I had always wanted to ride in Japan, however, had never found a reason to go. KC Deane had brought up the idea to go in October and experience the fall colours in addition to what Japan’s trails had to offer.
For those that don’t know, Japan is a world famous destination for winter sports. KC has been traveling to the Nagano region for the past decade and he was confident that the area would be perfect for mountain biking also. He was right.
Finally finding a window that would work with our busy schedules, we booked our tickets and were promptly on our way across the Pacific Ocean. The flight was smooth and easy. An eight hour direct nap from Vancouver, B.C. and we were on the other side of the ocean.
Landing in the evening, we gathered our gear and headed for the subway system. Due to our flight coming in late, we had only minutes to sprint through the streets and to our train. Luckily it was late and the transit crowd was scarce. During rush hour, we wouldn’t have had a chance with bike bags and luggage. The trains are often crammed and ready to burst open with the local commuters. Fortunately, the train system is very efficient and easy to use for visitors.
Finally, we arrived in Myoko to be greeted with long-time friend of KC, who had guided and translated for him in past adventures to the region. We stumbled into the Hotel Kougakuro late in the night, only to wrestle our gear to our rooms and crash out after 18 hours of travel. The rooms were beautiful traditional Japanese layouts. A Zen like environment, with beds on the floor and tables to cross your legs at. Perfect after a long journey or day in the famous mountain resort.
Due to the jet-lag we all woke up quite early, made our way to breakfast and to form a plan for the first few days of our trip. The Hotel staff were so gracious and welcoming, preparing a wonderful spread of fresh eggs, fruit, and coffee. Ohhhh coffee, nothing would have been accomplished without you.
We spent the next hour in the ski room, building our bikes and working the kinks out after travel. We loaded our gear and drove around Myoko to see what the town had to offer. We were out in rural Japan, where the little towns are lost in the mountains and full of lush Fall coloured forests.
The next two days we traveled all over Mount Myoko to explore the bike park and the trails much higher above. The bike park consisted of a muddy downhill track through the tall grass fields. The dirt had a clay texture to it, that made off camber riding very exciting. It was mostly off camber. Deciding to move higher on the hill to less traveled areas, we found the most beautiful Fall colours. Reds, oranges, yellows, and greens blending together to create a visual cocktail of water paint colours. Canopies so thick, they tunneled the trails and make them feel like natural waterslides.
We scaled our way down Mount Myoko to find ourselves at a beautiful Onsen (Hot spring) that had been framed up as a pool, between two large waterfalls. An indescribably perfect way to wrap up the day long mission we had been on. Once we managed to climb out of the onsen we made our way straight to sushi because that’s what you do in Japan…
Japan is a hotspot for volcanic activity and as a result, boasts more than 3000 freshwater baths. Most onsen's require bathers to disrobe completely. There’s also a strict “no tattoo” policy in most traditional baths. However, when in remote locations with an onsen to yourself, do your thing. I have plenty of tattoos and had no issues in the mountains. In the city, I did not attempt to visit the pools, out of respect.
The following day we had an early warning that a typhoon was moving in. 200 mm's of water to sideline us for the next two days. If you’re from the West Coast, you’re used to the rain anyway. It wasn’t much to worry about. However, the trails in Myoko would turn to a much more unrideable condition. We decided to be productive and make our way over the mountain pass and into Nozawa Onsen.
Nozawa Onsen is a ski village and a weekend getaway for the Japanese. Often you smell sulphur in the air from all the thermal activity producing onsen's, that send warm water down most of the creeks and rivers around the village. It is generally a warm and lush area but you would never know considering its reputation of record amounts of snowfall every winter.
We found ourselves at the Shirakaba Hotel whose owners had three sons; All of which were phenomenal skiers and had made professions out of it. Two of which loved to mountain bike also. They connected us with the local riding crew, who became our guides for the week.
The Shirakaba Hotel had a beautiful café attached, where we spent all of our mornings. Enjoying some the best coffee of the trip, this is where we created the day’s plan and became friends with the hotel’s family.
Nozawa turned out to be our gold mine. We were shown some incredible trails, through the ski hill and around the small town. Smooth, loamy and natural trails zigzagged down the hill through Buddhist temples that stand tall in the woods. These temples are hundreds of years old, made of precision cut pieces of stone and lumber; each one crafted and placed with reason. The woodwork was shaped so beautifully, it steals your attention in a drawn out feeling of awe.
Exploring a new part of Nozawa every day, we saw terrain that was better than the last. The weather wasn’t in our favour for most of the trip but somehow seemed work out for us just in time. The moisture in the clay filled dirt lead to a handful of hilarious crashes. After surviving the slip and slide called Nozawa, we packed our bags for the last time of the trip and headed for the center of the earth, Tokyo.
The train system was definitely much busier this time and we were “those idiots” taking up all the space with our gear… Sorry Japan…
After that bit of chaos, we were able to drop off our bags at the Prince Hotel, which was very conveniently next to the train system. Quickly polishing up, we made our way into the Tokyo night.
Tokyo is the home to roughly 13.6 million people with an additional 13.4 million visitors every year. It is a lot to take in. From the bright neon signs that fill the skies, the vast amounts of people flooding the streets and the wonderful smells of local restaurants. It is a lot for your brain to process. Sensory overload.
Our first stop was a downstairs hole in the wall sushi joint, literally did not have a name. For only twenty dollars, you can stuff yourself silly with the best sushi you will ever have. You can’t go wrong with a choice in restaurant as they are all amazing. Next, we made our way to Robot Restaurant
, in the Shinjuku district. If you haven’t heard of it, you should definitely look it up and then go, just for that reason. Imagine twenty girls dressed up, hammering on Suzuki drums while giant animatronic robots battling for ninety minutes. Lasers, robots, music… What else do you want?
The following morning, we woke up with a bit under the weather, for some reason… Went to the Tokyo fish market. A legendary spot, where thousands of people and all the top restaurants come to bid on the catches of the day. The energy was incredible. You can find almost anything in the world you could ever want here.
Finally, we cruised back to the hotel, grabbed our gear and made our way to the airport. We were beat. It had been a long exciting trip and our energy levels were depleted. We sprawled out in the corner of the airport lounge we commandeered and reflected on the time we had spent in this beautiful country. The weather wasn’t perfect, the riding took some creativity but the overall time spent in the East was rich of culture, amazing people and unbelievable experiences.
It was time to go further east, back to the West.