14 Best Cycling Climbs in Japan (Hint – Not Mt Fuji!)

The Best Cycling Climbs in Japan

Most who have never cycled in Japan know just one mountain, Mount Fuji. And though Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan at 3,776m high, it is far from the best cycling climb in Japan. Japan is actually home to hundreds of high mountains and passes all over the country. And while you can cycle to the 5th station on Mt Fuji (2,200m high), many roads in Japan have larger gains, higher summits, and far less traffic. In fact Mt Norikura, the highest road in Japan, summits some 500m higher at over 2,700m!

So, while many choose to ride between the busy bus lines of Mt Fuji’s Subaru or Fujinomiya Lines, countless epic car free roads await those cyclists who dare to go off the beaten path! So join us below as we take you on a virtual tour through our pick of the 14 best cycling climbs in Japan, and the criteria that makes a top cycling climb.

The Methodology

For those looking to get right into the climbs, feel free to skip this section. Otherwise, here is a deep dive into the criteria I am ranking the climbs on.

When assessing a cycling climb there seems to be an unlimited number of points you can assess on. There are the hard facts, such as gradients or distance, but also the less objective things like the views at the top or the feel of the area you are riding in. Though everyone has their preferences for these things, in this assessment of the best climbs in Japan I decided on 5 factors that I thought would best capture the climbing experience. These are the gain, views, accessibility, pavement quality, and most importantly the zen factor.

Gain – This is a pretty objective metric, the more total elevation gain, the higher the rating. Any climb with over 1,200m of elevation gain receives a 5, over 900m receives a 4, over 600m a 3, over 300m a 2, and the rest a 1.

Views – While more subjective, the greatest climbs should have a place to soak it all in once atop. Sweeping panoramas get top points. Summits without a viewpoint or at least some places to peak out along the way will get low scores.

Accessibility – Less influential to how amazing the climb is, but still important, the ease of getting to and from the climb will largely dictate who actually rides it. Top scores for a nearby train station with direct train access to Tokyo. Low scores for places that require complex transit or big miles just to reach the start of the climb.

Pavement – You heard right, are we talking non-stop pothole dodging & gravel, or sweet buttery smooth runway tarmac. While this can vary greatly on any long road, if the majority of the road is nicely paved, and there are no major stretches of rough/gravel/chip-seal than a high score is given. Interestingly, most of Japan’s smaller roads actually have amazing pavement, while the heavily trafficked and major roadways have some of the worst.

Zen Factor – The Zen Factor is the very essence of the climb. Does it feel like you are getting lost in a magical forest? Are you inspired to push on as you count the 100 turns to the top? As you round the final corner are you greeted by an unforgettable view? Have you been getting lost in birdsong & monkey sightings and not seen or heard a car for over two hours?

Indeed, the Zen Factor is a highly subjective rating, but it is meant to capture the actual feel of the climb and convey just how amazing the experience of the ride is beyond the accolades of “Highest Pass” or “steepest grade.”

Many of us have been there before, climbing “the epic passes”, the Stelvio, the Iseran, Alp D’Huez, the places of legend from the grand tours. And, while the spectacle of the Tour de France shows epic switchbacks covered in spectators and car free roads, us mere mortals are more often met with heavy motorists traffic instead of cheering fans.

This is not to say every climb on every day is this way, but in principle, certainly in the Alps of Europe (and the main routes up Mt Fuji) motorists & buses often command the roads. So, in the Zen Factor we will only give top scores to those that have that special magic that inspires from bottom to top. Alternatively, heavy traffic, lack of views, or unchanging terrain and foliage, will receive lower scores.

If you want to dig further into the scoring of any of the individual climbs, the link to the climb guide below each has a breakdown of the scorecard.

Finally, if you would like to tackle any of these climbs yourself, there is a full guide and Strava route file you can download to your favorite cycling computer or Strava app on your smartphone to do the ride yourself. Let’s get climbing!

The Climbs


1) The Utsukushigahara Highlands 美ヶ原 2,034m | Nagano’s Alps, Cliffs, and Cows

Gain
5/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
4/5

Pavement
3.5/5

Zen Factor
5/5

A mouthful for the non-Japanese speaker, the Utsukushigahara (Utsukushi-ga-hara) translates literally into the Beautiful Highlands. And it really lives up this name! A high plateau east of the inland city of Matsumoto, the Utsukushigahara is just opposite the high Alpine peaks of Nagano making it the ultimate view point.

Gaining some 1,400m from either side, once atop the highlands at over 1,900m above sea the final 7km to the summit of the Ougatou Radio Towers & Hotel are simply breathtaking. Couple that with an onsen hot spring bath at the summit and you have the ultimate Japanese climbing experience!

https://biketourjapan.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-cycling-the-utsukushigahara-highlands/

For more, check out our Ultimate Guide to Cycling the Utsukushigahara Highlands 美ヶ原


2) Mt Akagi – Haccho Pass 赤城山八丁峠 1,497m | The Red Fortress Volcano & Caldera Lake

Gain
5/5

Views
4/5

Accessibility
4/5

Pavement
4.5/5

Zen Factor
5/5

Mount Akagi is a massive stratovolcano in the center of the main island of Honshu Japan, and home to some of the best cycling in Japan. While other climbs may boast higher summits, few can tout amazing car free roads up and into a volcano caldera! Within, a caldera lake, brilliant red shrine, and shops & restaurants on the beach, Mt Akagi make for the perfect cycling adventure.

Mount Akagi from the Tone River Cycling Road
Mount Akagi from the Tone River Cycling Road.

Starting from Kiryu City, you climb from around 100m elevation to over 1,400m above sea at the Hachho Pass 八丁峠 with 100 numbered turns snaking up to the top. The very sight of the intestine like squiggles on the map will inspire anyone who love to climb. The main climb is around 10km at an average of 8.4%, and there is even a stretch at around 12% for 2km. What more, thanks to the more major Rt 4, nearly no cars drive this route and it is left to the cyclists & monkeys!

On the way down, hop on the main Rt 4 as you fly down what has to be some of the best mountain tarmac in Japan. The top has a number of wide switchbacks before opening up to long straight stretches of 9-10% gradients on buttery smooth pavement that just beg you to go faster.

When looking for an unforgettable cycling adventure you really can’t beat a day climbing the Red Fortress, Mount Akagi!

For more, check out our Guide to Cycling Mt Akagi 赤城山 | The Red Fortress Mountain


3) Mt Norikura – Echo Line 乗鞍岳エコーライン 2,702m | The Highest Road in Japan

The snaking switchbacks and stunning fall foliage on Mt Norikura in late September.
The snaking switchbacks and stunning fall foliage on Mt Norikura in late September.

Gain
5/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
3/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
4/5

Boasting the highest paved road in Japan at just over 2,700m (8,800ft) above sea, Mt Norikura is a bucket-list worthy climb that only gets better as you climb higher. The real magic of this climb is in the closed road for the final 13km. That’s right, no cars are allowed past this gate save for the hourly bus!

If you are lucky to ride Norikura in the early fall around mid-late September the alpine fall colors are some of the best in Japan.

The rainbow of Koyo, or fall colors of the high alpine grasses and shrubs on the mountainside.
The rainbow of Koyo, or fall colors of the high alpine grasses and shrubs on the mountainside. [taken on the Tour of the Japanese Alps]



Read our Full Guide on Cycling Mt Norikura Here for more info on climbing the highest road in Japan!


4) Taguchi Pass 田口峠 1,130m | The Best Of The Good Stuff

Michelle ripping through the pine forests of the Taguchi Pass
Michelle ripping through the pine forest switchbacks of the Taguchi Pass.

Gain
4/5

Views
2/5

Accessibility
4/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
5/5

Climb Score Card from our full article on the 14 Best Cycling Climbs in Japan (Hint, Not Mt Fuji!).

The Taguchi Pass is a real hidden gem of a climb. On the boarder of Nagano and Gunma Prefectures, this pass is everything great about cross country mountain biking but on good to great pavement. I have ridden this pass many times without seeing a single car from A to B. Towering pines, many many switchbacks, waterfalls, rivers, and secluded sleepy villages, the Taguchi Pass is sure to please any adventure lover.

One of the small villages along the road to the Taguchi Pass.
One of the small villages along the road to the Taguchi Pass.

My Recommended Route is west to east as the descent on the east side is nothing short of spectacular. But both ways are great!

Read our Full Guide on Cycling the Taguchi Pass for more info!


5) Shirabiso Pass しらびそ峠 1,914m | Japan’s South Alps Panoramic Highest Pass

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Climbing to the sky alongside the South Alps of Japan in full fall colors.

Gain
5/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
2/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
4/5

The Japanese Minami (South) Alps are know for their amazing hiking trails and views of Mt Fuji. But for cyclists the Shirabiso Pass is a must. Running along the south border of Nagano Prefecture the pass boasts panoramic views of the South Alps and Kiso Mountains.

Though one of the harder mountain passes to access, the Shirabiso Pass is massive climb to over 1,900m above sea with rewarding views worth the effort. Once the new Shinkansen is built to Iida City, Nagano in the valley below this will likely become a much more popular climb. With a direct train from Tokyo in just 30min there is potential for this region to really take off.

Read our Full Guide on Cycling the Shirabiso Pass for more info on climbing the Minami Alps highest road!


6) Mt Haruna 榛名山 – 1,158m | Initial D’s Infamous Race Course & Ikaho Onsen Town

The views of the Kanto Plains below from the Takane Observation Deck.
The views of the Kanto Plains below from the Takane Observation Deck.

Gain
4/5

Views
4/5

Accessibility
5/5

Pavement
5/5

Zen Factor
4/5

For Anime Lovers Mt Haruna is something of a legend, thanks to Initial D’s famous use of the main road throughout the series on Mt Haruna, renamed Mt Akina in the show (Opening in Episode 1).

With multiple routes up it this stratovolcano also boasts a caldera lake and shops once atop. There are also sweeping views of the Kanto plains below and the famous Ikaho Onsen Town half way up the mountain.

The Mystical Forest Roads up Mt Haruna.
The Mystical Rindo Forest Roads up Mt Haruna in late summer.

Our favorite route is up Rt 28 to the Matsunozawa Pass 榛名山松之沢峠 then around the lake, and down to Ikaho Onsen Town via Rt 33. This route is very accessible from Tokyo thanks to the Shinkansen Station at Takasaki Station just 50min from Tokyo Station.

For more, check out our Guide to Cycling Mount Haruna 榛名山.


7) The Kirigamine Venus Line 霧ヶ峰 1,800m | Ripping Descents and Epic Views

The high peaks of Western Nagano from the Kirigamine Highlands. Left to right, Mt Ontake, Mt Norikura, and the Kita Alps near Hakuba.
The high peaks of Western Nagano from the Kirigamine Highlands. Left to right, Mt Ontake, Mt Norikura, and the Kita Alps near Hakuba.

Gain
4/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
3/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
3/5

While the Utuskushigahara means the Beautiful Highlands, the Kirigamine, just a few kilometers south, means the Misty Ridge. And while the photos here in late fall show open skies and sweeping panoramas, much of the summer high mountain season in the Kirigamine Highlands is indeed misty. However, come November and even December, this range is typically clear and sunny while much of the rest of Nagano is getting rained on, making for some incredible views!

There are many ways up to the Kirigamine, but the most well known is the Venus Line. Over 50km from Chino City to the top of the Utsukushigahara Highlands, this is a very popular route for motorists and cyclists. However, if you are hoping to ride up, there are lot’s of great smaller roads to take up to avoid the traffic!

Michelle at the summit of the Kirigamine overlooking Chino City below.
Michelle at the summit of the Kirigamine overlooking Chino City below.

Once atop views of many of the highest peaks in Japan can be had thanks to the ample high grasslands.

For more check out our Guide on Cycling the Kirigamine and the Venus Line for more.

The view south from atop the Kirigamine Highlands. Left to right, Yatsugatake Volcanic Formation, Mt Fuji, and the Minami Alps.
The view south from atop the Kirigamine Highlands. Left to right, Yatsugatake Volcanic Formation, Mt Fuji, and the Minami Alps.

Check out our guide for more info on Cycling the Kirigamine and Venus Line.


8) Irohazaka Road to Mt Hangetsu いろは坂半月山 Deck 1,615m | Nikko National Park’s Alphabet Road

The Stratovolcano Mount Nantai behind Leake Chuzenji.
The Stratovolcano Mount Nantai behind Leake Chuzenji from the Hangetsu Observatory.

Gain
4/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
5/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
2/5

One of Japan’s top National Parks, the Nikko National Park is also home to one of Japan’s most iconic roads, the Irohazaka いろは坂. With a two lane road up and a one lane road down, the Irohazaka is possible the only major climb in the world with a separated up and down direction.

Though growing in popularity for tourism, the route is the still tranquil in the early morning hours, which is when we recommend riding it. Once atop, the tunnel will take you into the Oku-Nikko Highlands where you are met by the largest alpine lake in Japan, Lake Chuzenji 中禅寺湖. Then, take to the sky as you climb to the heights of the Hangetsu Observatory.

The down route of the Irohazaka. What a road!
The down route of the Irohazaka. What a road!

With views of the stratovolcano Mount Nantai, Lake Chuzenji, and the snowcaps of Nikko National Park in the background, this climb is one of the most beautiful natural scenes in Japan.

Check out our Guide to Cycling Nikko National Park for more info.


9) Shibu Pass 渋峠 2,172m | Kusatsu Onsen’s Epic Sulfur Alpine Road

Volcanic landscapes contrasting rich forests and alpine bamboo at the Shibu Pass.
Volcanic landscapes contrasting rich forests and alpine bamboo at the Shibu Pass.

Gain
5/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
2/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
2/5

Closed between 2016-2021, Shibu Pass is the highest National Road in Japan. Passing through the famous Kusatsu Onsen Town, the Shibu Pass climbs up to over 2,100m above sea. Known for it’s active volcano, Mt Shirane-Kusatsu, you will quite literally be riding up a living mountain! This means passing steaming geysers, oozing hot water vents, and certainly smelling the sulfuric air that surrounds.

This road is one of the most popular for motorists, so it is best to ride it early and not on weekdays or holidays to beat the traffic. Much like Mt Haruna above, this climb can end in true Japanese fashion at the wonderful onsen town Kusatsu.

Check out our Guide Cycling Shibu Pass for more info!


10) Misaka Touge 御坂峠 1,310m | Fuji Sunrise by Lake Kawaguchiko

An epic sunrise over Mt Fuji at the Misaka Pass.
An epic sunrise over Mt Fuji at the Misaka Pass.

Gain
2/5

Views
4/5

Accessibility
4/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
4/5

The Misaka Touge (Misaka Pass) is a small pass on the north side of Lake Kawaguchiko 河口湖, one of the 5 Sacred Lakes of Mt Fuji. While you might think climbing Mt Fuji to be full of epic sights, in fact the roads surrounding Fuji are full of much more stunning views of the massive volcano. This is where the Misaka Pass really shines, a beautifully framed Fuji with the lake below and direct view east to the rising sun of the morning. The ultimate dawn patrol ride for those visiting the Fuji Kawaguchiko area!

Read our Guide on Cycling the Misaka Pass for more info.


11) Yanagisawa Pass 柳沢峠 1,472m | Tokyo’s Gateway to Fuji

The sweeping bridges of the Yanaigawa Pass road.
The sweeping bridges of the Yanaigawa Pass.

Gain
5/5

Views
3/5

Accessibility
5/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
3/5

Climbing out of west Tokyo the Yanagisawa Pass takes the Tama River 多摩川 out to its origins in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Summiting at over 1,470m above sea cyclist will be rewarded with glimpses of Fuji in the distances and the Minami Alps. Most notably, on the descent into Koshu City 甲州市 the views of Mt Fuji from the bridge on a clear day is one of a kind!

Mount Fuji from the Yanagisawa Pass.
Mount Fuji from the Yanagisawa Pass. (google maps)

Check out our guide on Cycling Yanagisawa Pass for more.


12) Mae Nikko Highlands 前日光高原 1,357m | 360° Views of Endless Mountains

At the observation deck with Nikko National Park's high peaks in view.
At the observation deck with Nikko National Park’s high peaks in view.

Gain
5/5

Views
4/5

Accessibility
4/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
5/5

While the Nikko National Park receives much attention, and thus traffic, the Mae Nikko Highlands just south of Nikko offer arguably better cycling as well as great panoramas of the high peaks. Once atop the Mae-Nikko Highlands you can take the gravel road the 1.5km to the Zonohana Observation Deck for a 360 degree panorama of everything from Nikko to Nagano to Fuji on a clear day!

Check out our guide on Cycling Mae-Nikko Highlands for more.


13) Konroku Pass 坤六峠 1,620m | The Source of the Biggest Rivers in Japan

Climbing through the dense forest roads of the Konroku Pass.
Climbing through the dense forest roads of the Konroku Pass.

Gain
4/5

Views
2/5

Accessibility
2/5

Pavement
3/5

Zen Factor
4/5

Far far from Tokyo, the Konroku Pass connects the origin of the Tone and Katashina Rivers far in the northern most corner of Gunma Prefecture known as Oku-Tone 奥利根. A gentle slope that is only accessible from around mid May through October, this pass summits at over 1,600m above sea as you explore rich natural forests and rushing rivers.


14) Budou Pass 武道峠 1,510m | Rugged Mountain Climbing At It’s Finest

The beautiful fall foliage of the Budou Pass in late November.
The beautiful fall foliage of the Budou Pass in late November.

Gain
4/5

Views
2/5

Accessibility
1/5

Pavement
3/5

Zen Factor
5/5

Last but certainly not least, the Budou Pass (tr Warrior’s Pass) lives up to the name. When climbing from the Gunma side a scraggly narrow road hangs off the mountain leaving one to wonder just how and why they built this road in the first place. And while the view at the summit is nothing special, the reward comes in the epic descent through birch forests as you dive down into the tiny town of Koumi, Nagano.

Summary

Thanks for reading along! If you have ever ridden any of these climbs and would like to share your story of how you liked it or tips, let me know in the comments below. If you have other climbs in Japan that you love that you think should have been included, let me know. We are always looking for more new places to adventure by bike!

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