Traveling domestically is expensive – even more than going abroad a lot of the time. When you get to your destination, you’ll still have to rely on public transport to get form A to B and it’s likely that A and B is all that you’ll see! But if you cycle, you’ll see A, B and everything between.
Cycling has to be one of the cheapest ways to travel, after the initial cost. But even that can be covered by a bike at a good entry-level price.
What kind of bike?
You don’t need anything crazy. Carbon fiber ultra light drop handle 200,000yen speed machines? They’re not particularly designed for long distances. In fact, a good long distance bike is a nice common steal framed bike with road wheels. These will be comfortable (relatively) for many kilometers.
Where to buy?
Craigslist: This is the ultimate place, isn’t it? Looking for a bike, a roommate, a TV stand, or a transsexual – it’s all here. Though some things might not be as legitimate as they look. (I’m looking at you Cindi Phueng!) Make sure when buying a bike from Craigslist that the seller brings all the documents so you can change the bike over to your name at the koban (police box). Without it, at best you’ll have a hard time explaining to the police why you’re on someone else’s bike and at worst you’ll be unknowingly riding around on a stolen bike.
Buying New: It’s not as bad as you think. I picked up my little road bike for 30,000yen with a front light and heavy chain thrown in for free. The brand is A.N.Design. They’re basically a TokyoBike knock-off from Taiwan but actually seem to be attempting to build a reputation (much like early Asus notebooks). I’ve done a few thousand kilometers on it and never even had the chain fall off.
What to wear?
Anything! I’m not the kind of guy to dress up for most things. And I’m not about to spend thousands of yen on cycling gear tight enough for my nipples to be able to direct traffic. I wear Uniqlo Airism stuff, cheap tracksuit bottoms, anything really! I do sometimes wear special underwear with padding. Try Amazon for 3D gel pants or cycling underwear. They’ll make you feel a bit more comfortable but still be able to walk around the street without people knowing which leg your penis prefers.
When to go?
That will depend where you are and where you go. Japanese summers are brutal but outside the cities when you’re going at a good pace with a nice breeze, it actually doesn’t feel that hot. I’ve known people who’ve gone from Tokyo to Kyushuu in the dead of winter, and camped on top of that. It seems like an interesting way to die, doesn’t it? Whenever you travel, just be prepared for whatever the weather will be.
Where to go?
Anywhere! Assuming your hub is in or around Tokyo, you have so many possibilities. If you’re already in the countryside, just head to the nearest coast. Already at the coast? Head in the opposite direction until you hit another coast. It’s all relatively easy to travel. Just watch out for the mountains.
For the sake of this article I’m going to outline my most recent trip. Tokyo to Niigata – the famous Coast-to-Coast route.
The route is 350km in total and I went in the middle of the Obon holidays. It took the best part of 3 days. But with only 2 major mountains and the majority along the rivers, it was a breeze.
Left Shibuya-ward at 7am and headed dead North up Meiji-dori. Once quite a way from Takadanobaba I headed through the houses until I caught on to the Arakawa river (river river, I know…). Around 9am I caught up with a friend who’d left at a similar time from Fuchu. We followed the river all the way to Honda Airport (yeah I hadn’t heard of it either) and then decided to get some food.
Miso Udon from a random family restaurant: 1,200yen
We headed through the fields and managed to overshoot Kumagaya by about 5km. We were having such a good time following the artificially raised riverbanks we didn’t even notice the turn off we should have made, which was straight North up Route 407. We decided to look for a place to put our heads down and figured a bigger town would have some places. We aimed for Honjo.
Where to stay?
What is it with Japan and unnecessary business trips? Well a few goods things have come of that. Transport and accommodation spring to mind. I wonder how far it is actually possible to be from any sort of accommodation. I never book ahead on my trips, but I do use Google maps and the command “Find: Hotels” when I get to an area that looks fairly built up. Even in Japan it’ll list hundreds of places. Good luck getting information from then on, though. At best you’ll be linked to a site that reminds me of my GeoCities days with flashing banners and gifs of cats.
If you want to know how much it’s going to cost, you’ll just have to call or go and find out.
Ryokan: For the higher end biker. I mean, if you’ve already spend 200,000 yen on a bike, it’s not that much of a stretch to splash out on a room. Ryokan often include a Japanese breakfast – these are a treat. The costs are from around 8,000 yen to no limit at all – and they charge per person. So if you’re going with a group, there’s almost no benefit. But the built in hot springs will soothe your aching muscles and help you get a decent sleep.
Business hotels: For between 3,000 and 6,000 yen, you can find a room with a shower and a lock on the door. Often smokey and slightly damp, it’ll do for the night. For a single person these are the best bet. Most will just charge you double for two people.
Love hotels: Here’s where you can be clever. With this kind of room, they charge only for the room. Not only that, they’re cleaner (I wouldn’t want to see it under UV light, mind), have nicer bathrooms with Jacuzzis and are almost always entirely automated, so you don’t even need to deal with any staff. There is some drawbacks with the automation, however. The doors automatically lock once inside and can’t be opened unless you settle up your bill. They do this to prevent anyone from doing a hit and run. This is a pain if you wanted to go out for the evening and take in whatever town you’ve landed in. If it’s just the two of you, then call the staff using the phone in the room. If it’s more than two, you might have some explaining to do and might not be able to stay. Rooms are from around 5,000 to 10,000 a night. Divided 2 or 3 ways and you’re saving some serious money, if you don’t mind topping and tailing with someone who’s just cycled +100km.
Internet cafes: You’ve just biked 120km; you need a bed. Although some places are great and you might be able to get a good sleep, I recommend finding a place where you can get your back straight and legs stretched. Not a chair, however nice it is. Prices are around 2,000 yen for the night.
Camping: Free! But I can’t bring myself to ride 100km AND camp. I need aircon and soap. If you are camping, check Google for camp sites. It’s not unusual to just camp in a quiet park, but don’t be surprised if you’re woken up by 5 or so housewives chatting away while their kids run all over you.
Back to the story. We found a place for the night and paid 3,000 yen each. After that we headed into town and got to a supermarket. We came back with four bananas, a watermelon slice, SoyJoy, water, a surprisingly decent beer, and frozen pasta. Total price was around 900yen.
So that’s a day done and I’m out of pocket by around 6,000 yen including any little vending machine drinks and snacks.
In the pissing rain my riding companion and I part ways. She is heading towards Kanazawa to catch up with some friends and do some camping. I’m about to brave the huge 1,000 meter, 12 percent incline mountain that goes to Karuizawa. Except I don’t. The rain was just too miserable so I took a train to the base of the mountain.
At the base of the mountain I met a Japanese guy at a little udon stand connected to the station. We make some small talk and turns out we’re heading the same way. But the rain just isn’t letting up. We made a joke about taking a taxi and we laughed and laughed. 30 minutes later and the rain was worse, we reluctantly agreed the taxi idea was actually a stroke of genius. So we took a taxi to Karuizawa Station and set up our bikes. His bike looked like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. It was pretty slick.
Udon and taxi: 3,000 yen
“Gaman” was the word of the year in 2011. It means to just bare it and get through what you have to do. It was the word of the hour for me and my new friend. The good news was that we were at the peak of the mountain and, according to my map, the next 100km was going to be straight down hill. And it was. We were blasting down, 60km an hour at times, in the pouring rain on huge roads with just a bit of traffic. The Dyson seemed to know where we were going. Route 18 all the way to Nagano City. We did that 60km in about 2 hours with almost no rests. Just as the rain had stopped and the road began to dry off, it was time to split up. He had booked a ryokan to the North of Nagano and I was heading towards Iiyama where I heard there were many cheap ryokan and business hotels.
So I got off of Route 18 and did a bit of sightseeing along the Chikuma river. This turned out better than I expected. It was around 15km of unbroken road biking. On either side of the elevated path were some kind of orchids of a fruit I couldn’t make out.
Then I ran into a little trouble. Google maps sent me up a mountain. It was just too steep to ride so I walked it. But the sun was going down and things were getting a bit scary. I was sent down a path that didn’t exist. I had to go through a farm. I don’t mean a farm road. I was riding actually through the farm. It was too dark to tell what was around me but I was on solid grass. I kept thinking I was going to fall into a rice field. I contemplated just starting a small fire and waiting for help. I was in bad shape. I managed to find concrete again and headed up hill some more. Two cars blocked my path, I thought I could probably squeeze past them. Suddenly a head popped up from the car. An office lady with the guiltiest eyes I’ve ever seen. The car was occupied. A guy wearing a towel on his head and a towel on his waist very hastily told me I was going the wrong way via and big batsu X with his arms. He gestured to go back and take a left. Unfortunately my chain was caught up in overgrowth where I was trying to get around the car. So I was stuck there far longer than anyone would like. But when free I bolted back down and took that left. Finally, I’m heading down hill again and the lights and noises make me happy to be alive. I found a place for the night that was slightly more expensive than I’d like but it had been a long day.
Got some yakitori and other finger food from a local bar and hit the bed.
Total cost for the day: 10,000 yen
This was going to be an easier day. I woke up to beautiful weather. I only had to do 70km today and only one mountain to get past. Had a cup of coffee with cheese on toast and some snacks from Lawson. About 600 yen.
Flew down towards Chikuma again and went parallel to the river for about 30km. Pretty uneventful but beautiful to look at. I did meet one woman cycling who lived local. She said lots of foreigners cycle around the area and the community is pretty big.
At the base of the last mountain I’d have to scale and I’m feeling pretty good. But actually it was terrible. No shade, just sun beating down on me. I ran out of water and it was too steep to cycle so I had to push now and again. No cars or sign of life except the insects that like to try and hit you in the face. I was very tempted to attempt hitch-hiking just to get out of the sun. Every corner turned just reveals more hills and more sun, more bugs, more corners. Finally a tunnel. At least it would have shade. Oh, and it has a slight decline, I can take it easy for a bit. Actually the tunnel opened up into the best down hill mountain road I have ever been on. It was fantastic. Wide road, no cars, the wind. and it went on for 20km – which I rode in around 35 minutes. I barely even needed to pedal. I admit that I was sometimes reminded that my bike only cost 30,000yen – I had images of the wheel just falling off. But the bike has never let me down. I was half tempted to go back up the mountain again but I had a ferry to catch. My real trip was actually to Sadogashima, but my bike trip ends at the port.
The rest of the ride through Niigata was smooth and painless. I stopped at a Gusto and got some food in my stomach.
Cheese in Hamburg set with a large portion of rice and drink bar: 1,300 yen
I went along Seki river towards the port and caught the ferry to Sado. Because it was obon I did book ahead this time and found a nice room with shared shower at a place called Green Village. The owner, a 70 year old woman, even picked me up at the port in Sado and drove me to the place. My bike stayed in its bag for the rest of the trip. I took a ferry back to Niigata then took the train back to Tokyo.
Green Village: 4,000 yen with breakfast.
So day 3 put me back around 6,500 yen or so including any snacks and drinks.
Of course the trip in total cost a lot more than that, but that was just due to choice. If I had made it a round trip and purposefully stayed at the cheapest places possible, it could have been done for around 15,000 yen or so for the 3 days on the road. But this was a holiday for me so I splashed out at times and took some major public transport to get home.
I think Japan must be one of the best and easiest countries to bike around. You’re never too far from clean water, a warm bed, or food. You don’t need to be an athlete either, just set your sights on somewhere and just go. If it turns out to be too far, just find a place for the night near where you are, then set off again tomorrow. Have an emergency? Just get the train back. With that many safety nets, there’s no excuse for not trying.