, long, and winding. Depending on the weather, you'll be treated to spectacular views of the Japan Alps and the path you have pedaled (or mashed). The views however, can be fleeting and change frequently with the wind patterns and movement of clouds.
A truly cozy place with the comforts of a home away from home. The guy who runs the place speaks English well and according to online reviews, is super helpful (I traveled with a group of Japanese folks who are very familiar with the area, so we were self-sufficient). From dormitories to private rooms with ensuites, different kinds of lodging are available to fit a a range of budgets. Keep in mind that this area isn't Vail (Colorado) so you shouldn't expect a red carpet rolled out with all the bells and whistles.
With only a handful of places to eat in the area that seem to operate on irregular hours, it's a good idea to bring your own food and prepare meal(s) in the Guesthouse Raicho community kitchen. There is really only space for two parties in the kitchen at one time but it's clean and well-stocked with everything you need to make your meal. Additionally, for an affordable ¥500 per person, ingredients (both prepared and make your own) for breakfast are available (requires advanced booking).
Parking is available and Guesthouse Raicho is within 5 minutes walking distance to the Norikura Tourist (Kankou) Center. From Matsumoto station, take the Alpico bus bound for Norikura Highland and alight at Norikura Kankou Center. Alternatively, from Takayama station, take the bus bound for Matsumoto station and alight at Oyakodaki.
Resthouse Tirol (pronounced chiroru)
For a long-ish lunch with fantastic views of farmland meadows, Resthouse Tirol offers a carefully curated menu centered around locally sourced plants and vegetables and handmade soba. Whatever you select off of the menu will include a few additional plates, including appetizers and dessert using soba ingredients! A word of caution for those even slightly wary about the thought of eating fried plants that resemble backyard weeds - you may want to steer clear of the tempura here. Depending on the time of day and week, the restaurant may be rented out or very busy; call ahead to confirm space availability. Additionally, those on a tight schedule may need to find a different place as the kitchen and service tend to move at a leisurely pace. For more information, check out their Facebook (Japanese only). During the summer months, you can also walk across to Bandoko Merryland farm on the site of a defunct ski area overlooking lush green pastures. Relax while you pet goats, savor fresh goat's milk, and enjoy fresh ice cream.
Yum Yum Tree Norikura Kuchen Factory (pronounced koo-hen)
Swing by before leaving Norikura. This is where you want to go to purchase the omiyage for the family and colleagues you left behind. Treat yourself to their baumkuchen made in all sizes and flavors, including chocolate, apple cinnamon, and original. Prices range from ¥600 to about ¥3000; gift sets are also available. For the budget-conscious (or if you just don't really care for your colleagues), Yum Yum Tree sell baumkuchen "scraps" for a very reasonable price. Check out their Facebook (Japanese only) or browse their online store.
Good to Know
The temperatures drop noticeably as you climb and even in the midst of the scorching summer, Norikura will have scattered piles of snow. Bring a lightweight waterproof jacket or layer, especially for the descent.
Those interested in reaching the very peak of Mt. Norikura will have to exchange their cleats for something less clunky and hike by foot for about an hour.
The roads leading to summit of Mt. Norikura are only open during the summer months of July through mid-October.
3 women, 2 men and 5 road bikes in 2 cars
About 2.5 hours from Hashimoto (Kanagawa) to Matsumoto (Nagano)
1 ride up Nomugi Pass on a rainy day (about 35KM)
1 ride up and back down Norikura on a sunny day (about 40KM)
Stay Here: Guesthouse Raicho
Eat Here: Chiroru for soba and tempura. Yum Yum Tree for non-traditional baumkuchen.