Cycle touring in Japan

Cyclists touring Hokkaido
Japanese college students touring Hokkaido

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.

Express tikit

I got an Express tikit built by Bike Friday in Eugene, Oregon, in the fall of 2007. It’s the 5-second hyperfold version. I intended to use it primarily for commuting to work and running errands, but I’ve also taken it overseas on tours. My 9-speed Capreo Express tikit with 16″ wheels performed very well exploring 500 miles in southern France and a combined 1,000 miles on the last two Japan cycle tours I led–including a climb halfway up Mt. Fuji.

Express tikit in Akan National Park, Hokkaido
Express tikit in Akan National Park, Hokkaido

Before the last trip I replaced the H-bars with drop handlebars so I’d have more hand positions and a more aero position in headwinds. With narrow, high-pressure Schwalbe Stelvio tires, it rides pretty much like a road bike. To make sure I could get over mountain passes I put a smaller 48T chainring on it. I made it up all but a 13% grade… Another person on my Japan tour rode his Travel tikit and was also happy with its performance.

The big advantage I found with the tikit over the 20″ BF models is when using public transportation. The quick fold, transit cover, and rollability were a huge plus hopping on and off the TGV in France and shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan. Compared to carrying  my  Pocket Rocket Pro (and before that, SatRDay recumbent) in a bag on my shoulder up and down steps and through train stations, the tikit is a breeze.  Now if only Bike Friday would develop a 20″ model with a folding stem and a wheel for rolling…

Freepack backpack

Several people asked me how I carry things on my tikit. Well when I was touring Hokkaido in ’06 with a group of Bike Friday riders, we by chance met a Japanese cyclist on a Bike Friday! He had this cool backpack perched on the back of his seatpost that clicked on and off. I found out it’s made by a German company, Rixen & Kaul, that makes lots of innovative bike bags to carry everything from groceries to your dog. His pack was called Freepack Meta. I begged my BF friend to bring me one from Japan. (Thank you, Maki-san!).

Express tikit in Tokyo
Express tikit in Tokyo

If I have more stuff to carry, I use a TEECO bag. It has a molded rubber bottom and stands up by itself so it’s handy for grocery shopping and for carrying books to the library

Here’s me riding in the rain from Shinjuku to Tokyo Station to catch the Narita Express train to the airport. The Freepack backpack comes with a rain cover and a clever elastic mesh things that holds your helmet.

It’s the little things that make biking a pleasure!

(Where’s my suitcase, you ask? Shipped to the airport via takkyuubin delivery service, of course.)