Tips for Cycling in Japan

Family Bike Packing in Japan from Kyoto to Hiroshima via the Tobishima Kaido cycle path, is a perfect way to enjoy this country.

Here are some tips to make that cycling trip even more enjoyable there.

Landing in Japan is exciting, it just can’t help it. It is always ablaze with colour and light and a mecca for all things Kawaii – or cutesy. While it is a place that may not spring to mind for  a great cycling tour and more for Hello Kitty, cherry blossoms, and sushi, it would be a mistake to think so and we were excited to get on the bikes and explore.
Cycling in Japan - Visit Tokyo

We are passionate about biking A to B routes, and cycling Kyoto to Hiroshima is an appealing one with a blend of medieval and modern-day history and a few pop culture stops on the way.  We were, after all, bringing our pre-teen with us.

Travelling the Shinkansen Train
The Bullet Train & Bikes - Bring a Bag

We soon found ourselves on the sleek and sexy Shinkansen “bullet train” platform with our tandem bike still in 2 big suitcases prepared for the 2 hour zippy journey.

This is such an exciting way to travel to Kyoto (aside from cycling it) and the views of Mount Fuji (on our visit, snow covered and clear) on the left side of the train were just an absolute bonus.  

Visit Kyoto on your bike tour

Biking in Kyoto, Japan

Rickshaw ride in KyotoKyoto is a treasure and a priceless one. It barely escaped destruction when World War II, Allied forces almost chose it to be the terrible recipient of the first atomic bomb rather than Hiroshima.  Today it is a busy cosmopolitan place that is easy to wander as the river is a good navigational point. 

The beautiful but tourist crowded wooden district of Gion with its still traditional Geishas (few in number but like exquisite dolls), artisan shops, delicious food, impressive temples, and anime museum all sparked interest. Kyoto (京都, Kyōto) was Japan's capital residence of its Emperor from 794 until 1868 so you can imagine the architectural marvels that await anyone with an architectural passion.

Enjoy Fushimi Inari Shrine on your bike tripOur favourite sight on our bike trip tour of Kyoto’s temples was the ancient fox temple of Fushimi Inari Shrine, dedicated to the Shinto god of Rice, with its hundreds of donated crimson Torii gateways up Mount Inari. Scenic and atmospheric in a winter twilight, we loved its succulent colours in an indigo night and its odd foxy statuettes as we climbed up the mountain our breath in icy puffs. In case you get peckish on your climb there are a couple places to stop and rest and even order some hot drinks and fried tofu “aburaage” said to be a real favourite with foxes.

Bike Trip to Hiroshima

Enough with the tourist trappings, and as they say here, “Virtue is not knowing but doing.” so we felt great to be out on the road and saddling up our bikes
. Leaving Kyoto on bicycle is fairly easy, as in Japan, careful riding on pavement is allowed, so we made our way down to the Yodogawa river and just followed it out. Remember, when you do get on your bike, it is left hand cycling!  Although, most of the former colonies of Britain (the Mother of left-hand driving) still maintain this tradition and drive on the left, Japan was never part of the British Empire so this may throw you. Interestingly, this practice goes back all the way to the Edo period (1603-1867) when Samurai ruled the country. They are heavily armed people of course and since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to travel on the left so they could access their sword with the main hand. Though it really wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten rule became official.  Yes, in case you had forgotten, you really are in the land of Samurais!

Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto on your Japanese bike trip

This cycle path route out from Kyoto is flat and well kept and in spring, as you get further out of the city limits, has some alluring cherry blossoms on the edges. A very chilly day, we met a few well wrapped up cyclists on their hammer session ride with some very expensive TREK & Cannondale bikes which we found funny due to it being a non-challenging cycle path. (but hey, all cyclists make do with what they have!). 

Cycling in Kyoto district
A watery sun had come out and so we quickened the pace, piling nose to wheel, almost keirin like behind the tandem, (Keirin, was actually developed in Japan in the 40s for gambling) and stopped off to have a vending machine hot coffee and toilets at a small café/community centre, 15km on. The bike path is an easy 45km ride to Osaka with the only true obstacles being the funny low cycle gates to go through as you keep the river on your right. Past baseball games being played and children riding bikes. It was a pleasant cycle trip and as we crossed the Juso-ohashi metal train bridge with the sun glinting off it, it was a good day.
Cycle tour from Kyoto to Hiroshima

Cross many bridges on your Japanese bike trip
Oksaka is a thriving city and there is a lot to fill a day such as visiting Osaka castle, Shintennoji, the oldest temple in the world or even the fantastic Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios that amazed all of us and took us off the bike and onto a broomstick for even better speeds.

Biking to Shikoku Island from Osaka

Ferry journey to Shikoku, Japan on your bike trip
Osaka to Kobe, is city urban cycling but the traffic and buses were respectful. A bit slow of course due to lights, traffic flow, but interesting to see the daily life going on. Given that this is one of the most populated cities in the world, quite quiet and orderly all the way to the Kobe ferry terminal. The terminal itself had a restaurant for workers and its complicated nature of chits, tickets, etc..seemed too much for us to negotiate with a time limit so we went to the nearest convenience store (konbininext to it and stocked up on supplies, lunch and the drink we couldn’t help but smirk at, “Pocari Sweat” to be had on the ferry on our way to Shikoku island, the start of our island tour on the way to Hiroshima.  You can live on Konbini food here, and often we did.

Ferry Journey to Shikoku, cycle tour
We rolled the bikes into the big car ferry, locked them up, secured them with ropes and our bungies and was given a wooden chock to secure the wheels from rolling.  In the common area, shoes off, you can lounge on the comfortable floor seating areas, which on our day was almost empty. Passing under the Kobe – Awaji bridge, we were on our way with a 4+ hour trip. Kobe has been rebuilt heavily due to its destruction in the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake which killed over 6400 people, though today it is rebuilt so successfully it still is the 4th largest port in the country.Public bicycle parking in Shikoku, Bike Trip

When we got to Takamatsu that chilly evening, it was a short cycle into town in the dark to find our hotel. We parked our bike in an elaborate indoor public bike parking system with about 2,000 other bikes of all different types and styles and a mini escalator for bikes to bring them back up to street level. Which for fully laden tour bikes, is a superb energy saver first thing in the morning.

Cycling in Shikoku Island

Bike Packing in Japan, explore Shikoku
Shikoku Island is rural and smallest of Japan’s 4 major islands and it is an easy trip over from Kobe to Takamatsu, our port of call.

Japanese food on Bike trip to HiroshimaOur next stop was around the coast to Shikokuchuo through nice countryside but still a lot of development of housing and constant villages to go through. Always a Family Mart to stop in or even once, a “Canadian Coffee shop” to enjoy lunch in. Very enjoyable. One of the biggest paper producers in Japan, we went by several pulp and paper businesses on the way in.

Our hotel window could see in the distance the recently (1988) rebuilt Kawanoe Castle which was originally built in 1337 and 17th century on the hill. A nondescript stay, the city name is "Shikoku Central City" which seems a pretty boring (controversially so) name too.  It had aspirations at one time to be the capital city but this uninspiring name perhaps shot that idea in the foot.

Visit Imbari Castle on your bike tourThen on to Imabari, with its impressive castle built in 1604 and its sea water moat. We went down a couple of dead ends before we found it but in the twilight it was pretty. We splashed out mainly due to a lack of options and had a large room in a grand hotel which had a wonderful bird’s eye view of the entire city from our hotel room.  Situated a close ride to the ferry port,which was handy, as we needed to be there quite early in the morning to get first ferry out to the islands to start the Tobishima Kaido cycle trail.

Shikoku has great road cycling

Roof tiles seen on the Tobishima Kaido cycle pathCycle the Shimanami Kaido or Tobishima Kaido cycle path in Japan

3,000 islands are in the Seto Inland Sea area and the famous Shimanami Kaido “The road of Sea” cycle trail (70km) encompasses 6 islands and bridges and can be accessed here in Imbari too.  We however chose the less known trail, the Tobishima Kaido, more off the beaten track and a more direct path to Hiroshima. This 46 km path crosses Aki Nada islands in the Seto sea with 7 bridges, less development, sweet villages and quiet roads. 

Clearly marked by signage on the ground or markers. On a nice day there are a lot of beaches to take advantage and of course stunning seaside scenery.  Today was not that day, grey and chilly, we preferred tea to beach towels.

Islands on the Tobishima Kaido Bike Path in Japan

Again, another nice ferry ride with pretty views of a disappearing Imbari that next morning to link us up to the Tobishima Kaido. Bikes secured on the deck watching the waves until we arrived to Okamura port on Okamurajima Island, the start of the trail. Off season, it was very quiet cycling along the road route with some smoky deserted shoreline views and a muffled landscape in some fog. 

Road Signage on the Tobishima Kaido bike pathHowever, no cars, serene and some wonderful spots to take stock of the landscape. There are cafés and restaurants in each town to stock up on food or water and we had a delightful meal in one atop the biggest hill on the route.  The bridges were fun, as there was so little traffic, my normal bridge phobia didn´t play up.  

The solitude and mono-cromatic soft ocean landscape in a light mist looking very much like a traditional sumi-e ink wash painting. Hard to want to leave it to return to city living.

An easy flat cycle in Japan

Beautiful beaches on the Tobishima Kaido cycling path, Japan
Not a completely difficult cycle, which is fine when cycling with a tandem, there were a couple steep bits and even more altitude options for those who are keen to take a more bumpy ride across the interior of some of the islands.

Tobishima Kaido cycle path bridges, the ToyoshimaThe bridges are beautiful constructions and a privilege to pass over without meeting hardly any cars in the cool winter day we crossed all 7 of them. The most impressive being the Toyoshima with its two arches which we pedalled over easily. Very cool.

Visit the Hiroshima Memorial Museum

Cycling to Hiroshima 

Our way to Hiroshima, was through heavy traffic which is always.. exhilarating. It was a necessity due to our time constraints and it was highly exciting of course with several tunnels to navigate through.  Fortunately, always with a cycle lane, some better than others, one, darkened, narrow with hidden buttresses on the sides and potholes, but there you go, that is cycle touring!

Hiroshima city centreArrival in Hiroshima was a high, like all arrivals and we parked the bikes down in the hotel lobby after some picture taking. This city comes with a lot of baggage though and its horrific atomic history makes it the duty of all visitors to visit its sobering museum. No one in the world ever says the name of this place without a slight intake of breath and to be here is a privilege. 

Visit Hiroshima's Memorial Museum and factory remainsThe peace park behind seemed more hopeful than you would think in these days of uncompromising International and Environmental distress. Today on this sunny morning, international visitors were in silent contemplation of the metal origami stork sculptures, the city’s symbol. The stark remains of the World War II, Ground zero nuclear bomb sights will remain in our memory as will the inspiring but terrible stories of the residents as shown in the museum.Visit Hiroshima's Memorial Museum and Peace Park

The hills surrounding the city were calling, but it wasn’t to be this time and we hurried to get the bikes back into their rinko bags to catch the train back to Tokyo.  Definitely, we all have a yen to come back and cycle this fascinating place again and you should plan to as well. Cycling in the Hiroshima district


Tip for Cyclists in Japan - Kyoto to HiroshimaAlthough we only rode a small part of Japan we found it was pleasant due to its cycling infrastructure. Clear signage, and separate bike lanes even in tunnels on bridges and streets, were a bonus. One long tunnel to Hiroshima had a complete plexi-glass floor to roof separation from the traffic and fumes.

There are a few rules for cyclists and one of them, which we didn’t bother with, was the registering of bicycles.  Technically you are supposed to do this with the Prefectural police departments. If you don’t and get pulled over by the police and don’t show documentation, you could be charged with bike theft.  However, we were so obviously tourists we took the chance.  Tandem bikes, are also technically  illegal to, as there is a law that you cannot give a ride to another person on a bike but how often this is enforced with tourists is debatable and whether a tandem bike is classified as flouting this, is another issue. So we crossed our fingers and went.

Travel tips for cyclists to JapanIn Japan, it is possible for you to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk if there is a road sign or other signpost indicating to do so. If there is no signpost, only children under 13 years old are allowed to ride on the sidewalk. However, you can ride on the sidewalk when there are unavoidable obstacles. Children must always wear a helmet

We used navigation by Ride with GPS and downloaded onto our Garmin maps from OSM

Bag it up!  If Cycling in Japan buy a Rinko bag, You need it.

Travelling with bikes on Japanese Trains
If travelling by train and buses, you have to remember, the Japanese like cleanliness and efficiency and also remember, their trains run Exactly on time.  Thus, to travel on train with bikes should be a military exercise on your part. Know that your dirty greasy bike should be disassembled and put into a rinko bag which you can buy for about 25 – 30 euros.  We had to hunt for the biggest one to put our 2 tandem parts in but found one. All you need to do is take off the wheels (and any other gadgets, racks, to make it fit in and zip it up. There is a shoulder strap and we used cardboard, tape and a spare foam piece to protect the derailleur.
Travelling on the Bullet Train with bikes in Japan

These trains wait for no one, so be on the platform with time to spare and as there is not much luggage space, be there with a lot of time to enter the train and nab the seats at the back (or at a supplement cost, reserve them when buying your ticket), which is where the luggage spot is too.

Cycle snacks in Japan - Eating on Route:

7 Eleven, or Lawson Stores are everywhere and convenience stores here have a very good selection of goods comparable to at home and also generally have good WIFI and seating.

We found that the shop, FAMILY MART seemed to have the best rice or meal selections.  Try the Onigiri which are triangular rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a filling of tuna, etc.., tasty and cheap and great food to cycle on.

Try convenience stores on your bike trip in Japan

On our family trip, we just had a blast and every night choose a bunch of different sweets or dessert to try out.  Not having any idea of what might be behind the colourful packaging is fun.. no cheating using Google translate. Ok, I know to steer clear of red bean paste, which isn´t my thing, but it’s fun to try a bit of everything.

General ideas for biking in Japan

Learn Japanese before your bike trip to Japan
It is not the expensive place it was in the 90s when I last visited it and almost had a heart attack.  Prices have come down and there are some more economical places to stay and loads of delicious noodle bars to eat at. Quick reminder, never leave your chopsticks crossed on the table, nor sticking out of your rice, as this denotes bad luck and death.

It is good to have a few Japanese words under your belt as we did find, although everyone was extremely helpful, very few spoke English aside from those in tourist ventures or some hotels. However, that is the whole fun of cycle touring

Staying local or … not

Staying in a Ryokan on your Japanese bike trip
We didn´t stay in a Ryokan this particular ride but having done so in the past it is a great idea for at least a couple of nights to get the feel of a traditional home.

You need to take off your shoes at the front door and wear the slippers provided by the hotel but not to the bathroom.  Make sure you put your “toilet” slippers on there and take them off too.  Remember this is a culture of strict observances!

Tatami mats are beautiful and the traditional floor covering here and your house slippers protect it.

A futon bed will be set up by the hotel or left for you to do on these mats. 

When biking in Japan, enjoy onsens - Keeping Clean!

Visit Japan on your bike trip
Every cyclist will appreciate the Japanese baths or onsen hot springs (there are 3,000 of them there).  However, note that you must not have any tattoos, which is a difficult one these days being so popular from teens to retirees. Body art has a long and poor reputation with connections to criminals in Japan that has carried on in modern times.  If you don’t have any, then lucky you, what better way to end the day than soaking in soothing hot water. Delicious! Found everywhere, the cost is not expensive and it is truly a cultural experience. Single sex, you leave your shoes in the change room, shed your stinky cycling clothes, take your bucket and stool, scrub off, then once clean, enter the bath.

Toilets! We loved them coming from frigid winter Spanish toilets.. heated! And loads of fun contraptions to contemplate while you are… contemplating. Remember though to turn off the water blaster when you are about to stand up.. it doesn’t turn off on its own and will soak you.

 Short Bike Rides in Tokyo

Visit Tokyo's Imperial Palace on your bike trip.
To get your started on your cycle tour, here are two enjoyable short routes.

Imperial Palace : The grounds are where the former Edo castle used to be and are now turned into a big park where people jog daily and cycle. The cycling lap is around 5 km and is great for that mix of the urban and nature views and a bit of exercise on your first days off the plane.

Showa Memorial Park : This huge park full of flowers to enjoy in west Tokyo offers a 14 km cycling path, great for everyone. Bike rental is possible here as well and you can fill the day in the summer by swimming in the public pools too.

Visit Japan for a independent cycle tour


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