Yatsugatake: Cycling Beneath the Eight Peaks
It’s not an uncommon story for someone to come to Japan for a year and end up staying a decade or more. Back in 1991, it was less common to get a contract as a professional MTB racer in Japan, but that’s how Paul Chetwynd got here. He came for a season and ended up racing in Japan for a decade.
Paul spent his first year living in the popular tourist area of Hakone, but the tour buses and vehicles didn’t make it an ideal place to live and train. “I traveled to a lot of places to race around Japan and was attracted to the highlands around Yatsugatake,” Paul remembers. After a year in Hakone he made the move to the foothills of Yatsugatake.
“Dry weather, clean air and water with the added bonus of altitude made moving up here an easy decision,” he adds. With plenty of quiet roads and forests for training and easy access to Tokyo and to visit his sponsors, it was ideal. Paul stopped racing in 2000 but he never left Yatsugatake.
Yatsugatake literally translates to “eight peaks” and they are easy to count as you approach the mountain. The highest is Akadake at 2,899 meters and although it is not as famous as the ski destinations of the North Alps, it is well respected with climbers and nature lovers here in Japan. It is known as a great mountain to work on techniques for experienced climbers before they tackle bigger mountains. Nature lovers hike the lower area of the mountain, enjoying the various mosses that can be found deep in its valleys.
“My wife and I raised two boys in this area, which has helped immensely in getting to know the local people and their traditions, which span from the famous Onbashira Festival (spring 2022) to making skate rinks on rice paddies,” he says.
After retiring from racing, Paul started Freeride Adventures, at first focusing on Japanese clients who wanted to learn and ride mountain bikes with “Paul-san.” The business mainly grew from word of mouth as clients started coming from all over the world to visit and ride in the area. He was originally based out of his home, but Paul found a great piece of land to build his brick-and-mortar shop and transitioned Freeride Adventures into Yatsugatake Cycling, where he has a wide variety of rental bikes (adult and kids sizes), MTBs, road bikes, cross bikes and even e-bikes.
“We have always been based on private reservations rather than gathering groups together. I find it much better for friends to ride together than feeling pressure to keep up or ride a tricky section with folks they don’t know. During these COVID times it is even more appealing and we really haven’t had to change much of our business model. My tagline should be ‘Social Distancing since 2000,’” he jokes.
Yatsugatake Cycling now offers rental bikes for those who enjoy a few hours riding by themselves. “Having the space enabled us to start a retail store for Cove Bikes, a great North Vancouver brand we sell in Japan as well as cycling related goods including boutique brand bikes, bike stands and clothing,” Paul adds.
There are popular rides that visitors can start from this area. One is to cycle the Venus Line, which connects Chino City to Matsumoto by going up and along a beautiful ridge. The other is a loop of Yatsugatake which is very popular with experienced cyclists. This is not a ride for those who don’t enjoy uphills as it is a beautiful 100-kilometer ride that climbs up and over Mugikusa Pass (2,137 meters).
“For some reason I built my shop just where the road really starts to climb away from Chino City,” Paul jokes. “Cycling the loop is popular, but I prefer to ride on the lower slopes of the mountain along the many quiet backroads.”
One word of advice from Paul, especially with the Venus Line ride; it is spectacular but try to plan your ride on dates other than the main holidays as there can be heavy traffic. If you are stuck riding during peak holiday times, be sure to visit Yatsugatake Cycling so he can guide you away from the tourist crowds.
Spring comes earlier in the Yatsugatake area than in northern Nagano and the riding is good by the end of March. Snow melts and the trails for mountain biking are usually dry in early April. Paul rides year round, taking advantage of the recent boom in fat biking that makes snow riding much easier than ever before. Most of the riding in the Yatsugatake area is done at around 1,000 meters so in summer the humidity and temperatures are much more manageable.
If you are traveling by train, the Azusa Express from Shinjuku is the most convenient way to get to Yatsugatake. Guests can start their adventure from either Kobuchizawa or Chino where pick up is available. If you are traveling by car, the Chuo Expressway takes you right to Chino or you can hop off the expressway and enjoy the backroads.
The area has many choices for lodging, from hotel and ryokan to small pensions and camping areas. Onsen abound for after-ride relaxation and most places have great facilities.
Yatsugatake: Cycling Beneath the Eight Peaks