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The Samurai Trails of Mt. Madarao

Mountain Biking in Madarao, Nagano

If Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin were alive today, there’s a good chance they would be chasing each other around Mt. Madarao on double suspension mountain bikes with fat, stubby tires. Kenshin was one of the most famous daimyo during the Sengoku Period (1467-1615)—a turbulent era marked by social and political upheaval and civil war. His battles for control of Shinano Province (today’s Nagano Prefecture) with Shingen, another great samurai at the time, were legendary. More recently, another tribe of (weekend) warriors are kicking up dirt on these ancient trails. 

Madarao Mountain Biking Autumn Nagano
Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige depicting The Battle of Kawanakajima (circa 1560); Shingen on the left and Kenshin on the right.

Uesugi Kenshin was from Echigo (modern-day Niigata) and used the trails in and around Mt. Madarao to cross the Sekida Mountains into Nagano for his epic battles against Takeda Shingen upon the plains of Kawanakajima. Neither of these warlords would ultimately claim a clear victory, but the ferocity and strategic warfare romanticized in this series of battles have become immortalized in Japanese literature and ukiyoe (woodblock prints). 

“Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death.”—Uesugi Kenshin

The historic trails in the Sekida Mountains around Mt. Madarao were not only a conduit for warfare; they were also the arteries that carried the life of the local people, transporting commerce and culture: dried fish, salt, gold, medicine and Buddhism. 

Madarao Mountain Biking Autumn Nagano
Photo: Yoshihiro Matsuzawa

While this patchwork of well-connected paths were used for centuries by villagers and battle-hardened samurai, it wasn’t until recently some of these ancient trails were uncovered and given new life by another tribe of (weekend) warriors—mountain bikers.  

“I was exploring some trails with friends below our lodge and discovered some old rice fields, abandoned buildings—including a school, says long-time Madarao resident Mark Stahnke, who runs Madarao Mountain Lodge with his wife Mayuko and daughter Hana. 

“We could see they went all the way up to near our lodge, so we started clearing the trail and riding it. One day I was riding alone and ran into an old farmer who was as surprised to see me as I was him. We chatted and he told me about the history of an abandoned village called Kutsu which was on an old tourist road up to Madarao.”

Madarao Mountain Biking Autumn Nagano
Photo: Grinduro Shin’etsu Japan

Read more about Madarao’s Big 10 Trails.

Until the establishment of Madarao Ski Resort in 1972, the grassland in Madarao was used to raise cattle and the trails were perfect for bringing the cows up to the summer pastures. One of the best mountain bike trails is known as the “Cow Trail.” Its winding curves formed by the movement of the cows uphill are now perfect berms for bikers descending down the hill to Iiyama. The Cow Trail was recently used in the Maduro MTB event.

“The trail also goes through another old village called Bundo, which was home to Madarao Sympathique Ski Resort until it closed in 2012,” Mark continues. “We took some bottles of sake down to locals to ask permission to use the trails.The kucho (head of the village) told us it was one of the first resorts in Japan; it even hosted the National Championships nearly a century ago.”

While Mark and other Madarao locals uncovered, cleared and got permission to ride trails like The Cow Trail and Yama no Kami Trail, there are other ancient paths that follow gravel roads, forestry roads and fire roads that are still in use and maintained.

Madarao Mountain Biking Autumn Nagano
Photo: Grinduro Shin’etsu Japan

 The Hokkoku Kaido old road that connected Tokyo to the gold mines on Sado Island during the Edo Period goes past the foot of Mt. Madarao on the Lake Nojiri side. The Gunpei Kaido, a trail that goes right through the middle of Madarao Mountain Ski Resort, was an old path used for transporting charcoal down the valley. It allowed the mountain people to forge a living in the harsh landscape.

In the eighteenth century, some commercially minded locals created an Edo-era version of a holiday resort in the wetlands in the middle of Madarao, now known as Numanohara. Known as Ogiwara-juku, this happening little hamlet peaked at around 75 houses from 1716 to 1735, and was no doubt a convivial stopover for travelers between Nagano and the coast. It was the beginning of tourism in the area. 

“Knowledge is not power, it is only potential. Applying that knowledge is power. Understanding why and when to apply that knowledge is wisdom.”—Takeda Shingen

Madarao’s forest trails and gravel roads have long been a place for adventure. Shin Kano, who runs the Giro Gravel Park, wanted to bring a bit more to the community with the Grinduro. This unique event is part gravel-road race, part mountain-bike-style enduro, and covers everything from smooth pavement, gravel and single track in four timed segments. Grinduro is billed as a celebration of cycling with an emphasis on fun, with live music, camping and a festival atmosphere to go along with the race. The 2021 Grinduro has been re-scheduled for 2022 and a summer version of the event called the “Maduro” will be back next year when travel restrictions are expected to be lifted. Kano says the future goal is to make the Northern Nagano area, along with Nozawa Onsen and Hakuba, a real mountain biking destination for travelers in Asia.

This network of old roads and trails, Madarao resort’s location near the top of the mountain, and the local community working together has created a natural formula for a top-notch mountain biking destination. Grab your bike, muster up some of that Shinano warrior-poet spirit and rediscover the old roads of Madarao for yourself. 

Read about Mountain Biking in Madarao.

Madarao Mountain Biking Autumn Nagano
Photo: Grinduro Shin’etsu Japan

Mountain Biking in Madarao, Nagano

Essential Info

Getting There

From Tokyo take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Iiyama Station (110 minutes). Madarao Kogen is a 20-minute drive from JR Iiyama Station and visitors can put bikes on the bus to Madarao for ¥500. By car, it is 20 minutes from the Toyota-Iiyama IC on the Joshinetsu Expressway. Nozawa Onsen is just 40 minutes up the road and makes for a great day trip or combined long weekend of mountain biking and hot springs.

Best Time to Ride

May until November although keep an eye on the weather during the rainy season (mid-June to early July) and typhoon season in late summer. 

Rentals

Yama No Ie Information Center in Madarao has e-bikes and mountain bikes for rent. Giro Gravel Bike Park at Madarao Mountain Resort has mountain bike rentals and the Shinetsu Shizenkyo Activity Centre at Iiyama Station has some great bike rental options including e-bikes.

Accommodation

Madarao Mountain Lodge is located near the top of the Cow Trail and makes a great base for exploring the area. They can help organize logistics for groups and other accommodation can be found at madaraomountainresort.com. There is also a great campground at the resort.

Events

Tours

Shinano Discovery Tours offers half-day e-bike tours on the Hokkoku Kaido Old Road for ¥5,500.

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Mountain Biking in Madarao, Nagano

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