"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? ... And for me Cycling"
- Serial traveller, avid cyclist and Grasshopper team member, Noel Tanner, has now visited the Land of the rising Sun several times and reveals why cycling Japan is 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 there is a big missing piece to my puzzle, the land of the rising sun.
I’ve had friends regale me with their adventurous tales and I’ve read an endless stream of reviews from Grasshopper customers (blatant plug), but still am yet to set foot there. So I thought it would make an interesting article to explain why it has now reached the top of my travel list.
1. The scenery
Japan is acclaimed for its large amount of natural beauty, be it Cherry Blossom season, iconic snow-capped volcanoes, tall timber forests, diverse coastlines, stunning crystal clear lakes, the calligraphy, exquisitely manicured gardens. Japan is a volcanic place, alongside the molten rock, hot springs burst out of the ground across the country. Should I go on? There is also scenic amazement in the megacities, neon signs, architecture old and new, 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! Very much hoping that there will be a mix of traditional, modern and hopefully… some weird.
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 extends just a little bit 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 according to Grasshopper boss, Adam, a Bonito Flake Beer. Apparently each convenience store along the road has a slight variation on the range, so looking forward to sampling these. And 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 the 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 inroads 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, well maintained, hot mix roads, take you up climbs over deserted cols (mountains), 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 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, 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, but 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 and it's Japanese culture I feel is an aspect 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, you are welcomed and I can imagine this is hugely amplified thanks to Japanese culture.
Perhaps this article should be titled 700 Reasons I want to do a bike tour in Japan as within each reason there is an array of ingredients that make this destination so appealing. I can’t wait to get there in the near future and with our growing presence in Japan, I’m sure it will be an incredible cycling adventure.