Here you will find information regarding Japanese roads, cycling insurance, taking your bike on a train, accommodation and hot springs, the seasons and weather, and forwarding gear and packages. If you feel there’s something we have missed (we probably have) please get in touch and we’ll do what we can to add it here.
Please remember that this is a general guide only and although I hope that this information is relevant and correct there’s nothing like doing your own research and coming to conclusions that best suit your personal needs.
Japan has every kind of road – big, small, busy, quiet, coastal, mountain… take your pick. National roads are called kokudou (国道), prefectural roads are kendou (県道), highways are kousokudourou (高速道路), mountain roads are rindou (林道), and there are some private scenic roads that may or may not be rideable by bicycles. It’s generally best to avoid any national roads as they are used by trucks wanting to avoid highway tolls. Bicycles are not allowed on highways. Mountain roads are generally open from late March to the end of autumn while some towns and cities have bicycle lanes. Don’t expect anything like what you would see in Amsterdam or Portland, Oregon though.
Typical rindo Local rindo in Inuyama, Aichi prefecture.
Cycling on the pavement is common but is actually illegal. Helmets are required by law for anyone under 13 years of age. Tandems are also illegal in most prefectures but one exception I know of is Nagano prefecture.
Pedestrians have right of way in Japan and there has been an increase in recent years of pedestrians involved in accidents with cyclists taking the cyclists to court for damages. For that reason cycling specific insurance is highly recommended. If you live in Japan and already have car insurance you may be covered through that policy. If not, one year’s cycling insurance costs around ¥5000 and can be easily bought online so long as you are a resident of Japan. For international cyclist it’s best to get a travel insurance policy that covers third parties when cycling.
Drivers are generally well mannered but the running of red lights is common, especially in large urban areas.
Road closures due to landslides and other forces of nature can be common. I’ve written more extensively about them here.
Coastal road, Ishikawa prefecture. Aokizasawa Pass, near Chino, central Nagano prefecture.
If you want to take a break from cycling and jump on a train for part of your bike packing journey you’ll need to have a specific rinko bag (輪行バッグ) as Japanese train companies won’t allow you to travel unless your bicycle is in a bag. For my Ritchey road bike I use a super lightweight train bag by Fairmean from Tokyo. It’s brilliant. For my bike packing/touring/commuting do-it-all Fairdale I use a Mont Bell bike bag that I bought for about ¥4000 secondhand online.
Some manufacturers of bike bags in Japan design them with the saddle sticking through the top of the bag and this can occasionally cause problems depending on where you are planning on catching your train due to one of those ridiculous rules that only Japan can come up with (well perhaps India as well) all bicycles must be completely covered. I’ve gotten away with this plenty of times, but I have also been caught out on a few occasions. With that in mind it’s a good idea to have a small plastic bag on hand if you get stopped at the gate. Either that or just lower your saddle until it’s inside the bag.
I’ve heard numerous stories of cyclist, one cycling friend included, that have been caught out due to bad weather and decided to catch the train without a rinko bag at hand. Instead they have utilised local waste disposal bags bought at a nearby convenience store and taped them together until it covered their bicycles completely. I’ve never tried it but apparently it can be done.
Fairmean rinko bike bag at a JR station.
5-star hotels, traditional guest houses, business hotels, capsule hotels, love hotels, backpackers hostels, campsites, beaches, bus stops…there is plenty of choice when it comes to accommodation in Japan. Bus stops?! Yes. If you are cycling in the mountains or along the Sea of Japan coast – especially in the Tohoku region – you’ll probably notice that a lot of the bus stops are sheltered. That means that so long as you have a good sleeping bag and mat you can get a decent night’s sleep without having to pay. Just make sure you rock up late so that nobody notices. I have actually slept in a freezing disused train carriage in Gifu prefecture but that story is for another time.
If roughing it in bus stops is pushing it a bit too far then camping is a great option. There are plenty of campsites throughout Japan and the prices vary considerably, usually in the region of ¥1000 to ¥5000. Campsites are generally open from late April or mid May until late into autumn so it’s a good idea to check before you arrive. Be warned, campsite owners in Japan are probably some of the worst website designers on Earth. Remember frames and visitor number counters? They are still thriving like it’s 1999.
It’s worth noting that at certain times of the year – especially long weekends and national holidays – Japanese campsites can be quite noisy places. The inevitable evening barbecue and one-to-many beers can lead the happy campers a little to far down the wild path. I have to confess though, in my early days in Japan my friends and I were loud enough to scare away anyone, including any local bears.
Disused train carriage. Not really recommended.
Seasons & Weather
Ask any Japanese person and you’ll be happily informed that Japan has four seasons. While this is true, it also has the rainy season (tsuyu / 梅雨) and the typhoon season. The rainy season is generally in July and the typhoon season from mid to late August through to October.
Spring – A great time to cycle in Japan. A little windy during the day, and slightly chilly at night but overall it’s dry, cool, and beautiful. If you time it right and ride from Kyushu up towards Hokkaido you’ll be able to follow the cherry blossom front as you go.
Rainy season – Hot, humid, and wet. You’ll need wet weather gear and clothing. Rain jackets, even expensive breathable ones, are only partially effective as chances are you’ll end up sweating in the heat anyway.
Typical view during the rainy season, Gifu prefecture.
Summer – Very hot. Get up early and get the cycling done as early as possible. For the three weeks starting at the beginning of August I try and get all my cycling done before 7:30am. Yes, that early. It’s just too hot a lot of the time during the day at this time of year.
Typhoon season – As autumn approaches and the the temperature starts to cool, typhoons from the Pacific begin making there way over East Asia. The Japanese Meteorological Agency, the creative geniuses that they are, imaginatively name each typhoon as it develops numerically so don’t expect any Japanese to know what you are talking about when you mention the approaching danger of Typhoon Annie. Instead you better off using saying “Typhoon 1” which in Japanese would be “taifuu ichi-gou” (台風1号). Check websites such as Yahoo Weather for the latest typhoon information. Cycling in a typhoon is a risky business. Strong winds, heavy rain, mudslides. In only my second year in Japan I cycled from Tokushima in Shikoku to Nagoya during a typhoon as I naively forgot to check the weather. I got away with it because I was sheltered in the valleys and mountains of Nara prefecture. But I got lucky. Depending on the speed of the typhoon you can generally expect the typhoon to pass through your area within a day. Cycling right before the winds pick up and as soon as it has passed is generally fine. Watch out for road debris though after one has passed by.
Autumn – Without doubt many cyclists favourite season in Japan. Cool, fairly dry, great for camping, and those autumn colours traversing across the country as the trees shed their leaves is as beautiful as the cherry blossom in spring.
Rindo in winter, Gifu prefecture.
Winter – Winter is cold and generally very dry. The high mountains are off limits and many mountain roads (rindo / 林道) are also closed. Hokkaido, Tohoku and many other prefectures on the Sea of Japan coast are indulged in snow. As a general rule anywhere over 700m or so usually has a covering of snow and makes cycling somewhat treacherous. It depends, of course, on what cycling gear you are using. The Pacific Coast on the other hand is usually cold but perfectly rideable.
Japan uses 100v AC with a two-flat pin plug. More information about electricity in Japan can be found at the JNTO.
Recharging electrical equipment shouldn’t be an issue in Japan. Most campsites have electricity (for an extra cost), and you can purchase portable chargers, cables, and batteries etc. at nearly every convenience store in the country.
If you ask permission then charging gear while at a small coffee shop, izakaya, or restaurant should not be a problem. That might not be the case with larger establishments so it’s probably best to ask or charge your gear as discreetly as possible under the table. Whenever I’ve asked to charge gear it has aways been fine.
Forwarding Packages & Gear
If you want to forward unused gear and other things within Japan then the convenience store is a great way to get it done. I recently sent a package home that weighed around 4kgs from just south of Matsumoto city in Nagano for around ¥1000. My knees and lower back thanked me for it later that day as I was riding my way up the Utsukushigahara Highlands. Likewise, I sent home a package of unused gear from Kyoto for about the same cost.