Category Archives: Japan

Japan is number one!!!

DSC03516We spent two months cycling through Japan, from Hokkaido to the western tip of Honshu and loved it. It is a fantastic country and great for cycle touring. It ranks as the number one country (so far) of the 21 countries we have toured on this trip. We started in Hokkaido at the end of August and the weather throughout the trip was good apart from having to shelter from two typhoons. It is a mountainous country and very beautiful, we watched the autumn colours appear as we headed south. We caught 2 ferries, from Hokkaido to Akita and from Kobe to Shikoka.

We Cycled 3,115km
climbing 41,135 metres

Why is it so good? There is no one reason but a combination of many;

1. The countryside, beautiful scenery, from neat rice fields to groves of Japanese cedar and bamboo. Good roads generally quiet. In most cases if there was a busy road you could find a quieter road that was heading the same way or follow a cycle track by the road. The north in particular was quieter.

3 generations ran this traditional Ryokan.

3 generations ran this traditional Ryokan.

2. The people, we found most people to be very friendly and helpful. More reserved than in some countries but if you asked for help they would go out of their way to try and aid you. We were given food in parks when people had barbecues and the stall holders in the country were keen for us to try their fruit and veg. Few people spoke much English until you reached any main tourist area. DSC03673As with every other country the Japanese were less amiable in busy tourist areas.

3. The Japanese eye for detail. Everything works from vending machines always being full and giving change to free public toilets everywhere that were always clean and had toilet paper. There was rarely any litter anywhere and recycling is an art form. The towns and cities were always neat and tidy and well cared for.

another free campsite

another free campsite

4.The camping, the Japanese like to camp so there are plenty of campsites around. Many are free and the average we paid was about 1000 yen a night about £6. The camp sites are all basic with rarely any showers or wi-fi. There are no caravans and not many motorhomes around. Apart from camp sites we camped in parks and roadside rest stops with no problem.DSC03333

5. The food, Japan has an a amazing range of food with thousands of regional specialties. It is generally fairly cheap to eat out. A bowl of ramen costs around 800 yen less than £5. Most of the places we ate didn’t have an English menu but many had pictures or plastic models of food in the window. The nicest meals we had were usually in small places in quiet towns. The fruit and veg are very fresh. The fruits are huge, with big apples and peaches which taste delicious. Usually from small producers who will have their name and often a picture of them, if the fruit comes in a bag.

View from our airbnb

View from our airbnb

6. Tokyo is an incredible city with no real centre but made up of 23 wards all with their own different characters. You can spend weeks exploring it and it is fun to cycle around. We liked all the modern architecture, and they are all built to a very high standard.

 

7. Convenience stores and vending machines. Most towns had a convenience store which sold all essentials including cakes and coffee and snacks. They also had toilets often the high-tec ones with mini showers. A great place for a break and refuel. If there weren’t any convenience stores around you could usually find a vending machine dispensing cans of cold coffee, sports drinks or juice. This is great as you rarely need to carry much food on your bike.

Matsumoto a nice city nestling in the Japanese alps.

Matsumoto a nice city nestling in the Japanese alps.

8. The cities and towns. Apart from Tokyo there were plenty of other beautiful cities with interesting buildings and architecture. There were a few areas with traditional wooden housing but most had been lost in the rush to modernise.

9.Kawaii (cute) The Japanese are into cute in a big way from cars to road signs, from clothes to furniture. Hello Kitty is just a fraction of what is on offer..

A bit too hot.

A bit too hot.

10.Onsens. Hot springs and public baths are everywhere and after a hot or cold day on the bike they are a great way to revive and freshen up. Again most regions have their own special water with “health giving properties”.

And then there is the snow in winter, the cherry blossoms of spring, the autumnal colours………

Western Honshu and Shikoku

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The Shimanami Kaido is a great 70km  cycling route between Imabari on Shikoku island and Onomichi on Honshu. Joining 6 islands by bridges with dedicated cycle routes either on or under the bridges. It is a relaxing way to ride with easy gradients and most of the way on dedicated cycle routes or quiet roads. We even managed a swim off one of the islands, the water was a really nice temperature.We enjoyed the contrast of island cycling after the busy roads through the  metropolis that covers most of flatter southern Japan. From Kyoto it had been a stream of seemingly endless traffic lights and heavy traffic.

We stayed a couple of days in Onomichi a small town surrounded by docks and shipbuilding. We discovered a newly opened high end bike hotel ,U2 which had opened in a converted warehouse. We had already booked in elsewhere and it looked great but pricey. All the rooms had a rack to hang your bike and there was a bike shop, coffee shop, restaurant and bakery all on site.

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The A Dome at Hiroshima. One of the few buildings to survive at the epicentre of the blast.

From Onomichi we were back into the mountains heading to Hiroshima and then on to Shimonoseki and a boat to Korea. The Peace Park at Hiroshima was very sad with a memorial with stories from children who had survived the first A bomb on the 6th August 1945 which killed 290,000 people. Hiroshima is a thriving modern city now set on a delta surrounded by mountains.

There was no easy way through the mountains which were cut through by rivers producing deep gorges. It was a question of zigzagging up and down valleys to work your way across. Once again the roads were quiet and on our last full day in Japan we cycled through a limestone area with grasses and rocks, not unlike  parts of  England.

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We managed to find an open campsite to celebrate our last night in Japan. Unsurprisingly we were the only people camping there. We sat and watched the millions stars on a beautiful clear night.

Leaving Shimonoseki

Leaving Shimonoseki

We took the Kampu ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan the next day. We managed to get 50% off the tickets as there is a cycling promotion encouraging cyclists to come to Korea. It was a lovely way to say sayonara to Japan and hello South Korea.

Central and Southern Honshu

From Nikko we headed up into the mountains, slogging up the Irohazaka Climb, the Japanese version of the Alp d’Huez but with only 20 hairpin bends. This got us up to lake Chuzenji a beautiful lake with autumn colours appearing on the hill sides and waterfalls tumbling down. Then another climb up to the Akechidaira plateau which is a stunning marshland. Then more waterfalls, more climbing, reds, orange and greens. We finally made it through a tunnel at the top of the col, dropping down to find a place to camp on a ski slope.

 

We loved the japanese mountains. The roads are good and mostly quiet and the scenery is jaw dropping. It was getting colder at night but the days were still warm. We cycled down to Matsumoto a beautiful city nestling amongst the Japanese alps and stayed for a few days sheltering from a Typhoon.

Then up through the Alps heading down towards Kyoto. We followed route 158 which unfortunately turned out to be a busy road with coachloads of tourists heading up to see the autumn colours through some long tunnels. You get to appreciate clean air when you share a tunnel over 1km long with some heavy traffic ! Rather than face the three and a half kilometre tunnel through the mountain top we took the old pass over the top. This was quiet, the only slight worry was to see one of the volcanoes smoking from the top. We were about 50km away from Mt Ontake.

 

We were lucky enough to see a total eclipse of the moon whilst staying in the old city of Takayama. It is one of the few Japanese cities which managed to avoid the relentless modernising of the 1970s.

From Takayama we followed the Hida river as it carved it’s way out of the alps towards the sea. Leaving behind quiet roads for a metropolis of  cities which stretch all the way across the plain. We managed to find cycle tracks along the river. We headed past Lake Biwa into Kyoto a day earlier than planned to take cover from another approaching Typhoon.


Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and has 17 world heritage sights 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines not to mention a fantastic modern station. A great place to shelter from a typhoon. It is popular for cycling. The only problem is where to park your bike. There are bicycle traffic wardens who will sticker your bike and remove it if you leave it in the wrong place. We did manage to find an underground bike park where you can safely leave your bike complete with a special conveyor belt to get it back up again.

We spent 3 days exploring Kyoto but were lightweights on the temple and shrine count only managing a few. The first we saw was the most impressive the Sanjusangendo Temple built in the 1200’s with statues of 1001 Kannon-Bosatsu each five and a half feet tall, carved out of wood and covered in gold leaf.1001 buddhas
It is a great place to wander around with lots of different neighbourhoods. We loved the ultramodern station complete with 15 floors of open spaces malls and hotels.

Northern Honshu

DSC03319Northern Honshu is Hokkaido’s bigger brother, the mountains are higher with a myriad of rivers carving deep valleys and gorges down to the sea. The roads are steeper and as long as you avoid the main ones very quiet. They take you through neat villages where all sorts of fruits are grown. From persimmons to huge apples and pears to vines and peaches. Rice fields are tucked into the smallest of spaces with vegetable gardens next to every house. Bamboo and cedar groves cover the mountains with their lush green foliage.

DSC03260DSC03338The leaves were just starting to turn autumnal as we started heading south. We caught a ferry from Tomakomai,  Hokkaido to Akita on the north west coast of Honshu. This was quite an achievement considering nobody at the ferry terminal spoke english and everything was written in japanese. We slept on the floor in one of the dormotories. Fortunately we had time to get our mattresses, not being quite as stoical as the japanese.


Akita is a modern city with a compact centre with some older housing, home to most of the restaurants just off the main drag. There is a great range of eateries in Japan but it can be difficult to tell what they are from outside. The ones in malls are generally easy to decipher as they have an array of plastic food on show in the window. Some have photographs on their menus but most just have japanese script. We ventured into one of these one evening forgetting our japanese phrasebook. They were very helpful and we managed to get something to eat!

Temple in the evening

Temple in the evening

From Akita we headed down the coast a bit before cutting inland along the beautiful Mogami river picking up route 9, a small road that wound around cliff edges giving fantastic views of the countryside. The farms were all small scale and the farmers were busy either with their mini combine harvesters or even manually harvesting the rice.

We again were lucky with the weather climbing the Shirabu pass and then the Funaka pass over into lake Onagawa in clear weather. We still are managing to stay in campsites. Some have been closed, but all have been very quiet and set in beautiful landscapes. Most seemed to be set on the side of a mountain which usually meant climbing a few more kilometres after a long day in the saddle.

Cycling on route 9 next to the Mogami river

Cycling on route 9 next to the Mogami river

We have found the Japanese to be very friendly and although they don’t speak much english very generous. Offering us food from their barbecues and an old lady selling fruit by the side of the road kept on giving us peaches. The roads got a bit busier with more high end cars and motorbikes as we made our way through the ski areas of Nasu on to Nikko. For some reason the Japanese bikers are into Harleys and some pretty weird choppers despite having a huge motorcycle industry of their own.

Hokkaido

Lake Kussharo

Lake Kussharo

Hokkaido is my idea of the perfect place to go cycle touring. Beautiful mountain scenery, gentle gradients and quiet roads.  Not to mention excellent cheap camp sites, wonderful food and plenty of “onsen”,  japanese public baths, often in hot springs. DSC03137

We posted our bikes and most of our panniers on to Hokkaido from Tokyo airport using the excellent carrier service in Japan. They were scheduled to arrive when we did and with typical Japanese efficiency they did, all in one piece as well! We stayed the first couple of nights in Sapporo with Ken and Hsiu-hsia  our warm-showers hosts. They were brilliant and  helped us plan our route, as well as looking after us very well. Ken had spent 4 years cycling around the world a few years ago.DSC03147

Sapporo is easy to cycle around and there were bikes everywhere, some of them not parked in the correct bays were getting parking tickets. After 2 days of being spoilt, we headed up the west coast of Hokkaido along an impressive coastline with mountains tumbling right down to the sea. There were plenty of tunnels to get through and we mainly had plenty of room on the hard shoulder. The traffic was pretty quiet and Japanese drivers are very considerate.  The scenery was fantastic.DSC03219

The campsites were all very quiet, often free or less than 1000 yen about £5. There were rarely any showers, instead you went to the nearby onsen for a communal hot bath. These were segregated by sex. You stripped off and then had a thorough wash before dipping into the hot baths. After a sweaty day on the road it was a great way to recover.

We headed into the centre of Hokkaido. The maximum gradient we had to climb was 8%, a pleasant change from the Turkish mountains. The weather was glorious with amazing scenery. The mountains in Hokkaido are mainly volcanic. Five are still considered active so plenty of thermal activity with an abundance of hot springs. The caldera have been filled by lakes and the mountains are tree covered. In the more remote areas there is a risk from Higuma, fierce brown bears related to the North American grizzly, fortunately we didn’t meet any.

There are numerous skiing areas and some had a distinct alpine feel.  The weather finally broke and we took shelter in a hotel by Lake Ankan for a couple of nights. The food is excellent. Seafood is so fresh and relatively cheap, wild salmon is a local delicacy and tastes completely different to the farmed stuff.  Huge scallops and shrimps and all kinds of fish can be bought readily in most of the supermarkets. The ground is black and fertile so all sorts of crops are grown, from flowers to root vegetables, pumpkins, cabbages and sweet corn.

DSC03237Temperatures were dropping and leaves changing colour. People are friendly and helpful. The road signs are also in English, but we rarely found anyone who spoke it. We covered 1200km in 3 weeks and loved the mountains and all the lakes. We caught a ferry to Akita on Honshu, to carry on our journey south.

 

 

 

 

Tokyo is amazing!!! (I miss the) Tokyo Skyline………..

DSC03087We could have flown back to Central Asia to carry on where we left off but we both decided we would like a change. We were planning on going to Japan at some stage, why not now? We would be there for autumn and the weather should be good. We boxed up the bikes and flew to Tokyo with Turkish Airlines. We had booked an Airbnb with Matthew in Tokyo  and were planning on staying a few days before heading up to Hokkaido. Tokyo was wonderful, but humid with temperatures in the high 30s. It is a huge city of over 13 million people connected by an excellent network of trains with tens of different subway lines often run by different companies. It is made up of 23 separate municipalities and each is a city unto itself.

We spent 5 days exploring it and touched only a small part. It is so diverse ranging from state of the art high rise buildings and malls to quiet parks, beaches, and amusement parks. It is all very clean with no litter and feels very safe. It is generally much quieter than most cities apart from a few districts like Shibuya, an area full of  clothes shops where the piped music really does your head in.

The crossing at Shibuya just ouside the metro station.

The crossing at Shibuya just ouside the metro station.

DSC03069It is a great city to cycle round with the municipalities only separated by a km or so. We posted our bikes on to Hokkaido so ended up booking on a cycling tour for 1 day. There are plenty of cycle lanes and if the roads are busy everyone cycles on the pavements.

The architecture is fantastic and despite the variety of buildings doesn’t seem to jar. Some of the buildings are connected by walkways above the roads which makes for a much more relaxing experience away from the traffic. There are whole blocks full of restaurants ,which can make deciding where to eat more difficult faced with so much choice. You can find Ramen (noodle bars) everywhere, you pay at a machine outside and hand the tickets over to collect your delicious ramen.