Tips for touring cycling in Japan

The very first touring trip I did in Japan was in 2007, and I've done many more since then. Over the years I've gathered a whole bunch of data as well as personal experiences that I thought would be useful to put into a blogpost. Hopefully someone will find this useful. I tried to categorize things a bit, so here goes.

The language

First, to get the obvious thing out of the way, I speak Japanese and can read enough of it to be useful for a cycling trip. I think this is a huge help for me, but I have no evidence of the contrary because I don't know anyone who's cycling in Japan without knowing the language. Japanese people are extremely helpful and friendly and will do anything they can to help you find a camp site or point you in the right direction. I can't even count the number of times random people have come up to me and given me food or drinks. They're great people. That said, I don't doubt that being able to speak Japanese will reduce the barrier to conversation and make it easier for people to connect with you. Quite frequently people ask me where I came from and where I'm going, how much kilometers I'm doing in a day, etc. I can imagine such a conversation is more difficult to start if it's in English, since a lot of Japanese people are still shy about their level of English. I'd recommend learning at least a few words and phrases for basic conversation. Words like 'camp site', where', 'left', 'right' are hugely useful. Still though, in this day and age, if you have offline maps and a bunch of placemarks on your phone then you can easily get away with not knowing any Japanese. I'd still recommend learning at least a bit of it though. Trips are more fun if you can talk to the locals.

Trip planning

First tip about trip planning: don't :) . That is, don't plan your every day schedule way in advance. I usually plan the starting point and destination and roughly the route/area I want to go through, but I don't make detailed plans until one or two days before the actual cycle. That gives me the freedom to change course or even go somewhere completely different, or linger in a place that I like a bit longer. Touring is absolutely more fun this way.

Japan allows this kind of trip style because 1) hotels and camp sites are readily available wherever you are and rarely full, and 2) there's always the option of sending your bicycle via Kuroneko delivery service to the airport (or anywhere) if you end up running out of time. Kuronekos are everywhere, and while your bike is in transit you can catch the Shinkansen back. One thing I will definitely advise against is to bag your bike and carry it with you in trains. I'm not even sure if the Shinkansen allows it, and besides, a touring bike is heavy, and so is your luggage. Cycle as much as you can, all the way to the airport if possible. Bagging the bike never takes me more than 2 hours even in the worst case scenario so if you arrive at the airport a little early that's plenty of time.

Airports and flights

Take a direct flight! Direct flights mean less people handling your bicycle, and that's absolutely worth the extra cost of a direct flight. You don't want your bike to be broken on arrival. I took Turkish airlines to Japan once, with a stopover in Istanbul, and my bicycle frame got bent on the flight in and the flight out. Never again.

If you're using a soft case, on the last day of cycling, try to carry around some spare bits of cardboard to pad your bike's sensitive bits with. Always carry a roll of duct tape with you. I've actually hardly ever had to use it, but feel comforted just having it with me. Be sure to get the airport people to put a fragile tag on your bike, and preferably a 'this side up' tag as well. I also duct-tape a giant arrow on each side of my bag to make sure it's obvious which side is the top.

Day to day cycling - what to expect

Japan does not have a lot of dedicated cycling paths, and in areas where there dedicated paths, they're not always right for touring. Japanese cycling paths are made for mamachari bikes. They're often narrow, bumpy, and cross a lot of roads with a little bump on entry and exit. Definitely not ideal for touring. I'm not saying you shouldn't go on these, because sometimes you'll end up on a beautiful stretch of coastal cycling road, devoid of cars and with a beautiful view that you couldn't get from the road. But when it doesn't work out it's perfectly ok to head back onto the main road and make some speed. I've never seen a cycling path in a mountainous area so chances are that even on a touring bike you'll be able to make better progress on the main road than on a cycling road. It's a tradeoff though, just give it a try. Also, most useful things, such as conbinis (convenience stores), vending machines and restaurants tend to be on the main road, not the cycling path.

That leads to probably the most important tip I can give you: always stay on the road! You're allowed to cycle on sidewalks in Japan, and occasionally, in the countryside, there'll be a beautiful wide sidewalk with no one on it. But don't go there! Because you'll regret it. The sidewalk will get narrower and narrower until your wide touring bike won't fit any more and you'll have to carry it over some barriers to get back onto the main road. Sidewalks are also always bumpier and have drops whenever a road intersects with it. Lastly, it's just more dangerous, because inevitably there'll be a point where you'll be rejoining the main road, and you need to make very sure that drivers see you when you're going from sidewalk to main road.

The safest and most comfortable position for a touring cyclist is on the road. Close to the left-most bit, but not too close. On very narrow roads I tend to be well to the right of the white line to make sure that cars don't attempt to pass me when I think it's too dangerous for them to pass me. On wider roads I try to stick to the left of the white line if possible, leaving myself some space to maneuver around obstacles. There's always grates, little bumps or other things that suddenly pop up that you'll have to evade. If you leave yourself enough space to do that then that's no problem.

Quite frequently a road's asphalt is worn down by the countless trucks passing over it, and will have a little valley where each truck's tires hit the asphalt, pushing it to the side and creating a narrow ridge right where bicycles usually feel at home. It's flat-out dangerous to cycle on this ridge. Stay to the right of the it and just drive in the valley, even if that means taking a wider line. Cars and trucks will have to navigate around you and it will be harder for them to overtake, but in my opinion it's their fault that the road ended up like that anyway, so that kinda balances out.

Day to day cycling - some numbers

Distance: I rarely do less than 60 kilometers per day, even on hilly days. The days that I do less than 60 km is because I am setting up for the next day, or because there's an interesting thing I want to see on the way. If you don't have any other plans or things blocking you, plan to do at least 60 a day. The most I've done was 160 km in one day but that was a fluke: just a very long coastal road with the wind in the right direction and not much interesting to see along the way. I wouldn't recommend doing more than 100 kilometers a day. Probably around 80 km is my personal sweet spot. It largely depends on how hilly the terrain is as well. If you're climbing all day then 60 kilometers is already quite an accomplishment.

Speaking of climbing: inclines! Most major coastal roads in Japan don't have inclines over 6%, and 6% is definitely doable by even an unfit person in the lowest gear of his/her touring bike. But there's a lot of qualifiers in that statement: most, major and coastal. You'll definitely encounter inclines of around 10% if you go into the mountains or on smaller roads, or even some coastal roads in more rural areas of Japan. There's something even worse though, something that you're very likely to encounter on a touring trip: the slopes that lead up to a hotel or youth hostel. Those are the absolute worst, and can easily get up to 15-20%. If you can avoid it, don't ever push your bike up a hill! You'll be using different muscles, which may feel like it's less of an effort, but only for a very short while. After that you'll end up being even more exhausted. Just select the lowest gear you have and start cycling, even if it's only at walking pace. If you feel like you can do more, just slowly work your way up the gears as you're climbing. But more often than not you'll find yourself being overly optimistic about what gear you can do. Just take it easy.

For that matter, try not to stand on the pedals. I know it looks cool and it's a great way of powering over a small hill, but hills are seldom small in Japan, and when you're touring you need that energy for the rest of the distance. Just keep a steady rhythm and a sustainable pace.

Tunnels

I hate tunnels so much. They're the absolutely worst place to cycle, yet they're completely unavoidable in Japan. Even if you're sticking to the coast, some coastal areas are just so mountainous that the only way to get from A to B is a single road with at least one long tunnel on it. Expect tunnels of at least 500 meters, but tunnels of up to 2-3 kilometers long are also not uncommon. They tend to be quite narrow: cars coming up behind you will have difficulty passing you if there's oncoming traffic. It'll also be cold and very noisy, so you won't be feeling comfortable in there. Dirt and debris tends to get left behind in tunnels so the side of the road tends to be more difficult to cycle on.

Before entering, always turn on your lights, preferably in super-annoying blink mode. You can't afford to have a car not see you. The front light is important too because some idiots like to overtake in tunnels, and the last thing you want is an oncoming car hitting you full frontal. Most tunnels in Japan are somewhat lit, but a lot of drivers still don't turn their lights on in tunnels, so it's up to you to make them aware that you're there. Take a fairly wide line, staying away from the debris on the side, and actively block drivers from overtaking you if you think there's not enough space to overtake. Sometimes when I know a long tunnel is coming up I stop just before the tunnel to put on my wind-blocking coat, which makes tunnels a lot more comfortable.

Don't worry about inclines. Tunnels are almost often at the top of a climb, or only have a very slight incline. If you do end up in a tunnel with a bit of a climb, don't worry about cars too much, just take it easy going up the hill. It's very easy to feel stressed out about exhausting yourself in a tunnel, but it's worse to actually exhaust yourself and have to stop to catch your breath. Slow and steady.

Lastly, the best way to deal with tunnels is to not take them. Quite often there's a side road that will go around the mountain or hill that the tunnel is crossing. These old roads are often closed down or converted to bicycle-use only. They might be a bit more of a climb, but they're always worth it compared to the stress you get from cycling in tunnels. Alternatively, when you're doing pre-cycling-day research, try to find a route that avoids the tunnels altogether. Even if it's up to 10 kilometers detour I'd say it's still likely to be worth it. Think about it: a lovely path that follows a river slowly upwards over 10 kilometers, with vending machines and beautiful nature along the way, or being cold and miserable in a tunnel for several kilometers? I know which one I prefer. Lastly, do watch out for mountain roads with crazy steep inclines.

Places to stay

Business hotels. Business hotels are awesome. They offer private rooms for affordable prices. They're always clean and predictably always the same no matter where you go. If something says business hotel then you know exactly what you're going to get. I know it's not as glamorous as staying in a traditional ryokan or camping out in the wild, but it's just so damn convenient. During all my trips the places I stayed at the most were business hotels. Use the booking.com app using the free wifi you get from 7-11 or Family mart to book a business hotel nearby. If you book on the day you arrive you sometimes get discounted rates too.

The booking.com app is not the cheapest though, since the cheaper business hotels tend to not do booking.com. It's usually enough to just cycle to a town's train station, where there will inevitably be all the business hotels. If you're in a big town or city there'll be loads and one of them will have a free room. If you're in a small town there might only be one, but that will also have a free room since small towns seldom get a lot of visitors. Unless it's golden week. Fuck golden week. Do not go to Japan during golden week, or pre-book your stays during golden week, preferably to be far away from any tourist spot. It just gets crazy busy.

I should talk about ryokans (Japanese inns). They're... quirky. You never know what you get if you stay at a ryokan. The major plus for me is that, whenever I'm traveling in Japan and really can't find anything else, there's somehow always a ryokan nearby. The best way to find one is to ask the locals when you're at your destination. They tend to be old, family-run, sometimes with onsen. The rooms are tatami and everything creaks and there's usually no other guests around. Or perhaps that's just my experience. It's quite fun, but also... challenging, somehow. Still, would recommend.

Hostels: use Japan Youth Hostel. They're great. Run by Japanese people, always in useful locations in interesting buildings, and you meet a lot of local people there with interesting stories to tell. Don't go to any other international/youth hostel. They tend to be run by foreigners and attract the cheapest kind of tourist.

A trip wouldn't be fun if it was just business hotels and hostels, though. Sometimes you'll want to go camping! There's a lot of camping sites in Japan. In earlier trips I used to ask around for 'a place to set up my tent for one night', avoiding the words 'camp site', because camp site in Japanese implies making a camp fire, doing a barbecue and generally being loud and annoying, which no local wants. But if they see that you're a traveler who will be out of their way again the next morning you might get some interesting recommendations. I've camped (with permission) in front of a hotel, at a temple and at a private camp site on an island which was not officially open yet because it was "still too cold". All fantastic experiences.

If you're pre-planning your endpoint for the day then I recommend checking Google Maps for camp sites in the area and marking them on offline maps, then you don't have to ask the locals. Or at the very least you'll know that there's options. During my last trip I marked all camping sites on the entire route I was thinking of taking, from beginning to end, so I knew I always had options. I was betrayed once by a camp site that did indeed exist and was available, but it was crazy expensive, so I had to go somewhere else. That's way worse than a camp site that's closed, cause you can always camp out at a closed camp site if you're quiet and don't cause trouble.

..which leads to the last option: camping out at places other than official camp sites. It's a great way of saving money, but really, I wouldn't do it. Your average 'sanctioned' camp site will cost about 1000-1500 yen, and a shitty business hotel (which is way more comfortable than any camping) will set you back around 5000 yen. Not crazy prices. But if you do find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no hotels, hostels or camp sites nearby, there's always options. Rivers are your best bet. They snake through the landscape and often leave free areas around them that are great for setting up a tent. Under a bridge might seem like a good idea, but I'd recommend against that. The one time I tried that it was just damn noisy and I was worried that someone would show up and chase me away. Beaches are also a good option, but it's tricky to find a remote one that also has a safe (eg. not-sea-level) area that you can put your tent on. In any case, a little prep work means you can avoid all this hassle.

Seriously though, there are loads of cheap hotels in Japan, even in the middle of nowhere, and they almost always have availability. I take my tent with me because I enjoy the flexibility and I enjoy camping every once in a while, but if you're not into that you'll have no trouble at all just sticking to hotels, youth hostels and ryokans.

Weight / Loadout

Short answer: don't worry about carrying too much, and be sure to put a fair bit of it in your front panniers, so that your bike will feel nice and stable.

You'll inevitably be carrying too much things with you. Tools you don't need, too many spare tires, too many clothes, that one camera or lens you think you might use once but end up never using, and so on. Rather than forcing yourself to to go ultra-lightweight, just pack what you need, or whatever fits comfortably inside your panniers. In my case I've got:

  • One front pannier for tent and sleeping bag - full.
  • One front pannier for only clothes - full.
  • One rear pannier with sleeping mat and bike stuff (spare tires, pump, rain wear, duct tape etc.) - maybe 80% full.
  • One rear pannier with day stuff: wind coat, food, bike lock, sometimes a DSLR for easy access - maybe 70% full.
  • A backpack with electronics and documents and things, bound down on top of the rear rack.
  • The soft travel bag that the disassembled bike goes into is quite huge and goes under the saddle. I used to have a smaller bike bag and a bigger sleeping mat, but they swapped places.

Weight really does not matter as much as you think. You're going to be on a heavy bike regardless of how many kilograms you manage to shave off, and you will be suffering when you go uphill, but that's what gears are for. And muscles. Your muscles will adjust within a few days and then start getting stronger at your own pace, so all you really need as a minimum is a bit of muscle that will keep you comfortable in the lowest gear at the steepest incline. Losing maybe 10% of your luggage weight is not really going to help you a lot with that. It might make you a little bit slower, but then you've already committed to being on the bike all day. Doing an extra 30 minutes or doing 5 kilometers less per day is perfectly doable.

Even if you've decided to not carry a tent, sleeping bag and/or sleeping mat with you, I'd still recommend taking four panniers with you. The reason for this is that the balance of the bike will just be so much better with a bit of weight in front. If you've got two ultra-heavy rear panniers and a backpack on top of that you'll end up with a dangerously light front wheel, which will trip you up at some point, most likely when you're putting in some leg muscle at the start of a steep incline, but also at higher speeds after a nice downhill. My bike feels a million times better with two panniers at the front pushing the front tire to the road.

Weather

The weather.. is fantastic! Usually. That said, do not cycle on rain days. Seriously. If you can avoid it in any way, don't cycle on rain days. It's just not fun, at least not for me. I ride a bicycle to have fun, enjoy and see beautiful scenery and sights along the way. The rain ruins all of that. Better to wait a day and see things when they're dry. That said, I have been foolish enough to cycle during the rain from time to time. From the last trip, 3 out of 30 days were rain cycle days, and 2 of those 3 were avoidable. (The unavoidable day was cycling to the airport, for which I still preferred rain cycling to bagging the bike and taking a train).

If the rain is only a little then you can probably get away with cycling. It's very unpredictable though. I was frequently checking the weather report at convenience stores during my last trip, and even when the rain radar showed that the rain was over there were still some scattered showers, some strong enough to seriously soak me. But light rain dries very quickly thanks to the wind, so if you're in a fairly built-up area you can risk cycling in light rain and stop at a convience store or restaurant or cafe when it gets heavier.

Rain coats don't help in heavy rain. If you're cycling on a touring bike you will sweat, and if you're wearing a raincoat you'll sweat more and faster. Wear it or don't wear it, you'll be uncomfortable either way. Seriously, just don't cycle. Spend a day walking around town, catch up with blogging or go see a famous temple or shrine. You can even take a train to another town and sightsee there.

Your bike won't like rain either. My panniers are fairly waterproof but still the bottom bit gets a little soaked. And everything gets dirty. Mud gets everywhere when it's raining, all over the panniers, in the chain, in my shoes. It's a good idea to clean the chain and re-grease it after a day of rain cycling.


Yup, I think that's all I can think of right now. Most importantly:

  • Always stay on the road. Don't take the sidewalk. Don't go out of the way for cars. They need to go out of the way for you.
  • Never cycle in the rain. Because wet.
  • Don't plan ahead. At least not too much. Randomness is part of the challenge :)

Have fun!

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Update 2016/06/12: fixed some wording, added Weight / Loadout section.

 

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