We finally road our bikes in Japan in 2013. This description is from before we rode there. It is more history of the area. Don Rhatigan has and shared with us his route and descriptions comparing two trips 44 years apart. Don passed away on September 20, 2008 during a California Bike Trip, We feel privileged to share his Japan trip. He used our rating system on this trip and the total is 111 which would rank it as #2. (Our rating after our trip is 78).
The idea originated in January 2007 as I passed through Narita for the umpteenth time on my way back from another winter’s warm weather riding in Thailand and Laos. “You know, it’s really time to see Japan again beyond Narita Terminal 2 while I still can. Forty three years is a long time” I thought. Eight months later, after a lot of web surfing, a lot of map reading, intense study of Lonely Planet Japan, Rough Guide Japan, et al, and five months of twice a week Japanese lessons trying to retrieve a forty three year old cached memory file, our four rider peloton hit the road on the last day of September from the Sea Gull Hotel in Osaka’s southern suburbs – only to take cover under a McDonald’s awning at Mile 4 in a driving rain.
The four riders were Dan Telep from Philadelphia, his 44 year old son Mark from Oregon, Mike Braden from Northern Ontario and I from the DC Area, all confirmed international bike tour junkies always looking for the route less traveled. All in all, our ride was a great experience, 870 miles in three weeks, lots of interesting coastal shoreline and rural inland scenery, good Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo draft beer, dry weather (after the first day, we hit rain once), interesting layovers, no major mechanicals, only a couple of flats, and most surprisingly of all, a lot cheaper than we had anticipated.
How we rate this trip
Road conditions for biking in Japan are overall very good, but you have to learn to love tunnels (we must have pedaled through at least 100 ranging from 50 yards long to over one mile). All highways, roads and alleys are of uniformly good pavement quality, and almost always have either narrow shoulders or adjacent sidewalks, even in rural areas, to which you can bail out when traffic gets a little oppressive. The reason why is that bicycles are still very heavily used for short distance commutes and shopping in both cities and country side. Intercity trains go everywhere in Japan, but are not user friendly for cyclists. Bicycles will be accepted only if broken down and carried in a soft fabric bicycle bag (rinku). Ferries are also everywhere, particularly within the Inland Sea and adjacent areas. They are user friendly, accepting bikes on a RO-RO basis.
The bulk of Japan’s population lives along the Pacific Coast of Western Honshu between Tokyo and Fukuoka in Northern Kyushu. Tough the extensive (and expensive) expressway system diverts a lot of traffic, non-expressway trunk routes can still be crowded. National Routes 1 from Tokyo to Osaka and Route 2 from Osaka to Shimonoseki have very heavy truck traffic and often narrow shoulders and should be avoided. Once away from this 600 mile east west corridor, population and traffic density is much more manageable. Route 55 along the east and southeast coasts of Shikoku from Tokushima to Kochi was very lightly trafficked and offered divine coastal scenery; ditto for the coastal highways and detours along the Japan Sea Coast from Masuda to Shimonoseki. Rte. 56 along the west coast of Shikoku tends to be increasingly crowded north from Uwajima to Matsuyama and Imabari, the gateway to the Shiminami Kaido, but is generally well shouldered and/or side walked. Interior roads tend to be lightly trafficked, but once out of the numerous short river valleys, you will have to be prepared for lots of climbing. The dedicated bikeways of Shiminami Kaido bridges and the largely rural islands they connect make for an unforgettable low traffic biking spectacular. Most towns, including smaller villages have highway bypasses. Detouring through the parallel streets makes for a fascinating, leisurely close up look of modern day village Japan.
Kansai International Airport (KIX), the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe Region international port of entry, lies on a man made island, 35 kms into Osaka’s southern suburbs. Your hotel will van you and your bike box off, usually free of charge. Once assembled and on the road, urban cycling proved to be quite civilized with lots of tight but low density residential alleys parallel to main thoroughfares. If your destination is Northern Honshu or Hokkaido, you will arrive in Narita in Tokyo’s far northern suburbs. We did not consider it, but quite a few bike tourists use it, so one way or the other with proper research it must be feasible.
Weather wise, mid September to early November is pretty much the ideal time for touring in Western Japan, absent typhoons. Spring comes early but is chancy and can be wet, particularly during the May – June rainy season; and summers are South Carolina like. We only had one day when the temperature was over 80 F; the rest of the time in the 70’s. The enervating heat and humidity of Japanese summers counsel against touring during July and August anywhere except Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands. Japanese winters along the Honshu Pacific, Kyushu and Shikoku Coasts are similar to the Virginia – Carolina Coasts, not much snow or ice but generally too cool for comfortable winter touring. For dedicated Japanophile island hoppers, Okinawa and surrounding islands, all reachable by ferry from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu offer semi tropical winter biking weather, akin to Florida. Inland Honshu, all of Hokaido and the central and northern Honshu Japan Sea Coast have very snowy winters. Japan is subject to typhoons during August to November, similar to the US East Coast hurricane season.
In our experience, basically a neutral. Prevailing winds tend to be westerly, except during typhoon season. Even though our trip was in a generally westerly direction, we only encountered bothersome head winds our last day on the road between Hagi and Shimonoseki, which coincided with the first cool snap of autumn blowing in from Siberia.
There is little superlative about Japan’s scenery that hasn’t already been said over the centuries by many others. The relative geographical compactness makes virtually all of it accessible by bike on good pavement, subject, as always in this mountainous land with exquisite and accessible coastal views as well, to willingness to climb. In the past, the traditional image of rural Japan was defined by luxuriant rice paddies climbing up the hillsides. This has changed quite a bit, however. Somewhere along the way, as Japan got more prosperous and more concerned about galloping deforestation, and could import more rice, it recycled the countryside. Rice now seems to grow mostly on relatively flat land, the terraces have largely disappeared, and the slopes of Japan are thickly covered in cedar forest, even within close-in hilly places, such as the Hiroshima suburbs. The cedar monoculture continues to be a highly controversial topic on both environmental and biodiversity grounds. A negative scenic aspect of post war Japan is the profusion of concrete intensive public works construction. There has been a lot of concreting over of the shoreline in port and harbor areas, less so of the interior. On balance, however, Japan still has plenty of gorgeously scenic bicycle accessible countryside and seashore landscapes.
The Japanese domestic tourism industry is huge, extremely well organized, literature is everywhere, and its employees are anxious to please. Information would otherwise be a 10 – but – language is really an issue. The helpful people in the tourist information offices found in every JR Railroad station, urban and rural, which will book local lodging for you on a walk in basis, may or may not get by in English, it just depends. It helps that road signs and place names are generally in both Japanese and Roman alphabets and highway signage is for the most part quite good. Detailed prefecture level road maps are readily available, sometimes even, such as that of Shimane-ken, in English. Detailed bicycle path and route maps (the Mapple series) are readily available, but only in Japanese. Guide books and pocket dictionaries are best purchased before leaving home. The latter, when available in Japan, usually have the Japanese side in Japanese script rather than the Roman alphabet. In the countryside, English remains, for the most part, a very abstract concept. And yes – to diminish confusion it does help to have someone around who can communicate at least at the survival level in Japanese. My five month, maybe 500 word vocabulary retrieval project proved extremely useful!
For planning self contained rides in Japan, there’s a lot of English language web help to get you started. In addition to the aforementioned Japanese Cycling Navigator, the website www.kancycling.com is also a treasure trove of useful general and specific route information. That is where we started laying out the Shikoku route – there are about 20 pages of detailed commentary on that itinerary alone.
Road Safety: 0
Japanese drivers, both truck and auto, are for the most part very aware of bikes and generally non-aggressive. Large black limousines tend to be the exception. Another exception is cyclists on urban bicycle paths, who tend to travel in the straightest line between any two points, and seem rarely to communicate using eye contact. Disconcerting, but in the end, manageable. Indicative of bicycle friendly road safety and traffic flow is the ease with which we reached the centers of sizeable cities such as Tokushima (pop 200,000), Kochi (300,000) and Matsuyama (500,000) and picked our way through Osaka and its suburbs. Just follow the signs and bike lanes from the outskirts and eventually you arrive. One of our team even biked from Kobe through Central Osaka to our south suburban hotel (70 kms all in) on a week day. Tight and noisy yes, but never dangerous due to the careful bike aware nature of drivers.
General Safety: 0
For overall safety, it’s tough to beat Japan. Violent crime against tourists is virtually non-existent. Crime rates in general are very low and the Japanese are proudly honest to a point. Urban center streets and the ever present roofed over street arcades are uniformly safe at night. A negative we have read about but didn’t experience is that unguarded bicycles are alleged to sometimes vaporize. Normal precaution seems, however, to be all that’s needed. A negative which does appear to be real rather than exaggerated is the groping of females in crowded urban transport – as testified to by the female only cars in the Tokyo, Osaka and several other metro systems.
Totally surprising! For a country which has a reputation for being expensive, self contained touring turned out to be far cheaper than expected. We had estimated out of pocket costs of $125-150/day. Mine, including generous beer budget, turned out to be US $ 100/day all in, including the three day sailboat @ $ 500/person and the overnight ferry at $ 80 each. The major reason why is lodging, as long as you are OK with the ubiquitous Western style immaculately clean but tight business hotels, or Japanese style minshukus. Food, drink and 7-11 road food (they and their clone like competitors are everywhere and stock a lot of the same stuff as here) are about the same as in the States. Also, the yen seemed to be tanking right along with the dollar during our October 2007 trip as it stayed relatively stable at about 115 yen/dollar. In the end, going self contained proved not only doable, but also good economics. There are relatively few commercial tour companies doing rides in Japan; their itineraries were not ours; and the costs tend to be over the top – $ 300-500 per day on the road! Even self contained, however, costs can escalate rapidly if you want to go upscale hotel wise, eat in fancy restaurants, or start to include railroads or rental vehicles in your game plan.
Tap water is drinkable everywhere. Whatever you want from bottled water to hydration drinks to canned beer is available literally everywhere in both convenience stores (kombinis) or in vending machines. Green tea at no charge prevails over coffee. The latter is there at $3-4 per cup w/o refills, but is generally of only average taste or less. Vending machine beer is Y 150-350 per can. Good draft beer is Y 500-600/pint.
Fine, as long as you can coexist with Japanese cuisine and enjoy soup and noodles in its many variations for lunch. A large percentage of Japanese seem to eat on the run and are superbly catered for in the extensive take out counters of supermarkets. Outstanding sushi and other Japanese staples are always there at very moderate price. If one insists, Western style food is available somewhere in most sizeable towns on up, as are the standard fast food outlets. A lot of it tends to be somewhat costly and mediocre. Figure on Y 700-800 for a Japanese breakfast; about the same for a roadhouse noodle lunch and Y 1000 to the sky is the limit for a good Japanese dinner. Good seafood and fish is everywhere; beef is pricy.
You can get a perfectly acceptable, immaculately clean, albeit somewhat tight business hotel single for $ 40-50 per night anywhere, or a Japanese style minshuku (B&B) where you sleep on the futons on the tatami mats (its OK if you use 2/3 futons underneath) for $ 50-60/night with breakfast and a great dinner included. There is always a roofed over area to stow your bike, often alongside those of the hotel employees. And the Japanese are ever so practical in the many little things which make bicycle touring easier than almost anywhere (e.g. when was the last time you found a B&B or a 2 star hotel in Europe or North America with automatic detergent feed coin washing machines and dryers? In Japan, it’s almost standard). Be aware that hotels are priced on a per person basis. Almost everywhere except in Japan’s curious and garishly decorated “love hotels,” a double room will be double the price of a single. Ryokans and minshukus price by the room, but food is by the individual. Camp grounds are not numerous, but we did meet some Japanese bike tourists who dropped their tents generally in inconspicuous locations without problem, and managed the rest in public bath houses.
The Japanese people are very nice and helpful, scrupulously honest, and hassle is unknown. A big plus – the stated price is always the total price and no tips please – it’s considered almost an insult. Overall, Japan is a very prosperous place, and if there’s an underclass, we couldn’t find it. Language barriers may quite often impede accurate communication, but never willingness to try and be helpful. When in doubt, just ask and don’t be afraid to show your guidebook. Serviceable English comprehension can pop up in surprising places. Everyone has studied it in school for at least a few years. Reading comprehension tends to be way ahead of oral comprehension.
Japan has an extremely well developed sense of cultural identity. Its culture these days is a unique blend of centuries old Japanese traditional and modern high tech industrial which accepts effortlessly pop culture and things from the outside which it likes, but also rejects effortlessly those it doesn’t. Though the Japan I knew in 1964 scarcely exists today, my summary description remains the same, “Endlessly fascinating!”
Also long and interesting, and certainly with its ups and downs. A lot of tourism is history based. If you are a castle creeper or student of samurai, you will find Japan’s history also endlessly fascinating. On a more contemporary note, the Hiroshima Peace Park’s pre-, during , and post- World War II historical chronology should be required viewing for all mankind. A sober tribute to insane levels of hubris and military misjudgment on all sides that resulted in God knows how many million unnecessary deaths, all presented in very balanced and nonpoliticized fashion.