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Cycle Touring in Japan

Kyushu & Shikoku 1991

Grace Newhaven


Kyushu is the most southerly of the Japanese main islands, somewhat smaller than Tasmania, with a population of about 15 million people. We were given to understand that Kyushu and more so Shikoku, were much less developed than the heartland of Honshu, and this article should not be read as a description of Japan as a whole, which might be quite different for all we know. For the record, we went as a couple, and one of us speaks basic Japanese - very helpful, but not strictly essential. We stayed in only one hotel, ate in restaurants about once a week, and never paid for camping. We still managed to spend about A$40 a day between us, including a lot of photographs and some expensive postage, but mostly on food.

We found it rather difficult to find information on Japan before we left, beyond glossy and romanticised images of Mt Fuji, cherry blossoms etc. We did notice that Kyushu was at about the same latitude as the semi-tropical North Coast of NSW and looked rather hilly from our atlas. We had also been told that costs for just about everything were astronomical, and that there wasn't going to be much "country" in which to camp - in fact when we'd asked our last Japanese cyclist guest about camping, he'd told us that it simply wasn't possible! As a result, we left with some considerable anxiety, most concretely manifested in an enormous bag of dried food that put us way over the weight limit leaving Adelaide.

Fortunately our worst fears were never realised and the next six weeks were very enjoyable, if quite challenging physically and perhaps even more so culturally. Kyusyu is not really organised for tourists, due perhaps to perceptions of costs and language barriers, and in those weeks we met very few foreigners, and only three Japanese cyclist tourists. We were there in the off-season (September and October) and had missed the summer holidays, a short period when everyone has holidays simultaneously, and facilities are completely booked out. After that almost everyone is back to work, six days a week -there isn't the time for the outdoor diversions that are so much a part of our culture. We had some difficulty explaining our visit to people, and especially the concept of "tour camping" which is very un-Japanese - they prefer "fixed" camping if anything, and were bemused at the anarchic way we seemed to be travelling. One result of this cultural gap was that there were very few camping grounds, and the few we did see , were closed and even derelict. 

This could have been a problem, given that hotels began at around A$100 for a double with a meal, and even JYH was well over $20 each, if we could find one, (which wasn't easy as it turned out, at least in the rural parts where we were). Instead, we rapidly acquired the skill of sniffing out unlikely but serviceable camping spots in playgrounds, sportsfields, parks, sometimes even in rubbish dumps, and once in the grounds of a nuclear- power station's "visitor centre". Bush camping wasn't really an option, as the terrain was usually very steep, where it wasn't cultivated with an astonishing intensity and care. At first we made the mistake of asking permission of the nearest authority, however humble, as darkness loomed - with no Summer time in Japan, that was at about 7PM, not very convenient for us but we soon realised that no-one, even the police, really wanted to give us a definite answer to such an unusual request without referring the matter endlessly upward. This often took so long that we were still waiting for permission after sunset, with little prospect of finding anywhere else in the dark ! Eventually, we just DID IT, (though still with some discretion) and never had a bad word from anyone, even camping in the main park in Nagasaki! In fact, people turned out to be ver y generous, one family offering us their rice cooker straight from the kitchen as we huddled through a storm in the municipal park next to their home. Others sometimes offered a bath which was most welcome, as , in small villages where the bath house no longer existed,there was nowhere else to wash and we were reduced to changing into clean clothes without showering for a week at a time ! It turned out to be very useful to have a photograph of our tent actually to hand, to show people what we were on about when we asked about camping, and we will always have a small portfolio of pictures on future tours.

However, there were compensations for this privation. We had some truly magnificent camping sites in parks on mountaintops or by the sea, which was never far away. Even though Kushyu was by Australian standards very built-up, there was still a great deal of forest and steep mountain road (Japan as a whole is 85% mountainous and 65% forested). While small fishing villages and towns were fairly frequent, so too were wonderfully inspiring views over dozens of miles of quite varied terrain and land uses. We cycled through an intricate landscape of tiny terraced farms, little farm trucks and sometimes harvesters, the farmers in a universal uniform of white shirt, khaki slacks and baseball cap, their wives in baggy pantaloons and aprons topped with a sun bonnet. 

Sadly, the scenery was much better in the distance than close-up: the amount of roadside litter was astonishing, mostly steel cans from the ubiquitous vending machines which are Japan's delis! Indeed the litter was so thick on the beaches that we rarely felt like swimming, even on very hot days. The first word in our new vocabulary was 'gomi' ("rubbish"). 

In terms of general road conditions, however, it's a bicycle paradise, in so far as there were good, functional bike paths almost everywhere you could want to go, between towns as well as within them, serving mainly the school age population and short distance users. We hardly ever had to ride in traffic, and even had our own 'bikes-only' tunnel on one occasion! There were so many bikes that parking on a wall, Adelaide style was just about impossible (we later bought kickstands and now wouldn't be without them! A bell is also essential). Drivers were also very courteous- we were "beeped three times in seven weeks and we decided that this reflected the psychological effect of the huge numbers of bikes on the roads.

 Ferries were another"plus" - cheap , very well appointed and used to dealing with bikes. On the down side, good road maps were hard to find and we were lucky to find a bilingual one the first day, lcm: 5Km - most maps we saw were in Japanese only, quite incomprehensible to a foreigner, and difficult even for Japanese, we were told, they were so crowded with cutesy illustrations! As compensation, perhaps, road markers were often in Roman characters and usually agreed with our map, though sometimes we had to resort to compass. Traffic volume ranged between 'medium' to "heavy" most of the time, but was moderated by a 50 km speed limit and a 0% (zero) blood alcohol limit. 

The only real problem with the road system is the road tunnels, of which there were a great number, varying in terms of 'bicycle friendliness' from at best, "unpleasant" to, at worst, murderously dark and agonisingly noisy - it's perhaps difficult to imagine 1.5 Km of pitch black total misery, rather like being on South Road, blindfolded, in the rain, and, Iistening to the Grand Prix on Walkman! 

While we felt at home with so many bikes about, we were disappointed at the bike shops, at least in terms of stock. Most shops, even in quite large towns, had only a single, perhaps token, MTB in the window, fronting rows of gearless commuter/shopper bikes within. We saw only one shop that had any touring accessories at all, and those were more like flashy -gadgets than real equipment: no-one had ever heard of a rain cape, for instance. While proprietors were friendly enough, they appeared to have very little experience of anything but these old fashioned treadlies, and the main activity we observed in shops was puncture repair. The shops did have extensive catalogues, and we saw some useful items, and even bought a few. However, it would be a mistake to expect to complete your touring kit after you arrive, at least without an enthusiastic and knowledgeable contact to help you find your way about. Bikes seemed to be much the same as here in terms of price.

 Camping equipment was also hard to find, except in a few department stores, which had very basic stock. What Japanese equipment we did see seemed to be quite heavy and surprisingly cumbersome - the few panniers we saw were very heavy duty indeed, reminiscent of old photographs of Arctic expeditions! (You'll notice Japanese cyclists in Adelaide sometimes with just this sort of voluminous pannier).

 Another curious phenomenon was the "gomi bike". In cities, at bus stops, on idyllic country lanes, literally anywhere, bikes were abandoned in their thousands. Many seemed to have nothing worse than a flat tyre, others had been dumped weeks or months before to judge from the state of their decomposition. Very few appeared to have been cannibalised, and even when they had been stripped beyond any possibility of anyone returning for them, they remained, as eyesores. This was only one aspect of a wider problem, though: we also saw videos, furniture, late model cars simply dumped on the pavement or in the countryside in vast quantities, and without any regard for the resulting public ugliness, let alone the environmental effect. Naturally we asked how this could happen in a society in other ways so conscious of aesthetics, especially given the value of that most precious of Japanese commodities, space. We never got an answer - people seemed to prefer to ignore the issue.

 A few other phenomena make for an "interesting" cycle tour. Food is very expensive, with the staple, rice, at about eight times the world price - and up! An onion was around 50c, apples over $1.00 each. 'Bread' was dreadfully artificial and breakfast foods virtually unobtainable. On the other hand there was the ideal cyclist food in the form of tiny dried fish, weighing nothing and tasting good, after the first couple of days! We could always find tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages and bananas easily (and at prices only about the same as you'd pay in a Burnside deli!) There were also supermarkets, where we always found something in the end - but nothing "wholemeal" or 'natural"! Even though labelling was often in English, the consumer information we in Australia now take for granted was conspicuously absent - working out the "juice' content of a common brand of drink seemed to be designed as a puzzle, rather than as information. Beer is available cold from vending machines almost everywhere, at about three times the price you'd pay in Adelaide. Don't expect to get a drink after 10.30 P.M though, as the machines close down then as a public health measure!

 Curiously, prices in cafeterias were a little less than you'd pay for the same thing in Adelaide, the result of a tax system that exempts such micro-business completely. The cafes were so cramped though that we felt intrusive with our handle bar bags, and as there was usually no cafe in the villages, our sampling was strictly limited. We relied on our Trangia, with meths available at A$10/litre from pharmacies, where we usually had to convince the chemist that we were not alcoholics - no kidding !

 We didn't have cause to use the trains, but the railways are supposed to be very difficult for bikes, in as much as bikes must be bagged up thoroughly for even the shortest journey. This isn't very practical if you've already got a load to carry - we saw a pair of Japanese out for the day on one occasion, with their enormous bags strapped to their carriers - it made the STA seem very friendly indeed. On the other hand, a foreign backpacker told us he had seen unbagged bikes on trains with his own eyes!

 All this may make it sound a less than pleasant place to holiday, and yet it was! Apart from the wonderful scenery, it was the people who made the trip enjoyable, after all these difficulties. We were continually reminded of the intricate courtesies that the Japanese have evolved to enable so many of them to live in such (to us) crowded conditions. Sometimes we found these rituals trying, but they remained endlessly fascinating as anthropology! To be a guest of a Japanese family is an extraordinary experience. Individuals were remarkably kind to us on occasion, though we had to refuse, with some difficulty, bulky gifts that were presented to us. We were also astonished at the extraordinary restraint we saw , which  made us feel totally at ease almost the whole time. No-one uses anything but the flimsiest lock for their cycle. We even dropped a pannier one day, riding through an urban fringe, and rode back half a dozen kilometres in desperation - only to find the missing pannier neatly propped on a bus stop!

 The only evidence we saw of Western style anti social behaviour, (in other words, crime) was when we were occasionally woken at dead of night by the bloodcurdling whine of super charged motorcycle engines raced at Grand Prix speeds through the otherwise peaceful suburbs and towns, in long ritual chases between police and delinquents, the latter apparently invisible by day, for we never saw anyone looking remotely delinquent.

 In fact, we were continually presented with contradictions we had not expected, and found ourselves asking each other what it was we were seeing now - we often felt like we were on another planet, so different did the society seem, even while the cars and supermarkets and fast food chains reminded us of the familiarly banal. Never a dull kilometre, you might say! People were quietly curious about us, especially wanting to touch Susan's fair hair, an astonishing novelty in Japan. People tried to be helpful, but were extremely self-conscious of their poor conversational English. This was ironic, given that English is a compulsory school subject and that English is used widely to ornament advertisements - Japan as a whole has a fascination with America in general and American English in particular.

 By the time we left we were quite exhausted by seven weeks of camping, mountains, Trangia cooking, and the approach of a chilly autumn. But as with any adventure, we treasure the memories of the unusual kindness and beauty we found along the way. We're sure you'll find the same.

References :

"Cycling Japan: A Personal Guide to Exploring Japan by Bicycle" Authors Bryan Harrell (editor) Publisher Kodansha Amer Inc Publication date August 1, 1993

Bicycling Japan : A Touring Handbook . Suzanne Lee 1991. ISBN 0-9627458-0-4

Carlos Duque's travelog of Japan at

Japan Adventure Cycling Club

Tokyo Cycling List       

A couple of personal tour reports: 

Tomer Gurantz ( Japan trip 2002)

Rick & Lynn in Japan 2000


 Bill Macher      



Tokyo to Hanoi             


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