A brief guide to cycle touring in Japan

Having had a really fantastic time cycling round Japan I thought I’d share some of what I learnt.  If you want me to expand on anything or disagree or want to add something then just drop me an email at adamsriches@gmail.com or put it in the comments section.

  • Costs
  • Roads and Drivers
  • Internet
  • Accommodation
  • Police
  • Food
  • Water
  • Safety
  • When to go
  • Bicycle shops
  • Language
  • Road signs

Costs

The first question most people have regarding visiting Japan is normally: “isn’t it expensive?”. The answer to that is both yes and no. Compared to many other parts of Asia it is very expensive. At the same time though it is possible to cycle in Japan on a tight budget due to a few of its benefits. For instance wild camping is very easy in Japan. Also food is not exorbitant, so if you wild camp a lot you can get by on a budget of $16 fairly easily dependent on how much and what you eat.  Obviously there is not really a cap on how much you spend and if you spend more money then is possible to purchase all the luxuries and benefits that a fully developed country is able to offer.

Roads and drivers

Japan has an extensive road network the vast majority of which is in good repair. Problems arise from the narrowness of most roads; Japan is a mountainous country so space is at a premium. This means there is seldom a proper shoulder for cyclists. There are many cycle paths but these are in reality just pavements cyclists can share with pedestrians. They are not fit to ride on as they go over dropped curbs a lot and often are too narrow for a loaded tourer.
Japanese roads are also often very busy. This is especially the case around urban areas. Within towns there are frustratingly large numbers of traffic lights. I would recommend staying to smaller roads as much as possible. Japan has a lot of less busy rural roads that are a joy to ride. Also the whole island of Shikoku was great to cycle on.

Japanese drivers are courteous in general and seldom any danger.

Internet

It’s possible to rent a Japanese sim card from your point of arrival which will allow you to use the internet on your phone. This is not cheap.
Free WiFi is irritatingly rare in Japan. The most reliable place I found was the convenience store 711, here it was possible to use certain apps, including gmail and Facebook. It was not possible to search the web, though you could use Google search to see results. I’d say 90% of 711s had WiFi.
Michi no eki or road stations also tended to have free WiFi.
Also if you’re prepared to search most towns seemed to have someone who had forgotten to lock their WiFi router.
Occasionally there would be a free WiFi network but I couldn’t see any logic to where they were located.

Accommodation

Hotels are expensive in Japan. If you stay in one it will almost always be clean and well kept. They also have a wide variety of places.

As a cycle tourist I’d say camping was the best option. You can pitch up in many places. I camped at the back of shrines a few times and this was fine.
It’s normally best not to ask as people will find it easier to say no than to tell you to go once you’ve pitched up.  “It is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” is a good rule to go by.

Japan is extremely safe so you can camp in or near urban areas if you find somewhere secluded.  It is probably best not to push it too far and attempt to camp stealthily as much as possible.  I camped in a small park in the middle of some apartment blocks in full view of everyone and was fine but maybe I was lucky.
Further there are convenience stores everywhere. These normally have clean bathrooms that you can use. I also asked for water bottle refills here and was never refused.
Shikoku is also a great place for cycle touring as they are used to henro pilgrims camping everywhere.

Japan also had couch surfing and Warmshowers hosts which adds another option.

Police

Unlikely to be a problem unless you’re doing something really stupid.

Food

Well where to begin? Japan has, in my opinion anyway, great food. It’s also possible to eat well without busting your budget. It’s possible to easily have a filling, healthy and delicious meal for ¥1000 or about $10. For half that you can have a good rather than excellent feed. There is also a lot of variety with noodles, rice, tempura and BBQ restaurants abounding.
Food also changes a lot depending on the region and the season so there after often new things to try depending on where you are. Sometimes it can be a bit behind due to the choice and the unfamiliarity of the food. Many restaurants in Japan have pictures which is helpful and a little research before visiting will go a long way.
Access to food is good as well, Japan is a culture that enjoys eating out, there are thus many restaurants scattered around the place. For me the donburi chains were a good choice. These serve a bowl of steamed rice with sliced beef on top and have various portion sizes. The main ones are Yoshinoya, Tsukiya and Matsuya.

Supermarkets are fairly well spread too, unless you are somewhere very rural. Here you can get all kinds of food, usually for cheaper
than in convenience stores.
Towards the end of the day freshly made food is marked down. Often dramatically.
Personally I ate a lot of supermarket bento and onigiri because it was so convenient.

Water

Japanese tap water is safe to drink unless otherwise noted.
As mentioned I often got convenience store people to fill my bottles. I wasn’t expected to buy anything, or if I was I didn’t realise and so didn’t.

Safety

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. You would have to be very unlucky to have your bike stolen. That said always lock it just in case, especially in cities.
You are also very unlikely to be mugged so you can happily carry around large sums of money. Which you may need to do as credit card usage is only just taking off in Japan.

Routes

There is a good website with a route for riding across Japan. I didn’t really use it unless I was going is way ahead but it had some good advice and sightseeing tips.
I’d highly recommend doing the Shikoku pilgrimage by bicycle, an excellent tour for two to three weeks.

When to go

Japan has four distinct seasons. Summer and winter are probably too hot and cold respectively to cycle tour in. Spring and autumn are your best bets though rain can be an issue at the beginning of each. Also in September/October you need to watch out for typhoons though they are not a reason to avoid these months as they didn’t negatively impact on my touring too much while I was there then.
In spring you can see the incredible cherry blossoms and in autumn the beautiful reds and yellows as the leaves change colour.

Bike shops

Japan has a lot of bike shops. Don’t expect them all to be able to help. Many are set up for dealing with the millions of single speed grandma bikes that are all over the place. A derailleur geared touring bike might be beyond the mechanic. That said they would probably try and point you to someone who can help.

Language

Most Japanese people don’t speak English so learning a few phrases before arriving would help.
Here are some key ones:
Mizu onegaishimasu – water please

X wa doko desu ka – where is X?

Jitensha – bicycle

Ikura desu ka – how much?

As stated menus often have pictures which helps and Japanese people are very helpful so will try their best in most cases.

Road signs

There are many road signs in Japan making navigating fairly easy. Petty much all are in both Japanese and English.
Japan has an irritating habit of giving two split roads going in the same direction the same road number. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which one you are on, watch out for this!

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