Weekend ride-out to Karuizawa

What started out as a last-minute daytrip with a couple of guys I met on Facebook the day before turned into a 714km weekend ride to Nagano and back!

So I was humming and hahing about whether or not to go on a ride when I saw a post in Gaijinriders that some guys were going to go for a ride to Chichibu area. I contacted Michael (the main instigator), and agreed to meet them at 7am at Kouenji station – so a pretty early start for me as that’s about an hour away.

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Day 1 – Saturday 2024-05-11

Tokyo to Karuizawa via the 100-year-forest in Saitama. Warm and sunny.

I met Michael, Hiroshi, Simon, and Alfonso at the station, and then we were off fighting our way out of Tokyo to the highway. Our first stop was Ashigakubo rest stop on the 299 where we met up with Satoshi. Everybody was on a different kind of bike, and we pretty much covered all the colours too! Unfortunately it was too early to get a coffee – most of the facility was closed until 10am.

From there we headed up to the 284 from which a lovely loop into the “100-year forest” branches off. The roads up there were pretty narrow and still had quite a lot of pine needles on them, so the going was careful, but very picturesque! After the loop we stopped at Bike Bento, a motorbike-themed restaurant where I had katsu-curry rice.

We then rode to the Dodaira Observatory with some spectacular views. Unfortunately no ice-cream up there, or, in fact, any amenities. Maybe later in the year? After chilling in the sun and chatting a bit we headed to our last stop, Arima Dam. For me that was going completely the wrong way, as I had picked a hostel in Karuizawa, but I was keen on grabbing a coffee before splitting from the group.

But when we got to Arima Dam I realised that I’d been there before – it’s a popular biker (and car) spot, but has no amenities either! So after a final set of pictures, I headed off to my hostel which was still a couple of hours away.. and I was not going the most direct route!

I went all the way up the 299, re-doing a few miles that we had already covered earlier in the day, to the Kanna River, where I turned onto the 462 for a short bit before heading north up the 45. The 45 was a lot of fun and connected me to the 43 via the 254. The 43 was again a lot of fun, and I got to my hostel a bit after dark, having stopped only to take pics of my bike passing the 10,000km mark.

After checking in to Koya Backpackers with Yusuke-san (who can speak pretty good english), I got a recommendation for dinner and discovered that I was right next to the very famous Hoshino onsen. Dinner was home-made soba noodles with tempura, and I treated myself to a small side of basashi (horse sashimi), at Tamagawa Shokudo only 5 minutes down the road from the hostel. After dinner I went to onsen, and while it was nice, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Tenzan Onsen in Hakkone.

Back at the hostel I had a couple of beers with the owner and some other guests, and then headed to bed.

Day 2 – Sunday 2024-05-12

Karuizawa to Tokyo via Mt Shirane. Cool, cloudy, some spotty rain.

Not a terribly early start, as I had ordered a breakfast and the earliest was 8am. To be honest, the breakfast, while nice, was not spectacular, consisting of a couple of rice-balls, some salad, and a miso soup. There was also an option for a wester-style breakfast, but I’m not sure what that entailed. Overall my stay at Koya Backpackers was great, the host very friendly, and I can highly recommend staying here.

My first concern was petrol, so I stopped at the first service station on my way north. It turns out I’ve been in this area before, at least once, and the 146 on which I found myself is a really nice road. Shortly after getting petrol I stopped again at a kombini to grab some lunch; my plan was to ride to Mt Shirane and climb up to the crater so I wanted something to eat up there.

I turned off on the 241, which is a spectacular road, lots of fun, which led me to the Manza Highway. This is a toll road, and while the tarmac isn’t the best, the road is really great and there are some awesome views up there. The guy at the toll booth told me the 466 wasn’t open, which is the next road I was wanting to take, but it turned out it was open after all. What ended up being closed was the 66 just past the Yamaboku ski resort…

Making the best of things, I had a coffee at a cute little cafe called Santa Bokujo near where the road was closed. The cafe is run by a lovely lady and we had a bit of a chat via my broken japanese and Google translate. She told me about a waterfall nearby where you can walk behind the waterfall. So after my coffee I started backtracking and stopped at Kaminari (Thunder) falls to have a quick look around. Reminded me a bit of The Valley of Adventure by Enyd Blyton, where the kids hide behind a waterfall.

From there I looped around to the west side of the 292, which is a superbly entertaining road and I had next to no traffic on it. On the way I tried (again) to get through a disused road which I had tried last year, but from the other way. I did get a fair way into the forest up the dirt trail, but then the gravelly road turned very muddy and I decided to turn back; my tires aren’t really up for mud. Later I discovered that I had almost reached a tunnel, so I wish I had have tried to keep going just a bit further! Maybe it’s time for some more off-road focussed tires..

The 292, apart from being extremely scenic and a great motorbiking road, also holds the claim to being the highest national road in Japan, with the top at 2172m. Of course I stopped this time around to take a couple of pictures.

Unfortunately when I got to the Mt Shirane parking lot, everything was roped off and closed, as the lady in the coffee shop had already mentioned. It actually looked semi-abandoned, so not sure if it’s just seasonally closed, or whether it’s been closed permanently.

As it was getting on in the day, I simply plotted my way home from there, but then couldn’t help myself, and took the 406 to the 28 in order to have a very late picnic lunch at Lake Haruna. The 28, incidentally, is also a very nice road. Unfortunately by the time I got to the lake it had started to rain, so I quickly ate my sandwich under the shelter of a tree, zipped my waterproofs into my bike gear, and then headed off to the highway back to Tokyo.

The ride back was pretty smooth, a couple of slow-downs due to traffic, but overall pretty rapid progress with a final blast around the Tokyo expressways. Even though it was all highways it was still not a bad way to round off the weekend; at least no fighting through stop-and-start traffic for hours on end as I have had to do in the past.

What an awesome weekend!

2 Responses to Weekend ride-out to Karuizawa

  1. Great read mate and looked like a fun few days out !’

  2. Thanks mate, nice vlog you have there!