In July and August it’s common for college students to tour Japan by bicycle or motorcycle – especially up north in Hokkaido, where it’s cooler. When they see another cyclist on the road they will inevitably wave or give you a thumbs up and say ‘Gambatte’ (hang in there). Even car drivers open their window and shout encouragement — quite a cultural difference from the U.S. where some drivers, unfortunately, regard cyclists as a nuisance and swear at them, or worse, try to drive them off the road. If a car or truck coming up behind you honks, it doesn’t mean ‘Get off the road,’ but rather a friendly signal letting you know that they’re about to pass you.
What about money? You can use foreign bank ATM (credit/debit) cards to withdraw cash at any 7-11 or post office in Japan, so you don’t need to carry a large amount of money. Traveler’s checks are pretty much useless and small shops may not take credit cards. Vending machines with hot and cold drinks are everywhere (even along isolate country roads) and convenience stores such as Family Mart are plentiful in towns and cities and are a great place to get food for the road – onigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori with various fillings) are great for the road. It’s pretty safe in Japan and if you ever get lost, people are genuinely helpful and you can always stop at a neighborhood police box for help.
It’s pretty easy to find campgrounds, and some even have an onsen (thermal hot springs), which feels wonderful after a day of cycling. Inexpensive lodging includes minshuku (B&Bs) and Youth hostels (A unique cultural experience in itself – take your international YH membership card), but the cheapest are called ‘Rider house’ (say ra-i-da-a ha-u-su) specifically for summer bikers ($10-$20 a night) . Their locations, as well as the location of campgrounds and 7-11s very well marked in the map books called ‘Touring Mapple’ – there’s a book for every region of Japan, and although they’re in Japanese, the routes are very detailed and easy to understand. Available at bookstores and amazon.co.jp.
For background information on Japanese culture, language, transportation, and regional guides, of course I recommend my book “Living Abroad in Japan.” A good online resource is Japan Cycling Navigator. A Bike Friday rider who toured Japan offers great tips and photos on Geno’s blog.