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Cycling Across Japan: How to prepare and where to begin


The breeze gently touches your face, you stop for a minute to take a breather and you can’t help but smile. The tiredness leaves your body when you realise you’ve just completed one of Japan’s incredible cycling trails. You made it.
Cycling in Japan is like a dream, the routes are well-prepared and you can easily rent a bike or grab a delicious bite from one of Japan’s many convenience stores. There is no greater advice than words from the mouth of someone who has experienced different cycling routes in Japan, so we asked the expert cyclist Shin (also known as Cycling Ninja on Instagram) for his favourite places from his 19 000 km cycling adventure last year and advice for beginners
Read the second part of this cycling series to learn more about two easily accessible cycling routes: the scenic Shimanami Kaido in the Setouchi area, and the impressive Biwa-ichi around Japan’s largest lake, from traveller Lia, and the adventurous couple Kyde and Eric. 

You have cycled quite a lot in the past year. What was your favourite area of Japan or route for cycling?

I sure have cycled quite a lot in the past year! Around a total of 19 000km! Cycling around Japan is super easy. Low crime rate, friendly people, convenience stores and vending machines are absolutely everywhere. Delicious and cheap food all around! I’ll mention a few places below starting with smaller destinations that aren’t talked about too much (places I’ve recommended to my family).

The city recommendations take into account accessibility. Also, everything is within a short walking distance. I hate having to spend most of my time moving around when visiting a city. Don’t worry friends, I’ve thought of that for you :). 

1. Matsushima (Northeast of Sendai)
This smaller spot just slightly northeast of Sendai has a temple called Zuiganji with the most impressive sliding walls I have ever seen! Fully covered in GOLD. Imagine Kinkakuji in Kyoto (you know the gold covered temple?) but not just covered in gold. Sliding walls covered in golden art. There are no pictures allowed and they have security guards around and cameras pointed throughout the hallways. This temple was the main attraction for me but there’s also Kanrantei Tea House nearby with similar golden walls… again no pictures unless the workers there offer to take one for you like me :). Beautiful Mausoleum of Mitsumune Date is also right by the temple. Did I mention there are bridges going out to small bits of land on the water? It's a great place to take walks and enjoy delicious seafood as well! 


2. Osore-zan Bodaiji in Aomori
There are quite a few volcanic locations in Japan and I visited every single one. This one was by far the best spot, even better than Beppu for me. 

Let me set the scene for you: a short car ride or 20 km bicycle ride up a mountain from the nearest city of Mutsu through the forest. Some 15-20% sloped areas on the way so it’s not an easy bike ride! Your nose will tell you when you are nearby. You arrive at a large volcanic lake with sulphur bubbles seeping out of the bottom. It feels like a desolate foreign planet. The scenery is other-worldly with yellow stains on the ground and really not much vegetation growing around the lake. For a small fee, you can explore the pretty well-sized temple next to the lake and walk the grounds. The temple grounds include areas around the lake where you can walk along the beach and do a small hike (you could easily walk around for hours here). Oh yeah, did I mention the entrance fee also covers a dip in the onsen inside? It’s a small one inside a tiny building but the turquoise water comes from the volcanic lake and is a really great place to relax after walking around! Once you are done, have a nice soba meal outside the temple in the small cafeteria. I visited nearly every single volcanic area and nearly every famous temple in Japan during my summer cycling trip. Trust me, this spot is great!


3. Last one for now. Otaru. Northwest of Sapporo.

This is a cute little spot for sure! So you’ve either tried or have heard of amazing Japanese pastries. Well if you like sweets then this spot is… a must-visit! A very famous cheesecake brand as well as a cream puff brand calls this city it’s home. Not only that, this place is famous for its music box industry (yes it’s a thing and you'll be impressed if you like this sort of thing) and its glassware. Just a nice little town to spend a day trip! It’s easy to get to Sapporo from there.

Those were just from the first 1/4 of a trip I took. There’s definitely more worthy places to mention! 

For cycling, Hokkaido was great. I’d never experienced the great vastness of Japan’s northernmost prefecture and what better way to do it than on a bicycle? Hawks would often fly over me curiously looking down at me for miles and miles. It wasn’t uncommon to see foxes trotting along the road in the morning. The roads are pretty well maintained and there aren’t many cars at all depending on where you are. The seafood up there is really tasty (Keep in mind Japanese people know of Hokkaido as the place for great seafood). It's also known for its soup curry, lamb barbeque, milk, ramen, seafood and plenty of other foods. Cycling through the vast nature of Hokkaido while enjoying delicious food is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life! 


What would you recommend to beginners and which routes are more suitable for intermediate cyclists?

For the 12 500km bike packing trip that I did this past summer, the "endurance" was more about maintaining mental wellbeing while being injury resistant. My endurance was of course very good and my longest day was around 500 km long but it was also important for me to be resilient enough to withstand strong winds and unfavourable weather. The following tips will be based on my experience from my preparation for this bike packing trip!

Tip 1: Cross Training
For beginners especially, it is important to increase general work capacity. It might be an unpopular opinion but I believe it is important to do a variety of sports in addition to cycling. The variety helps maintain mental wellbeing (by keeping life interesting) and will increase general fitness which can contribute to cycling endurance.
In preparation for my cycling adventure, I made sure to lift weights up until a month before I left. I believe that strength training can greatly contribute to injury resistance (given you do it right). I also play football on the weekends. Football can help train the stability muscles around the leg joints. Sprinting and running can contribute to aerobic and anaerobic fitness. 

My point is that there can be unexpected benefits from playing a variety of sports!

Tip 2: Don't overcomplicate
This can be applied to a number of aspects of cycling. 

Training: Find some interval sessions online and complete 2 sessions a week in addition to a long weekend ride with friends. I personally chose to do some of the GCN (Global Cycling Network) Youtube Video training sessions. The training doesn't have to be perfect. Your goal isn't to become a professional cyclist so don't take it so seriously and keep it simple! If you are feeling too tired on a training day, skip it and try again the next day. Learn to listen to and understand your body rather than follow some rigid training guidelines. Training guidelines never take into account other aspects of life. 

Eating on the Bike: During my long weekend rides with friends, I don't eat on the bicycle at all. We stop for a snack every 50km or so and that serves well enough for all of us. Unless you are doing a hard training ride of over 100 km, I don't think anything other than a sports drink and some snack stops is necessary at all. 

Tip 3: Go on fun long weekend rides with friends
They say that cycling is one of the few sports in which more time dedication leads to guaranteed results. That being said, having some long weekend rides will increase endurance a ton. Keep long rides fun by cycling with friends who won't push the pace too hard. Choose somewhere with a nice view or a cafe that you and your friends want to visit! My friends and I always head out of Tokyo into the countryside during the weekend for some longer day rides. One of our favorite places is a farm that's 70 km away that serves delicious gelato! 

Tip 4: Don't follow tips for advanced cyclists
Leave the advanced tips for the stronger riders. Understand that many tips online won't take into account your background as an individual so weed through endurance tips wisely! Make sure the tips apply to where you currently are in your path to becoming a healthier cyclist. 

For intermediates, a must do route is the Shimanami Kaido. It is a very cycling friendly route that connects Honshu to Shikoku along some small islands. There are cycling road markings along the entire way! Intermediates can really cycle anywhere in Japan! No need to worry about drinks or food. There are convenience stores everywhere so forget bonking ever. Just use google maps like me and follow along! One trick I like to use is to look at the walking option along with the driving option to make sure cycling is allowed on the recommended roads. 

Read on about cycling from another perspective for easily accessible routes aimed at cyclists of all levels here.

And for more ideas on how to zip around sustainably, get to know the slew of new bullet train lines due to open in the next few years.

You can watch videos from Shin's adventures on his YouTube channel too.



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