Thinking about cycling in Japan? Here are some of the best places to pedal and all you need to know! Check the first section for inspiration, the second for tips and resources.
If you are preparing to go touring in Japan, you are on to something good. The roads are in good shape, drivers are polite and there are plenty of places to eat and free camp as well as so much to see. Enjoy!
The first big question you should ask yourself is where should you go? With so many different landscapes to see, it will just depend on what you like the best. Here are some proposals to get you inspired. Rather than giving exact routes or itineraries, these are simple ideas showcasing the regions that hope to kick-start the desire for your next trip. You can choose from:
- Wild Northern Lakes. Exuberant landscapes with dense forests, huge lakes and wildlife on the prowl. Head to Hokkaido south of Sapporo or the Towada lake region in northern Tohoku. A good approach is by looping around the lake’s edge, which will keep it flat, before hitting some climbs in the surrounding volcanic mountains covered with lush vegetation. Take a bathe in the lakes or stop at one of the many onsen hotels to relax. Don’t miss the Oirase gorge, full of waterfalls if you go to Towada lake.
- Hokkaido West Coast. Rugged and wild coastal roads, run-down fishing villages and incredible seafood. Go to the west coast of Hokkaido between Setana and Esashi. The coastal roads give a magnificent view of the ocean, complete with rocky clifs and on some days you can be pretty much alone on the tarmac. There are a lot of tunnels on some sections, so take adequate lighting. Stop for the freshest sashimi you have ever tasted! And finally, try and find the secret onsen…
- Akita Ricefields. The region around Akita is one of the prime rice producing regions of Japan and home to the dog of the same name. Flatter than the steeper hills inland, enjoy the open lanscapes and the rice dancing in the wind. If you are there in mid-sumer, don’t miss the Kanto festival to celebrate the harvest!
- Lake Biwa. Cycle along bike paths next to a calm lake with traditional Japanese architecture and plenty of spots to camp next to the water. Check out Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto. This calm region is perfect for taking a leisurely pace, gaze at over the lake and watch the herons and cranes fishing. There is also a bike path that goes most of the way around. Remember to stop and admire the tori gate at Shirahige.
- Kyoto. Temples. Lots of temples. The different sights in Kyoto are well dispersed, so you can cycle between them. This is urban riding with all its advantages and inconveniences: traffic lights and amazing food to slow you down. Kyoto is relatively large and most of the sights are spread out, so taking a bike is a good way to get around.
- Central Shikoku. Try climbing winding roads above churning white water surrounded by high limestone peaks. Swim in pristine rivers, of emerald blue water. For perfect gradient cycling in a beautiful setting head out to Shikoku, between the Yoshino and Niyodogawa rivers. This was my favourite for riding pleasure. And take your packraft or kayak too!
- Volcanic Kyushu. Volcanic landscapes with miles of rice fields surrounding the central peaks. Traverse the Aso crater in Kyushu for an original landscape, crossing one of the largest calderas in the world. Stop for bean paste cakes or Imagawayaki to refuel along the way.
- Sadamisaki Peninsula. After passing through small fishing villages, surrounded by lime grooves, head out along this peninsula, the narrowest in Japan. The road winds high above the crashing waves on both sides and gives a view of both sides. Alternate from one side to the other to catch the sunset or sunrise.
- West Kyushu Islands. Go island hopping by bridge and ferry in the Unzen-Amakusa national park. This quiet region has nice coastal roads as well as interesting castles and traditional sights such as the beautiful samurai houses in Shimabara. Some of the beaches are excellent and it’s a great to enjoy the seaside.
– The Japanese Alps are not mentioned simply because we have not had time to cover them yet, hopefully they will added one day. On a similar note the Noto peninsula is often mentioned as a cycling destination but needs to be confirmed and photographed!
– Most of Japan’s population live along the central belt that goes east-west on Honshu. Because biking behind buses is not our cup of tea, most of the regions are in wilder north and south.
– Yes, there is no Shimanami Kaido. Why? Because there are heaps of information already out there and unfortunately the north end is surrounded by endless cities of the central belt. No fun for touring!
During our travels touring, here are some of the superlative places we found on the way, which might give you some more ideas:
- Most unexpected. Between Kyoto and Osaka. With a sweltering 39 ºC we were expecting a monotonous ride between to sprawling cites. Instead we discovered an agreeable and relatively green bike path linking the two following the river. It was a refreshing discovery.
- Most boring. The road between Osaka and Wakayama where we would take the ferry to Shikoku is a never ending monotony of traffic lights and suburbia. Thankfully it’s lightened up by the beautiful Kishiwada castle .
- Most rideable. Partially equipped with an overhanging bike path and a perfect gradient, the roads above the Yoshino slowly rise into the mountains. The descent on the other side was also extremely smooth and aesthetic. You can traverse the island and get back on the train (Central Shikoku)
- Most treasured. Sitting in an outdoor natural onsen above a crashing torrent of icy water under the rain. After a six kilometre climb we soaked up the volcanic warmth in the middle of the forest on our own. This spot in Hokkaido was gold. Somewhere along the Hokaido east coast… (Hokkaido West Coast)
- Most difficult. The climb up from Aomori towards Towa lake with fully loaded panniers was pretty tough, especially after only a couple of weeks on the road. Steep gradients and sweltering temperatures made this ascent quite a challenge. But the reward of the Oirase gorge more than makes up for it. (Wild North)
- Most musical. The Awa Odori festival in Tukushima was a special moment. Having just cycled in to town we stood by our bikes before joining in with the dancing madness. A great experience, it was a highlight of our trip.
- Most exciting. Finding an island that is only accessible at low tide is rather fun. Spending the night in a cabin there before rushing back before dawn and the rising sea was a small adventure. (West Kyushu)
- Most relaxing. Spending the morning in Beppu where steam literally rises from the ground. A few hours sitting in warm water outside next to the beach was a great way to wash away the tension from our muscles. There are some nice climbs inland to get going again after all the relaxing.
Resources and information.
There are plenty of sites online with for planning a trip or bike itinerary in Japan with detailed information about each region. Planning is part of the fun, so dive in.
But for bike touring specifics, here are the basics.
Weather. Cycling in Japan will depend very much on the season you will be pedalling in. Winters are harsh in the north with abundant snowfall, summers are hot and can be very, very wet. Make sure to pack your gear accordingly. Having cycled in summer, my recommendation is take abundant weather-proof gear, extra chain lube and a light, rainproof and breathable. For the forecast, you can the application of your choice, I like windy and meteoblue, but often the weather is unpredictable. For alerts and important info, you can check the Japanese meteorological website. It is important in case of extreme weather such as typhoons or flooding.
Navigation. Having transitioned from paper to screen, there are once again a multitude of choices to choose from concerning navigation apps on the ride. The two free options tested where maps.me and mapy.cz, which both have advantages and inconveniences. Maps.me, perhaps the better known of the two, is great to save points of interest, uses very little memory space for offline maps and has a decent repertory of shops and lodgings. On the other hand, its route planning (perhaps the most important part) is awful, often choosing completely ridiculous and lengthy detours. The visuals are also quite poor. Mapy.cz, which we discovered half-way (thanks Ivan!) is much clearer, plans decent routes and has contour lines! The altitude profile is also much better. On the downside, the memory files are much bigger and it’s not possible to save points of interest easily. Our recommendation: download both, use mapy.cz for navigation and keep maps.me as a backup and save places.
Finally during the preparation phase, two useful sites are MapPlanner, to quickly check distances and profiles and a topographic map to make global itinerary decisions in function of how much climbing you want. In Japan, especiall after bad weather, road closures can be checker here before setting out.
Keep it cheap! Japan is known to be an expensive country but bike touring is a great way of seeing the sights and not break the bank. By camping and making some good choices you can travel on a very tight budget. If you don’t mind splashing some cash to keep it easy there are indeed some great places to stay, and you can skip this section. But if you do want to keep it more frugal, here are some tips:
- Free-camp. Your biggest expense will be lodgings, so set up your own. Japan’s polite population will not object if you are discreet and considerate. The abundance of toilets and parks make it very easy to find good spots, the water is always drinkable and you can go places even when everything is booked! Click to expand and check legend.
- Half price. Shopping at closing hours is the second best way to cut costs. The food in Japan is great, and almost every supermarket or convenience shop has freshly prepared bento boxes, sushi and fried meat as well as rice sweets. As they are all fresh, they need to be sold out, and the prices are slashed in the evening. Head in between 17:30 and 19:00 to try and find your supper.
- Wash. To keep clean you can bathe in rivers or onsens, depending on the temperature. For clothes there are 24h laundromats, which also make a good place to stay if the weather is really bad for a couple of hours.
- Connect. No need to pay for a phone, the thousands of convenience stores scattered all over the country have free wifi. In some cases (although not everywhere ) there are tables and chairs to sit.
You can find more tips and tricks on how to cut the corners in Japan and save that extra yen here: but by following the above you can already get by on relatively little and enjoy the beautiful Nippon countryside for cheap.
Repairs. Another advantage of cycling in Japan is being able to find bicycle shops. Most of these are in the big cities. There are both chain stores that sell parts and tools cheaply (but don’t expect incredible service or very specific parts) or specialists. For example, we had trouble finding 15 gauge spokes. In the countryside it’s another matter, don’t expect miracles, there is often a motorbike garage that can do some work but nothing fancy. Bike repairs, like everything in Japan are expensive, so being able to do your own maintenance will always be cheaper. You can check the mape below showing the location of some sports and cycling shops. Click to expand.
During our travels we had some wheel related issues and visited many shops. Our recommendation:
- Daito (Oita, Kyushu). This guy is great; Fujiwara san doesn’t speak much English but definitely knows his bikes. We went in for spokes and came out with loads of advice; he diagnosticated multiple issues without seeming to try. We would definitely go back.
- Mike Bike (Busan, S. Korea). Although not in Japan, Busan is a port of passage for many cyclists heading in and out of the south. If you can make it, go there. Recommended by a rival bike shop, Mike is a really friendly and knowledgeable. He rebuilt our wheels from scratch and gave us many maintenance and cycling tips. Being able to communicate in English made it so much easier and he went the extra mile to explore all the options and get us the best parts and price.
Transport. For getting around faster (why would you? ) that on your bike there are multiple options.
- Trains. Are fast, cover most of the country and expensive. You can take your bike but only in a special carry bag called a rinko bag, that costs about 40-50 €.
- Buses. They are cheaper but as far as we could determine don’t accept bikes.
- Ferries. For cyclists, ferries are perhaps the best option in Japan. No need to take anything to pieces (unless you want to save some cash and put it in a rinko), you can roll on and off. They are perfect for exploring the islands and connecting the different land masses together at a leisurely pace. Some are very comfortable and come with baths and showers.
For more touring info join the touring group here. You can post your questions or even better, leave a comment below!
Thanks, Pete, Japan May 2020 trip…the roads to Sata.
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