From the frenetic streets of neon Tokyo to the deer-filled parks of Kyoto, Kanazawa’s bamboo forest and the ‘lost in time’ feeling of the Noto Peninsula, Japan is a land of contrasts that engages you every pedal stroke of the way.
While those very fast trains get all the headlines for being one of the best forms of transport in the country (and they are amazing), it’s a lesser known fact that the Japanese love cycling. With 10 million new bicycles being sold every year, the passion for cycling is growing, and for good reason.
Here are five reasons why cycling in Japan is amazing (plus a few weird and wonderful things I noticed along the way):
1. Cycling in Japan is easy (most of the time)
You can ride just about anywhere in Japan: on the road, on the many cycle lanes and paths, and even (somewhat scarily) on the pedestrian footpaths. The Japanese are remarkably polite towards cyclists, making riding – even in busy cities like Tokyo – an experience to be enjoyed rather than feared. Japan’s cycling infrastructure is already amazing, and it’s only getting better. Bike lanes are prevalent in the major cities, vehicle-free riverside bike paths are the norm, and most buildings have purpose-built bike parks. Some even have a special conveyor belt bike-lift to raise your bike back up to ground level when you leave.
2. But when it’s hard, it’s totally worth it
Japan is generally pretty flat. Except when it’s not. But when you’re on a steep incline, it usually means a great view is just around the corner. And great views are everywhere on the Noto Peninsula, from cloud-shrouded pencil pine and bamboo forests to traditional fishing villages and, of course, the endless horizon of the Sea of Japan.
3. You can cycle along a sand beach – at 30kph!
Japan’s cycling isn’t only confined to the roads and bike paths. It was with some trepidation that I turned right and followed our cycling guide, who had just announced that we were going to ride along a sand beach. Beaches are made for building sandcastles and soaking up the sun, right? But I soon realised that I was cycling on the smoothest ‘road’ in Japan, and much more easy-going than I’d expected. With sand dunes to the right and the Sea of Japan lapping the shoreline to our left, it was a highlight that I won’t soon forget.
4. Cycling lets you see a quieter side of Japan
While exploring frenetic Tokyo or the cultural hub of Kyoto are well worth doing, it’s getting away from the neon glow that lets you experience Japan’s serene side. The cities are packed yet the countryside feels deserted. With almost 80% of Japan’s population based in its cities, riding through the small villages and towns feels a little like you’re in one of those ‘the world has ended and we’re the only people on earth’ movies. And it’s strangely addictive.
5. The ‘vending machines are everywhere’ myth isn’t a myth
Vending machines are EVERYWHERE in Japan; you’ll find the multi-coloured boxes of drinks on roadsides all over the place, even when there’s no town for miles. For the thirsty cyclist with ¥150 in their pocket and a hankering for a cool drink (or hot coffee, weirdly), they are just what you need (and will save you from dehydration). Interesting fact: in the event of an earthquake, vending machines provide free drinks.
The slow pace of cycling also gives you plenty of time to notice the little things along the way, like:
1. The wildlife in Japan is very different
While Australia has its kangaroos, Canada its moose and Europe its – err – hedgehogs, the roads in Japan are dominated by the praying mantis. These insect ninjas pop up out of the shadows and are guaranteed to cause a swerve or two (after all, who wants to run over a praying mantis?).
2. Manhole covers will stop you in your tracks
The metal discs in the road? What’s interesting about manhole covers? Well, unlike the utilitarian metal discs of most countries, every town and village in Japan have their own unique manhole covers that depict a local story or what that town is known for. This is something you’re unlikely to see while speeding through the country on a bus or train.
3. The Japanese can make anything look cute
“Oh wow, those roadwork signs are adorable,” said no one ever. But in Japan, they manage to turn an eyesore into an “awwww”.
4. The restrooms need to be seen to be believed
Yes, the toilets. I realise that, in some circles, it may be deemed uncouth to speak of such things. But when I was explaining Japan’s facilities to my delighted four-year-old son – how the seat lifts up by itself, it washes you and you don’t even need paper – I realised just how awesome they really are. If the thought of visiting a public restroom when travelling gives you cold sweats, Japan is definitely the destination for you.
Interested in a cycling adventure around Japan? Check out our 11-day Cycling Japan small group adventure now.
All images by Frank Cheshire.