Road cycling in Japan

Scroll down for terrain, weather, navigation, food, clubs, shops etc.
I love road biking in Japan.
There is an incredible network of roads in Japan, and civil engineering is something the nation does with gusto and gay abandon. There is a cycling boom on now, so there are plenty of bikies to fill the bits of them near civilisation. Wherever you go, once you get out of the cities and towns, there will be some great routes. There are even roads over the top of mountains that would be untouched anywhere else. Mysteriously some roads are not on maps and have no obvious purpose. Massive bridges between nowhere and nowhere appear, and single track roads suddenly belly into a wide highway for a kilometre, then just as suddenly stop. This is the mountain runner's loss, but the road bikers gain. There are really mainly two kinds of land in Japan: flat land that is intensively cultivated or covered in buildings; and more than 70% is steep, wild, wooded mountains. However the mountains are also inhabited in every nook and cranny that can support life, and each small village and hamlet needs it's road, as do the forestry and power industries based there.

What a road - let's ride!
Riding in the mountains
Each area has its own distinct character, but a typical pattern is this:
  • A main valley road following the river, which may be fairly quiet, but can sometimes be busy or even full of trucks if it links two towns
  • There are often much quieter minor roads on the opposite side of the valley, if it is wide enough, so it is worth seeking these out - much nicer
  • Any number of side roads heading up side valleys, and up mountainsides. Some of these go somewhere, some don't. Some are dead ends. Some take you up a testing climb, only to loop back to the valley you started at. Some are on the map, some aren't. Some that are on the map aren't there. It's fun finding out which are which, if you are not trying to get somewhere.
  • A testing pass ('Togé'), some of which are very long but most of which have well graded zig-zags, so they are not so steep. They feel steep after a while though, and if it is at the height of summer they can feel like a brick wall. The views are often fantastic though- better than when running in the woods.
  • Small villages here and there, some of which may have a well-disguised shop selling everything from ice-cream to new strimmer blades. Use them, they are great!
  • Tunnels are common, some of them long, some unlit - lights are needed in either case - they can be scary enough without being invisible to trucks
  • Some areas have a more complex arrangement of interlocking small valleys- as you may know, the constant ups and downs of these can actually be much harder than going along a valley then over a big pass.
There is plenty of wildlife on Japanese mountains, not all of it friendly, and you might meet some on your bike as they do use and cross roads. See Trail Running in Japan page for more detail. Be careful if you stop on mountain roads - check for snakes and millipedes before sitting down, and make some noise so bears and boar know you are around.

Ishio-san of the 419 Presto shop in Kyotanebe, Kyoto, leads a club ride
Riding in cultivated land
There are usually myriad roads through any farm land. Because rice and vegetable fields need to be accessible to machinery, as well as tarmacked (metalled) roads there are connecting gravel roads which can be ridden on a road bike. I have used these many times, usually to correct my direction - these areas can be so complex that it is sometimes more practical to ride in a general direction by any way you can find rather than try and follow a strict route on the map. I am always coming across farmers and people working the fields, but I have yet to be told off, which makes a nice change from home. Bowing, smiling and saying 'Konichiwa' is always a good policy just in case.

Compulsory cherry blossom stop for Arai Racing Club from Saitama
Riding in towns and cities
Towns, like towns anywhere, are not great for riding, there is a lot of traffic crammed into small areas in Japan, and the endless (bloody) traffic lights at every junction make for very stop-start riding. The big cities are best avoided by using trains (see below) and can be an endless nightmare of tangled overhead wires, malls lining busy roads, and concrete, concrete, concrete. A bit of one to begin or end a ride, or a commute, OK. A whole day crossing one? No thanks. And finding your way? Don't get me started - even the locals get lost.

A mama-chari crossing Tokyo's last remaining tram line by Askayama
Having said that, the sit up an beg 'Mamachari' (short for Mamma 'Chari' - the sound of an oil-less chain according to my mate Shinya) is widely used for getting about short distances. This is great to see, but beware of these coming at you the wrong way up the road pedalled by someone with an umbrella in one hand, texting their mate with the other, at night with no lights. They may be wearing high heels and dark glasses (like my better half!), or be a tottering, though highly admirable-95-year old. Smashing, quite literally.

A river-side cycle path in Saitama - drenched in blossoms in the spring
 The bright spot in cycling in Japanese cities are are cycle paths that use river banks - if you can find them going your way definitely investigate - for example the Arakawa river heading north from Tokyo into Saitama. Speed is limited by how many users there are on the day, and the many metal barriers which keep them traffic free, but a bit of consideration and extra concentration are a small price to pay for car-free riding. 

There are sometimes no pavements in old sections of towns and residential areas with narrow roads. There may be a white line painted on the side of the road which is where pedestrians and slow cyclists go (in both directions on the same side), but they sometimes lurch out into the road to go round some road furniture. Scary, beware. (see laws below for more)

So we are on route....erm...
Road signs and navigation in Japan.
Ha, ha, ha. Just give me a minute.... Heh, heh, no no,  I'm OK now, honestly.

The Japanese system (if it is one), of numbering roads and signposting them is full of fun and games.
  • One road can have several numbers.
  • More than one road can have the same number if it is going the same way
  • Roads can have numbers that change every now and then along it's length
Apparently this is to do with who is responsible for the road in question - the town you are in, the prefecture, or the central government. There are national routes that pass through several prefectures-  therefore they may have a constant national route number and a changing local one. Just a tad confusing.
Generally speaking there are no street names barring a few big ones. The Japanese navigate by finding a general area, then looking at the roadside map for that small 'cho.' which has all the significant buildings marked in Kanji characters. People accept having to visit more than once before they find what they are looking for, hence the massive market for sat-navs in Japan.

A variation on 'All roads lead to Rome'?
Roadside maps painted on signboards for visitors are hugely creative, very individual, often cute and pretty, and usually entirely useless for the purposes of navigation. The first task is to see if north is indicated, and in what orientation it is. Even sets of standardised maps on a recreational route are likely to be up, down and sideways by turns, making it a bit of a mind ****. Try it. Secondly a jolly few minutes can be spent deciphering the highly personalised symbols and schematic representations of hills and rivers populated by smiling fairies invented by whatever bored council employee was on sign duty that day. Is that green semi-circle the lump in the park, or the 2,000m volcano up there? What larks.

I'm going to be mean now. If you ask for directions, people will be only too happy to help - just don't show them your map, it will only upset them. 10 minutes will be likely be lost while they turn it this way and that, muttering 'Anno...' trying to locate the village they have lived in for the last 50 years. Many fine and useful things are taught in Japanese schools, and parents pass on some wonderfully practical lore and skills to their children. Map reading isn't usually among them though. Have fun finding out if there is any truth in this massive generalisation.

If you are flush and be bothered learning to use it properly, use a GPS (I have seen smart phones being used with a handlebar mount- hope the bracket's a good un'). I favour a good old map and compass for being able to see the whole route, flexibility and not having to cry at the site of a £300 piece of kit in pieces on the road. Maps suitable for cycling are available for each prefecture - anything smaller than this won't have those all-important small quiet roads, and you'll struggle to see them even then. You may need a magnifying glass (from a ¥100 shop) to see kanji characters well enough to match them with road signs.

No problem - just follow route 121
The heat when cycling in Japan
It's incredibly hot and humid in Japanese summers, especially in June, July and August. If you aren't accustomed to it it is a shock to the system, and you will be amazed at how much you have to drink. Two bottles are a must in the summer, and even then you will need to top  up regularly. On long climbs you may experience that 'exploding head' feeling that warns of heat stroke. There is no shame in walking climbs on really hot days if needed. Gear down and take it much easier than you would otherwise, use strong sun-cream, cover your head and neck, and above all, drink, drink and drink again! There are often chilled drink vending machines and convenience stores (Combinis) at regular intervals, but don't rely on them in the mountains. Seriously - drink!

Food and drink on the road
Japan has one of the richest food cultures in the world, and the Japanese seem to pull off being both food obsessed (just watch TV) and thin. Most areas have their own local specialities and there is an incredible variety of food available. I much prefer local shops, noodle bars and cafés when I can find them, but 'Combinis' are a favourite stop for most Japanese cyclists. Although they are huge chains, the uniformity means you can be sure of getting the same kind of relatively healthy snack food and drink - plus lots of snacky crap. This includes vegetarian food for the likes of me, like onigiri (rice balls), oinarisan (rice balls in fried tofu), soba noodles, and sandwiches. An-pan (sweet aduki bean paste in a bread roll) or an-donutsu (work it out) are a good sweet carbo with protein hit. Combinis are everywhere except for in quieter mountain areas.

If you are young or bringing children please research up-to-date information about radiation and food issues - you may want to try and source food from West Japan and Hokaido to be on the safer side, though this is difficult to do if you don't read Japanese. 

Yoshida-san likes his sweet bread

Road rules 
Tandems. I've heard that tandems are not allowed in Japan - and I have never seen one here. Bike racks either on the roof or at the back are OK, but really try not to cover the lights or number plate. Look officer - I tried!

Pavements. Laws and local bi-laws on whether you can ride on the pavement or not are obscure, vary from place to place. They are not much enforced, though you can be unlucky. Everyone local rides on pavements in amongst the walkers, and sometimes it is the safest way of avoiding a particularly gnarly road or dangerous junction. Take it slowly, be polite, and be very aware if you decide to do this - I don't advise it. Proper road and racing cyclists obviously tend to use the road wherever possible.

Turning right Japanese bikies often use the marked bike crossing to turn right at traffic lights, rather than taking possession of the right turn lane in the road as I would in the UK. This from my bikie friend Shinya:

"In Japanese traffic law, when a bicycle wants to make a right turn, you can't turn in one action. You are supposed to:
From(1)go straight on across (across the road going right to left) to the corner at (2)

            l              l
            l              l
            l              l
 ーーー             ーーーー 

 ーーー  ↑        ーーーー 
            l ↑           l
            l ↑        l
            l ↑           l

At (2) stop at the corner and change direction 90 degrees then go on the left side lane on the road going right to left.

You are not allow to take right turn lane like an automobile, I'm sorry.

That's why many japanese cyclist try to turn from marked bike crossing."

Riding two-abreast
Riding side by side is against the law, especially when a car is overtaking. Roadies do do it on quiet roads, but the police do sometimes stop people for riding side-by-side. 

Bridges and tunnels. I usually ride on the pavement when it comes to bridges and tunnels if there is one- they tend to be narrow, and I don't want to find out what it feels like being strawberry jam spread on toast if two trucks pass each other. A rear light is required in tunnels - and a good idea anyway.

Buddhist carving near Nara
Cycling etiquette
If riding with a club there are loads of hand signals to warn of hazards, and they may be different to what you are used to. The turning signal is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it flick of the hand rather than an arm held out until the last minute. The signals seem to have mutated over the years I have ridden in Japan. 

Using trains
Bikes can be carried on trains but check in case they need a special ticket (on JR and Tokyo Metro bikes are free), and must be either in a bag (Japapnese cyclists sometimes carry thin bike bags for this purpose) or at least wrapped up in plastic (from a Combini or ¥100 shop). I think the handlebars have to be turned sideways and the front wheel taken off, but I have never done it myself. Shinya tells me the bike should not be "rideable" hence the wheel off.

Bike shops selling lightweight stuff are getting more common now as there has been a boom on for the last 5 years, but they may take some finding outside the big cities and towns.

It isn't always hot
There are lots of cycling clubs in Japan - if you find a good bike shop they will either run a club themselves, or know of one. On the whole, if it's raining, no-one rides - really!

I don't race my bike much, so I am not very informed, but there are lots of different kinds of races and audax events out there across all disciplines and distances - though true time trials tend to be rare as numbers are so high people get set off in groups and draughting is inevitable. As with trail races they tend to be expensive and require an early entry. Good bike shops should know about up-coming races in the area.
For a page in English on getting into road racing in Japan click here and one from the same club here on the racing classification system

Click here for my posts on road rides in Japan on a different blog

If you have any amendments or ideas for this page, please contact me.

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