Some people come to Matsumoto to check out Japan’s oldest castle. Others are lured by the mountains. But as the last weekend in June approaches a certain crowd descends on the area, bicycles in tow, to head for the hills on two wheels in the beautiful and grueling Tour de Utsukushigahara cycling race.
One Great Race for a Growing Game
Cycling as both sport and pastime has grown like wild bamboo since I first brought my own road bike to Japan in 2001. Back then I only saw cycling as a way to get away for the weekend; ride out into the countryside where the trains don’t go and the camping was (maybe) free.
But by chance I ended up in Matsumoto in Spring 2003, teaching English for a three-month stint. On my last weekend in town the Tour de Utsukushigahara was being held. Taking part, I thought, would be a fitting ending to my time here in the town I’d grown to love. And while it was a grind climbing 1300 vertical meters over the 21-kilometer course, it was also a beautiful ride, one that gave the sense that the cycling scene in Japan was only going to grow. (For the record, I finished in eighty minutes. The winner completed the course in just under an hour.)
But you don’t have to enter the race to take in the vibe. The race starts in Asama-Onsen right near the big baseball stadium. When the gun goes off the cyclists begin winding through the streets so it’s easy to get a look at them racing by before they head up into the Utsukushigahara mountains and disappear.
The 2023 Tour de Utsukushigahara will be held on Saturday 24th June from 12:00 to 18:00 and Sunday 25th June from 4:00 to 15:00. Admission is free.
Grab a Bike & Get Involved!
The Tour de Utsukushigahara isn’t the only two-wheeled game in town. Across the valley another cycling race takes place in August: the Norikura Hill Climb, which takes hearty (and hardly sane) entrants up the highest paved road in all of Japan, finishing at 2,720 meters above sea level. People ride this same road every day of the warmer part of the year, as it is closed off to cars and trucks making it something of a cyclist’s dream.
Matsumoto has actually become so well-known as an attractive cycling destination that the French Paralympic Cycling Team chose our town for their training in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. And one former Olympian, mountain biker Raita Suzuki, now makes his home right here in Matsumoto, operating a cycle shop and promoting the many joys and benefits of cycling the Matsumoto/Nagano area.
And there’s certainly plenty here for the amateur cyclist to enjoy. For those looking for a long-distance challenge there’s the Japan Alps Cycling Road, a 750-kilometer loop around Nagano Prefecture that can be done in whole or in part, at one’s own pace and preference. (The loop passes through Matsumoto out by the airport.) More locally, there’s the Azumino-Yamabiko Cycling Road, running from the edge of downtown Matsumoto out to the Azumino countryside and around to the Daio Wasabi Farm.
If your time in Matsumoto is limited but you still want to get out and feel what it’s like to pedal through the countryside, let us take you on your own eTour de Matsumoto. Whether on a three-hour, six-hour, or eight-hour ride, you’ll be cycling with the ease of an electric-assist bicycle as you explore a side of Japan the trains can’t get to.
If you really want to head for the hills, we can take you there too. Or come to town at the end of June and enter the Tour de Utsukushigahara cycling race. Here in Matsumoto, the two-wheeled possibilities are almost endless.