Japan cycling map & highlights
Most Japan cycling vacations are already superbly sustainable, since on a typical two-week tour you’ll be cycling for nine days. They earn further responsible travel stripes by using the train and bus to join the dots. Board the legendary Bullet Train between Tokyo and Kanazawa – a two-and-a-half-hour trip – or ride the rails from Kanazawa to Kyoto in two hours. Two-week cycling vacations are small group affairs, with a local guide and maximum of 16 people, but self-guided vacations of a week in the Noto Peninsula are also available – perfect for slotting into a longer itinerary.
1. Hida Takayama
Pedalling into the foothills of the Japanese Alps is worth the effort. As you cycle out of Shirakawa-go, climbing from 500m to 1,100m, you’ll scoop up some superb views: the picturesque shores of Miboro Lake, pretty villages, and forested valleys that ripple with rust-toned leaves in autumn. Then it’s downhill – literally – to pretty Hida Takayama, nicknamed ‘Little Kyoto’ because of its ancient architecture and time-warp atmosphere.
Kanazawa once rivalled Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) for cultural importance and it’s still culturally kicking it today. Its Nagamachi Samurai District is an atmospheric tangle of narrow lanes, canals and samurai residences. Near Kanazawa Castle, the Kenrokuen Gardens are over 11 hectares of landscaped loveliness, begun by the powerful Maeda clan in 1632 and completed 200 years later. They’re most spectacular during cherry blossom season and autumn.
Kyoto is Japan’s cultural and historic heart, bristling with over 2,000 temples, shrines and gardens. Wander the geisha district of Gion, discover Nijo castle and nip into teahouses, then spend a day cycling. Head west to Arashiyama, taking in Ryoanji Temple and its Zen rock garden, the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), and the Philosopher’s Path, or pedal south along the Kamo River to Tofukuji Temple’s rock gardens.
4. Noto Peninsula
Curving into the sea like a seal flipper, the Noto Peninsula is biking bliss. Follow undulating routes past remote fishing villages, rice paddies and craggy coastlines. You can even bike on the beach – the Chirihama Beach driveway is an 8km stretch of hard packed sand. Stay in traditional inns (ryokans), visit the morning market at Wajima and crown it all with a soak in the hot springs of Wakura onsen.
Hidden behind mountains, Shirakawa-go and other villages in the Shogawa River Valley were cut off from the rest of Japan for centuries. They retain a secluded feel and are famous for their gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some 250 years old, made with steep thatched roofs designed to withstand heavy snowfall and provide attic space for cultivating silkworms. Some cycling vacations include a night in one, hosted by a local farmer.
Beautiful, brash, exciting, heaving, eccentric – you can hurl all kinds of adjectives at Tokyo and they’ll stick. Cycling trips either start or end here, giving you time to explore the capital: the Sensoji temple, craft shops and street food stalls of Asakusa; the neon-lit skyscrapers of Shibuya; Ueno Park with its temples and cherry trees; and the beautiful Meiji Shrine, Tokyo’s major Shinto site.
If you'd like to chat about Japan cycling or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Japan cycling vacations advice
James Adkin from our specialist vacation company Explore, the first UK operator to pioneer a cycle trip in Japan, has this advice:
“There’s nothing essential to bring, apart from a cycling helmet. It is a legal requirement in Japan to wear a helmet that meets current safety criteria. We recommend quick drying cycle tops, padded cycle shorts, a lightweight wind and water proof jacket and warmer breathable layers. Bring a daypack (big enough to carry what you need for a few days) and one main piece of luggage, which will be transported between hotels while you cycle. There are a few days on the tour when you will not have your main luggage so will need to pack the day bag with your essentials.”
The real deal
“As well as the scenic cycling that engages all the senses and makes you feel more alive, our route travels through a little visited part of rural ‘real’ Japan, as well as Kyoto and Tokyo. We stay on a number of nights in typical local ryokan accommodation, which people love. There are a number of onsen (hot springs) along the way and people can relax before dinner with a restorative soak in the hot spring after the cycling (these are in the ryokans). We place a special focus on the wonderful local food, visit Japanese gardens in Kanazawa and travel on the bullet train to Tokyo.”
Leading the way
“Our tour leaders get superb feedback, and perform an essential role in Japan as the culture is so different. The leader helps to interpret and explain so much. People love that they get under the skin of real Japan in an active way as well as seeing some of the famous highlights.”
“You don’t need to be super fit at all, but it helps if you ride a bike reasonably regularly and build up a bit before your vacation to get the most out of it. There is always a support vehicle you can use, nice to have as a safety net fall back. It’s perfect for cyclists used to undulating routes with occasional energetic climbs and those with a reasonable level of fitness. It isn’t a race; it’s not all about the bike and kilometres, and it’s not a heads-down training ride.”
Kelly Reid from our vacation specialist Exodus has this advice:
Why explore by bike?
“Most tourists explore Japan via the wonderfully efficient rail lines. However, not a lot of tourists explore the country yet by bike, which offers our cycling clients a more unique, less ventured way to discover the country. When people think of Japan, they often think about the bustling, modern cities like Tokyo, or traditional, historic places like Kyoto and Hiroshima. Japan is truly a country with so much diverse natural beauty and scenery that can be magical at any time of year to discover. Taking a cycling trip allows you the chance to discover so many different landscapes along the way that often aren’t possible to encounter when you just visit the big cities and travel via high speed trains.”
Eating in ryokans
“Most definitely the food people experience when they stay at ryokans (traditional style accommodation) is the most commented on as they experience not only Japanese cuisine, but usually it is incredibly well presented, served in a traditional setting where clients can experience sitting at a table on tatami mats, often eating in a kimono as well. Usually the meals they eat at ryokans all are lovingly prepared by the owners using locally sourced and in season produce.”
Food glorious food
“To be honest, food in Japan is so incredibly diverse and interesting, with a huge amount of experiences available whether it be eating tapas like Japanese dishes in a izakaya (Japanese type pub), cooking your own meal in a hot pot restaurant, visiting a ramen bar and ordering your ramen with so many toppings to choose from via a machine before you sit down. There is so much to experience. Eating Japanese food is so much more than just about the taste of the actual food you are trying, it is a fully immersive experience of all the senses. And our leaders who lead our cycling trip are often highly complemented on their foodie knowledge that they enthusiastically share which really raises the overall experience for our clients.”
Best time to go
“I personally think the autumn months are the best time of year to go, especially for a cycling trip as that is when the whole country experiences the change of seasons and the leaves all turn beautiful autumnal shades which offer so many breathtaking views and photo ops. It is a very special time of year to experience the nature and landscapes of Japan, perfect for a cycling trip! Everyone raves about the cherry blossom season in spring but this is often when the country is so, so busy with tourists (both overseas and domestic) and temperatures can often get quite hot. I think autumn is the best time in particular for this cycling trip.”
More about Japan cycling
Forget traditional sightseeing and discover the joys of Japan cycling vacations. Pedalling takes you round remote coastlines and to forested foothills, along clear rivers and to secluded time-warp villages. You’ll have time to explore Japan’s most celebrated cities, too, both on foot and on two wheels. Read on to find out more.