A Trip of a Lifetime: Japan by Bicycle

Juliet Elliot explores Japan by bicycle and by the sounds of it, it was quite the adventure...

Juliet has the trip of a lifetime exploring Japan by bicycle

“Sumimasen, camping?” I croak hopefully to a raffish Japanese gentleman examining us with barely concealed amusement. Unlikely though it seemed that this run down wood yard moonlights as a campsite, we were keen to double check before moving on.

We were at the base of Mount Fuji, itself an arduous climb in 30 degree heat on a bike carrying everything you own. Desperately keen to hop down from our bicycles and stretch our limbs in the shade and at that moment persistence was our best, and only bet.

Gesticulating wildly (and frankly, unnecessarily) I repeated a few words from my limited vocabulary whilst our friend continued to smile. “Yes, camping,” he said. “But scout camp!”

Later that evening, lounging in our own private nirvana – a scout camp minus the scouts – we greedily slurped noodles from giant polystyrene bowls, faces filthy and sunburnt, clothes stiff under several days’ sweat. We were smelly but carefree. Only five days into a three-week cycling tour in Japan, we had acclimatized – bikes, beers, tents and ramen – it was heaven.

When cycle touring, you can’t plan for every eventuality and sometimes, just ‘freestyling it’ can make for the best adventure. Having said that, our trip was the culmination of a lifelong desire to see Japan and several months of research, so we were relaxed about on-the-hoof decision making.

We spent the dark months of winter furiously scouring the Internet for tips on cycling in Japan, reading blogs, ordering books from and testing gear ahead of our trip.

We even ‘walked’ some of the streets on  Google Maps in advance of riding them to find out if they would be suitable, and after trying some truly rotten offerings, we settled on the Pocket Earth app for programming routes and coming up with a rough schedule.

All that planning gave us the flexibility to travel with just an iPhone for navigation, though we had plenty of offline maps on an iPad in case we needed them.

From the moment we landed, it was a whirlwind of excitement and confusion. In a daze of jetlag we headed off on our first morning on a Shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo to Shimoda and the Izu peninsular for our first taste of touring in Japan.

The Izu peninsular must be one of the most beautiful places on earth – the deserted road winding along the coastline offered dramatic views each time we summited one of the many hills. Although we were so pumped on riding we could hardly bare to stop for a moment.

We did however keep the pace fairly slow and steady – the bikes were fully loaded and heavy, and we didn’t need to be anywhere at a particular time. The plan was something to fall back on, so we had the flexibility to choose how far we went at any given time.

Our first camping spot was one of the only flat places we could find – a little ledge tucked away behind some houses where we hoped our Micro Rocket stove wouldn’t disturb the wildlife whilst we cooked up the first of our many bowls of ramen. As we settled down in our sleeping bags, we were sung to sleep by cicadas and an unknown bird whose particular phrasing accompanied us all the way through our journey.

The second day dawned and we quickly established a routine that we stuck to for the rest of our trip – rise early, leave quietly and head to a ‘konbini’, otherwise known as a Japanese convenience store.  These stores are well stocked with delights, and all serve hot or iced coffee. And contrary to popular belief, Japan is not expensive; we were able to eat like king and queen from these stores, the only pricey item being beer, which we saved for a campsite treat in the evening.

Once on the road, we covered anything from 60km to 130km. Without cycle computers or Strava or any rigid schedule, we pedalled just for the sheer hell of it, taking as long as we pleased.

Arriving at our campsite each evening was both gratifying and disappointing. Our camping spots were beautiful and we were always ravenous, but it also meant we were finished riding for the day, and cycling is what we love, and what were there for.

From sleepy Izu, we rode to Mt. Fuji and the aforementioned scout camp. Heading inland from the coast, we experienced our first taste of riding in traffic, which was an experience in itself.

Cyclists in Japan are numerous but most tend to stick to the pavements, only hitting the roads at intersections to cross over. Although drivers are polite on the whole, it’s fair to say that we ruffled a few feathers by boldly cycling on the roads.

From Mt. Fuji we flew back down South, hitting the coastal defence road to Fuji City before a hilarious detour up a mountain pass. One piece of advice – avoid Highway 1 at all costs.

Juliet stands with breathtaking Mt Fuji in the background

After meandering down to Cape Irago and free camping en route to Kyoto, we took a couple of days to explore the city. Kyoto is a real dream for casual cyclists. Laid out on a grid, it is almost entirely flat and all of the highways have dedicated cycle lanes on the wide pavements that run alongside them. There’s also barely any bike theft – we saw beautiful NJS track bikes secured with little more than a shoelace.

The final part of our journey  is one which we looked forward to throughout our trip, even though we knew it would signal the end of our adventure.

The Shiminami Kaido is a 70km cycle route linking the cities of Onomichi and Imbari hopping across islands in the Seto Sea on the way. Much of the route is on dedicated cycle lanes, which are wide, smooth and clearly signposted and all of the six bridges have special traffic-free access roads.

Strung high above the ocean, the view from the bridges was stunning. At least I think it was – I rather struggle with vertigo so I spent a fair amount of time with my head down.

Despite this we rode back and forth over several of them and opted to take the scenic route around all of the islands, trying desperately to postpone the end of our journey. Cycling around the islands, we passed beach after beautiful beach, deep turquoise water giving way to sparkling clarity near the shore.

Nearing the end of May, it was very hot, we were dripping with sweat and filthy, a state we’d become accustomed to over the course of the trip.

Blinded by our lust for cycling, it was only on the last day that we did something we could have (and maybe should have) done earlier – we jumped in the soft, cool ocean.

Pictures by Dave Noakes and Juliet Elliot

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