In a mountainous nation like Japan, it’s unavoidable that you’ll have to go through tunnels at some point. In some cases there’s no “almost” about it — the terrain is so rugged that the road didn’t exist until the tunnel made it possible. In other cases, there is an alternate route, but the old road is so seldom-traveled that it’s in poor condition, has reverted to gravel, or is completely closed to traffic.

Modern tunnels are well-lit and have a wide sidewalk on one side (usually the mountain side), making transit safe and easy. Older tunnels, however, tend to have narrow lanes and only very narrow walkways on the side, which are even more dangerous — the danger of becoming unbalanced and falling off into the path of cars is far greater than the danger of cycling on the road.

In many cases, you can plan your route so as to avoid all or most of the tunnels (of course, often the tradeoff is more climbing!). The big exception to this rule is the Japan Alps. There are only a limited number of roads through the mountains between destinations, and in several cases there simply isn’t an alternate route; if you want to go between those points you’ll have to take the tunnels. And most of these tunnels are the old, original tunnels, meaning there are NO sidewalks and only narrow lanes that often extend for several kilometers. And because these routes go between major destinations, they’re usually heavily trafficked. 

So when it’s unavoidable, the question becomes: is it safe to cycle through tunnels if you have to do it on the road? It’s a judgment call. For years, I cycled through tunnels all over Japan and never felt unsafe, although it was always nerve-wracking to hear a truck enter the tunnel far behind me and roar up and around. But lately I’ve had second thoughts.

Route 158 which goes between Matsumoto and Takayama is probably the most dramatic example, so let’s explore that route in detail. For years I cycled through the tunnels on this road and didn’t think it was particularly dangerous. My thinking changed the first time I took a bus and saw things through the eyes of a driver:

As you can see, it looks a LOT less safe when you see it from this perspective. This is a typical long tunnel of the old type, not terribly brightly illuminated, on which vehicles are traveling at fairly high speeds, and there’s only a narrow shoulder. And unless you’re a circus athlete, the sidewalks are nowhere near wide enough to cycle on, particularly for a loaded-down touring bicycle; they’re barely even wide enough for a person to walk on. (And often the walkway is elevated a foot or more above the roadway, making the consequences of falling off even more disastrous.) So your only option is to cycle on the road. Factor in the length of these tunnels, the number of tunnels (lots), and how crowded with cars, trucks and buses they can get (particularly on holidays or weekends) and you begin to see how problematic cycling through such tunnels can be. Apart from the personal danger, you’ll probably be slowing down traffic considerably since there are so many tunnels and almost all of them are like this.

I was unable to find an official listing of the tunnels on Route 158, but my maps show at least 19 of various sizes between Takayama and Matsumoto. Many are relatively short, but a few are quite long, like the Hirayu Tunnel (~2.5km). Here is a two-page photo spread of photos taken along the route from Matsumoto to Takayama. You’ll notice the many photos of tunnel entrances: 

It should be mentioned that on this particular route, you’re actually not allowed to cycle through the longest tunnel: the Abo Tunnel, which is actually a toll road called Abo-Toge Doro (literally “Abo Pass Road”; the English name is Abo-Toge Road) on which cyclists and pedestrians are not allowed. Although I’ve read several blog posts by Japanese motorists who report seeing cyclists and pedestrians going through this tunnel (presumably because there was no one at the gate to stop them), needless to say this can neither be recommended nor relied upon and you should avoid trying to do it. The old Abo Pass road (called the Abo Doro or Abo Road) is still open, roughly from mid-May through October, and so you can cycle up and over the pass instead. It sounds steep at 1,792m elevation, but remember in the Japan Alps you’re starting out at around 500-600m and by the time you get to the Hirayu Tunnel you’re already at 1,445m elevation.

(For some great photos of cycling over the Abo Pass road, see: )

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So in general: what to do about tunnels? Here are your options:

   Reconfigure your route to avoid the tunnels. 
If it won’t spoil your trip, this would be the best option. Note that in some cases this involves the extra time and effort of cycling over mountain passes rather than going through the tunnels.

   Take a bus for just that section. 
This is an option that you might want to consider seriously. In the Japan Alps, the bus company Alpico has routes between major destinations like Matsumoto and Takayama, using buses that have luggage space down below, and Alpico will allow bagged bicycles on these non-overnight buses. It won’t be particularly cheap (around ¥3,100) but it will be much safer.
Here is a sample schedule from the Alpico site, with Takayama-Matsumoto on top and Matsumoto-Takayama on the bottom. The times include a 10-minute rest stop at Hirayu.
The site for the Matsumoto-Takayama bus route is here: .

Nohi Bus, based in Takayama, also runs buses between Takayama and Matsumoto. Their website is here: . They say reservations for this route are not required, but it might be good to double-check availability in advance.

   Cycle through the tunnels. 
If you choose this option, it’s imperative that you make sure that the vehicles can see you and can pass you safely. So BE SURE to 

            - wear very bright clothing (preferably with reflective material);
            - have very bright illuminated lights for both front and rear; and
            - cycle in a predictable manner to make it easy for vehicles to avoid you. 

Always check your route in advance and see how many tunnels you will have to go through, and plan accordingly — and always make sure you have the proper lights and bright clothing in case you need to traverse a tunnel. (I use a yellow windbreaker that is big enough to fit over my backpack so it can be seen from behind as well.)

And whatever you decide to do: have a great ride and be safe.

Japan Alps Tunnels

C Y C L I N G  •  S P E C I A L   R E P O R T