Cycling through the bright yellows and the reds of the autumn mountains is the favorite time of year to ride for many cyclists, myself included! The low traffic roads of south Niigata, Japan, offer great opportunities for autumn cycling!
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The Gear – Autumn cycling temperatures can vary
The mountains passes can be quite high (this route has two, one at 1350m and another at 1550m) and temperature vary a lot from me station area (which is located at 150m above sea level). Consequently, I would definitely recommend a good pair of gloves and layers especially for the evening descent.
The Location – The mountains but still accessible from Tokyo
Southern Niigata and Aizu are some of my favorite places for autumn cycling in Japan. The scenery keeps changing and the autumn colors make for spectacular cycling
In north Kanto, using the Shinakansen network this route is easy to get to! You can take your bike on any train in the country so long as you put it in a bag. The train to Niigata (Urasa Station) is about an hour and a half from Tokyo Station.
The Route – Urasa to Aizu and back again (Via a different road)
This route is best done with an overnight halg in the Hinoemata and can be done either direction. If riding from West to East (the preferred way of this author), the first day is quite a significant day and an early start is recommended as it gets dark before 5PM when the colours are best, which is typically just before the November 3 Culture day national
The second day can be quite flexible as there are many train stations in many directions that are within easy reach
Day 1 – Urasa (Niigata) to Hinoemata (Fukushima) – Lakeside autumn colors
The first day sticks to National Route 352 for pretty much the entire day. Route 352 is often appears in lists of the most beautiful national roads of Japan.
Ridden from west to east the day 1 can be quite hard (though conversely it can be a beautiful and relatively easy ride when form West to East). Starting from the Joetsu Shinkansen station of Urasa via Koide the route goes into the mountains. You’ll definitely want to stock up on food for the day at one of the convenience stores in Koide as there are no store along the route until you get over the final hill into Hinoemata
The first pass of the day, Shiori Pass, is a big 1000m altitude change pass but it offers good lookouts the entire way as it it is cut into the side of the mountain
Once over Shiori Pass, Route 352 winds it’s way around the edge of Lake Okutadami. The Narrow road wiggles along the side of the take and with a few hills offers beautiful views along the way. There are some hills but but they aren’t steep and aren’t log. However, there is an unlit tunnel and goes around a bend so you’ll want to bring a light for that.
After leaving the lake, the second big pass of the day presents itself. It’s an 800m climb peaking at about 1550m above sea level. With the length of the ride you’ll likely be submitting the second pass in the evening. The fall temperatures and the altitude mean the descent can be quite cold as the sun sets (think below zero). Therefore you’ll want to make sure you have clothes, particularly gloves, for the descent.
Day 2 – Hinoemata through Aizu and back to Urasa – Cycling through the countryside
For easy return to Tokyo the Sporra Route used here heads back to Urasa where day 1 started.
It’s a long slow descent from Hinoemata into the Minami-Aizu (South Aizu) area. From there there are a wide variety of choices of where to go as there are a wide variety train stations. (Some of which may be featured on future entries! From the first half of the day, the route follows the Ina River.
The road around Lake Tagogura is a bit more busy than that around Lake Okutadami and the views of the lake are somewhat fewer but it’s still beautiful mountain scenery. During the autumn colors season there can be some traffic, so it can be bit more enjoyable if done on a weekday. This year I did it on a Sunday-Monday 2-day.
After passing through the tunnel behind the lake, the ride back to Urasa isn’t very remarkable. The Sporra Route keeps you off Route 252 when there is an option half way down to reduce traffic.
Shinkansen trains at Urasa are not particularly frequent and run at best every hour and as result, you might find yourself with time to spare at the station. There are one natural onsen (hot spring), Tejimaya, that allows day use to give those tired legs a good soak! One of my favorite things about cycling in Japan is the ability to have a good back and get clean and refreshed before heading back home.