Living and working in Tokyo is a fantastic experience, but to appreciate the real Japan you have got to leave the cities and take a deep breath of the countryside. That’s why to finish off our year and a half in the country, my fiance and I embarked on a tour of Japan by bicycle, to not only visit the famous sights, but soak up everything else in between. After 6 weeks on the road, I hope I can inspire some of you to get on your bike and pedal your heart out through the rice paddies of Japan.
1: See the real Japan
Away from the bright lights and stereotypical distractions of Tokyo and Osaka, the countryside offers an insight into real Japanese life and culture. Travelling by bike means you will be passing through small towns which may not have seen a foreign tourist in decades, yet the sights and attractions are no less magnificent. The famous tourists spots in Japan can become overwhelmingly busy and it often detracts from the experience, whereas in the countryside the shrines and history are just as rich yet with none of the congestion.
Japan has a lower crime rate than any other industrial country. So never at any point do you worry about running into trouble on the ride or having your bikes stolen. Even leaving all your bags on the bike while you wander off to do some sight seeing it will almost definitely be fine. It really is that safe.
3: Couch surfing & Warm Showers
Surprisingly enough there is a fairly decent Couchsurfing network and even Warm Showers has active members. Coupled with the super friendly Japanese hospitality, couch surfing can become a huge experience unto itself. Hosts treat you like a member of their own family and from my experience we always had our own room, not just a couch!
4: Onsens and Ryokan baths
Tired after a long day putting in the miles on the bike? Well I’m not sure there is anything better than relaxing for an hour or two in a traditional Japanese Onsen (natural hot spring). Soaking in natural minerals is a fantastic and unique way to unwind after a ride and if you choose to stay at a Ryokan (Japanese Inn) then you will often get to make use of their large private baths or springs.
5: Riding on the pavement is legal
Not just legal but actually encouraged! Although you don’t want to be on a bumpy tiled pavement on long stints, in the city the wide paths can enable you to ride safely and slowly while sightseeing. You can often find dedicated cycle routes running as extensions or lanes of paths along side main roads.
6: Vending machines and konbinis
Even if you’ve cycled 6 hours since you last saw a town and climbed 1000ft up a mountain there will still be a cheap vending machine waiting for you. Or just as likely a konbini (convenience store) with plenty of good value food, drinks and energy bars. Plus you can always pop in to use their toilet!
7: Friendly people
Japanese people are so friendly and helpful you can always depend on them to help out if you are ever in need. If you can learn some Japanese phrases your efforts will be very much appreciated. Whether you are lost and asking for directions or at a bar getting drunk quizzing the locals on nearby attractions, people will always be chatty and want to make your experience enjoyable.
8: Great predictable weather
Japan has fantastic distinct seasons with predictable extended clear skies and high temperatures throughout the year making cycle trips easy to plan. From May until October average temperatures are above 20 degrees and the only real threat is the raining season during part of June/July. We began our trip at the end of August and followed the warm weather south to Kyushu and Okinawa into October only seeing 2 rainy days on the entire trip.
9: Incredible landscape
Mountains, rice fields, volcanoes, natural springs, huge swathes of forest, thousands of islands, it just never ends. We were cycling 6 to 8 hours a day yet I still found time to take over 1300 photos! I’ve put a tiny selection of my favorites in a gallery here.
Q: Can I take my bike on trains and airplanes?
A: Yes you can! The catch is you need to pack your bike into a bag. I would advise you check your route ahead and use the trains to skip out dangerous roads (e.g. long tunnels).
Q: Did you rent, bring or buy a bike?
A: I bought my bike, just an entry level road bike on amazon for about 60,000jpy. Strapped a compression bag between the handle bars, a Top Peak dynapak on the back and off we went!
Q: Did you camp along the way?
A: Due to the weight of camping equipment, we decided to stick to couch surfing and hotels. We surfed about 12 out of the 30 days on the road and using http://www.jalan.net/ we managed to find cheap hotels.
Q: What were the roads like?
A: As long as you stay clear of the larger roads (yellow on google maps) the traffic is manageable. There are some amazing cycle routes as well such as the Shimanami Kaido which are a must!
Video of our Japanese cycle tour 2014
And if you’re still not convinced about cycling, check out my guide to hitchhiking in Japan instead!
Any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment below or drop me a tweet and I will get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks very much!