With a half-charged camera battery I was off, hoping to document the best of Nagano. And as a result it was indeed half-documented. Around 9am on the second day the camera decided to pack it in, leaving me with nothing much else to do except enjoy the ride...
In the boy's room at a highway reststop on the way to Nagano
To the north of Matsumoto lies the picturesque region of Azumino. With sizable hills to the east and the enormous Northern Japan Alps to the west, this lovely green valley follows a course north to the famous 1998 Winter Olympics ski resort of Hakuba, which was to be my lunchtime stopoff point.
The Northern Japan Alps are in fact so impenetrable, that if you want to head west, you'll need to do it from Matsumoto, otherwise you won't see another left turn until you reach the Japan Sea coast, another 100km or so further to the north. In a country so renowned for its engineering, this is really saying something. These mountains are big.
Blanketed in snow for half the year, Azumino comes alive in the warmer months. I zig-zagged my way through this expanse of green, getting up nice and close to the towering peaks to my left and then cutting a course further to the east, allowing me a broader view; all the time watching the valley being squeezed tighter as I closed in on Hakuba. Some ominous-looking clouds were forming, and the rain jacket went on for the occasional rain shower. These mountains rise up from the valley floor to a height of around 3000m, and they rise almost straight up; thereby creating a unique micro climate, which dumps some water from time to time on the peaceful little valley below.
Not far from Hakuba
Not far from Hakuba
By the time I reached Hakuba, it was hot and sunny again, and I was hungry. I've snowboarded in Hakuba a couple of times, so it's strange to see the place in the middle of summer. Day trippers were riding the gondola up to the top to catch some views. Meanwhile I parked and found myself a huge TexMex lunch, one of the largest lunch sets I've seen and for a very reasonable 1000yen. It's funny. Japan tends to have a reputation for being expensive, but prices haven't moved for about 20 years, while the rest of the world has inflated its way into the stratosphere. God bless deflation and those 'lost decades'!
My big Tex-Mex lunch in Hakuba
Traditional architecture of Nagano
An afternoon nap was in order, but I knew I had some miles to cover, so I was off again into the less traveled hills of Nagano. From my experience, the smaller roads always tend to offer up the best gems, so route 36 was to be my target for investigation. Split into 3 or 4 distinct sections, this road is about 50km from start to finish; with hardly a single straightaway the whole way. Forgotten by almost everyone, including the government, this road was breathtaking, if sadly a little uncared for, which is rare in Japan. Being on the Honda CB1300, there were certainly some times I wished I had brought out a GS. Mountain pass led to little mountain village, which led to row upon row of rice fields, and then back to mountain village and mountain pass; and repeat.
Somewhere on route 36
As the hours passed and the sun began to sink, the sky began to transform. It looked as if I was either faced with an enormous evening storm or a nearby volcano had just blown its top. The sky took center stage as I leaned into the turns. Every passing minute saw the clouds grow in magnitude and ferocity.
I decided it was time to find me a hotel as I was now ideally located at the base of one of Japan's best mountain roads, and I was looking forward to getting some great early morning shots to share with the world.
* Sadly, it was just as I hit the base of this road the following morning that the camera decided it was time to die. Perhaps, the world just isn't quite ready.
Rice fields in Nagano
At 8am the next morning I walked up to the Jigokudani monkey park. It was just after opening and I was the only non-simian anywhere to be seen; a fairly unnerving experience. I had stumbled upon their morning ritual; which appeared to revolve around lounging around, preening one another, and acting like monkeys. The star of the show though was definitely this little guy in the 'elevator for monkeys' as one of our Facebook friends put it. There was absolutely no other reason to be in that bucket except purely for fun.
Nagano monkeys - the morning routine
Just hangin' out
After taking a few too many monkey shots, the camera shut down, and I got on the bike and started out on an absolutely awesome day of riding. Route 292 up to Mt. Shirane, then down to the Panorama line which weaves it way over to the smoldering active volcano of Mt. Asama. From here it was down into Karuizawa, then onto the highway and back into Tokyo. A truly great day of riding and not a single shot to share unfortunately. Until next time...