Japan’s main island of Honshu is home to several stunning mountain ranges. They’ve not only made for (literally) Olympic level snow sports, but also for an embarrassing amount of absolutely fantastic, twisty, motorcycle-friendly roads. One such route is the Izu Skyline, a stretch of 40.6Km (25.2 miles) of road which winds through the mountains of the Izu peninsula.
To give you an idea of where this is, at the north end of the route is the town of Hakone, just over an hour’s train ride west from Tokyo. If you’re already on your bike, it’s about the same duration easy riding on the expressways from the capital, or if you have a time, you can take the beautiful coastal route along the Sagami Bay for a few hours alongside the Pacific Ocean.
Hakone itself is an ancient mountain town and tourist draw originating as a way-station on the old Tokaido trade-route which ran along the east coast from Tokyo in the East, to Kobe and Kyoto in the West. With its fair share of volcanic hotsprings, lakes, museums and hotels, Hakone continues to attract quite a few tourists to this day.
At the southern tip of the peninsula is Shimoda, a town made famous as being where American Commodore Perry arrived in his ‘black ships’ and requested Japan’s (almost) closed doors be re-opened in 1853, ushering in Japan’s modern era following centuries of relative isolation.
In the middle of all this is the Izu Skyline. It’s a toll road, and this being Japan, there is an accepted start and end point. The start is at the northern end, called the Atami Touge Toll Booth, where there is a small car park and rest area for those who want to take stock before getting on the road. ‘Touge’ (峠) is a word you’ll come to love in Japan as it means a ‘mountain pass’ and usually signifies good twisties.
You go under the broad brushed metal archway, pay your fee and you are away to ride the Skyline. The payment system works like this – you pay cash at the arch kiosk, and tell the staff which exit / interchange you’ll get off at. They then give you a ticket with that exit name, and you’ll then hand the ticket in when you exit – so it’s important to not lose that ticket!
This is something of an honour system because there are plenty of ways off the road all the way along, including near the end, but we want to be good riders, so be sure to choose the right exit or the nearest one to where you will get off.
A few of the signs and instructions are in English if that’s a concern though I’ve always found the staff to be friendly and helpful even if not much English is spoken – they’re used to dealing with foreign bikers, so know most of the key phrases.
Through the arch then and we’re away, over a small bridge and through a right hander to accelerate uphill to a left hander which makes you feel like you’re ramping into the sky. It’s a great and appropriate introduction to the Skyline.
Road wise, it’s a decent quality single lane asphalt carriageway for most of its length with a few slow vehicle passing points. As a slower rider, I keep an eye and ear open for riders and cars coming up behind me to wave them past, but if you’re behind a slow car, there’s a good chance they’ll also ease to the side to let you pass – just remember to wave your appreciation.
As you sweep along, you see why it’s called a Skyline, carving along ridgelines, with winding corners, the mountain on one side and an ocean view on the other. It’s punctuated with great views of Mt. Fuji, deep valleys and lofty views of the urban sprawl along the coast.
Perhaps ironically, there are plenty of places to stop to take photos, in fact a good one is just a mile or two in, the Takichiyamaenchi parking area on the right hand side if you’re going the ‘right’ way. It offers a great view to whet the appetite. In fact, many of the stopping points en route intentionally double as excellent photo opportunities.
However, this isn’t a time for carparks, this is a time for riding.
Soon we get to sample a remnant of Japan’s 1980s economic bubble, and its inevitable burst – the Kurodake Drive-in. This is an example of what the Japanese call ‘haikyo’ or long abandoned building. It was once the top station of the Atami ropeway, then a museum before finally closing in 2008. Now, it is an abandoned and rather forlorn place, open to the elements, with an intriguing entrance ramp walkway and a sign claiming to be an environmental centre from its museum days.
Further on, about halfway down the Skyline we get to Sky Port Kameishi. This is the main rest area on the route and whilst there’s no petrol, there is a great selection of local food and souvenir gifts. This is also a biker meet-up and regrouping spot, so there’s a good chance to meet new riding partners.
As we get further south, there’s signs of real life – small farm roads criss-cross the Skyline and you can get off and explore if you like. However, be aware that these can turn from asphalt to a gravel track to dirt quite quickly, and you may end up in one of many dead ends. As you can imagine then, there’s fun to be had. There are also some small local cafes and shops if you can catch them during opening times, which change throughout the year.
On the Izu Skyline proper there’s still miles of sweeping corners – and the odd straight – to go at before we come to a small technical park seemingly in the middle of nowhere. However, there are two things worth noting here. Firstly, there’s a small side road under the main road which leads off to Route 59 through a narrow forest road, which will take you into wasabi growing country. It’s a twisty little road, and if you haven’t seen a wasabi farm, it’s a quick and accessible way to do it. Wasabi must be grown in fresh flowing water, so throughout Izu there are plenty of terraced rivers growing the spice.
The other point of interest here is completely different. Through the business park entrance, there’s a road up to the ‘World Mahikari Civilization Centre’. It’s the main temple and centre of a religious community. The building is a terraced roof structure which hugs the side of the hill, and whose carefully manicured lawns open up to a stunning view of Mt. Fuji. You can see it from the main Izu Skyline road, but if there isn’t an event on you can ride up to it and get a closer look. It’s an out of place structure, but impressive to see.
From there it’s sadly a short run to the final toll gate, where you need to hand in that paper ticket that you got at the entrance. This final toll gate is much smaller, has a tiny parking area, the ubiquitous vending machine and a tiny Japanese toilet. This reinforces the idea that this is the ‘end’, though of course you can start here if you want to see the Skyline from a different angle.
Nearby is another abandoned building (the only other building) which I think was once a restaurant. After doing the Izu Skyline I often stop here for a cup of tea, sat on the kerb or on my bike, and watch vehicles coming and going and wishing that restaurant was open on the wetter days. Otherwise it’s a very quiet place with a view (of course) of Mt. Fuji.
From this southern tip of the Izu Skyline, there’s a lot more to explore – to the East there’s Mt. Omuro, the tip of a volcano caldera you can walk around, and the coastal town of Ito. Heading west through the hills and forest roads is the town of Izu itself, and other roads north-south. One of these is the 414, home to several waterfalls, and on the man made side, the bizarre Kawazu Nanataki Spiral Bridge on the way South.
You can ride the Skyline almost year round. There can be snow in January and February so be aware. In March you can often ride in spring weather as the plum and cherry blossoms fall from the trees – it’s a beautiful ride as these trees line several sections of the route. For the same reasons it great to run in Autumn also as the leaves blow around and you can see the famous variety of leaf colours from the many shades of browns to vivid reds across the mountains – a heady blend of relaxing nature and a road that loves motorbikes.