It had been awhile, so we decided to once again cycle on National Route 158, one of the roads in Japan with the highest concentration of tunnels along its relatively short length (19 between Takayama and Matsumoto alone!).

We wanted to confirm three things:

  1. (1) if cycling through these tunnels would be (or seem) more dangerous now — whether because of worse road conditions or maybe the increased wisdom that comes with age (^o^);

  2. (2) if it’s possible to cycle through the 4,370m long Abo Tunnel (a toll road tunnel whose English name is Abo-Toge Road); and

  3. (3) if the direction matters (in other words, if it matters if you cycle, for example, Matsumoto => Takayama or Takayama => Matsumoto).

To make it a real test, we chose to cycle this route between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a Sunday in October, when presumably the road would be packed with tour buses and lots of tourists in their cars looking to see autumn leaves.  (And it definitely was.)

The results? Let’s take point (2) first. Cyclists are most definitely NOT permitted on the Abo Tunnel (Abo-Toge Road) toll road. We figured as much, but there had been scattered reports of motorists seeing cyclists in the tunnel. But there’s no substitute for the direct experience of actually cycling up to the tunnel entrance and having a guard immediately rush over and tell you in no uncertain terms that the road is for (motorized) vehicles only. It’s too bad, since when you ride through it in a bus or car you can see wide, protected walkways along the side that make this tunnel arguably much safer than any of the others on this route! Oh, well. So the answer to this question is a resounding NO.

As to point (1): how comfortable you feel riding through tunnels will depend to a large degree on you. We hadn’t been through these tunnels (all 18 of them!) for more than a decade, but to be honest, it felt almost exactly the same as last time — in other words, we didn’t feel that by cycling through the tunnels we were doing something that was excessively dangerous. But there are important caveats.

First is that cycling without a proper (BRIGHT) headlight and taillight and not wearing bright clothing would be absolutely suicidal. YOU _MUST_ MAKE YOURSELF AS VISIBLE AS POSSIBLE TO ENSURE YOUR SAFETY. I have the brightest headlight and (particularly) taillight that I can afford, in addition to multiple reflectors, and my carry-bag on the rear rack is white for increased visibility. Finally, I also wear a bright yellow windbreaker that even fits over my backpack so it can be seen from the rear. In my experience, if you make yourself properly visible and cycle predictably and cautiously, Japanese drivers will give you a wide berth, even in tunnels.

Also note that sidewalks are NOT an option in these tunnels. Even where they exist, they are very narrow (not much more than a foot to a foot and a half). Unless you’re a circus acrobat with nerves of steel, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you attempt to cycle on these narrow sidewalks — the slightest mistake could send you off and falling into the path of a vehicle. In addition, in two of the tunnels in the center of the route, there are obstructions on the sidewalks so you couldn’t even walk on them, much less cycle them.

The roads in the tunnels seem to be in relatively good shape; I encountered only a few minor bumps along the way. It should be mentioned that one of the tunnels has a stone-like pavement scored with multiple long, thin depressions in the longitudinal direction (so in the direction of travel). My road bike tires were thick enough that they weren’t affected, but I suppose it’s possible that very thin racing tires might be affected, so if you’re riding this type of bicycle you should exercise caution in that tunnel.

And that leads us to point (3). Based on this recent experience, we can say that there is definitely a “correct” direction in which to travel this road on a bicycle: you should ride from Takayama to Matsumoto, not the other direction. The reason is that, somewhat surprisingly, virtually all of the tunnels are a slight downhill in that direction — even the long 2,430m Hirayu Tunnel which is near the Takayama end of the road. A couple of the tunnels are more or less level, but I don’t remember even one that has a sustained uphill in that direction. So by traveling Takayama => Matsumoto you won’t have to spend energy trying to keep the bike in motion and can focus on proper steering. This also means you will be traveling faster, with no effort on your part, and so you will be passed by fewer cars, buses and trucks.

Note that because you will not be able to cycle through the long (4,370m) Abo Tunnel, you’ll have to go up and over the old Abo Pass road (whose name, incongruously, is Abo Doro or Abo Road; this is the road with the actual pass, but it’s the one without “pass” in the name!), which is very pretty but also quite high in elevation (1,792m). It’s not as bad as it sounds; by the time you get to the Hirayu Tunnel, the first sustained tunnel in this direction of travel, you’re already at 1,445m elevation, so you’re not going up that much higher. However, the road is quite steep and you will almost certainly be in your lowest possible gear until the pass. One safety tip: be VERY careful to stay away from the edge of the road near the top; there are metal or wire barriers on the cliff side in most places but not all, and if you’re riding a heavily laden bicycle, it’s possible that a minor mistake in steering could start you rolling toward the edge of the road, and the momentum of the heavy bike on that steep road might carry you over. (It’s not a straight drop, but even if you were fortunate enough to not be injured, you’d have a devil of a time getting your bicycle back up from the slope onto the road!)

There is one more point to consider when deciding whether or not to cycle this route: the load you’re carrying on your bicycle at that point. If you’re like me, you’ll want to bring a ton of things back from Takayama, and many of those things will be heavy (like delicious miso and regional sake). You could always send those things on to your destination by “takkyubin” express mail, but that would probably cost a lot due to the weight. And at a certain point it makes little sense to pay, for example, ¥2000 in shipping charges when for only around ¥3100 you could put your bagged bicycle AND your heavy goodies on a bus and travel between Takayama and Matsumoto in style! Both Alpico (based in Matsumoto) and Nohi Bus (based in Takayama) accept bagged bicycles as luggage at no extra charge. So there’s actually an evidence-based reason to be lazy. You’re welcome.

As always: whatever you decide to do, have a great ride and cycle safely.


Cycling Route 158 and its Tunnels (October 2018)

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