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Nikko Irohazaka Road

Japan. Manga, Sushi and Amazing Roads.

Welcome to Nikko, a town at the entrance to Nikko National Park, most famous for Toshogu, Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s, and Nikko National Park continues to offer scenic, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails. Nikko and the Okunikko area around Lake Chuzenji, in particular, are well known for their beautiful autumn colors (koyo). In the average year the colors start descending from the higher elevations of Yumoto Onsen in early October, are best around Lake Chuzenji and the Irohazaka road in mid to late October and reach the town of Nikko in the first half of November.

Nikko Irohazaka Road
World Heritage Nikko

Nikko is located along Japan’s Romantic Road, but we prefer to ditch the romance and just ride an engineering masterpiece. Enter the Irohazaka Road.  Iroha-zaka is the name given to the pair of infamous winding roads located in the mountains that connect Nikko to Lake Chuzenji, both major tourist attractions. Each corner has a letter of ancient Japanese alphabet, and you will see it in alphabetical order. The pair of asphalted roads are 1-way switchback mountain roads (2 separate roads; up and down). It’s necessary to use the Second Iroha-zaka to go up, and use the First Iroha-zaka to come down. Sounds organised, welcome to Japan.

What adds to the brilliance is that each corner has a letter of the ancient Japanese alphabet, and you will see it in alphabetical order. The alphabetical order starts from I-ro-ha, while modern alphabet starts from a-i-u. Perfect, you learn Japanese as you ride and it is fitting as this ancient road used to be for ascetics in the past. Iroha-Zaka ascends more than 396 m and the road plays a significant role in Japanese history with the route was popular with Buddhist pilgrims on their way to Lake Chuzenji, which is at the top of the forested hill that this road climbs.

But wait; more learning to come as “Iroha” are the first three of 48 syllables of the formerly used Japanese alphabet (which is now known as “aiueo”), and “zaka” means “slope” – hence the Irohazaka Winding Roads were so named because together they consist of 48 hairpin turns. The road’s winding design, providing stunning panoramic views, is very curvy and fun for a leisurely ride, so it pays to take it slow and enjoy the twists and turns.

These days and due to the increase in traffic, the older, steeper road is only open to downward traffic and includes a pit stop from where you can see two waterfalls. Meanwhile, the newer road, is only open to upward traffic as far as the Akechidaira Plateau near the top of the road. People started calling the slope Iroha-zaka in the early Showa era. Ancient Japanese alphabet consisted of 48 letters, and the number of curve is 48. Therefore, tourist guides started calling the slope Iroha-zaka. Today, the number of curve is 30 because the road was improved in 1954. The two roads were respectively built in 1954 and 1965 as some of Japan’s first toll roads, but were later turned toll free.The road has been heralded as one of the most spectaculars roads in the world and the first Iroha-zaka was made in that time. In addition, the Second Iroha-zaka (Up only) was made to adjust to more traffic. The number of curves increased up to 50, but 2 curves were decreased in order to match to the 48 letters.

Up is a gentle climb, nothing crazy, pack some lights for the tunnel and a camera for the views. Down is a different matter and it is hard not to stop on every hairpin turn and stagger in awe of what you see below. It is definitely worthy of being one of the best roads in Japan, not for the cycling aspect, but for the sheer engineering aspect and riding those roads always gives you a bit of a fizz.

Contact us today and ride the road with RideJapan. Visit our Nikko tour page here.

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