Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine myself cycling along an old railway track through Japanese mountain tunnels – but there I was, in my 60’s, powering along thanks to a tiny electric motor and a little mining community with an innovative idea to attract tourists to its remote location.
The zinc mining town of Kamioka, in the Gifu prefecture on Japan’s main island Honshu, lost its commercial railway service in 2006. So, the townspeople came up with the idea of using the abandoned track for a unique experience that allows people to still ride along it – not on trains, but cycling electrically assisted mountain bikes fixed to the track on guide rollers.
In 2012, Kamioka opened a three kilometre town course under the name of Gatton Go, with bikes attached to the railway track. Later, a slightly more challenging Canyon Course was added.
Both courses take around 40 to 60 minutes to complete a round trip that takes cyclists through beautiful mountain scenery and tunnels. There’s a half way stop for a break, otherwise you must stay on your bicycle along the route. You can take your camera, but if you drop it you can’t stop to retrieve it.
Couples or pairs can ride linked bikes, and there are seats that can go between two bikes if room is needed for a third adult or child. Carts are provided for those who want to do the course, but not pedal a bike. There’s even cute sidecars for small children.
How hard is the pedalling? Not difficult, though a little effort is needed for gentle inclines.
Accessing Gatton Go is easy by public transport. It’s about an hour’s drive from the popular tourist city of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture where the local Nohi Bus company sells Gatton Go tickets starting at around 4,500 yen an adult depending on the course length. That’s just over $A50, depending on the exchange rate. The Nohi Bus company is located next to Takayama’s main railway station, with the tickets including a return public bus ride to Kamioka, return taxi rides from the Kamioka town bus terminal to the Gatton Go railway station, and the Gatton Go railway cycling experience. At the time of writing, Coronavirus measures were affecting some Nohi and Gatton Go services. So check the website.
I undertook the Gatton Go course with my partner and some friends, and we were slightly concerned when we found we were the only westerners heading to Kamioka, particularly as none of us spoke Japanese. But the Nohi bus company had alerted Gatton go staff and taxi drivers, who received us warmly every step of the way. A lovely lady even came out to the front of the Gatton Go headquarters to welcome us. It was all very easy, and we had no need to worry.
A small shop with drinks and snacks operates at the station, and a brief safety talk is given before rides begin. The talk is in Japanese, but we were provided with safety information sheets in English. Helmets were also provided.
There’s also an old railway carriage on display that is an enjoyable railways museum piece. You can board it and have a good look around.
Gatton Go was a brilliant little adventure, worth the trouble of getting off the beaten tourist track! I might even go back for more one day and try the longer course!
For the scientific minded visitor, Kamioka has a hidden secret – the Kamioka Observatory Institute for Cosmic Ray research. This is a neutrino and gravitational waves laboratory located deep underground in a mine near the town. Luckily I was travelling with a retired geophysicist and a engineer who explained these things to me!
The super-Kamiokando is a neutrino detector assisting scientists to detect dying stars and learn more about the universe, including tracing the history of exploding stars.
It is the largest neutrino detector of its kind in the world
The super K is not open to visitors, but doing something as simple as mountain biking along an old railway track, knowing that some of the world’s best science is underway close to you, is part of this magic experience.