Nozawa Onsen Shitamichi Touring

Up where we belong

To escape the sweltering summer heat of Tokyo, Noji-kun suggested we retreat to higher altitudes and make our way to Nozawa Onsen in Nagano along his optimized route. But for Noji-kun, “optimized” means avoiding expressways, large towns, or any road that goes in a straight line, and keeping as high above the heat as possible on the twisty mountain roads that make these islands so delightful. It also means that a trip that could take three hours requires waking up very early and arriving just before dark, but I can’t think of many better ways to spend that time.


We started with a bit of a hiccup: my rear brakes got weaker and weaker as we crossed the first pass, and stopped working entirely on the way down the mountain. Downhill twisties just aren’t as much fun using only engine braking and the front wheel.

But we were in luck, and there was a bike shop in Chichibu that was open early and was able to top off the brake fluid and restore functionality.

One last break to take in the view

Many long, meandering, wonderful hours later, we stopped at the overlook above the town of Nozawa Onsen, our destination, just beginning to fall into shadow as the low afternoon sun neared the mountains.

Long shadow

Our shadows grew ever longer as the roads and trees soaked up that magical mountain light.

Light painting attempt

Then a dip in a ridiculously hot historic hot spring bath to wash off the road dust and sunscreen and relax our tired muscles, followed by outdoor BBQ and beer at the inn.

Being a camera geek, I had to experiment with long exposures, light-painting the resting bikes with a flashlight.

Persied no-show

And since this was supposedly the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower, I lugged my tripod up to the shrine at the top of the hill, but all I got were pretty fixed stars (not that disappointed, actually).



After a full breakfast and another visit to the old bath house, we were ready for another full day of riding.

Top of the world

It was pleasantly cool as we rode along the spectacular ridge at Shiga Kogen.

Popular spot

And, of course, it turns out we were far from the only ones seeking altitude to get away from the heat on this gorgeous day.

Into the mist

Both coming and going we had some stretches of road where we were enveloped in mist, sometimes to the point where we could only see one bike length in front of us and had to slow to a crawl, but that just made it more breathtaking once we broke back out into the blue.


This is living.

The old Nakasendo road


Another in my series of posting things several months late.

I recently upgraded jobs from one grind in the bustling center of Tokyo to another, slightly better grind also in the bustling center of Tokyo.  But I had a bit of free time before my new job started, and a recharging session in the old mountains of Japan seemed to be in order.

Bike and Ontake

The first day was all about the bike. I took the long, slow, twisty,  roundabout way through the mountains of Nagano and Gifu, and stopped by Ontake to pay my respects to the mountain.


But my main goal on this trip was to reconnect with the older, simpler Japan that first drew me here.

I had booked a room at the Shirokiya inn in the old postal town of Magome, which was the 43rd of the 69 stations on the old Nakasendo road that linked the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Edo hundreds of years ago, and has been preserved largely as it was back then.

Shadows on the goheimochi sign

The old lady running the place suggested I park my bike out front, and the last rays of the setting sun spotlighting this old machine confirmed that this was the right choice.

Last light on the Harley

The cobbled road leading up the mountain showed my path for the next morning.

Night at the Shirokiya Inn in Magome

It’s not just me that thinks an old Harley matches this scenery pretty damn well, is it?



The next morning, I woke up early to hike the old Nakasendo itself, which winds through the mountains for roughly 8km to Tsumago, the next station on the postal road.

The old Nakasendo road between Magome and Tsumago

For the first few hours of the hike, I didn’t see another human being, although I did run into a family of Japanese macaques and plenty of signs warning of bears.

It's clear from things along the way that this path has been in

It’s clear from all this Mononoke stuff that this path has been in use for a very long time.

Cobblestone path over Magome pass

I think maybe I just really like winding roads, whether on two feet or two wheels.

After returning to Magome and changing back into my leathers, I then motored over the same pass on the normal paved road in a tiny fraction of the time.

I don’t usually prefer to ride alone, but this solo touring allowed me to do things like hiking and picking roads I’d never tried on a whim.  And every road I tried turned out to be gorgeous, with wild mountain wisteria blooming here and there and pure blue skies urging me to try yet another detour, to stay away from the expressways just a little bit longer, and to drink my fill of these exquisite mountains before heading back to the urban sprawl.

This turned out to be exactly what I needed to refresh me for the next step in my career.

I kept passing under wild wisteria on these roads--lovely!