13 Days Exploring Japan’s Mountain Bike Trails and Cuisine

Gorgeous scenery greeted us at Hakuba Iwatake MTB Park

Three years ago, my brother Kim and I rode our hearts out on an amazing mountain bike adventure in Peru. We had dreamed of such an adventure for years, but it had been hard to plan with my brother living in Copenhagen, Denmark, and me living in Northern California. We found the perfect excuse when my brother turned 40. For that story, check out 10 Days Spent Exploring Peru’s Sacred Valley

Not long after, Kim sent me a message: “Next destination: Japan.” Three years later, I turned 40. I turned off my email, Slack, and calendar and boarded a plane in San Francisco. Kim did the same in Copenhagen. On a summer night in August last year, we finally high-fived in Tokyo. A few days later, my old college buddy Nick joined us, ready for adventure.

Day 1 to 3: Chino

Paul is ready to lead, Kim can’t wait to take a bite of the trail.

After one night in Tokyo with obligatory ramen and Sapporo, Kim and I took the train to Chino, where we met Paul Chetwynd, our guide for the next week. Paul is a bit of a mountain biking legend. Back in the 80s he raced at the highest level in North America before moving to Japan, where he continued racing and started his bike tours company

We started off with an easy ride around Hara to loosen the legs. A typhoon had passed through just a week prior and the damage was noticeable with branches everywhere. We rode a bit on the Salt Road (Shio no Michi), which in ancient Japan was a road (kaido) used to transport salt from the ocean to Shinano Province for processing. In some places the trail was basically non-existent, while in others it was a bit more flowy. Paul assured us today was merely an appetizer. 

Green and natural trails are everywhere around Chino

Paul had arranged more local riding around Chino the next day. We were skeptical based on the trail quality the previous day, but our doubts were quickly put to shame. While the previous day served as the appetizer, today, the first course of our 7-day pre-fixe dinner was served. After a 5-mile climb, we were rewarded with sweet, mulchy all-natural singletrack all the way to the bottom. It was steep and a bit technical in places, but nothing that would scare off any capable mountain biker. Or Kim.

We were off to the Fujimi Panorama Resort. Although we were focused on XC today, we had to do one run in the downhill park, just to check the conditions. Fujimi doesn’t have a lot of different lines, but it is long, well maintained, and there’s something for both the novice and the expert. With our downhill itch scratched, it was time to explore the backside of the mountain.

Best. Idea. Ever.

After a 20-minute climb, we hit the most amazing trail carving its way through a lush, thick underground of bear grass. Clearly, amazing work had secretly been done on the natural trails, which resulted in an endless flow of berms and zippy slalom terrain.

One of Japan’s favorite pastimes is a visit to the onsen, the local hot spring. Japanese men, women and children go there regularly after work or during the weekend. With our tattooed arms, we had assumed this experience was out of reach. In Japan tattoos are synonymous with organized crime, the Yakuza, which means that anyone with ink is usually banned from visiting. We were pleasantly surprised to learn it wouldn’t be a problem at the local onsen. 

At the entrance women and men separate. Before entering the water naked, you have to wash off. It’s a family affair, as fathers sit on small stools in front of a mirror and wash and shampoo their boys, while grandpas pull out their razors for a close shave.

Kim dipped his tender muscles in the scalding hot water, then he headed for the sauna before wrapping up his session with a cold bath. One day in and he was already desperately trying to recuperate. 

After having conquered the Shirakaba 2 in 1 Ski Field, the last remaining energy was spent wisely

Turns out Kim is smarter than he gets credit for. Had I known about the “punchy” climb awaiting us on day three, I might have opted for the cold bath too. As we headed up to the Shirakaba 2 in 1 Ski Field, Paul promised that we would be rewarded with a particularly nasty climb up the ski run. It sure delivered. With +30% grades in places it was close to being unrideable. “We’ll be seeing God soon” exclaimed Paul just before we hit the last, and worst, part of the climb. 

After lunch, we picked up Nick at the train station. And then there were three pale riders.

Three pale riders exploring the backside of Fujimi Panorama Resort

Day 4 to 7: Hakuba and Matsumoto

View from the trail overlooking Matsumoto.

We were off to Hakuba, a village in the Japanese Alps just outside the city of Nagano that was the venue for several disciplines in the 1998 Winter Olympics. With terrain optimal for skiing, you know it’s optimal for some downhill mountain biking.

There are two main lines at the Hakuba Iwatake MTB park: the Alps Downhill Course and the Kamikaze Downhill Course. Both are great, and you can swap from one to the other in several locations, adding to the variety of your runs. We started on the Alps course, which is the easier and longer line with more than four miles of thrilling flowy trail. Getting comfortable, we switched to the Kamikaze course, which added a bit on the technical side with tabletops and more rocky lines.

We started drilling the berms with more gusto. As if to tell us not to get too cocky, both Kim and Nick had crashes, with Kim jumping into a bank in the woods and Nick’s front wheel sliding away from under him in a slippery corner. No blood, no glory. 

An eventful evening at a traditional ryokan in Hakuba. It was difficult to keep that kimono in place as the night progressed.

Later, we checked in at Hakuba Onsen Ryokan Shirouma-so, which was quite an upgrade from the cozy pensions we had stayed in previously. We beelined for the private onsen and changed into a kimono, which was the only thing we wore for the rest of our stay. So airy (can you imagine?) and relaxing.

With an amazing meal in front of us, a giant draft of Kirin and a bottle of sake each, the soreness of our muscles vanished, and the evening was filled with laughter.

We woke up to rain, which is bad news for mountain biking in Japan. No one is officially allowed to repair and work on the trails in Japan, so they’re very fragile, and riding them in the rain would just destroy them. We did get a little fix in on some local fire roads before traveling to our next destination, Matsumoto, to see one of Japan’s premier historic castles. 

Claus in front of Matsumoto Castle, also known as the Crow’s castle.

Matsumoto Castle, also known as the Crow’s Castle (Karasu-jo) due to its black exterior, was built in the sixteenth century and it’s an impressive one. It’s a well-fortified military castle complete with boulder drop holes and openings to fit gun barrels.

The best part of traveling is when you can venture off the beaten path. We met a local couple at Matsumoto Brewery and they encouraged us to come with them to a burger joint around the corner, where local DJs were playing. I’m glad we did. As the DJs spun their records we danced and talked all evening. Our Japanese friends have been open and welcoming ever since we arrived in Japan, and tonight was no exception. 

The riding in Matsumoto was exquisite. Kim and Nick dropping in behind Paul.

The riding around Matsumoto is fantastic. The next day, we started off traversing a ridge with some super steep drops (seats down boys!), then slalomed through a meadow with the most inviting green grass, followed by a narrow trail with a serious drop on the side. Exhilarated from the run down, we climbed up the road to yet another gorgeous trail. Our tires connected with the trail like rice on seaweed, and we rode in pure bliss for the rest of the day.

Nick ready to tackle yet another perfect trail in Matsumoto.

Day 8 to 9: Kanazawa

Fresh fish as far as the eye could see at the Omicho Ichiba market in Kanazawa.

The van was packed early, and we were ready for our last ride. We started with a long steep road climb (it got a little emotional for Kim) before entering our last descent. To the surprise of no one, the trail again was amazing with natural berms cut deep between the trees.

The mountain biking part of the trip was over. It was time to indulge in Japan’s amazing food culture. After saying goodbye to Paul, our trusty and super chill guide (thank you Paul!), we boarded the Shinkansen train and took off at 240 MPH to Kanazawa.  

In preparation for the trip, we had watched an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown: Masa’s Japan.” Bourdain had created an itinerary for A Perfect Day in Kanazawa and we followed it to a T. From eating fresh sea urchin at the Omicho Ichiba market early in the morning to strolling through the Kenrokuen Garden to eating lunch at the fishmongers’ local hangout. It was perfect indeed. In the evening we ate wagyu beef more tender than Michael Bublé’s voice, and we explored the Kanazawa nightlife, ending up in a smoky little karaoke bar. We sang our hearts out with voices as tender as a slab of overcooked cube steak.

Day 10 to 13: Tokyo

Sometimes you just want to sit in a booth alone and enjoy your ramen. Ichiran in Shinjuku Tokyo offered up the best ramen we had ever tasted.

It was time to return to the bustle of Tokyo. We arrived at Shinjuku station, where more than 4 million people pass through every day. With 13 million people total in Tokyo, there’s a neighborhood for any mood. One day we went on a food tour in Ueno, the next we explored gadgets and anime in Akihabara, aka Electric City. We went shopping in Shinjuku, and we crossed the famous Shibuya Crossing on our way to a concert with 90s indie rock band Swervedriver.

We wrapped up our trip with a visit to Michelin-starred Imafuku in Tokyo.

As we did in Peru three years earlier, we wanted to finish the trip with a visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant. We dressed up for the first time on the trip, ready for some serious shabu shabu at Imafuku, located in the Minato neighborhood. 

As our trip was coming to an end, we started discussing the next destination. Riding the jungle in Thailand. MTB and wine in South Africa. Getting lost in Patagonia. We’re now adding all our ideas to our joint Flipboard magazine and have started the clock. Two years from now, Kim turns 45. We’ll be celebrating on some sweet singletrack somewhere in the world.

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