Cycling in Japan

Posted by James Anderton on August 24, 2018


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Japan is a beautiful country. With its forested mountains, rugged coastline and neon-lit streetscapes, the landscape is as varied as it is majestic. With considerate drivers, great infrastructure, and a well connected network of roads, Japan is a perfect destination for cycle touring first-timers. With the wilds of Hokkaido and stunning mountain roads there is also plenty for the seasoned tourer to enjoy. The average tourist in Japan tends to stick to the classic triangle Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto. Few venture beyond that, and as a result, most of Japan is still very authentic and a great place to explore by bike.

The iconic Mount Fuji

Mt Fuji

The first thing you’ll notice about Japan is how incredibly polite everyone is. Respect and manners is something that is ingrained into the people of Japan from an early age. The concept of omotenashi, or selfless hospitality, is a cornerstone of Japanese culture. It's a privilege for a host to welcome guests and make sure all their needs are seen to. This applies in every aspect of life, in shops, restaurants and even helping strangers in the street. It also applies to the drivers. Only once did I hear the beep of the horn in my direction during my entire time in Japan. I’m pretty sure I deserved it but the driver then went past me bowing is head repeatedly in apology for having felt the need to beep his horn at me. Everytime I entered a convenience store there would be a little dance of head bowing in my direction from all the staff in the shop. I got into such a healthy habit of bowing my head everytime I bought something that I found myself still doing it when I returned to England. Much to the bafflement of the check out girls at Tesco’s. The next thing you will notice is how immaculate everywhere is. You will do well to find any litter anywhere. The concept of ‘leave no trace’ is another thing drilled into the youth of Japan from a young age. Everyone cleans up after themselves to leave things exactly as they found them.

above the clouds in the mountians of Japan near Hiroshima

Above the clouds in the mountains of Japan west of Hiroshima

A reason people are often put off travelling around Japan is the cost. It is one of the most expensive countries in the world but like anywhere it can be done on the cheap if you put your mind to it. If you are fully committed to your bike and your tent you can survive without putting a big dent in your bank account. The 2 biggest costs in Japan are travel and accommodation. A 7-days railway pass costs 250$, the cheaper hostels are about 45$ per person, per night, while an average double room can easily go above 150$. However if you cycle everywhere and camp out every night you bypass both these expenses. I cycled in Japan for almost 3 months and never spent over $12/day. Shop in supermarkets instead of the convenience stores. Make your own coffee and live on bread and noodles and you will be fine. The ready made sushi meals in the supermarkets represent good value. They are also excellent cycling food and you still feel like you are sampling the local cuisine. Committing to your tent is not a problem in Japan. Wild camping is both easy and excellent. Once out of the towns there are plenty of pristine forests and coastline for amazing wild camping. The locals are happy for you to camp where you like. Natural water is plentiful and some of the cleanest you will find anywhere in the world. A drawback of wall to wall camping is you will soon begin to smell like cabbage. I would have a manly rinse in a cold stream at the end of each day. Then I discovered Onsen's. I do love a good onsen. An onsen is a natural hot spring bath, and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity Japan has lots of them. They are everyday bathhouses of ordinary Japanese people and a great way to sample the local culture. They are often located in areas of natural beauty. Onsen water is believed to have a multitude of healing properties since time began. It is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. They can be a bit daunting for a foreigner at first as you have to get naked. No speedos allowed! Baths are split into male and female. No tattoos allowed either. Tattoos in general are frowned upon in Japan. They are associated with organised crime as the Japanese gangsters (the yakuza) traditionally mark their bodies with tattoos. If you are tattoo free and happy to get your kit off then the onsens are the perfect place to get clean and relax after a long day on the bike.

cycling the Hokkaido coastline in Japan

The coast of Hokkaido

I arrived right at the beginning of the rainy season. I did not know Japan had a rainy season. It does. It runs from the beginning of June to mid July. Note that Hokkaido is pretty much unaffected but the rest of Japan isn’t. It wasn’t as bad as I feared though. Yes there were a few days where it rained solid for 24 hours but most of the time it was clear. I even had a 6 day run of glorious sunshine slap bang in the middle of the rainy season. If, like me, you are from England, there is nothing to fear. It’s no different to April. Plus the temperatures are still warm so even when you are a getting a good soaking it’s not unpleasant. The other good thing is that no Japanese travel during this time so you will have the mountain roads all to yourself. I would worry more about the hot season. In late July and August it can get extremely hot and sticky, especially around the Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto area. Temperatures can approach 40 degrees which will not only test your cycling endurance but also your ability to stick it out in a tent.

As for the cycling there is something for everyone in Japan. For me the mountain roads were the joy. As a nation built on high levels of efficiency the Japanese tend to tunnel through most of the mountains so people don’t have to waste valuable time going up and over. This means that many of the mountain roads are practically unused. They are still perfectly paved of course and you can enjoy the wondrous nature that Japan has to offer in total peace and quiet. When camping I would try to get away from the road to avoid being woken by any traffic. No need in Japan. On the mountain roads you won’t hear a car from the moment you pitch your tent to the moment you pack up and move on. The roads can be steep though so be prepared to earn your descent. Particular mountain routes I enjoyed were from Nagashima island To Oita in the south west of the country. From Ube to Hiroshima on Chugoku prefecture and the mountains north of Kochi. There are also terrific coastal roads to enjoy. They tend to be busier but can make for some great days as you meander along rugged coastline and through sleepy fishing villages. My favourite section of coastline was south of Wakayama to Kushimoto and all around Hokkaido.

cycling the Shimanami cycle route in Japan

One of the many bridges connecting the islands on the Shimanami cycle route

If you have ever googled ‘Best day cycles in the world’ then you have will have heard of the Shimanami day cycle from Onomichi to Imabari. A 70km dedicated cycle route that keeps you away from traffic. It takes you through orange orchards and over dramatic high bridges above the beautiful Seto Inland sea connecting the Hiroshima prefecture to the Ehime prefecture. It thoroughly deserves it’s reputation as one of world’s great day rides. I happened to approach it in the afternoon and as a result ended up camping on a deserted beach on one of the many small islands you cross.

At the most northenmost point in Japan in Hokkaido

The most northernmost point in Japan in Hokkaido

The highlight of Japan though was Hokkaido. If you are looking for wilderness and adventure then this large island at the far north of Japan has everything a cyclist could wish for. There are staggering coastal roads that feel they are taking you to the end of the world. Then there are dirt trails that dissect the mountains in the middle of the island where you can go days without seeing a sole. Home to an incredible array of wildlife including ezo red foxes, sika deer, orca whales and of course bears. Hokkaido is home to the Ussuri brown bear, a slightly smaller cousin to the grizzly, but much larger than the Japanese black bear on the mainland. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one in the wild, preferably from a distance, but it wasn’t to be. Despite the fact that there is on average one bear related death a year in Hokkaido you are unlikely to come across one. The victims are generally hikers exploring the forests in the north east of the island who happen to surprise a bear. For this reason many hikers and locals wear bells on their shoes so that the bear can hear you coming. The bears don’t want a confrontation any more than you do and will scurry off if they are aware you are close. Each night camping I was careful to create the 'bear muda triangle' with your tent in one point of the triangle. Your food storage at another point. Your cooking and dining area in the third point with around 100 yards between each point. Your tent should also ideally be upwind of those other two food friendly areas. It was always with some relief that I found my food bag in tact the next morning and I realised I could have breakfast.

entering bear territoty in Hokkaido Japan

No need to guess what this sign meant

Roads:

Excellent. Unless you get really lost you will do well to find a dirt road. The exception to this is Hokkaido where there are many excellent dirt roads that cross the middle of the island.

Wild camping:

As mentioned Japan is wonderful for camping. Camping gas is also easy to get hold of. Head for any sport/camping/fishing store in the towns.

Japan is also very hammock friendly. Trees everywhere

Visa's:

Most countries get 90 days on arrival. Be warned that you may be asked for proof of onward travel on arrival. In such situations I book a flight on Expedia (must be .com), save ticket as PDF and then cancel within 24 hours for a full refund.

Bicycle Shops:

There is a cycle shop in every town. The mechanics will take personal pride in doing the best possible job for you. I found them very conscientious. Not cheap of course but no more expensive than Europe.

Tips:

If you have a glance at a map of Japan it might seem that there are 3 options to cross from Chugoku prefecture to Shikoku prefecture. The reality for a cyclist is there is only one. This is the aforementioned Shimanami day cycle. Neither of the other bridges (south of Kurashiki as well as the bridges on and off Awaji island) are open to cyclists. However you can get across to the island of Awaji with a bicycle on weekends. A local cycling group have set up a new service transporting bikes over the Naruto bridge.

You can also take a ferry across from Tokushima to Wakayama just south of Osaka

You will need to dismantle and box your bike if you want to take it on a bus or train.

Recommended Airbnb:

Great value apartment in a quiet neighbourhood by the coast near Kushimoto. If you are struggling to afford a bed in Japan and need a break from your tent then head here.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/10952673

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Left