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The following itinerary is the fourth and last day of a 4-day road trip through Central Japan.

Continuing from where I left on Day 3, I began my fourth and last day of the roadtrip first with a morning bath overlooking a river and breakfast at my accommodation. After that, I drove a short ways north to take the Shinhotaka Ropeway up to an elevation of over 2000 meters to get a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. From there, I went on a nice long drive out of the Okuhida region and east to the Venus Line, a scenic driving road, before wrapping up my trip with a walking tour of five sake breweries in Suwa.

Shinhotaka Ropeway, Gifu Prefecture

The Shinhotaka Ropeway is a double-decker ropeway - the only one in Japan - tucked away in the northern Japan Alps. This ropeway is actually made up of two ropeways. The first is the shorter of the two, which covers a horizontal distance of around 500 meters and an elevation of about 200 meters. The second is the unique one with a double-decker gondola, which travels a horizontal distance of around 2500 meters while gaining an elevation of about 850 meters. Those arriving by car can start their journey from the second ropeway as there is ample parking at its base.

The Shinhotaka Ropeway makes it convenient for anyone to access high altitudes easily and enjoy panoramic views, which would otherwise require a fair amount of hiking. The ropeway runs all year round, and you can be sure to see a different landscape in each season.

The upper station sits at an elevation of 2156 meters and is surrounded by the tall mountains of the northern Japan Alps. A rooftop observation deck provides stunning vistas of the nearby valleys and mountains. The Hotaka mountain range provides a picturesque backdrop for the station, and the tallest of the mountains there, Oku-Hotakadake, stands at 3190 meters. It is also the third tallest mountain in Japan.

Majority of the visitors on the Shinhotaka Ropeway would be content with just seeing the scenery from the observation deck, but there are walking trails around the upper station, some of which continue into the mountains for those who wish to explore further. Proper hiking equipment and experience are required for those planning to hike.

As for me, I enjoyed taking the ropeway from the first ropeway all the way to the top. The ride in the double-decker gondola took about seven minutes and included a commentary of the surroundings. I headed straight for the rooftop observation deck when I arrived, and was immediately greeted by mountain scenery on all sides. The weather could not have been more perfect when I was there, and it added a sparkle to an already spectacular sight.

Chino and Suwa, Nagano Prefecture

Having had my fill of fresh mountain air and scenic views, I returned to my car and headed out of the Okuhida Region. The route out included some scenic mountain driving, which gave way to farmland as I got closer to the expressway. After getting off the expressway, I decided to take a detour to drive a short section of a well-known scenic driving road, the Venus Line, which was not far away. The Venus Line is an approximately 80 kilometer road that starts in Chino and winds around mountains and highlands to Ueda in the north. On a good day, you can even see Mount Fuji in the distance!

I passed some cyclists as I drove along the Venus Line and thought that cycling was not a bad idea if I had more time to spend in the area. I later found out that electric bicycle (ebike) tours are offered by a local operator and depart from the Ikenotaira Hotel and Resort in Chino, which is easily accessible by public transit.

After that detour on the Venus Line, it was time to go to Suwa, my final stop for the day and the entire road trip. Upon arrival, I parked my car for the day and went on a walking brewery tour. Note that Japan has a strict zero-tolerance rule for drinking and driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol in Japan carries severe penalties.

The Suwa Go Kura Sakagura Meguri is a walking tour of five sake breweries: Maihime, Reijin, Honkin, Yokobue and Masumi, in central Suwa. The five are located along the same main road, with the farthest two, Maihime and Masumi, just 400 meters apart. There is no specific order to visit the sake breweries, and participating in the tour is as simple as purchasing a sake set, which is sold at all the breweries, and includes a sake glass, its carry bag and a stamp card. The sake glass is used for sake tasting at each brewery.

The five sake breweries all had their distinct flavors and style, and together offered a large variety of sake. I had the opportunity and was also happy to sample many little cups of different kinds of sake. To be honest, it was really hard to pick one overall favorite. I learned that Masumi, despite having the most modern and aesthetically designed showroom, was established in 1662, making it the oldest sake brewery of the five.

All in all, I had a great afternoon on the sake brewery tour, and I found it hard to believe that I only walked a mere 500 meters in the few hours spent in Suwa. I had four fantastic days, and I think I saw pretty much everything from the coast to the peaks of central Japan. To bring my trip to a close, I took a 20 minute walk from the sake breweries to Lake Suwa, the largest lake in Nagano Prefecture, to watch the sunset.

Till the next road trip, always buckle your seatbelt and drive with both hands on the steering wheel.

Access

The Central Nippon Expressway Pass is the best and most economical pass for overseas travelers who are planning to explore central Japan by car. The pass is an expressway toll card (ETC), which is to be inserted into the ETC reader in the car, and allows the holder to use the expressways in central Japan for a flat fee. This fee varies depending on the number of days the pass is valid for, which is from 2 to 14 days. Detailed information is available on the official website.

Approximate driving times

  • Ryokan accommodation to Shinhotaka Ropeway: 20 minutes
  • Shinhotaka Ropeway to Venus Line in Chino: 120 minutes
  • Venus Line in Chino to Suwa sake breweries : 70 minutes