Located in the center of Japan, the area of northern Nagano and southern Niigata is called The Roof of Japan because of the tall mountains found here. It is has become a destination where people from all over the world experience some of the world’s best powder snow. But once the snow melts in spring and the vast mountains are uncovered, mountain bike trails and parks appear. This area is a popular domestic tourist destination, too, as it is cooler and drier in summer than many of Japan’s major metropolitan areas. Ski resorts in Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Myoko provide not only mountain bike trails, but also delicious local dishes, historic rural landscapes and onsen (hot springs) where visitors can ease the fatigue of a long journey.
Hakuba’s ski resorts are set in the magnificent Japan Alps, with peaks towering over 3,000 meters. Three bike parks are here—Iwatake, Hakuba 47 and Snow Harp—along with a trail network in Minekata. Both Iwatake and Hakuba 47 are great for freeride and downhill riding. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the top of the parks via gondola, with stunning views all along the way. Iwatake’s course is eight kilometers long, with a vertical drop of 520 meters. The upper half on the ski runs features berms and rollers, while the lower half has technical singletrack sections requiring good handling skills.
Hakuba 47 has four main courses, with a vertical drop of about 350 meters. The upper section provides some route options; riders can also enjoy doing loops via the chair lift. Here you’ll find courses ideal for levels from beginner to expert, allowing everyone to enjoy the fun of mountain biking. Pumptracks (courses with a structure that allows an up and down “pumping” motion to propel the bike, rather than pedaling) can be found at the foot of the hills, and are great for helping riders improve their control. Guided tours are also available for beginners and families.
Snow Harp is great for cross-country riding. There are true cross-country courses for experienced riders, but the hill is also mellow enough for riders who are just discovering mountain biking.
Minekata has three endure-style trails; riders must pedal up the hill to get to the trailheads. These trails include both flowing sections as well as tight and technical segments that keep bringing riders back for more. Minekata is a popular spot for locals and hardcore riders even after other bike parks close for the season.
Shiga Kogen is Japan’s largest ski area. At its base is Yudanaka & Shibu Onsen Resort, with 1,300 years of history and plentiful hot springs (including nine free public baths open to hotel guests). Above are orchards on the hillsides and a maze of narrow paths providing some fun riding. Further up the road is Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, home to the now world-famous Monkey Park where wild monkeys bathe in their own onsen. Shiga Kogen is a great place to explore Japan’s culture and history.
Nozawa Onsen is a fascinating area, a meeting of traditional Japanese hot spring town and ski resort. The area’s gondola accessible bike park is famous for its downhill mountain biking. Four courses cater to various skill levels, letting riders create their own favorite combination. The longest course runs for 10 kilometers, with a 700-meter vertical drop. A technical single track section is near the top of the hill, although with a gentle slope. Coming down the hill, the course heads almost straight down a ski run, and is rough, fast and steep. A kick bike course for kids two to five years old is located right next to the gondola terminal.
Once at the bottom, explore the historic town of Nozawa Onsen. Be sure and try oyaki, a local delicacy that is something like a dumpling made of buckwheat and filled with a variety of ingredients. Finally, have a soak in one of the 13 Soto-yu public baths to sooth any post-ride stiff muscles.
Just across the Niigata border, Myoko’s ski areas cover the base of the famous, 2,454-meter-tall Mt. Myoko. Suginohara Ski Resort at the south side of the mountain has gondola-serviced downhill courses. The 20-minute gondola ride to the top also provides beautiful panoramic views toward Lake Nojiri to the east, and Mt. Takatsuma (like Mt. Myoko, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains) to the west. The bike course mainly follows the ski course, meandering down the hill. There are no man-made jumps or other features, but there are flat corners that provide a classic, dynamic mountain biking experience, especially when it’s dry. This is a great downhill bike park where, in the fall, riders will be on courses cut through Japanese silver grass standing more than two meters tall. Myoko is also known for onsen across the area, fed from two natural sources high up on Mt. Myoko.