Japan – densely populated megacities, overcrowded commuter trains, narrow roads with tiny cars, the constant risk of devastating earthquakes and a distinct typhoon season. As we first started our research, we did not dare to believe when most sources kept telling that bicycle touring in Japan would be easy.
Yet, we decided to give it a try and make it the destination for our first long cycling holiday. What we found is a country built on convenience and courtesy, paired with a cultural and geographical variety that provided for a cycling adventure to remember.
It is Tuesday evening 8pm as we dismount our bicycles at Ikebukuro station, in one of the busiest shopping districts of Tokyo. Behind us a long 120km day on the road, almost like a final summary of our 2.5 week trip through Japan: In the morning, we started out from the beautiful lake Yamanaka by Mt Fuji, from where we climbed a steep uphill to the highest pass of our tour, 1000m above sea level. Then, we cruised along small country roads through orchids and forests, with the occasional pit stop at a convenience store or road station, until hitting the outskirts of Tokyo.
Overcoming the constant challenge of navigation, we eventually found our way through rush hour traffic and, jumping back and forth between riding on three-lane highways and narrow sidewalks, reached our final destination.
16 days after our departure, after 950km on the road, we are back where our tour had begun. A tour that still half a year ago felt like little more than a crazy idea – to haul our bikes all the way to Japan and cycle through a volcanic and therefore mountainous country on infamously narrow streets while being unable to verbally communicate with the locals. Today, we could not be happier to have overcome our initial skepticism; in Japan, we found what we believe to be one of the most suitable destinations for bicycle touring.
Initially planted into our heads by an online video of a couple cycling through the northern island of Hokkaido, the concept matured over several months and manifested itself in the plan to fly to Tokyo, take a ferry to the island of Shikoku in the west and bike back to the capital, passing through Kyoto and surrounding Mt Fuji on the way.
After months of research, and having read dozens of travel diaries from other cyclists, we had prepared a preliminary route that would lead us over the lowest possible mountain passes and partially following dedicated cycling routes. Based on the reports we read, bicycle touring in Japan sounded like the easiest and safest thing in the world. We were ready to give it a try, and soon booked the tickets for three weeks from late October to early November.
As with any bike tour starting from elsewhere than home, getting there and back is one of the most troublesome parts of the trip. While getting a bicycle to the airport in Helsinki is easy, Japan brings along certain challenges. From Narita airport, neither taxis nor public transport accept luggage of the size of bike boxes, so the only options are to either forward them with a shipping company or to unpack the bikes and ride directly out of the airport or repack them into a bike bag as required by the Japanese railway companies.
From our point of view, the railroad bike bag option is tricky for a fully equipped touring bicycle and therefore we opted to not use the train to get to the intended starting point of our tour and instead take an overnight ferry from Tokyo to Tokushima to get to the west.
A local contact in Tokyo eased our logistical challenge by picking us up from the airport by car and we rode the 40km from their home to the harbor the next day – a mind-blowing experience, navigating to a downtown harbor area in pouring rain under up to five levels of elevated motorways while still trying to adjust to the left-side traffic and fighting with jetlag. All exhaustion aside, would there be any better way to make yourself realize you just set out on a long bike tour in Japan?
During our 17 days on the road, we became just as used to riding on the left hand side as we learned to not worry about the narrow streets – Japanese drivers are so courteous that we sometimes almost felt embarrassed to see a queue of cars kindly staying behind us while we were inching up a mountain road at under 10 km/h.
The biggest traffic hazard, to our surprise, is other cyclists. Not the friendly lycra crowd on their road bikes who during the weekends always threw us a “ganbatte” (godspeed!) when passing, but the common commuters on their “mamachari”. These omnipresent granny bikes, cheap and heavy single-speed steel machines that can carry up to three child seats, are being ridden in almost anarchical fashion. More than once we had near-miss situations with salarymen rushing to the train station on the wrong side of the road or mothers on a shopping run not watching for traffic when crossing a street. We soon learned that riding “mamachari style” was sometimes the safest option for us as well, and that a lot of what we perceived as courtesy from drivers might as well just be anticipation of cyclists being unpredictable in traffic.
Touring itself turned out to be just as easy as we were told. Japan is so well adjusted to people on the move – even though usually, unless on a mamachari, the preferred mode of transportation is the train – that it is hard to imagine a place with a better touring infrastructure.
Even in the most remote countryside areas, the next convenience store would never be more than 30 minutes away and they all provide free washroom facilities and the possibility to eat a warm meal or refill on drinks. Also restaurants are in abundance, not to mention the beverage vending machines on literally every street corner, and on occasion we would take the opportunity to get out of the rain for a while and soak in a hot spa along the way.
Apart from the ferry ride and our first hotel night, we usually booked our accommodation on the same day, using our smartphone’s booking application with a Japanese SIM card. Cheap business hotels are almost everywhere, often at rates that compete with European hostel dormitories (though, obviously, the weakness of the Yen contributed a lot to making this vacation affordable).
We also carried a tent and stayed on camping sites; once even in a public park by a river as we could not find a suitable place to stay otherwise. Wild camping, while not officially allowed, is easily possible in Japan and skilled stealth campers would rarely have to pay for a hotel.
Also beyond the booking of accommodation, having a data subscription for the smartphone was of great value: while our Garmin GPS with preloaded Open Streetmap maps generally provided good guidance, at times we appreciated the ability to see complex traffic intersections on a satellite image for orientation or to find the nearest bike shop to replace a pair of worn out brake pads.
Most important, however, was the ability to check the weather situation, in particular since two typhoons were shovelling lots of wind and rain onto our tracks during the first week on the road.
While we were aware of October being typhoon season, it was unusual at this time of year to have so many typhoons. Otherwise the weather was pleasant for riding, with temperatures feeling like Finnish summer. Although unlike Finnish summer, the sun, rising around 6am, sets abruptly around 5pm, which greatly influenced our choice of destination for the day, as we preferred to avoid riding in darkness, especially among busy narrow roads and “mamachari” bicyclists with no lights. In our view, seasonally, the only alternative for this sort of trip to Japan would be to go in spring (April/May).
Maybe the biggest limitation of touring Japan by bicycle is that visiting the big tourist sites is not without challenges while having to care for a fully-loaded bicycle. Generally, we felt very safe to leave our bikes unlocked when stopping for lunch or at a store, but we did decide to skip a few sightseeing opportunities as we just couldn’t figure out how to safely leave our bikes at a crowded tourist scene.
We still believe that we got such an intense impression of Japan “off the beaten path” that missing a few major temples or shrines did not matter to us, and we definitely found some sites that no regular tourist would ever be able to discover.
So here we stand, at Ikebukuro station on a Tuesday night in early November, and it is hard to believe that this trip has come to an end. All these days on the road, Tokyo always felt like a long ride away and our daily world consisted of small, 60km slices of a country that at the same time served us with a homogenous infrastructure to rely upon and surprising experiences to discover.
Wherever we came by, the two tall foreigners with their touring panniers were a little attraction and we experienced genuinely friendly hospitality, if often limited by the language barrier. We would never have believed, but Japan indeed is as close to an ideal bike touring destination as we can imagine.