Cycling in Hakuba Japan | MTB, Gravel, and Road at the Base of the Japanese Alps
Table Of Contents
Sitting in the mountainous prefecture of Nagano the epic alpine terrain in Hakuba Village has long been THE place for powder lovers in Japan. Each winter millions flock to this tiny mountain village of just over 10,000, ballooning the town into one of the biggest winter sports towns in Japan. But, as the snow begins to melt away each spring what does this ski centric town have to offer for cyclists in its green season? And, what is the best time to cycle in Hakuba?
Cycling in Hakuba | When, Where, and How
When is the best time to cycle in Hakuba, Japan?
What is the Best Month to Cycle in Hakuba?
In short, the best month to cycle in Hakuba, Japan is May. Followed by September, April, October, and June respectively.
In slightly more detail…
Most cyclists would agree that the ideal cycling conditions are minimal rain/snow, not too hot (over say 30’c or 90’F), and not too cold (say below 10’c or 45’F). Based on personal experience, and with the supporting data of historical weather data, I would conclude the best month to cycle in Hakuba is May. Then September, April, October, and June respectively. More on why below, but first, check out this nifty “Cycling Seasons Chart” I put together below.
Another piece of this puzzle in Hakuba is when the high roads open each year here. Unfortunately of the local hill climbs do not even open until the end of April, May, or even June.
*Obviously everybody has different preferences and tolerances for what constitutes “good cycling weather.” This is simply my reading on what is the ideal cycling climate and the factors beyond just temperature or rainy days that helps paint a better picture of what cycling in a place is like.
While Hakuba’s famous ski resorts typically run from roughly December to April each year, the Green Season in Hakuba starts roughly in May and continues until around November.
One would then probably naturally conclude that the best time to cycle in Hakuba is over the summer months of June-September when temperatures are high. And, while one can indeed cycle in those months, the reality is that on the main island of Japan, called Honshu 本州, the Green Season is very very green for a reason. You can read more about Cycling in the 4 Seasons of Japan here, but in short, it is very hot, rains quite a lot, and is quite humid from about mid-June to mid-September all across Japan (with the exception the very very northern prefectures such as Hokkaido).
Luckily, Hakuba is spared a decent bit of the humidity and a fair bit of the heat thanks to its elevation and position next to very large mountains, but it is not spared much from the clouds and the rain.
This is not a total killer, but it is something to keep in mind when deciding when to come cycle in Hakuba, and really all of Japan. You largely can’t avoid rain and clouds from mid-June to mid-September. Peaks are shrouded in a blanket of clouds for more days than they are not, and rain should be assumed possible almost any day.
For those looking for more detail, below are a few charts to further visualize the yearly weather in Hakuba courtesy of weatherspark.com.
More Charts on Weather in Hakuba, Japan (click the +) –>
“Best Times” to Cycle in Hakuba?
Further, if we were to give more of a “best time” approach, it would be roughly start of April until the first week of June as the most ideal time, followed by mid-September to the end of October.
This is because April to mid June is by far the driest months in Hakuba. Unfortunately though, most of the higher roads might not yet be accessible and the MTB Parks might not yet either in April. Each year usually by May Iwatake MTB Park is in full swing.
Mid-September to the end of October is in second because this period is not only the heart of Typhoon Season, but also it is substantially cloudier, wetter, and more humid than late spring. While typhoon season is often a great time to cycle, one could also find their trip entirely wet and windy if you fall on the unlucky side of the weather gods.
Where to Cycle in Hakuba
Hakuba is lucky to have not only a few different mountain bike locations, but also some decent road and gravel riding. Be sure to bring your wide tires though, as roads out here take a beating with all the snow, ice, and chains in the winter months! 28mm+ is a good idea, and 32-35mm won’t go unused here.
Below is a break down the places to ride below based on Road Bike, Mountain Bike, and Gravel Bike. While this is not an exhaustive list, the goal is to highlight the best of the area’s riding in these three categories, and also show a few sample routes you can do yourself next time you visit Hakuba.
Road Biking in Hakuba
While Hakuba is home to a fair bit of roads to ride, the reality of this narrow valley is that unless you like climbing you will quickly exhaust the available routes within a day or two. That said, if you like hitting the hills and mountains, then the area offers a decently wide range of climbing centric riding you can tackle right from town.
Hakuba – Kinasa – Lake Aokiko Loop | 75km & 1,400m
A favorite loop in the area, this loop takes you over three main climbs of roughly 400m gain each. First, into the small mountain village of Kinasa, then over into another small hamlet called Miasa before arriving at Lake Aokiko just south of town. Finally coming back along the rice fields back to Hakuba Village.
Hakuba Flatlander’s Loop | 35km & 450m
This route takes you out up the gentle climb east of town before diving down towards Lake Aokiko then coming back through the rice fields back to Hakuba.
Mountain Biking in Hakuba
Iwatake MTB Park | Hakuba’s (Only) Mountain Bike Park
For those looking to mountain bike in Japan, at least as of 2022, there is only a handful of lift access places that warrant a full day or more of riding. Luckily, Hakuba has one of them, Iwatake Mountain Bike Park.
While this park boasts a longest run of over 6.9km, the park is quite limited in courses. As of the 2022 summer season there were just three (yes three) downhill courses not designed for total beginners (or XC). They are a one green, one blue, and one black. Further, when analyzed by a rider used to the riding in the United States, Canada, or Europe, these courses are marked very conservatively, and even Trail Forks rates the blue run as a green, and the black run as a blue.
(This is common in Japan to “over-rate” the difficulty of trails in skiing and hiking as well. Better safe than sorry huh?)
Should I Come to Hakuba Specifically to Mountain Bike?
Well this largely depends on what type of rider you are, and what you are looking to get out of it. If you are a total beginner to a moderate rider then the park will be plenty of park to play in and enjoy. For more advanced to expert riders, Iwatake’s whole park can be covered in about 2-3 runs, which is very far from the experience in most of the America’s & Europe.
I think any mountain biker can enjoy themselves throughly for a day at Iwatake, but to come for multiple days is a stretch for more intermediate to advanced riders.
Does Hakuba Have Local Trails Outside of the Park?
In short, yes they do. In more detail, you can ride most of them in a “morning sesh” or roughly two runs.
Beyond these local trails, you have a small spattering of smaller MTB areas within about an hours drive such as the Azumino Koen MTB Area to the south and some other lesser know community trails.
So in all, while I think Hakuba has great potential to become a MTB hub in Japan, the current state of things is still far from competing with most MTB hubs around the world.
With any luck the success so far of Iwatake’s MTB Park should put some pressure on the other resorts of the area to consider adding MTB to their green seasons in order to find new revenue streams as climate change continues to make winter snowfall more and more unpredictable.
Gravel Cycling in Hakuba Japan
Ah the elusive gravel cycling scene in Japan. As the western US seemed to convert half of the road rider population into staunch gravel lovers almost overnight, Japan too had its own gravel boom in the 2010s.
But, it is exactly because of all of those beautiful gravel fire roads in California that many riders to this day continue to hop on their 50mm nubby tires and tackle long days in the saddle on gravel. Meanwhile, Japan has a very very different climate, environment, and, more importantly to gravel cycling, method of gravel road building.
Where are the Gravel Roads in Japan?
In a nutshell, if a road gets regular use in Japan, it gets paved. This is in part because of the loose volcanic soil that most all of Japan is sitting on and also thanks to the massive amount of precipitation they receive in the rainy season. This means that to not pave the road would in a matter of a year or two have it become a rutted out mess of erosion and washouts.
This is not to say gravel roads don’t exist, they very much do. But instead to let you know that the average condition of a gravel road in Japan is very poor, often very very steep (think sustained 25%+ grades) and often a dead-end road.
While you can ramble through the gravel connector roads in the rice paddies, any road into the forest and mountains is almost certainly an out and back for forestry workers to access tree plantations, or for hikers to get to a hiking start point. Further, many of these roads get heavily overgrown or in states of disrepair between forestry work.
Occasionally you will come across gravel roads that connect, and trust me once you’ve lived in Japan long enough each new connector’s discovery is an awesome day, but most of the time the road will abruptly end at a wall of trees or rock with no indication why.
Hakuba has three main gravel roads within a day ride of town. Two are quite remote, Otomiyama Pass connecting Myoko and Hakuba Valley, and the gravel road just north of Kinasa Village. The last is the service road up Iwatake Resort.
Gravel Cycling in Hakuba, Japan
Ok so I gave that long disclaimer because to really get any sort of distance on gravel in Hakuba you either need to ride a very long distance with lots of climbing just to get to the gravel, or just ramble around the rice fields.
While I’m sure there is more to find in the area, for those just looking to dip their toes into gravel riding one can try these to start.
Myoko Pass https://www.strava.com/segments/25026979
How to get to Hakuba
Hakuba is situated about 1 hour by car or bus west of Nagano City in Nagano Prefecture.
From Tokyo you have a few choices, but the most popular is to take the Shinkansen Bullet Train from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station (1h30). Then, take the bus from Nagano Station to Hakuba Station (1h20). Total travel time typically around 3-3.5hrs and costs around 11,000yen one way.
Alternatively, there is a daily train directly from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Hakuba Station at 8am each day. Total travel time is 3h45 and cost is around 8,000yen.
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