Monday, November 10, 2008

Tips on Cycling Japan

Cycle touring Japan is challanging yet one of the most amazing and rewarding ways of experiencing this serenely beautiful country. Before I took this trip, I found very little information about the details of touring Japan by bicycle. I learned alot from this tour and want to pass on few useful tidbits and information to those who may want to tour through Japan by bicycle.

Note: To view enlarged photo, mouse over picture and click

The map above shows the general route of our tour (black is the bike tour). From Narita Airport near Tokyo, we rode to the east-coast and caught an overnight ferry which took us from Honshu Island to Hokkaido Island, the northern-most major island of Japan.

We officially started the bike tour from a ferry port in southern Hokkaido island and over 6 weeks, we cycled more than 1,700 miles and climbed nearly 73,000 feet.

Our route did a big loop on Hokkaido taking us through the middle of the island to the northern-most point, then turned southerly down the west coast and finally cutting over to Sapporo, the largest city of the island. We then caught another ferry to Honshu and continued southerly through the mountains, along the Sea of Japan (west-coast) before working our way inland back into the mountains to Nagano.

Our cycling portion ended in Nagano and we shipped our bikes back to Narita. Herb and I finished the last two weeks of the trip taking the train and buses to Matsumoto, the Japan Alps, and Tokyo.

Mapple, a series of detailed map books, is the most useful tool for determining a route through Japan. Major roads have road numbers in English but unfortunately everything else is written in Japanese. Symbols indicating campgrounds, youth hostels and onsens (natural mineral hotspring baths) are located on the maps.

Here is a typical major road sign. In this particular area (Northern Hokkaido), the sign is written in English, Russian and Japanese.

This is the good news . . .

The bad news is that once off the major highway, the signs are only in Japanese.

Asphalt sidewalks are extensive in cities and run for miles even outside the cities in the rural areas. Since many of the roads lack a good shoulder, these sidewalks offer a safe alternative for cyclists. The condition and width of these sidewalks vary greatly. This is one of the better ones.

In some cities at very busy intersections, a pedistrain bridge is built over the street. A bicycle ramp is conveniently intergrated into the steps to allow you to push your bike up and down the ramp.

A word about trucks. I have never experienced a country with so much truck traffic as in Japan. Just about everything moves by trucks in this country. It seems at times, half the traffic were trucks. The good news is that the truck drivers were the most professional and courteous I have ever encountered anywhere.

When a truck comes up behind you, they slow down and move around you when they catch an opening. Thank goodness for that.

Oh my tunnels!! Tunnels are the most harrowing part of cycling in Japan. They are a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that they reduce the amount of severe climbing over a mountain top but a big curse in that many of the older tunnels do not have sidewalks or a good shoulder. Turn on your tail-lights, look for a break in traffic and ride like hell is the only advice I can offer!!

The newer tunnels have a sidewalk and/or a decent shoulder. Some of the tunnels are very long, as much as one or two kilometers. Most are well lit. We literally rode through 100's of tunnels between the two islands.

In the belly of the beast. Note the lack of shoulder or sidewalk. How scary!!

Our tour included two ferry rides, the first a 20 hour overnighter from Honshu to Hokkaido and a 6 hour ride returning from Hokkaido to Honshu later in the trip. Ferry rides are fun, comfortable and offer pretty decent food.

The boat crews are very courteous and helpful. They direct you to where to park the bikes and tie them up for you. We were pleasantly surprised at this kind of service.

In economy class on the overnight ferry, you sleep on tatami mats. Actually very comfortable. Make sure you bring ear plugs.

On the overnight ferry, the all you can eat buffet meals (breakfast and dinners) were quite good and fairly reasonably priced. With 20 hours to kill you have plenty of time to enjoy a liesurely meal. What else are you going to do?

Note: Free coffee refills are not common in Japan. That could be a bummer for a java-junkie like me. On this ferry, refills are free (pheww!!) so breakfast was great.

On land, the only places we could find free refills were at McDonalds, Denny's, and a Denny-like eatery named Skylark.

Land of the Rising Sun and Convex Mirrors. These mirrors are positioned at every blind corner and intersection. Get used to using them since they can save your life.

Way Stations or rest-stops are located near mountain tops and are heaven-sent. They offer good value eats, clean restrooms, souveniers and visitor information. They are wonderful places to rest after a big climb.

Convenience stores, e.g. 7/11, Circle K, Sieco Mart, etc, are cheap good eats. You can pick up a tastey bento box, sushi, sandwiches, pastries, and all sorts of great snacks and drinks at low prices. We ate here several times a day. These convenience stores made our trip very affordable.

Off the coast of Hokkaido is a small island called Rishiri. It's a beautiful island dominated with a mini-Fuji like volcanic mountain. Circling half the island is the most amazing piece of bicycling infrastructure - an exclusive bike path with many major bridges crossing canyons. The cost of building this bike path must be in the mega-millions.

The two bridges you see are not auto bridges but exclusive bike bridges. This bike path encircles half the island for about 26 miles.

The island is beautiful in it's own right but visiting this island would be worth it just to experience riding the bike path.

Here I am on one of the bridges looking down toward the harbor we disembarked. The path, strategically constructed about half-way up the mountain-side, offers great views of the coast-line and mountain.

The bike path swoops down a grade below Rishiri-Fuji Mountain

Crossing one of several major bridges on the island. The investment in this bike path on a very remote island was quite astonishing.

Campgrounds in Hokkaido were quite lux - clean, green, flat surfaces, with many unique amenities to make camping a pleasant experience. Rishiri-Fuji Mt. which we climbed in the background. This campground was within walking distance of a great onsen.

This building housed luxurious restrooms and kept super clean. Temps can get quite cold so the heated toilets seats were a welcome surprise.

Here's another excellent campground on Hokkaido. Plenty of elbow room to spread out. Daisetsuzan National Park are the mountains in the background. This was our destination the next day.

The main building at this campground housed the office, restroom, showers, laundry, small dining room and outdoor deck to hang out and drink coffee. A very nice place.

This particular area of northern Honshu contained many quiet roads and very colorful artistic bridges. We followed a beautiful river and travelled through many quaint villages and small towns. This is a "must do" area to cycle.

The half-tunnels provided a picture window to the beautiful river and forests.

Another cool half-tunnel we rode through. Don't ask me what the writing on the pavement says.

One of the interesting odd things about Japan are the decorative man-hole covers you ride over. Every city has their own unique design reflecting some historical reference, landmark, or well-known product of the area. Here apples are very big. Makes looking down on the pavement interesting.

The man-hole covers in Nagano, site of the '98 Winter Olympics, paid homage to the Games.

Where do you get cash (yen)? Believe it or not, the post offices are very convenient places to obtain cash. The post offices (look for the "bar over T" sign on the building) are everywhere, even in the smallest towns. The ATM machines are located in the entry lobby and are accessible even on the weekends when the main office is closed.

Good bike shops with an extensive supply of parts are few and far between. Not as common as you would think given the prevalence of bicycles. Most bikes are the cheap knock-around city bikes and local shops usually carry a minimum inventory of parts geared toward these kind of bikes.

Bike shops for high-end touring bikes are found only in the bigger cities and even these are hard to find. So it's advisable to carry vital parts with you and not rely on finding replacement parts on the road.

We came across this really funky bike shop in Nagano. It was more a museum than a bike shop. You can barely make it down the aisle the shop was jammed packed with all sorts of cycling paraphernalia. A very cool place.

The owner of the bike shop was quite the character. Too bad we couldn't communicate cuz' I bet he had some great stories. We just smiled at each other and I nodded alot like I knew what he was talking about. . .

Lastly, if you want to take your bike on the train, you must place it in a carry-on bag. Finding a place to park your bike on the train could also be a challange. They say you can find these bags at any bike shop but we couldn't find any when we inquired. So go figure. . .


dAwN said...

Geno..great post...i really like the way you are organizing this..I am sure it will be a great help to anyone wanting to do what you have done...for me it was just great getting to see what you all went fun...i wll let jeff read this post then i will read more..

Anonymous said...

Great post on the joys of cycling in Japan. I didn't know about the bike route on Rishiri so I am even more interested in going there now.

Re: the writing on the road in your half tunnel pic. I says "reduce speed".

Otsukare-sama deshita!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Japan cycling tips, photos and blog! We are taking our very first bike tour this summer & it happens to be to Hokkaido; it has been so hard to find helpful tips & information in English about this region, thanks again!

llewellyn said...

Enjoyed your details about cycle touring in Japan.I will be cycling from Wakkani to Fukuoka in June/July/August 2010.Heading down west coast of Japan .Will try to post details as I go,not really up to date with computers or blogs but working on it.

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I agree with Llewellyn has said, I too really enjoyed reading your cycling journey in Japan. I am too planning for a friendly cycling journey with friends and keep your details in mind.
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