"What immediately comes to mind when you think of Japan ... Sushi? Sake? Culture and Tradition? Bullet Trains? Mount Fuji? Samurai Warriors? Asahi Beer? Pokemon Go? ... well for me it's Cycling"
Serial traveller, avid cyclist, and past Grasshopper team member, Noel Tanner, has now visited the Land of the Rising Sun several times. He reveals his 7 reasons to cycle Japan and why it's his favorite bike touring destination.
About 19 years ago, I worked out that I love cycling and I love travel. I love lots of activities, but these two top the list. And as anyone who has done both at the same time will know, they are complementary activities. In the saddle, at handlebar height, I’ve experienced the story of hundreds of cities/towns and probably 50 odd countries, but one that's in the top of my list is Japan.
I’ve also had friends regale me with their adventurous tales and I’ve read an endless stream of reviews from Grasshopper customers (sorry, blatant plug) and it has only left me more eager to return. So I thought it would make an article to explain my reasons to cycle Japan again and why it's in my top 5 favorite destinations.
1. The scenery
Japan is acclaimed for its abundant natural beauty, be it the famous "Sukura" Cherry Blossom season, iconic snow-capped volcanoes, tall timber forests, diverse coastlines, stunning crystal clear lakes or exquisitely manicured gardens, you can find it all here. One particularly understated time of year is Autumn, when the towns and countryside are covered in warm hues of red and gold, and the bonus is you will not have the crowds that flock here for the spring Cherry Blossom season. Japan is also a volcanic place, so hot springs bubble to the surface across the country, and believe me, there is nothing better than soaking in one of these after a fantastic day's ride.
Should I go on? Scenic amazement can also be found in the megacities with their neon signs, old and new architecture living side-by-side, and pop culture displays everywhere.
2. The Food
Who doesn’t love Japanese cuisine? The adherence to tradition, the simplicity, the minimalist style, and the ritual manner in which it is consumed, are all reasons for its success internationally. Oh to be in the home of this amazing food! There is a brilliant mix of traditional, modern, and admittedly, some strange.
Anyone who rides daily — as I do — will either ride to eat or eat to ride. I subscribe to the former. I sometimes think that I ride in order to nurture a healthy appetite and I’ve succeeded there. This also extends to something else that Japan does well, and that’s craft beer.
It started appearing in convenience stores a few years back. An IPA, a Stout, a Red Ale, and even a Bonito Flake Beer. Convenience stores along the road have slight variations on the seasonal range, so watch out, for many this may be one of the best reasons to cycle Japan! Oh, then there is Sake, a whole story on its own.
3. The connection with ancient tradition and culture
My standard modus operandi when traveling to new places is to do the basic, topline research on culture and tradition, then stumble through it on arrival, thereby learning it by being in it.
As I travel I want to know the “WHY” as much as the “WHAT” and while it’s a heap of fun just diving in and working it out, having a guide is a big way of connecting in a meaningful way, with people and culture, learning a great deal about history and national psyche and achieving all that in a compact period of time.
So, as you can guess, when I do make it to Japan, I’m going on a bike tour with Grasshopper because I know that I’ll leave Japan satisfied. I’ll have learned more than I would by reading a few guide books and I’ll have experienced connections that just aren’t possible when traveling independently. Only thing is, I ask a LOT of questions, so poor guide.
4. The modern infrastructure
Regular Trains and the Bullet train make covering long distances and extended transfers a breeze. On self-guided tours, Grasshopper provides bike bags that are more like soft covers. They fold up and whenever you want to board a train, you just take the front wheel off, put the bag over the bike and get on the train. The bags are so small they fit in the bottle cage. If it’s me, I’ll have one of those craft beers in hand as I watch the scenery scoot past at 300km an hour.
When investing in roads, the Japanese have often replaced the old one with a new one running in parallel. This leaves the quiet old road (still well maintained) as a perfect route for cyclists.
These almost deserted, hot mix roads take you up climbs over deserted cols (mountains), and down descents with more switchbacks than Alpe d'Huez. Many of the roads have low-speed limits of 40-60 km/h, so even when there is traffic it goes at a sensible pace. A safe and comfortable riding environment is accessed most easily with the help of Grasshopper Guide or Self-guided tours.
Then there is the Shimanami Kaido, a world-famous cycling route taking in a collection of span bridges that connect a scattered archipelago between Shikoku Island and the Hiroshima area. Stunning views out over the islands and again, great quality roads and bikeways, mostly away from any traffic to speak of.
5. The diverse landscapes and terrain
As an avid cyclist, this may be one of my top reasons to cycle Japan again. I love a challenge, conquering mountains, rugged coastlines, epic bridges connecting islands, while also enjoy casually pedaling along stunning coastlines, through World Heritage National Parks, cycle-friendly rural roads; farmlands, caldera lakes, volcanoes. Japan has it all, a true cyclist’s paradise!
6. The accommodation hospitality and respect
This is an aspect I’ve become far more aware of since my transition into the travel industry. A comfortable bed in anything from modern to historic is a true treat at the end of a rewarding day in the saddle. Japanese modern hotels are short on space but high on amenities. The real experience is in the traditional Ryokan accommodation, with tatami mat floors, futon beds, shared natural onsen thermal bathes, and Yukata wearing residence.
Respect in Japanese culture is an aspect I feel you must experience to fully appreciate. It is felt at all levels of the community.
7. The pleasure of bicycle touring
I’m an extremely curious person by nature. I love to experience the authenticity of local life as often possible on my travels. In my mind, there is no better way to immerse yourself in a new region than exploring by bicycle. You are traveling on your terms if you see something of interest you can just stop and explore. The other wonderful benefit is that locals seem so much more open and approachable to a stranger on a bike. Often they are as inquisitive as you about the situation, and the uniqueness of the encounter is often shared. You are a traveler, not a tourist, and in Japan, you are welcomed. This is only more amplified thanks to the Japanese culture.
Well there you have it — those are my 7 reasons to cycle Japan. Perhaps this article should be titled 700 Reasons I want to go bike touring in Japan, as within each reason there is an array of ingredients that make the destination so appealing. I can’t wait to get there again in the future.