Rather than to fly, drive, or rely solely on Japan's famed ultra-high-speed train network, I opted to test a newly purchased bicycle from Thailand. Cycle touring Japan is challenging yet one of the most amazing and rewarding ways of experiencing this serenely beautiful country. Despite a few mishaps--not least some unexpected rain -- I wasn't to be disappointed. Japan isn't exactly a cycling paradise. Cities are crowded, roads are narrow, and bikes cannot be taken onto trains without a bag or onto buses. Yet for all that, road surfaces are billiard-table smooth with perfect road signs and gentle drivers.
During this trip I used my tent several times, some hostels and capsule hotels (love them!). But this trip wouldn’t have been fun without all the hosts on Couchsurfing. I would like to thank you guys again for your welcome and kindness. I hope to see you again!
The map shows the general route of my tour. From Heneda Airport near Tokyo, I rode first to Tokyo itself for 4 nights.
I officially started the bike tour from Tokyo on 22nd April 2013 and over 6 weeks, I cycled more than 1,700 km.
My route did a straight line on Honshu taking me along the sea to the southern-most point, then down to the south island of Kyushu. I then caught a ferry to Busan in Korea (18th of June) and I will continue towards Jeju island along the East China sea, before working my way back into the mountains to Seoul where my cycling trip will end.
I used the offline app for iPhone MapsWithMe, a series of detailed map that can be downloaded for free, it was a useful tool for determining a route through Japan. Major roads have road numbers and names in English. Symbols indicating train stations, hotels and supermarkets are located on the maps.
Asphalt sidewalks are extensive in cities and run for kilometres 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. But I will advise to avoid them because I broke 3 spokes due to the bumps.
In some cities at very busy intersections, a pedestrian bridge is built over the street. A bicycle ramp is conveniently integrated 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 is moved by trucks in this country. It seems at times, half the traffic was 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.
My tour included one major ferry ride, from Matsuyama to Hiroshima. 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. I was pleasantly surprised at this kind of service. In economy class, you sleep on tatami mats which is actually very comfortable. Just make sure you bring ear plugs.
Convenience stores, e.g. 7/11, Circle K, Sieco Mart, etc, are cheap good eats. You can pick up a tasty bento box, sushi, sandwiches, pastries, and all sorts of great snacks and drinks at low prices. I ate here several times a day. These convenience stores made our trip very affordable. However, I mainly stopped at the 7/11 because of the free Wi-Fi (see below).
Cycling between Fuji and Nagoya wasn’t an exciting ride! Besides the fact that I have been cycling along the coast, the road itself was quite boring and windy (hundreds of windmills!!).
Kyoto was my favourite city so far. I spent 5 nights visiting the Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and museums. I took hundreds of photos, but unfortunately everything is gone because of a broken hard drive. So, remember to backup!
One of the highlights of my Japans trip was attending the Sigur Ros concert in Kobe. The show was stunning!
I had an amazing volunteer experience over 2 weeks in the countryside of Ako (Fukukawa) with an amazing family (half Japanese, half American). The “job” consisted of restoring a 150- year-old traditional Japanese house by drawing the architectural plans of the existing property (with a drawing software on my laptop), after which I’d then draw some proposed improvements that retains the character of this old, traditional farmhouse.
After my architectural degree in 2006, I attended 1 year of postgraduate studies in Actual Art in Belgium. Two of my classmates were from Japan. So meeting them after all this time was amazing! We had a great day visiting a Buddhist temple around Himeji and enjoying some good local food. Miss you guys!
Off the coast to Fukuyama is a small island called Naoshima. It's a beautiful island known for its contemporary art museums. The museums them selves are totally worth the visit. They have been designed by the famous Japanese architect Ando Tadao.
The Shimanami Kaido was the highlight of cycling paths on my way from Onomichi to Hiroshima. The Shimanami Kaido begins on Honshu in Onomichi City. It then leads across the six islands of Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima, before terminating on Shikoku in Imabari City. The scenery is splendid, the bicycle route is well marked and maintained, and diverges from the expressway on the islands. The ramps leading up to the bridges were built at small inclines with cyclists in mind. The total distance is about 70 kilometres. I spent one night in a campsite with clean, green, flat surfaces, and many unique amenities to make camping a pleasant experience – if only it wasn’t rainy for 2 days!
It’s interesting to look down onto the pavements in Japan when you ride along with decorative manhole covers. Every city has their own unique designs reflecting some historical reference, landmark, or well-known product of the area.
The post offices are very convenient places to obtain cash unlike the majority of the other ATM’s. 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 kinds 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.
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 challenge. You can find these bags at any bike shop. Try to hop on the train from a really small train station; otherwise you will have to carry on the bike plus all your bags from the tollgate to the platform. They won’t let you dismantled your bike on the platform!
One of the basic equipment for a rider or a backpacker is a Swiss Army knife. I’d suggest not carrying one with you in Japan or you may end up in jail. I have been told that this rule has been put into practice since the 19th century to prohibit the Samurais from carrying onboard their swords!
How about starting a relationship if you're planning to prolong your stay in Japan? I did met some happy mixed couples along the trip with amazing stories to share. You can start with this complete article if you are a man;)
Lastly, let’s talk about technology as well as Wi-Fi. If you think that in Japan you will receive service by the state-of-the-art robots and that you will be able to do everything just through your cell phone, you are absolutely off base! In Japan, you won’t be able to buy a SIM card. So you will have to, if you want to stay in touch, hire a cell phone. Free Wi-Fi is thoroughly unavailable in this country except in a 7/11 or Starbucks! And you should register for an account before heading there. Even if you pay more than US$40 per night in a hotel, you will not be able to access free or paid Wi-Fi. You would be given a LAN cable to plug into your laptop if you have a LAN hub, just like in the 90’s. So you’d have to end up buying an adapter (LAN to USB) from an electronics shop like Best Denki or Yamada Denki.