Cycling Touring In Japan – Hints and Tips
When we where first looking at cycle touring in Japan, we spent a fair amount of time scrawling the internet for tips and hints, and whilst we found the odd gem, mostly we had to discover things for ourselves and muddle along. Whilst I can’t deny the pleasure of being totally baffled in a foreign country and having to figure things out for yourself, I thought it might be nice to share our tips for bike packing in Japan in case you’re planning a trip there yourself. And if you’re not, well how about it? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
First up, money. Japan has a reputation for being expensive, but things have changed a lot since the boom in the ‘90s. We travelled in May ’14 and the exchange rate was good, but nonetheless, prices seemed relatively low compared with London. Of course, you can find some very expensive restaurants, as you can anywhere in the world, but a basket of sandwiches, crisps, drinks and snacks at the convenience store cost us less than in the UK. And there are a lot of really good ‘non-fancy’ local restaurants that are cheap too.
On the whole, beer costs slightly more in Japan than in the UK (about £1.50 per can), and some fruit is crazy expensive, but broadly speaking everything is cheaper than London.
Convenience stores are numerous and well stocked. At a guess, I’d say the furthest we went without seeing one is about 30km. And that was weird. So you don’t need to carry heaps of food and water. There are also plenty of drink vending machines on the streets – yup, even in the middle of nowhere, so you can easily stay hydrated.
Lawsons, Seven Eleven, Family Mart – they’re all pretty much the same and they’re all the cycle tourist’s friend. All sell hot and iced coffee, sandwiches, snacks, onigiri (rice triangles), salads and various prepared meals. Staff will provide you with cutlery (chopsticks or a fork) and heat up your food in the microwave and there’s hot water for making your instant noodle bowls.
Onigiri – triangular rice ‘balls’ often wrapped in seaweed are really good – cheap, relatively nutritious and tasty. Unless you know Japanese, it’s impossible to work out what filling is hidden within, so just plunge in and try them. My favourite was bonito fish flake flavour, so once I found that I stuck the label on my bike so I knew which symbols to look for!
As I’m sure you’re aware, there are some flavours that may seem unusual to us Westerners. I never got on with the sweet red-bean flavoured stuff, but some people love it. However, one thing I’m sure you’ll hate as much as we did is spaghetti bolognaise flavoured ice-lolly. Or a whipped cream filled baguette. Ugh.
Most people don’t speak English, so you’d best learn a bit before you go. Even if you don’t learn much, making the effort encourages people to try and help you.
‘Sumimasen.’ means excuse me as well as sorry and is very useful. Whilst you’re at it, learn please and thank you. Japanese Pod 101 is a great, free resource for learning the language.
You may need to take off your shoes at the front door and wear the slippers provided by the hotel.
Don’t ever go into the toilet with your slippers on – you must switch to the ‘toilet slippers’ left there. Oh, and don’t forget to change back – walking around in toilet slippers is really not done.
If you’re staying at a traditional Japanese place, the size of the rooms is measured in tatami mats – the floor coverings used. Choose the size you want – the more tatami mats, the bigger the room and the greater the cost.
When you go to your room, you might notice there is not a bed anywhere. Sometimes the staff will come and make up your futon bed for you in the evening, sometimes you’re left to get it out yourself.
We decided to book a few hotels so we could we could take baths and wash our clothes. Bookings.com offer really great rates – far cheaper than you’d get if you just turn up. Download the app before you go, then you can just find some WIFI and book a place to stay that evening.
You can get away with free camping if you’re canny and rock up after dark. If you prefer campsites, there are lots on Google Maps.
If you’re planning on taking a stove, you won’t be able to fly with a gas canister. There are some great camping stores in Tokyo where you can grab some gas before you head off.
Onsen / Japanese baths:
Japanese baths or onsen are fantastic, and a (non-tattooed) cyclist’s dream – what better way to end the day than soaking in soothing hot water in tranquil surroundings. You can find onsen everywhere, and entry to the baths is not expensive. They’re particularly good if you’re camping, indeed some (expensive) campsites have their own onsen.
Onsen are single sex, unless you hire a private bath and if you’re at a place with more than one bath, they’ll probably rotate the timings for all the tubs, switching between men and women’s sessions. Read the signs carefully.
Leave your shoes outside or in the changing room if there is one and ditch the clothes. Once you’re naked, grab a little (tiny!) stool and a bucket of water, take a pew and scrub yourself thoroughly. Only when you’re squeaky clean are you permitted to enter the water of the bath.
Tattoos are nearly always forbidden in onsen. All tattoos. Nearly all onsen. This can be really very annoying if you’ve booked yourself into a traditional hotel, as you may not have your own shower or bath, and if you’re not allowed into the onsen, how the hell are you meant to wash? We rocked up at a campsite with an onsen and had the same problem – the only showers were inside and we weren’t allowed in.
If you don’t know which toilet is which, normally signs in blue are for men and in red are for women.
The Japanese love a heated toilet seat and most toilets (even in Seven Eleven etc) are wired up so as to wash your bum with a jet of water, which you can control using the switches. The important one to know is STOP because the water doesn’t stop automatically when you stand up, as I found out to much hilarity! So remember this symbol: 止
I explored many options for navigating before I left, worried I’d struggle if the signs were written in Kanji and I couldn’t read them. I bought a map, but the map was in Kanji, so I bought a dual language one, but it wasn’t detailed enough. And for the record, those Touring Mapples everyone harps on about are mind-bogglingly confusing and I wouldn’t recommend them. (I’ve got three of them here if you disagree – care to take them off my hands?)
We plotted a route using a combination of google maps and Pocket Earth – an atlas application that allows you to store maps offline. I’d suggest ‘walking’ some of the route on google maps, or zooming in so you can see what you’re letting yourself in for.
Once in Japan, the iPhone is your friend. Open your maps whilst you have WIFI, click the pointy triangle that shows where you are and wait for the map to load. Zoom out a bit, so you can see where you’re heading, then off you go – the little blue dot will show where you are whenever you reopen your map. This feature works even when you have data roaming off and are not connected to WIFI and it’s pretty much how we navigated our entire trip.
Most signs for cities are written in English as well as Japanese.
Seven Eleven and many of the convenience stores have free WIFI. There are some sites you can’t access, but it works for loading maps, and for Instagram so you can update your friends back home.
Don’t forget your adapter, as Japanese plugs differ from European ones and if you want to recharge your iPhone, you can always be a bit cheeky and unplug an electronic toilet for a quick boost.
In general, car drivers are respectful of cyclists. There are a few roads that you’re not allowed to cycle on (roads that go up overpasses or through tunnels) but these are well sign-posted. I’d avoid the huge main roads, such as Highway 1, as they’re about five lanes wide.
Pedestrians have ultimate right of way. Cyclists mainly keep to cycle paths, though it’s not obligatory to do so. When you get to a junction, if there is no traffic light but there is a zebra crossing, pedestrians and cyclists have right of way and cars will stop. If there are traffic lights, the cars have priority.
If you’re cycling on the highway itself rather than the cycle path, do watch out for cars pulling out, as for whatever reason, they feel they have every right to do so. If a car is looking like it’s going to pull out, it probably will.
Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice or food, as this is done during a funeral. Don’t leave them crossed on the table either.
Be especially polite to older people. Bowing when you say thank you is a sign of respect.
When you enter a shop, staff will cheerily shout ‘irrashaimase.’ This just means welcome, and you don’t really need to say anything back, though a smile won’t go amiss.
Japan is awesome for loads of reasons, and lack of bike crime is right up there! Everywhere we went, people had locked up their bikes using the most minimal locks, often simply looped through a wheel and not connected to anything at all. And I’m not just talking beater bikes – I mean high end Colnagos as well.
In many cities, such as Tokyo, it’s not permitted to lock or leave your bike just anywhere. If you lock to street furniture, your bike will be removed. Sometimes the best bet is to just lock your bikes to each other without locking them to anything.
Ideally you want to find a bike park, where you can pay 100yen to leave your pride and joy. These can be a mission to find sometimes, but at least you don’t have to worry that it will be missing when you return.
If your bike is removed by the police, they’ll leave a note saying which pound it’s been taken too. It’s expensive to get it back, and a pain in the bum (from what we hear).
Climate and seasons/ when to go:
Avoid Golden Week at the start of May, as it’s Japan’s busiest holiday. We went just after and the weather was perfect – really warm and dry. Leave it later than May, and you risk hitting the rainy season, and when it rains in Japan, it really rains!
Due to where Japan lies, it gets dark earlier in May than it does in the UK – so it will be dark around 7.30pm.
Transporting your bike:
We flew over with our bikes in cardboard boxes that we junked when we arrived. We took clear plastic bike bags from the CTC for taking our bikes on trains. If you wish to take a train, you have to take both wheels off and seal the lot in a plastic bag. To do so, turn the bike upside down, zip tie your wheels to the frame and place in the bag, then you can carry your bike using the cross or downtube. Tape is handy for sealing your bag.
When it came to flying home, we faced a bit of a problem as we’d chucked our bike boxes. We’d hoped to fly using the CTC plastic bike bags, which are certifiably bike bags (according to their site) but Virgin were dead set against it. According to their rep, the problem was the fact they were clear bags… and if they had been opaque, it would have been ok. Go figure. We had to beg and plead to be allowed to take the flight with our bikes, so risk doing the same as us at your peril. It might be better to try and get a cardboard bike box from a bike shop in Tokyo (or wherever you’re flying from) before you head to the airport.
And finally, for you fixed gear riders – bikes must be fitted with two ‘proper’ brakes, one of the front, and one on the back. Police regularly patrol checking you’re not flouting the rules, and if you do, you can have your bike taken from you.