Travel blogs for those interested in cycle touring Japan are few and far between, so I thought I'd add some notes from my own recent cycling trip to the land of the rising sun.
Japan is somewhere I had wanted to visit for a long time. I first remember becoming interested in the country after my gran gave me a ladybird book for my 7th birthday, with a drawing of a train passing in front of Mt Fuji.
In my view there's no better way to see a country, culture and people than from 2 wheels. I looked at some organised trips but the few I could find didn't go where or when I wanted. So I set about organising a self-guided trip, managing to convince two good friends, Stu & Tamsyn, to come along too.
The first things to decide were When & Where to go.
The When was easy as I wanted to see two things - the cherry blossom (Sakura) that runs from late March to early April and something called the Tateyama Alpine Route, which opens with famed Japanese punctually on 16th April every year. Wanting to catch both left us the middle two weeks of April.
The Where was more fluid but key locations we wanted to see included Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt Fuji and Hiroshima.
The idea was to spend 4-5 days cycling, a few days sightseeing in Kyoto, then another few days cycling on my own as Stu & Tamsyn planned to return to the UK after Kyoto.
If you're thinking about a possible cycling trip in Japan, here are a few things you may wish to consider...
My best advice is to leave enough time in each day for sightseeing. You can't cycle 8+ hours a day and stop for extended periods to see the attractions, so I would recommend planning to spend as much time sightseeing as cycling. An obvious point but you also can't pedal as far or as fast when your bike's loaded up with luggage!
We stuck to about 80km / 50miles per day as a working maximum, which left plenty of time to stop and see the sights whenever we wanted.
We found cycling in Japan to have a couple of noteworthy differences from Europe...
Leisure & tourist cycling in Japan is not as widespread here yet, though it feels like things are changing. In the large cities (Tokyo, Kyoto etc) it can sometimes feel like cyclists are expected to share the pavement with the pedestrians rather than the road with the cars. Cycling on a pavement is not great because of the uneven surfaces and frequent junctions, not to mention having to dodge pedestrians. Don't be put off though - we only resorted to cycling on the pavement in the centre of Kyoto.
In the country and suburbs things are more familiar. We always cycled on the road and were given ample space by other road users. There are also some fantastic small, quiet roads ideal for cycling - you just need to spend some time on Google or Bings maps to pick them them out.
Widely acknowledged as one of the best bargains in world travel, the Japan Rail (JR) Pass allows virtually uninhibited travel on the JR network for its duration (it comes in weekly blocks). The rail network here is awesome - fast, clean and always on-time.
There are a number of tiers of rail travel from the super-fast Shinkansen (Bullet train) to local stopper services.
To get a JR Pass, you buy a voucher from your home country over the internet which is sent to you in the post. When you arrive at the airport in Japan you queue up and exchange the voucher for an actual JR Pass which has your photo on it. Once you've got the pass, you can 'buy' as many tickets as you like.
A slight oddity is that you can't buy train tickets from the JR Desk at the airport - you can only exchange the voucher for your pass here. You must go to one of the larger JR Stations (e.g. Central Tokyo) to use your pass to buy tickets.
I mostly used Topeak
cycle gear, which I found to be light and durable. I have seen a small number of online reviews that have questioned their quality - particularly regarding the zips and seams. I had no such problems though.
I was also fortunate enough to have a family friend make me a rather cool custom frame bag, which provided convenient storage for tools, snacks and wet weather clothing.
To take a bike on a train, you'll need a train / Shinkansen travel bag. These aren't optional. You won't be allowed on a train if your bike's not at least partially packed into one.
They are thin, light bags that cover the icky, oily parts of your bike. They fold up really small into your luggage when not in use.
The next thing to note is that there are no designated bike spaces on trains. On a Shinkansen, things are easy though as there's ample room at the end of every carriage to stow 2-3 bikes behind the last row of seats. If the space in your carriage is full (it won't be) just take your bike to the next carriage.
On local services, the situation varies. Some trains we went on were wide and open (seats along the sides facing in), with designated areas for luggage, where we rested our bikes. Others, were traditional forward-facing row layouts. One time, at the direction of the guard, we had to put our bikes on seats in first class while we roughed it out in cattle class!
We never had a porblem in more than 12 separate train journeys.
The easiest (not the only) way to take a bike on a plane is in a bike box. This gives you a problem when you arrive at Japan though - what do you do with the box!? One option is to try tapping up your local hotelier to see if they'll let you leave it with them.
Alternatively, you can book the bike box in at the luggage desk at your airport. This cost me about £60 for two weeks (Haneda) but at least you know it's safe, secure and will be there when you return. It does mean you need to take the bike out of the box at the airport, so you can check in.
We used K's guesthouse wherever possible and were never disappointed. We supplemented these with the odd 'luxury' hotel but really only where we couldn't find a K's. There are currently about 6 - 7 K's in Japan, spread nicely across the country, including all the main tourist destinations (Tokyo, Kyoto, Fuji etc).
I would also highly recommend staying at least one night in a traditional Japanese Ryokan. See day 5
for more details on these.
Japan has a surprisingly wide range of temperatures. Kyoto and Tokyo can be hot and sunny enough to burn in April, while Takayama and the Alps, just 100 miles to the west can have snow at relatively low altitudes. This can block smaller roads in the mountains, so take this into account if planning to travel in spring or autumn.
The Japanese Alps seem receive a high snow fall during the winter, which is one of their major attractions.
Despite some things I'd read online, my UK spec iPhone 5 worked with my UK SIM just fine in Japan. However, the cost of making calls of using data is extortionate!
So I would recommend only using your phone in an emergency if you take this option. Alternatively, pre-order a Japanese SIM, such as bmobile
, from the UK. You'll need an unlocked phone but this is easy to do and doesn't usually cost anything.
I went for a SIM with 2GB of data which is ample for a 2 week stay. Note that these SIMs are data only though and you can't make native voice calls with them. You can however use Voice Over IP (VOIP) services and apps such as Skype.
I also rented a 'Mi-Fi' hotspot device. In retrospect, this was over overkill and I could easily have managed with just one of these options. A hotspot device is easier though if you don't want the hassle of getting your phone unlocked. It creates a small wi-fi zone around the device (a few meters) which you can connect to from other modible devices (iPads, phones etc). Again, no voice calls are possible natively but you can use Skype & VOIP apps work fine.
One final note, it's not as easy as you might expect to arrange either of these when you're actually in Japan. My advice is to try and get either of these options booked and sorted over the internet, before you leave home.