Our Experiences of Cycling in Japan
Those who follow my blog will know we try and cycle whenever we travel, we find that exploring a district by bike gives a much better perspective on local colour, sites and culture than driving, plus it allows you to cover more ground than walking. When Jerome was a toddler we would put him in a bike seat and ever since Jerome was old enough to cycle on his own we have made it part of many of our travels. Jerome was able to cycle some distance even from age 5 or 6 – we even made one tour of over 30km in Shikoku when he was that age with only a little help from us. In Japan we have found the environment surprising cycling friendly and this post aims to share some of the hints and tips to consider if you would like to try cycling there.
Cycling in the Cities
Although it would appear to be a busy destination with many cars and lots of traffic we have found the cities in Japan including Tokyo very safe and easy to navigate. Unlike some European cities the streets in the cities are mostly wide with broad pavements (sidewalks) and the local rules allow you to cycle on these which makes the only challenge avoiding the pedestrians and other cyclists. Many cities have also been adding dedicated cycle lanes and routes through quiet side streets, these are finding their way onto the navigation aids like google maps. Using a combination of the cycle paths and pavements (sidewalks) we found the cycling safe and very child friendly, the only disadvantage being the need to wait often at the many red lights for crossing, although this is no worse than cycling on the streets. Most of the cities are full of bikes whether Mama-sans doing their shopping, kids on the way to school or commuters off to the station so you will not be alone on cycles.
We have cycled across all of Tokyo at different times with Jerome from age of around 6. We instilled safety in him and by using the cycle paths and being careful at the pedestrian crossings we were able to explore many parts of the city, and he loved the fun of finding his way. Likewise we have also explored Kyoto and other cities on bikes, often covering more sights in a day than is otherwise possible and finding out of the way places that we might otherwise have missed.
Cycling in the Japanese Countryside
Outside of the cities we have also found many opportunities to explore the Japanese coast line and countryside. There are many districts with dedicated cycle routes whether exploring the countryside like the Kibi plain, or longer distance like the wonderful route over the islands of the Shiamano Kaido. Locals use bikes often so traffic is used to looking out for cyclists, and we have generally found drivers very respectful of bikers.
We have found that the sides of rivers make for great cycling in Japan as most have cycle paths along the sides where the flood defences are built up, for children this makes for flat easy cycling plus can avoid some of the busy roads. Even in Tokyo the Tama River has a great cycle way.
Finding your Way Around
Many people are scared by navigating in a country with different writing and unusual place names, however we have found that almost every street sign has the english characters so navigation was never too difficult. With the recent addition of smartphones with GPS mapping it is almost impossible to get lost now. Even without a phone maps are everywhere in the cities and can be found on many street corners and there are good traditional printed ones available from the tourist offices.
When travelling we recommend considering a wifi hot spot with a local sim card, this allows you to use smart phones to explore and get maps when out an about and it is well worth the small extra costs. We have usually managed to plan our own routes but for the less adventurous there are some good expat websites with routes available online, such as “half fast cycling“.
Taking Your Own Bikes to Japan
We have taken our folding bikes to many destinations, including on several Japan trips. We wrap the bikes in bubble wrap before covering them as extra protection to avoid damage in the hold and so far with one exception they have survived the trips. Naturally each airline has their own rules but we have found that British Airways allows the bikes at no extra costs and generally treats them well (OK they broke a bike on the last trip and damaged another), it is best if you send them down the oversized baggage route. It is worth checking baggage rules in advance if you plan to take your own bikes abroad as some airlines will charge extra. You must remember to deflate the tires and some airlines will insist on the removal of the front wheels on larger bikes plus a bike cover or wrap. In addition I recommend considering how you will navigate at the other end with suitcases and bikes all together. Folding bikes have the advantage they can go in the boot of the larger people mover style taxis (although not the traditional limosines) or hire cars so that is a possibility, but clearly full sized bicyles cannot. We have even managed to take 3 suitcases plus three packed folding bikes across Tokyo on the Metro once!
We have even been known to buy inexpensive bikes in Japan, we love the bikes on offer at Muji. Jerome adored his Muji bikes in bold bright colours like red and yellow, and we ended up buying them for him on different trips as a treat. On one trip we also bought some for ourselves for exploring and then took them home, also wrapped in bike bag covers and bubble wrap that we got from Tokyu Hands. Clearly any cost of purchase must be weighed against other costs such as airline charges and alternatives like hiring bikes. If you hire them many times in a trip taking your own can be cheaper – plus you can use them to explore everywhere.
Other Essential Cycling Equipment
Helmets are a critical safety consideration and we found Jerome always preferred to take his own than borrow one, it was a bulky addition to our luggage but we have always put safety first. He loved his Muji helmet that looked really Japanese and drew many comments when he used it back home. Also for safety we usually made sure we had small clip on lights with us just in case we did cycle back at night or in the dusk, although Jerome loved to have his flashing at anytime! Spare batteries for these can be a useful addition although most convenience stores will stock them.
The most important tool is to have a pump and an adaptor – essential as you need to re-pump up the tires after packing bikes on planes, but also important to add air to tyres when out on trips. I recommend adding also some basic bike tools to allow for tightening wheel nuts and the adjustment of brakes and saddles. A puncture kit and tyre spoons is also a useful lightweight addition if you plan a lot of cycling on a trip. Consider a basic first aid kit just in case there is a scrape too.
For children a small clip on bag or basket is a wonderful addition to a bike and Jerome loved to put his favourite toy in the basket to take it for a ride, I also have a clip on basket which doubles as a carry all that we have found invaluable for carrying small items from drinks to cameras when out on trips.
Hiring Bikes in Japan
Many Japanese do not own a car and when they travel it is not unusual for them to hire both cars and bikes after getting to a destination by trains. You can often find bike hire within walking distance of stations with a quick search online. Bikes are also often readily available at many of the main tourist centres, usually near the tourist information huts. Cycle hire relative to other travel destinations is therefore often more affordable, however, the bikes will be more the city bike style – what the Japanese call “Mamachari” more than the mountain bike style, and many maybe older albeit still servicable.
Sadly we have found that not all of the hire places cater for children, some may have smaller bikes but few will have any for younger than 10, likewise some may have kiddy carriers and/or trailers but there are often not enough to be sure of one when you need to hire unless you reserve them in advance. We solved this by taking Jeromes bike with us when he was smaller and renting some for us, or even taking bikes for the whole family with us depending on our trip and plans.
Bikes and Trains in Japan
Japan is bike friendly on trains and allows them on almost all services including the bullet trains, BUT only if you put the bike in a “Rinku” bag. Even small folding bikes must be bagged or boxed to travel on the trains. If you do not have bags for your bike, Tokyu Hands in Tokyo is a good place to acquire a Rinku, thankfully most rinku fold down to something that you can put in a small pack. Larger bikes will need the front wheel removed to fit in bag, so have tools ready for this too.
Some Final Thoughts on Cycling in Japan With Kids:
I would definitely recommend considering cycling on a trip to Japan, children will love the exploring combined with exercise, but do plan a route that is achievable and fun. Jerome is used to cycling with us and has managed 30km at only 6 years old and over 75km in a day on the Shimanami Kaido on a recent trip but less experienced youngsters may find these a stretch, so set a reasonable pace and objective. Make sure you have plenty of breaks to avoid being too saddle weary but also to explore the local sights too. I would recommend also making sure you always have plenty to drink with you and snacks to eat for the little ones, especially in the hot summer temperatures, there are many vending machines and convenience stores everyewhere but somehow there is always that time when you need one and there is none! Happy cycling.
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