Hokkaido to Okinawa - 7 Reasons why you will end up cycling in Japan
A number of my readers were curious about a few cycling destinations that I mentioned. Top votes went for Japan and Korea.
Are you looking for a relatively safe post-Covid destination, with the best quality of food to refuel?
Hot springs to relax after the ride? Even though Taiwan, as the cycling heart of Asia, ticks all the boxes, Japan has arguably more to offer!
After a hard to beat New Zealand, a friend from Uni told me to travel to Japan. If you can’t beat a country, you better choose one that is totally different.
His argument – find yourself immersed in a completely exotic culture while having a few weeks of ‘luxury cycling’ before leaving again for the wild.
Here are the 7 things I really miss after over 4,000 km on the road in the land of the rising sun.
Most importantly, check out my three money-hacks to make the most of your journey including traveling anywhere in Japan for $100!
#1 The Japanese Alaska
You won’t find North American type wilderness in much of Japan. But there are parts that are extremely wild.
The North-Eastern corner of Hokkaido and its ‘last-frontier’ Shiretoko National Park has very much a mini Alaska/Yukon feel to it.
It has the highest concentration of Grizzly bears in the World (although they are smaller in size than the ones I saw in Alaska). A bear spray is highly recommended.
Another great spot you may consider is Shakotan Peninsula, south-west from Sapporo. Hokkaido is known for Japow (incredible snow quality) but it should be up there in terms of being a cycling paradise.
Bottom line: as a cyclist you can’t skip Hokkaido
#2 Off the Shinkansen Track
The Japanese archipelago stretches nearly 3,000 km from North to South – the variety of landscapes is surprising.
The one aspect that initially put me off before I discovered Japan is its large population. With 126 million people, I imagined cycling wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.
Most of the typical tourist spots are on the Shinkansen Track, with vast concentrations around urban areas – Tokyo has a population of 40 million – roughly the size of an average European country.
The rest of Japan is sparsely populated. You can even cycle through ghost towns.
Wildlife is rife and you need to pay attention, especially after sunset. I almost crashed into a wild boar on a small island near Nagasaki. It is scarier than kangaroos or deer.
There are challenging mountain passes from Akita and Aomori to Nagano. Locals rarely see foreign cyclists in Tohoku Region so you will be spoiled and may be sent meeting anniversary messages from exceptional people!
Okinawa with its incredible beaches, while popular amongst Japanese is rarely visited by foreigners. It’s a perfect stop to recover before embarking on a new adventure, like Taiwan.
Bottom line: don’t fall for the common trap – the Honshu Shinkansen track is the least pleasant part for a cyclist
#3 cycling back in time
After cycling through most of Japan, one of my friends in Tokyo asked me whether I preferred urban or rural Japan.
I was hesitant. With some perspective, I do think rural Japan is much more authentic.
One of the most visually appealing parts of cycling in Japan is contemplating the architecture. And rural Japan has a lot to offer. The only challenge is the language – once you leave Tokyo or Osaka, knowing a few words in Japanese will help (and impress locals).
Listening to Koto music and cycling through historical villages makes you travel in time.
Bottom line: learn a few words in Japanese and discover authentic Japan
#4 Unbeatable 'Après-vÉlo'
The more you travel, the more you realize that despite major cultural differences in all countries, we are all the same. Fears, ambitions, things we love.
But Japanese people strike by their kindness and consideration for other people.
Structures that Japan has in place have their pro and cons. But as my friend from Tokyo summarized “Given the unique rules and long periods of historical separation from the rest of the World, Japanese society is like some sort of unique large scale social-experiment“. Make up your own mind, but do look beyond stereotypes.
Onsens & Sentos
I usually start a day in Japan by knowing which Onsen (aka treat of the day) I will visit. For that, learn a few Kanjis – it’s useful to type 温泉 into your Maps.ME app to end your day in a hot spring.
The best ones are in Hokkaido and Kyushu. I did find, some traditional mixed-gender Onsens in Aomori and Akita.
Sentos are available in most hotels except Okinawa, where it’s relatively rare.
Most Onsens are combined with restaurants and rooms where you can relax on a Tatami mat.
It’s either a great place to take a break in the middle of your ride and have a nap or relax in the evening.
Given that Japanese people tend to live is small flats, eating out is part of the culture.
Restaurants are an extension of Japanese homes.
They are usually cozy and you get to meet other people and the chefs.
Per capita, there are 91 restaurants for every 10,000 people in Japan vs. 23 in the US.
Bottom line: you will eat great food, very diverse depending on the region for $10
I won’t even attempt to describe the extent of my cultural experience in Japan but I would highly recommend thinking outside the box – I usually do not open a guidebook when I visit a country.
Want to visit Kyoto? Why not try a smaller, less crowded Kanazawa with its beautiful gardens and Samurai neighborhood?
Shinkanzen track leads you to Hiroshima? The local Okonomiyaki is delicious but I think Nagasaki has more to offer, as the city that was the window to the outside World during the Edo period.
Chatting to a Geisha in a tea bar is a unique experience. There are only a few hundreds of them in Japan nowadays, and staying on the classic track probably won’t help you.
For a great audiobook during your cycling I’d recommend Understanding Japan by Mark J. Ravinda (Smithsonian Great Courses)
You get to really know Japanese people after work, ideally in a local izakaya. Google translate can help in remote areas!
Bottom line: once off your Bike, the richness of Japan’s culture is hard to match
#5 Top Class Infrastructure
Japan has a prime infrastructure. It is not specifically designed with cyclists in mind (like in Korea), but it is extremely well suited.
The only downside is that given the habit of cycling on sidewalks, there are hardly dedicated cycling lanes, but this is now changing especially in big cities.
Both are dedicated playgrounds for cyclists, built on unused roads and bridges constructed during the economic book in the 80s. A little gem, if you’re near Japan’s cultural centres.
Michi-no-Eki Rest Areas
These all-in-one rest areas were created for drivers that do long-distance travel but also for tourists. As such they offer a combination of toilets, shops, ‘legal’ camp areas and sometimes onsens and tatami rest-rooms.
If you are a beginner adventure cyclist, Japan will teach you how to leverage local infrastructure to your advantage. It just can’t get easier.
Konbini, Supas and Vending Machines
Konbinis, or the Japanese convenience stores are a piece of essential infrastructure that serves as a shelter in case of earthquake and are interconnected via a national delivery system (you can ship anything from anywhere in Japan using this network).
There are four main ones – 7 Eleven (not to be confused with the North American one that can’t compete with Japanese), Lawson (my favorite), Family Mark (also available in countries like Taiwan) and Seikomart (mainly Hokkaido).
For a cyclist, it means unparalleled convenience – tap water, free WiFi, often a place to sit down and enjoy an onigiri or natto while charging electronics and access to toilets.
Cheap supermarket food can be healthy in Japan.
Fermented food, pickles or, onigiris at every street corner.
In Japan, the obesity rate is at 3% (over 10x lower than US). Interestingly, as you cycle through Japan you spot a pattern – the more you approach Hokkaido, the higher the obesity rate.
Not surprisingly, Hokkaido diet is much closer to Western countries (e.g. more milk products than rest of Japan ).
And the ‘cherry on the cake’ are vending machines. There are probably more vending machines in Japan than any other country.
In fact, you can enjoy a hot coffee from one, in the middle of Hokkaido.
Quality of accommodation
Between free to use Michi no eki, wild camping, hostels, capsules or traditional, more expensive Ryokans – the choice is vast. All of them are maintained with the Japanese strive for excellence and top quality of service.
Bottom line: Japan offers some of the best infrastructures in the World
I don't mind men behind the wheel
Cycling in Japan is safe to the point that most people actually don’t usually wear helmets. Part of it is due to the fact that they cycle on sidewalks.
In most countries, I always wish women were behind the wheel. All the time. Cyclists are just safer, on average.
In Japan, I found all drivers to be generally more considerate – but you need to choose the roads wisely.
Unless it's a monkey, you don't need a lock
During my travels, someone once told me: if you travel to Asia, go first to China and then cross the sea to discover Japan. Not the opposite, mainly due to comfort of travel.
I actually found crossing the Pacific Ocean a bit of a struggle after leaving Japan.
Japan is not without its social problems.
But don’t see that much social class differentiation in Japan, homelessness is rare. So is drug addiction and theft.
To illustrate the contrast, I saw a CANYON Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 unlocked in the middle of Ginza, Tokyo. I have one of them back in Europe – the price tag is approx. £3,000. The owner was arguably a bit foolish, since there are thieves in large Japanese cities now.
That said, I almost always left my fully-loaded bike outside an onsen in rural Japan unlocked.
Close your bags carefully, though. Monkeys can steal food in the middle of the night!
Perfect first bikepacking destination
A friend of mine traveled from Okinawa to Hokkaido. For her, bikepacking may have been be more difficult – for safety reasons.
But as a woman, there is no better place to start safe, long-distance cycling than Japan.
Bottom line: Japan is one of the safest countries for cyclists
I wouldn’t want to spoil the Sakura magic with more details. But do consider coming to Japan in April. Watch out for exact dates, depending on location (this year Sakura was very early).
TIPS - Cycling in Japan is easy BUT...
Weather and earthquakes
Time the cycling and mind the Typhoon
If you go cycling to Japan try to target two seasons:
- Spring – There is some magic in Japan in April (Hokkaido and North of Tohoku are exceptions – weather is a bit different a more aligned with typical northern European patterns)
- Autumn – Escaping the typhoon season and targetting the start of Autumn is more an art than a science, but by end of September cycling is assumed safe.
Summer – I tried it, and trust me, it’s just not enjoyable with the humidity and amount of rain. Following the rainy season, typhoons start.
Bottom line: Target April/May and Autumn for most Islands except Hokkaido
Earthquakes - I fell into a Ring of Fire
I spent over 6 months in 2019 on the Ring of Fire – countries including US/Canadian West Coast, New Zealand or Japan.
I witnessed a 4/7 magnitude Earthquake in Taiwan.
Fortunately, I was prepared due to having undergone the above training that I filmed in North of Tokyo (Ikebukuro). It simulates the most extreme shakes that Japan witnessed in 2011 (7 out of 7 on Shindo Scale – which, I think is much more relevant than the Richter out of 10 scale used in the West)
There are approximately 5,000 minor earthquakes recorded in Japan per year, with over 160 earthquakes of significant ones. Chances are you will experience one.
Get the Yurekuru Call app that has immediate notifications.
Logistics - plan your island hopping
There is a trade-off between exploring the Cultural centers and best cycling.
I personally enjoyed Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu and Shikoku most from a cycling perspective.
That said, Chubu has some great areas and I still want to explore a few corners where I haven’t been.
Bottom line: Culture-rich Kanto and Kinki (Kansai) are the most tricky regions for a cyclist
Traffic lights and tunnels
Cycling in cities is extremely slow – escaping Tokyo takes a whole day (just above 80 kms) with lots of traffic lights.
Tunnels are the most difficult part in Japan. There is lots of them and they rarely have cycling lanes. I usually used the pedestrains part but make sure your rear light is fully charged.
Bottom line: Choose quiet rural roads (Maps.ME is good for that)
You will take quite a few ferries
Given the overall safety level, you can stay on the deck without much worry for your bike, unlike in other countries.
Trains, including Shinkasen, can transport bikes but you need special bags (called Rinko bags or standard card box – much harder to find in Japan due to smaller bike sizes).
Japan is a country of over 125 million people. Even though it has a reputation of being expensive, most people have ways to reduce costs.
The guidance to slash costs would be long, but here are my three top tips.
#1 Cheap Flights - You will love Foreigner Price Discrimination
There is a lot of price discrimination in Japan.
Sometimes men pay more than women.
But what’s most interesting (and widely unknown) is that national fares are capped for foreigners! That’s positive discrimination at its best.
Any one-way ticket does not exceed about $100 (11,000 Yen)!
This is a great way of moving quickly to remote areas. Thinking of flying from Tokyo to Taiwan? Why not stopping in Okinawa for $100 and then taking Eva Air to continue your journey from Naha?
Here is how it works:
#2 Cheap Food - Supermarkets after 6pm
Strive for excellence is built into the Japanese Culture. The food is no different. Seafood is top quality and needs to stay fresh.
You can take advantage of that by stopping at a supermarket after 6pm to grab discounted food.
Sushi goes as cheaply as -60% or -70%.
#3 Cheap accommodation - leverage capsules and michi-no-eki
Business hotels are usually north of $50 per night. Hostels are between $20 and $30. They are usually extremely clean but you may want to target bike-friendly ones.
In big cities like Tokyo or Osaka I also used capsule hotels but you need to find a way to store your bike overnight (these are targetted at Japanese customers e.g. in Tokyo where last trains can be as early as 11pm)
Outside big areas consider this cycling routine (i) stopping at a supermarket for discounted sushis for around $5 per pack (ii) relaxing in an Onsen and taking a shower for around $5 and finally (iii) finding a nice camp spot – for free.
Bottom line: Stay frugal, clean and relaxed 🙂
What Cycling the World taught me about Investing Kotomi’s heaviest setup over the 12-month adventure allowing for a few days’ of independent cycling without supplies
Good Luck and keep’em* rolling !
(* Wheels & Dividends)