Japan is a great place for bike touring. Hokkaido has big wide roads, with footpaths alongside even in the mountains. Cars cruise along at 50km on the main back roads and are very courteous. The roads outside of Hokkaido are a different story, heavily trafficked, old steep roads, and busier. But in some ways more exciting! The main centres, like in and around Tokyo, are bike friendly. There is a big bike culture in Japan that goes back a long time and many people commute by bike, with bike paths a plenty (although as of 2016 not yet on Google Maps for bikes). Some main roads can be busy, often there is a footpath/side walk you can find. Despite all that, some tips before you head off might help save you some hassles. After 3 weeks of biking and the ups and downs of typhoons, changing plans and locations, here’s a few reflections on touring around this beautiful and whacky country and some tips for fellow bike tourists in this fine land.
Food and water
The food in Japan is incredible. It’s all of good quality and like everything in that marvelous country, it’s safety first, meaning triple washed and quadruple packaged. Roadside veges boxes are all over the country in summer with local gardens often having honesty boxes for produce. Fruit is more of a gift, so prices are higher than veges. Basically give up on eating fruit and get your nutrients from the delicious veges but marvel at the plush peaches packaged in polystyrene. For cheaper snacks find the 100yen stores for big bags of nuts. Always drink the tap water. No need to buy plastic water in Japan (or anywhere if you can help it).
Seven Eleven/Lawsons/FamilyMart are frighteningly everywhere. They are great because they have wifi and hot coffee and everything from tampons to ponchos to rice balls and ice cream. They also have ATMs that take international cards and a toilet with a warm seat and all the trimmings of bidet and butt flush that you need. The food in a 7/11 is pretty good in price and selection and great for snacks.Vending machines also sell coffee and drinks and are everywhere.
Comms and maps and apps
- Wifi is everywhere, not much point getting a local number for 5000 yen a month but if it makes you feel safer and helps you navigate then it’s a good investment.
- Use apps like Ridewithgps.com to help track your rides and borrow good routes from people who have been there before. Especially a life saver in cities.
- Get a good paper map, the rider map guide books are the best. Look for the motorbike helmet symbol for the rider’s huts. These are huts for riders of motor bikes or push bikes around the country. You can stay in them for free or a donation and it’s a great way to meet other bikers. Motorcyclists always wave out to bike tourists here, there’s some kind of roadside comradery.
- Look for the Roadhouses, these are epic roadside stops, with wifi, maps, tourist information, snacks, sometimes onsen, and often car campers parked up. Distinctive logo of a park hut with trees on the map and the road as you bike along. Good place to reset the batteries.
The bike tourist’s heaven. Women are separate always to men so it is a safe and comfortable environment to be completely naked, bathing and scrubbing yourself. A great way to meet lovely Japanese ladies and kids. There is an etiquette but it’s not rocket science so just copy what the ladies are doing and relax and bathe. They will be impressed you biked there, believe me. And sleeping in a tent after 100km on the road is bliss after an onsen. Basically bike tourist pampering, fully equipped with shampoo, conditioner, body wash and a hair dryer. Enjoy! And if you are really stuck most will let you stay the night in one of the Lazy-Boy couch style chairs they have. Almost every hotel has its own onsen but most towns have the public ones too. My tip is save money by free camping and free travel by biking, and spend it on onsens and snacks.
Usually has an outdoor kitchen and flush toilets (refine your squat), often a flood light so you can see. They feel incredibly safe. String up food bags to prevent rodents/foxes munching your snacks. Free camping is generally just as good if not better than the paid campsites in my experience. Japanese paid campsites are dated and often you have to pay extra yen for showers and that really sux when you’ve biked 100km and paid 2000 yen. And if you’re stuck, camping is fine in most places. If you can, try and stay with someone to get an authentic Japanese family/home experience.
Pick your season
Go for October and the leaves of autumn, not Typhoon season. We got caught out by three typhoons in a week in Hokkaido and it was awful. Pretty fine for biking but trains stop at the smell of a typhoon in Japan.
Plenty of these around, welcome to the home of Shimano! And some of the gear is pretty awesome so if you have forgotten something, easy enough to find in a main city like Sapporo or of course, Tokyo. The home of Tokyo Bike!
In Japan it is very uncommon to have signs or people speaking in any other language than Japanese. Make an effort, you’ll need to and the basics will get you further than you expect. Tips:
- Do a language course before traveling.
- Download the translator apps.
- Buy a phrase book.
Bike bags for trains and buses (for beginners)
- In Japan all public transport systems make you bag your bike. You can buy the Japan style bike bags which are easier to fit your bike into. If you have a folding bike, even better.
- If not, do a couple of practice runs taking your bike apart and putting it in the bag then refitting it without the stress of the train coming. Maybe even time yourself so you know how long to allow before train arrival.
- If you’re not used to bike dismantling or reassembling, be near wifi when putting it back together so you can check you have done it right.
- Keep all the little screws in the right places. Take photos of how it was before you took it apart then refer back to them after.
- Make sure you have your Allen keys on you and also your bike pump!
General bike lady tips:
- Bring a spare dress or skirt for non touring days
- Remember your leg razor and some wet wipes
- Put a rag in your bike bag for the assembling and disassembling days
- Always pack a sarong and a scarf, these two items will save you on many occasions
- I ride in a cotton dress over bike pants and always keep the lycra to a minimum your skin will thank you
- Wear a merino long sleeve on wet days to keep warm when you stop
- To save your butt, invest in good bike pants and wear them in a bit on a few rides before you leave home. Any irritations, replace them and show no mercy. Any rubs or niggles after 50km will turn into hell after 500.
- Bring some paw paw/papaya cream or other salve. Have dry days, even if it means not biking a day to heal or rest your butt.
- If you can afford it, budget for a rest day at a guest house/hostel/hotel for yourself once in a while. Once that rain has saturated your tent you’ll be glad you have an emergency night’s budget on you.