Matsumoto - Hafudake - Kusatsu
One of the benefits of living in central Japan is that most places are within a reasonable distance in relation to cycling and bike packing, and with the JR Chuo line (中央線) running from Tokyo (東京) to Nagoya (名古屋) around the Minami Alps it doesn’t take much time and effort to get out into the mountains.
For this trip I wanted to head to the southern tip of the Kita Alps (北アルプス) so planned a route that started in Matsumoto (松本) - an easy train ride from Nagoya on the Chuo line - northeast towards Mt. Shirane (白根山), a currently active volcano, before heading down to Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉) famous for its outdoor hot spring and onsen resorts.
As I was fairly new to the area I contacted Julien at Fairmean who regularly camps out in the region, and Adam from Ride Japan to get some advice on places to sleep, as well as to confirm whether some roads were open. Julien recommended sleeping at the top of Hafudake (破風岳), southwest of Mt. Shirane, while Adam confirmed that the Manza Highway (万座ハイウェイ) would probably be open. I planned on taking the R292 up and over Mt. Shirane, but if that was closed I could make a detour on the Manza Highway.
The ride from Matsumoto to Hafudake was fairly straightforward with only a couple of average climbs to conquer before the final more challenging ascent to Hafudake at 2000m which would be where I would sleep for the night. A cycle path runs along the Chikuma River (千曲川) in Nagano (長野) that you can follow to get the the base of the final climb. It's easy to follow but you do have to detour at times and use the much busier R403.
At 2000m the temperature would be roughly 20C cooler than at sea level so, along with a sleeping bag and mattress, I packed two jackets, a winter cycling hat, gloves, and other cycling gear that are usually put aside for the colder months. In the evening it all got worn and I was glad I brought them along as the bivvy bag recently ordered from Locus Gear hadn’t yet been delivered and the temperature at the top was close to freezing.
I arrived at the summit after sunset after choosing to take a forest road (林道) in Takayamamura (高山村) that was closed off to normal traffic. Before leaving I’d checked the route and distance of the road and noticed on Google Street View that it was all gravel. I managed to ride about half of it on my bike but had to push the rest. In hindsight, an MTB or even fatbike would have been much better on parts of the trail and it definitely fell into the Type 2 category of adventure activities. Next time, however, I will use the other road a few kilometers northeast that is open to normal traffic.*
After setting up my mattress and sleeping bag it was time to settle down for the night behind a large rock to shelter from the wind. Fortunately it was a fairly calm night and sleep came easily. As it was almost a full moon that evening it meant the night sky was too bright to get a good glimpse at the stars so for future visits it would be a good idea to check the phase of the moon before planning a trip. I don't have the ability to put into words how it feels to sleep alone at the top of a mountain under the stars - just get out there with the appropriate equipment and give it a try.
The view first thing in the morning was simply stunning with nothing but mountain ranges as far as I could see south. It still amazes me that in a fairly small country that has a population of 120 million with one of the highest population densities in the world, if you know where to go, you can be alone in the wilderness with nobody around for miles. While camping on top of Hafudake it's hard to imagine that places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya exist.
After spending a good hour or so admiring the view and packing up it was time to head east towards Manza (万座) across into Gunma prefecture (群馬県) to wait for the gate to open at 8 a.m. so that I could take the R292 over Mt. Shirane and down into Kusatsu. Mt. Shirane is active and as of writing there is an alert in place so it’s important to check beforehand to make sure that the road is open. No pedestrians are allowed (there are signs in English) and cars are not allowed to stop. Environmental agency personal are scattered along the road too keeping one eye on the volcano, and another on the car day-trippers.
The decent into Kusatsu from the summit reminded me of the upper slopes of Mt. Norikura (乗鞍) - open, winding, breathtaking views, and fast! Unlike Mt. Norikura though, the R292 is open to regular traffic so you need to descend with care. Motorbikes, as usual, can often be a nuisance.
The road will drop you off in the centre of Kusatsu which has ample coffee shops, convenience stores, restaurants and more to freshen up and relax after a solid weekend in the mountains.
Getting back to Nagoya is a more of a hassle from Kusatsu as I had to take a bus to Karuizawa (軽井沢) , the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) to Nagano (長野), and then the JR Shinano on the Chuo line back home. Getting to Tokyo is much easier as there are more regular buses to Shinjuku (新宿).
*The route below does NOT include the gravel/forest road but instead goes up the normal road open to traffic.
Distance - 140kms (over two days)
Train fare - Between ¥3000 - ¥6000 depending on which train you take.
Elevation gain - 2000m
Campsite - rough camping at the top of Hafudake.
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