Who would’ve thought that riding mountain bikes on railroad tracks could be so entertaining (much less possible)? When I first heard about Rail Mountain Bike Gattan Go!! (hereafter Rail-MTB) earlier this year, I was skeptical about how much fun it could actually be. But as the months passed and I continued to see news about it, my interest in it grew and grew until I just had to go and try it out.
History and Concept
Rail-MTB, located in Kamioka-cho (also known as Kamioka town), Hida City, makes use of the former train tracks of the Kamioka Railway. The railroad tracks, which according to the Rail-MTB website have a history reaching back all the way to the Meiji period (1868-1912), were first used with horse-drawn carts. These tracks were considered to be the life-blood of the area because they provided the means to transport people and goods through the Northern Alps during a time when the infrastructure wasn’t a developed as it is now.
The Kamioka Railway was the private railroad company that operated on the tracks from the 1980’s, connecting the northern part of the Hida region to Toyama prefecture; however, it eventually went under and ceased all activities in the mid 2000’s when the method of transporting freight from the nearby Kamioka Kouzan mines (which provided 80% of the total revenue for the company) suddenly shifted from trains to trucks.
This was a low point for the community because the railroad tracks were considered to be the symbol of the community, and held significant historical importance. The Kamioka-cho locals began brainstorming and testing out different ways to reuse the tracks in order to revive their community.
Fast forward a year later when Rail-MTB, made possible by the blood, sweat, and tears of the community opened and became the first tourist attraction of its kind in all of Japan. After seeing how successful Rail-MTB has been, other communities around the country have started similar movements (which Rail-MTB actively encourages and supports). Not only has Rail-MTB helped revitalize the local community’s economy and spirit, it also shows us the value and potential in reusing old materials.
One of the first questions you might ask is “why name it Gattan-Go?” While “Rail Mountain Bike” is pretty straight forward, “Gattan-Go” on the other hand is not so much. The Japanese language is rich in onomatopoeia, and gattan gotton is the phrase used to describe the unique experience (both the sound, and feeling of the vibrations) you will get when riding the rail mountain bikes down the tracks.
I think that gattan gotton is a very accurate depiction of the experience you will get because the first thing you will notice is the loud sound that your bike-cart makes when rolling down the tracks. While the only part of the electric-powered mountain bikes that touch the railroad tracks is the back tire, the rest of the bike sits on a cart that is attached to the tracks. These carts are made specifically for Rail-MTB, so you won’t see them anywhere else.
Riding a Rail Mountain Bike
When I visited Rail-MTB we were in the first service of the morning and arrived about 20 minutes before our departure because they have a 10-minute predeparture briefing. While the briefing was all in Japanese, they had everything written out in English on cards that they distribute to non-Japanese visitors so you don’t need to be afraid about any language barriers. The staff was very friendly, and seemed genuinely excited to have us there.
After the safety briefing my parents (who were lucky enough to be visiting at the time) and I were ushered outside to our three-person cart, the last one in a line of about five, and we proceeded to depart from the station one party at a time. At Rail-MTB there is a wide range of carts available to choose from depending on your party size, so feel free to bring as many people as you can! They even have a cart consisting of one bike and one side-car (occupied by a jumbo sarubobo doll!) for those of you who are alone, or are in groups with awkward numbers.
I can say that riding a rail mountain bike was a completely new experience. Like I mentioned earlier, I think that gattan gotton describes the experience of your bike-cart rolling down the train tracks pretty well. The only thing that you need to worry about is maintaining a safe distance from the party in front of you, leaving you free to enjoy the beautiful views of Kamioka-cho and the surrounding Northern Alps.
Depending on the season you visit, there could be cherry blossoms, bright green vegetation, or even colorful autumn foliage. When I was there it was at the end of May so there were patches of wild flowers growing along both sides of the tracks.
The Town Course is a round-trip excursion (around 6 km long) that takes about 40 to 60 minutes. It starts at the former Okuhida Onsenguchi Station and passes through two tunnels and two abandoned stations before coming to the turn-around point: the former Kamioka-Kozanmae Station. Along with these points of interest are a few other natural and man-made landmarks along the way (like the mushroom-shaped bathroom) that ensure an interesting ride for visitors of all ages.
The train tracks to the turn-around point are all downhill so if you have more than two people and want to switch the bike riders at the halfway point, then make sure that the more fit people ride the second half of the course. In my case the three-person cart wasn’t too heavy, but a five-person cart could turn into a bit of a workout!
After returning back to the starting point we got our tickets stamped (which can be used as coupons for your next visit), and wandered around the shops and cafes located in the vicinity of the former station. The service after ours was about double in size so we were able to see a wide range of carts in use. My parents and I had a blast (from the looks of the reviews on Tripadvisor, we weren’t the only ones), and I think it was well worth it for how much it cost.
For those without cars, Nohi Bus has a couple of tour packages to Rail-MTB which are all located on their website:
For more information about Rail-MTB check out the official site below: