Cycling in Japan

posted in: Cycling, Travel | 5

The four weeks that we spent this autumn travelling and cycling around Japan were fantastic. It is a fascinating country and offers rides through beautiful countryside on quiet roads. We would have liked to have stayed longer in each place that we visited and were worried that our next destination would be a disappointment. However, with one exception (more about that below), that was not the case.

Some of the highlights of the trip are below followed by more information on cycling in the Japan and the areas that we visited.

Autumn Colours

Norikura Leaves

We were lucky to be Japan during the autumn and saw beautiful views of autumn leaves in most places we visited. However, the most spectacular were probably in Norikura which is near Matsumoto. As with the cherry blossom season viewing in the spring, it is a popular time for holidays so it was quite hard for us to book accommodation in some places.

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji from Azami Line

We did two rides up Mount Fuji, the Subaru Line and the Azami Line. This photo is on the way down the latter (and tougher) route. It’s easy to understand why Fuji is such a mythical mountain. It’s very impressive, rising to nearly 4,000m.

Mountain Views

Japanese Alps

There are lots of mountains to ride up with big 1000m plus climbs. This view of the Japanese Alps topped with the first of winter’s snow was taken on a ride near Nagano. Nagano, Mt Fuji and Matsumoto are only 2 to 3 hours train ride from Tokyo.

Rugged Coastline

Izu Fuji View

We spent a few days riding on the Izu Peninsula (only about an hour’s train ride west of Tokyo) which had a dramatic coastline, as well as some views of Mount Fuji.

Cool Bridges

Bridge

We crossed many such bridges on one of the best rides that we did, the Shimanami Kaido. This went from the largest of Japan’s four main islands, Honshu, to the smallest, Shikoku.

Temples and Gardens

Tofukuji Temple

There were many beautiful and peaceful temples to explore. This photo was taken in the gardens of the Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto relatively late in the day when the temple was emptying out. Sadly there wasn’t much peacefulness in some of the more popular temples in Kyoto and it for this reason that I would say that Kyoto was the only place that did not live up to our (possibly too high) expectations.

Bullet Trains

Evangelion Shinkansen 2

The shinkansen (‘bullet train’) network is really efficient and even with a bicycle, as long as it is appropriately bagged-up (see below), it is easy to travel on. This train was a special edition, done in the colours of Evangelion, which is an anime series from the 1990’s.

Conbini Vending Machines

Conbini 2

Machines vending hot and cold drinks were located in all sorts of remote places. As long as there was something of note (a village or a tourist attraction) you could be reasonably confident of finding one. This is obviously a boon for a cyclist. This one shows our favourites, Royal Milk Tea and Georgia Coffee.

Ubiquitous Convenience Stores

7-11

Like conbinis, these were a godsend for hungry cyclists and stores like 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart were in most towns. We often had a lunch of healthy rice triangles (onigiri) and sushi, and less healthy things such as the snack pictured above.

Delicious Food

Oyaki Restaurant

We ate of lot of delicious food. This was mainly noodles (soba, udon and ramen) and local specialities. The restaurant pictured above was in a tiny village we cycled through and specialised in oyaki, a kind of baked bun with a vegetable filling. We ended up eating less sushi and sashimi than we expected, partly because it is very expensive to eat it in a restaurant.

Practical Information

The rest of this post provides more information for anyone wanted to go to Japan on a cycling holiday along with some more photos.

After some general observations about riding on the roads of Japan and travelling with bikes, there is more detail on the areas we visited, listed below. Information on the Shimanami Kaido, which we did before going to Kyoto, is in a separate post by Lillian here: Shimanami Kaido.

1. Tokyo

2. Mount Fuji (from Kawaguchiko)

3. Matsumoto

4. Nagano

5. Nikko and Hiroshima (actually more about walking and food than cycling)

6. Kyoto

7. Numazu (west side of the Izu Peninsula)

8. Ito (east side of the Izu Peninsula)

Riding on the Roads of Japan

There are a lot of commuting cyclists in towns so it feels safe to ride although it is somewhat frustrating as traffic lights seem to stay red for over a minute… possibly the biggest danger comes from being taken out by a cyclist riding at speed on the pavement (which seems to be acceptable).

It also feels safe riding outside of towns. Drivers are generally patient although we did have the occasional near miss when someone misjudged their position and our speed and cut in a bit early.

Gradient on the climbs is not constant. A hill may sound easy with for example a 6% gradient, but this could have long ramps of 10+% or even 15+%.

Road numbers are only intermittently signposted on smaller roads which can make them difficult to follow. Also roads can be wide with perfect tarmac for some distance and then suddenly become narrow and potholed. Strangely, small roads that don’t seem to go anywhere can have perfect road surfaces. Basically, you can’t judge a road’s size (minor vs major) by how it looks.

Travelling with Bikes

There is a lot of information on this elsewhere on the internet so I will just comment on a few things that we didn’t appreciate as big issues until we actually went to Japan.

If you are going to be bringing your own bike you need to find somewhere to leave your bike box unless you want to cart it all over Japan. We had a friend in Tokyo and we were lucky enough to be able to leave ours in her flat. Unfortunately I don’t have solution to this problem but it is something to think about as a bike box is too big to leave in the left luggage locker of an airport or train station.

You can take your bikes on trains as long as you have a bike bag known as a ‘rinko bukuro’. One can be easily purchased from a bike shop. The notices in the train stations (see below) say you need to take both wheels off but actually all you need to do is take off the front wheel, strap it to the frame and turn the handlebars 90 degrees to fit the whole package in the bag. (This notice also provides some useful information for anyone planning on travelling with a pet dog… or a pet snake.)

Rinko Bukuro Notice

Here is a picture of Lillian waiting for a train with all our kit.

Luggage

On shinkansen trains we always had space to put our bikes, either behind the back row of seats or in the door area. The conductors on the trains were all very helpful and, if the side on which the doors opened changed from station to station, would often move our bikes so that they would not be obstructing passengers getting on or off.

Commuter trains and metro/subway lines do not have specific storage space for bikes and can get very crowded, so plan your travel so you are not travelling on these during rush hours. It is also worth allowing sufficient time to transfer between trains as stations can be very big and shinkansen and local tracks can be in different areas.

We were surprised at how difficult it was to book accommodation. We arrived in Tokyo with only our first few nights of accommodation booked as we only had a vague plan of where to go. Travelling with bikes and rucksacks so big we were unable to ride with them on also limited our options as we had to stay somewhere within walking distance of a train station. If you have specific places that you want to visit, do not leave booking accommodation until only a few days (or even weeks) beforehand; we learnt this the hard way!

1. Tokyo

We did two rides in Tokyo, both interesting experiences and worth doing in their own right.

The first was up the Arakawa River following the cycle path(s) that run up either side.

Arakawa River

These offer a flat, traffic free route and take you out of Tokyo towards the north. We went to just past Saitama which gave us a c.100km round trip. After you leave the suburbs of Tokyo the bike paths become more intermittent on the east side of the river.

We also rode and ran around the Imperial Gardens (which are in the centre of Tokyo) where the photo below was taken.

Imperial Gardens

It is a popular loop for an early morning workout amongst local runners and cyclists and is about 5km long. There is a lot of traffic during the day so it is worth getting up very early if you want to use a ride here for training purposes.

2. Mount Fuji (Kawaguchiko)

Kawaguchiko is on the north side of Mt Fuji and is a great location for the cyclist with the option to climb Mt Fuji and/or ride around several nearby and beautiful lakes. There are three cycling routes up Mt Fuji from the north, east and south. We did first two of these, the ‘Subaru Line’ and the ‘Azami Line’ going from the north and east respectively.

The Subaru Line is a toll road and cyclists have to pay JPY200 each. It is the main way up for tourists which means there are can be lots of coaches. However, it is a wide road so that wasn’t a problem for us. It is a reasonable steady gradient (from the toll gates it is a 1,200 m climb over 24 km) which means that it is not so hard to ride (of course that depends on fast you go!). The end of the road is at 2,300m where there are shops and a restaurant, as well as lots of tourists!

Subaru Line

We rode up it in the cloud so we only got our first view of Mt Fuji when we got back down to Kawaguchiko.

First Fuji View

The Azami Line (Route 150) on the other hand, is a tough climb just to complete. It is a quiet road at an average gradient of 10% for 11.6km climbing to just under 2,000m. It starts with a long straight section of 10% which Tor is blasting up in the picture below.

Azami Line

It then eases a bit (on average the first half of the climb is 8-9%), but the road really steepens up in the second half, averaging 12% for kilometres 7 to 10. It is particularly hard for kilometres 7 and 8, rarely dropping below 13% and often being steep enough to require a major effort just to keep enough speed to stay on the bike. The remainder is still steep but there are some easier (i.e. 10%!) sections between the ramps. It leads to a small restaurant and nice view without all the tourist trappings at the top of the Subaru Line.

A final road to highlight in the Kawaguchiko area is the ‘Forest Road’ that heads north from Fujiyoshida (to be exact Shimoyoshidi Station). It is visible on a map as a squiggly line heading generally north to eventually join Route 708. It climbs 600m to around 1,400m and can also be accessed more directly from Kawaguchiko after a short ascent. It’s a nice quiet road and is a good option for a pre-Fuji warm up climb.

Forest Road

It’s better done in this direction as Route 708 joins the main road back to Kawaguchiko (Route 137) which is best descended rather than climbed.

3. Matsumoto

This is a good base for rides in the mountains being surrounded by the Japanese Alps. The train station and old castle (worth visiting, see photo below) are on the east side of the city.

Matsumoto Castle

If you stay near to the station and castle you will be very well positioned for a great bike ride up to Utsukushigahara which well deserves its name (which means Beautiful Field). The ride has the added bonus of passing the Matsumoto Velodrome which opened in 2015 and is brand-new and in a beautiful situation.

Matsumoto Velodrome

The stats for the climb (900m over 17km) do not make it sound that difficult but it has a lot of steep ramps. We also took a direct route to the Velodrome that started behind the Asama Onsen and went up a narrow and very steep road (17% for the initial 700m). This would be an effective warm up for any track racing! Beyond the Velodrome we climbed up the main road (Route 62) which was wide and had a good road surface.

Utsukushigahara

The road climbs through deciduous and then pine forest before it opens up into grassland a few kilometres from the top where there is a simple restaurant. We came back down Route 62 all the way back to Matsumoto City.

The other ride we did was towards the Norikura Pass, which is the highest paved road in Japan topping out at 2,700m. We rode from Matsumoto and didn’t have time to go to the top of the pass, plus it was quite cold and windy (we were there at the end of October). However, the area below the pass is beautiful and well worth a visit, especially when the leaves are turning. I’ll describe the route we took as some of it was good but there were other bits that I would not recommend.

If you are staying near to Matsumoto Station it is a long ride across the city to the start of the valley which eventually leads to Norikura and Kamikochi (a famous mountain area that we did not have time to explore). However, with a bit of navigation one can avoid the traffic for a lot of it. Unfortunately, initially there is only one way up the valley, Route 158, which is a busy road with a lot of trucks and coaches. There are several tunnels which are not pleasant but relatively short. We turned off this road as soon as we could, taking Route 26 (much quieter) for about 5km until we could follow the ‘Super Forest Road’ (that really is its name) over a 600m climb into the Norikura Valley. The forest road really was super, taking us through beautiful autumnal forest and giving us a great view of Mt Norikura (the Pass is by the patch of snow in the top left of the photo below).

Norikura

There are some nice places to eat in the valley. For the descent back to Matsumoto we dropped down by Route 84 onto Route 158, joining about 5km above where we originally turned off. The additional 5km on Route 158 included several long narrow tunnels; not pleasant and best avoided, particularly on the way up.

4. Nagano

There are a lot of mountain roads around Nagano and great riding. You can get a map from the Tourist Information so here are some notes that may be useful if you are planning rides.

The first few kilometres of the Togakushi Line out of Nagano are steep (10-15%) and narrow with a concrete honeycomb surface (which is a bit like riding over cobbles) and a cover which traps exhaust fumes. Better avoided.

Route 406 seems to be quite empty of traffic so is a good way of getting from east to west quickly.

Route 19 is busy and would be best avoided. Route 31 is fairly busy but is okay to ride along.

The Nagano hills are covered with lots of small roads which are largely free of traffic. Some nice ones are:

Route 401: A pretty east-west road winding around the hills to the south of the 406 from Nagono to just below the Ogawa Planetarium.

Route 76: This follows a similar winding line through the hills to the north of the 406 from Nagano to Togakushi. The photo below is one from returning to Nagano on this road.

Nagano

Route 36: This heads north-south from Togakushi Hokosha to Ogawa. The climb north from Ogawa to the Ogawa Planetarium is particularly nice (c.8km at 6%).

View from near Planetarium

It finishes near the best oyaki shop that we found (highly recommended!) which is on the opposite side of the road just below the Planetarium. The inside of the restaurant is pictured earlier in this post but here’s a picture of what is inside the oyaki. To find places selling oyaki look for signs with this (おやき) on them.

Oyaki

Apparently you also need to watch out for bears… (based on the nearby sign).

Bear Warning

5. Nikko and Hiroshima

We didn’t ride our bikes around either of these towns, but have some information that may be useful for anyone going there.

Nikko is a nice town although Toshogu Shrine (the main tourist attraction) is very busy. If you want to get away from the crowds it is worth picking up a ‘Nikko Historic Walking Map’ from the Tourist Information and walking along both the Kanman Path and Takino’o Path which are each about 5km long. The former follows the river and passes some famous rows of stone buddhas.

Buddhas

The latter goes up into the forest above the Toshogu Shrine.

It is also worth eating some yuba soba. Yuba is a vegetarian speciality made from rolled bean curd skin and several restaurants in Nikko serve it. Look for signs with this (ゆばそば) on them.

Yuba

There should also be some great cycling around Nikko as it is right next to the mountains and there seemed to be plenty of roads leading up into the hills.

Rainy weather prevented us riding around Hiroshima; however, there are two things worth mentioning. Firstly, the island of Miyajima (one of the main attractions for tourists) really is worth visiting in spite of the hype.

Miyajima

You can leave the crowds (and the deer) behind and do a great walk up to the highest point on the island, Mt Misen, which took about 50 minutes. There is a nice temple near the top too.

Mt Misen

Secondly, in terms of local specialities I became a big fan of okonomiyaki, which is a cabbage and bacon pancake/omelette and is cooked in front of you while you wait.

Okonomiyaki

6. Kyoto

There is so much written already about Kyoto elsewhere on the internet that I will only mention a couple of things.

First of all, it is a big city. It took us about 45 minutes to ride from the north to the main station, which is in the south.
This was on the only ride that we did which was to Kibune and Kurama. The road follows a railway and it easy to find, although at one point we had to leave the new road which went through a tunnel (cycling through it is not permitted) and follow the old road which turned out to be a very pleasant way to get up the valley for a few kilometres.

The valley of Kibune was very pretty with the autumnal colours. We rode on but a couple of kilometres above the village the road (Route 361) became quite narrow and rough in places.

Turn Around Point

Whilst tempted we did not continue. We did, however, keeping above Kurama for 6km on Route 38, climbing 500m to a pass at about 750m. The road continued and looked like a good ride… I’d like to come back one day and carry on.

Kurama Temple was worth a visit although it is a 20-30 minute walk uphill to the main temple. It was nearly empty in the late afternoon. The contrast with the crowds in many of the more popular temples made it a nice experience. That’s not to say it is not worth going to the more famous temples. For example, I thought the Ginkaku ‘Silver Pavilion’ Temple was nice even though it was quite busy. A photo of its sand garden is below.

Silver Pavilion Temple

However, you are not likely to be alone unless you can get in really early. With that in mind, I did an early morning run to pay a second visit to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Temple. This is, according to Tripadvisor, the most popular attraction amongst tourists visiting Japan. You climb up to the top of Mount Inari through hundreds of vermillion wooden tori gates. We had been there a couple of days previously and it was very crowded although we did do a nice walk up the path round the back of the mountain. On my run (at 7.30am) there were a few keen tourists around but that did not detract from the atmosphere.

Inari Temple

I was by myself at the top. Running through the cloud and drizzle between the shrines and statues of foxes (‘inari’ can also mean fox in Japanese) was a memorable experience.

7. Numazu

The Numazu tourist office had done a great job producing one of the best English language tourist brochures we saw in Japan. It had us looking forward to our morning ride and all the sights we would see such as the fish market and the tsunami control gate (pictured below).

 

Numazu Control Gate 2

These aside, the other reasons to come here is because it is close to Mt Fuji (which lies to the north) and the Izu Peninsula and for us because it had a good availability of rooms in several business hotels. The hotel we stayed in was good value, clean and bike friendly.

We rode out to the Izu Peninsula along the north coast to Ose. From there we continued round the coast getting our first taste of hills and some sun as the clouds lifted.

Sunbeams

Mount Fuji was visible to the north (see photo near the beginning of this post) and the view towards Heda was also dramatic.

Heda

The climbing got going in earnest after we had passed through Heda and turned towards the Heda Pass on Route 18. We turned off this road just before the pass itself taking Route 127 back to the northern coast. It was a nice climb with the steeper bit gaining about 450m over 7km.

8. Ito

This is also surrounded by dramatic coastline and hills but is more developed than the area around Heda. There are a lot of roads that one could ride on. However, there were four that we discovered on our two rides that link up to form a nice 65km circuit (with about 1,600m of vertical ascent).

From Ito we climbed into the hills via Route 59, which was almost empty of traffic once we left the town. It wound its way through hills and forest climbing about 300m and eventually crossing the Hiekawa Pass.

Route 59

After the descent from the pass, a short stretch on the busier Route 12 took us onto the 112 which climbed for another 300m mainly following a picturesque forested valley. Again a short section of busy road led to the dead-end road up to Amagi Kogen. This was a 400m climb ending in a golf course at around 1,000m. It was another quiet road through beautiful forest. It was a windy day and we saw some interesting cloud formations at the top.

 

Amagi Kogen

From Agami Kogen we descended to the coast and followed Route 109 back to Ito. This is good in either direction but it is surprisingly hilly. Finally, we returned to K’s House in Ito for a well-earned soak in the onsen. We really enjoyed staying in this hostel as it has a lot of character (being in an old Japanese house) as well as a great common area and nice atmosphere.

That’s the end of this post. Hopefully we will be able to return to Japan soon and write a sequel.

5 Responses

  1. peter james-martin

    I would be interested to know what month you were cycling. We plan to ride in September so I am wondering if we need long johns as well as bib nicks – Peter James-Martin.

    • Mark

      We were riding in the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November. I think in September it should be quite warm if you are riding on Honshu, which is mainly where we were riding. Hokkaido is further north and could be cold in September. I don’t know as I have not been there… yet. Have a good trip.

Leave a Reply