Japan is so far one of my favourite places for bicycle touring together with France (slightly different reasons though). This is because of the convenience that I haven't experienced in Southern Ontario province in Canada, nor in Southern Europe. Probably the most important thing here is that it is always easy to find a place to pitch a tent . There is a lot of public ground anywhere you go in this country despite of its size. There are public parks in every city and every town no matter of its size and most importantly almost every park is equipped with washrooms and fresh water even in very remote areas. This is not very important to all, but to people who consider personal hygiene a daily chore it is. On top of this, the country is full of public baths, some containing volcanic water full of different minerals where most of the visitors are tourist, and those located in places of no tourist importance that have been used by locals for centuries. The former ones are usually much more expensive and crowded. Anyway, there is nothing better than soaking for an hour or so in hot water after a long day of cycling. It has an amazing effect on our bodies and minds and no matter how exhausted you are after climbing high mountain passes for the entire day, the hot bath in an "onsen" will take all the pains away and make you ready for more climbing the next day. Every town has at least one bathhouse or a hot spring. And finally the road suface quality. This is something that I haven't seen neither in Southern Ontario nor in Europe although European roads weren't as bad as the roads in Ontario and I believe that in Northern Europe tehy are even better. The roads in Japan are pothole free even the very remote ones in the mountains. The asphalt quality is much higher than the best highway in Toronto. It's simply a pleasure to cycle on Japanese roads when it comes to road quality.
People are another reason that makes Japan a nice country for cycle touring. Usually people are extremely friendly, welcoming and very curious. It makes cycling in Japan very enjoyable. During my numerous trips in different parts on the island, I met some great and interesting people on the way who simply asked the usual questions of where I was coming from and where I was heading to or insisted on driving me at least a few kilometers down the road or invited me to stop and hang out with them for a while. It's all great, but there are also unpleasant people that you might encounter occasionally on Japanese roads. Those are usually drivers who hate cyclists and believe that bicycles belong on the sidewalk. Most importantly, you feel always safe in Japan (when not riding, of course).
But there are also the bad sides. In Japan as well as in most of the modern societies
is a hidden class system and unfortunately car is a symbol of a status to many people.
Basically, to many people riding a bike and not driving a car still means belonging
to a lower class and some people don't like sharing "their" roads with others who
according to them belong on the sidewalks (the sidewalks are actually bicycle paths,
used by slow bikes - mama-chari's). Japanese people are extremely proud and their
pride can be easily hurt and sometimes it can happen when they're slowed down by
a "lower class" person on a bicycle. They hate bikes passing their cars in a slowly
moving traffic or bikes at the intersections starting off ahead of them when the
light turns green.
There are also people as anywhere else who simply get angry when they have to slow down because of a bike. All that doesn't really make Japan any different and I wouldn't mention it if it wasn't for the danger that it creates in this country and although majority of the Japanese people make cycling a pleasure, sometimes it takes only one ahole to put you in a hospital or worse. I've been in situations where some angry drivers tried to scare me off "their" road by passing me without slowing down so close that I could almost feel their cars touch me each time making my hair stand up. They were drivers of tiny Japanese cars as well as of huge cement trucks pulling trailers.
Most of the drivers fortunately don't mind bikes and more and more people get used to fast moving bicycles because of a fast growing number of road cyclists. And although the number of those high class, high status, big, new, white car people isn't big, it's enough to make cycling in Japan to some a bad experience. It also seems like the human life is valued a little bit differently and it also seems like many Japanese can't foresee anything in the future.
Another huge problem are the dump trucks. They're not in cities, but in the country site they come in herds. They're a disease to the beautiful, Japanese country roads. Some prefectures passed a new pollution preventing law which is supposed to keep diesel engine cars off the roads. Apparently, the law doesn't seem to apply to the dump trucks. A regular Taro isn't allowed to drive a diesel car because of pollution, but dump trucks are a different story - they keep the economy rolling and Japanese government believes in what American government does - "irrational policies are those that benefit humans rather than economy".
And finally the amount of cars on Japanese roads is huge. Almost every road in the country is busy. Any country with only 20% of the reasonably flat, hospitable land and 130 000 000 people who make enough money to afford a new car every 4 years will have a LOT of cars and busy roads. The main roads are busy at all times and where one town ends another begins, so it seems like you're always in a city with stores and restaurants on both sides. The real rural areas are found in the mountains. Fortunately, the 80% of the land that is covered by the mountains also has roads which are always a great alternative, but usually much harder.
Back roads are a great option if you have a lot of time. They're usually less crowded and pass through pleasant, sleepy villages that are a hidden treasures of Japan and where people don't live by seconds. These roads are usually longer and much harder going across high mountain passes. But it doesn't really matter if the reward is absence of cars and people and the only sounds you hear are those of the nature and your bicycle. Also a big plus for a cyclist is that most of these back roads are paved. The little, quiet villages with very friendly people are always much pleasant to pass through than towns on the main roads with Wal-Mart style shopping centres every few hundred metres and crowds of people rushing to and from them.
A few more words on the "onsens" - the public bath houses.
The natural hot springs in parts where there are active volcanoes and public baths come in many different styles, sizes and prices. It used to be the place to gather and socialize after work in towns and villages. It is very big in Japan and there's nothing better for cyclists than to soak for an hour or so in the steaming hot water, no matter whether it's winter or summer making the muscle pains disappear at the end of each day. The prices range between about Y300 to Y1000 depending on the location. The bathhouses for local people have usually the lowest prices, but the resort hot springs (even those that aren't natural) with a view on Mt. Fuji, for example, can be as much as a ridiculous Y1000 per person. It happened only once that we had to pay Y1000 and it was in a Niagara Falls style tourist trap - Kawaguchiko in Yamanashi prefecture, at the foot of Mt. Fuji.
There are also free of charge springs, but those are rare. I've been to only 2 such places in 5 and a half years. One was in Beppu, Kyushu island where water, steam and gases just come from beneath the ground all over the town, and in another one in Shirahama, Wakayama prefecture. The onsen in Beppu was a neighbourhood's bathhouse not really made for tourists. Tourists in a town like Beppu bathe in resorts. The one in Shirahama is for tourists and it is free because it is run by the local government. It's located right on the sea shore and it's an open-air spring. The original shape of its basin has been unchanged and its original shape was created by the water coming . It's really amazing that in a tourist trap like Shirahama with its fake, white sand beaches a hot spring like that could be free and not belong to one of the local resorts. The only thing that sucked about it then (perhaps it's changed since) was that it was open between 10 or 12 until 5. Maybe it closes later during the high season. The private hot springs' hours vary. Some are open until 9pm (usually those expensive ones in tourist places) and the ones for local people close around 11 or 12.
Another good side of cycling in Japan are convenience stores that can be found everywhere and where you can't find convenience stores have vending machines and they sell EVERYTHING including women's used underwear, porn and a steak/potatoes dinners. Mostly they're drink or cigarette machines. No matter where you are in Japan you're always near people and where there are people there are stores and Japan has enough small shops, big shop, stands and vending machines. Even if you're cycling deep in the mountains of Nagano prefecture you're just an hour away from a village or a town.
Japan seems like a place where the greatest variety of maps can be found. Bookstores are very common in the country and every bookstore has a map section. There are folded maps of each prefecture or town or thick book maps with not only every street and road marked, but also every shop, restaurant and a traffic light on the streets and roads. They're always very detailed and accurate.
On the other hand the book maps are big and heavy and inconvenient for cyclists. But that isn't too much of a problem because every convenience store sells these maps for drivers and you can always stop at a 7/11 and consult a local area map. Also most of the maps are for drivers and they're not topographic. There is, however, one place that sells cheap, folded topographic maps of each prefecture. The place is a chain Y100 store called Daiso that can be found in every Japanese town. Every Daiso store has maps of each prefecture and the scale of those maps depends on a prefecture size. Maps of larger prefectures are less detailed than the maps of smaller ones. These maps may not be as detailed and accurate as the expensive ones, but in my experience they were accurate enough and most importantly they are topographic.
The best way is to wild camp and it isn't a problem although for Japanese it is strange to camp anywhere else than at a camping ground. Many people treat wild campers like homeless people, but there are also many people who don't care. Japan has great wild camping sites. Every town has parks and rivers and river banks offer great camping spots and when it rains bridges although noisy can be a great cover. The problem here is lack of fresh running water unless it's a park.
Parks provide great camping spots as well. Some are big, some small, but every park has a nice place for a tent. Almost all the big parks and many small ones have washrooms even the ones in remote areas. Besides parks there are shrines and temples everywhere. The smaller ones are better because nobody lives there and you won't get kicked out.
It's always a good idea to set up a camp later in a day when it's already dark because after all it's illegal to wild camp. The cops are a rare sight, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. The way that has always worked for us is to locate a suitable spot when it's still light, go to a public bath, soak in hot water until it's dark and then go back to set up the camp. We've done it even in the cities without being bothered by anybody.
Deep in the mountains, on a back-road, a place with fresh running water is hard to find unless you stop by a mountain stream or a spring. The good news is that in Japan you're never far away from civilization and if you can't find a place with fresh water by nightfall, there will be one the next day. No problem.
If you're in the mountainous region that is very popular tourist destination like mountains in central Japan or in southern Nara prefecture, there are many public campgrounds. Some people may prefer campgrounds with showers, washrooms, fire pits, crowds of people and ridiculous prices, but being on a Japanese campground is like being at home outside of home.
japan by bike
...a few words on cycling in Japan...
Kamikawa - Niigata '03
Kamikawa - Ueno-mura '03
Kamikawa - Mt. Fuji '03
Kii peninsula '02
Kashiwara - Shikoku '02
Kashiwara - Toba '02
Nara, 01 - '02
Kobe & Kyoto, '02
canada by bike
In Search Of Good Beer And Sandy Beaches Expedition (Toronto - Lake Erie)
Northern Lights Expedition (Toronto - Wilno)
...a few words on hiking in Japan...
Mt. Nishimikabo (right in our backyard), '04
From Mt. Kumotori to Mt. Kobushige, '04
Mt. Fuji, '04
Mt. Ryogami, '03 & '04
Bruce Trail 'Sep. '06