What do you think of when you think of Japan? Sushi? Bullet trains? Mount Fuji? Blade Runner-esque streetscapes? Zen temples? Sumo wrestlers? All of these?
But do you think of one of the best places in the world to ride a bike? Well having just got back from a short cycle tour there let me give you seven reasons why, perhaps, you should...
1. The cycling culture
Think cycling culture and I think of the Netherlands or Denmark. Countries where the bike is a deeply engrained in day-to-day life to go to the shops, to go to work, to get around. Japan is pretty similar. Almost anywhere you go you'll find kids, workers and grannies tottering around on bikes as part of their everyday life. Not in the ordered way of northern Europe. Cyclists ride without helmets or lights. On the road or on the pavement as it suits them. With the traffic or against it. It shouldn't work but somehow it does.For the random foreigner cycling around Japan this is brilliant. You're not doing anything unusual by just cycling around. The traffic is generally forgiving and respectable. And if it all goes your'e unlikely to be far from a bikeshop.
As I found out on my first day, this also means there is a lot of good bike infrastructure around if you can find it (OpenCycleMap.org is a good place to start) From the airport I jumped straight onto a cycle path along the Tamagawa River. From there a brief ride through suburban streets took me onto another riverside path, another detour and I was on another surrounded by beautiful cherry blossoms (see photo), and before I knew it I'd escaped Tokyo to the seaside spending most of my time of traffic free paths.
2. The convenience
Everywhere you go in Japan you will see vending machines and convenience stores. Some might view these as blots on the landscape but for cyclists they are life-savers. I realised this on my second day which started off gently with a flat ride along the coast but soon turned into an absolute sufferfest. The first obstacle was 900m of climbing in about 12km. Not too bad except for quite a bit was at 10%+. A descent then another climb and I bonked horribly. Fortunately a vending machine was nearby. A bottle of lemonade quenched my thirst and gave a sugar-boost. A can of coffee perked me up and I was on my way. A bit later I found a convenience store, refilled my water bottles with apple juice, bought and ate some pizza and some bananas and all was alright...
3. Hot springs
Japan is a volcanic place. Alongside the molten rock, hot springs burst out of the ground across the country. The Japanese like nothing more than bathing in these onsen so across the country you'll find bathhouses and hotels where you can soak and relax. Once you are used to the rules (segregated, naked bathing and scrupulous cleaning before entering the bath) these are a cyclists dream - nothing feels better than a soak in a hot spring after a long day on the bike. Or even halfway through a ride if you are feeling particularly indulgent as I was on my third day when I stopped of at a small onsen nestled on top of a cliff with spectacular views across a bay. Sheer indulgence.
4. The scenery
Mountains, rugged coastlines and cherry blossoms. Japan has an awfully large amount of natural beauty. Doing a ride like my fourth day over the shoulders of Fuji-san was as spectacular as any day I've ridden in the Alps or Pyrenees. There were even cows (this is for WillJ).
5. The food
"A cyclist rides on his stomach". Or something like that. A cyclist can also stuff himself silly in the knowledge he'll burn the calories - this is one of the pleasures of riding. In Japan it is particularly amazing as the food is outstanding. The country has a deep tradition of good cooking is the only place I know, other than Italy, where you walk into any restaurant and be confident you'll get something good if not spectacular.
At the end of my fifth day, I was tired and sunburnt when I rocked up to an anonymous business hotel I'd booked in a small city of no particular interest (a Japanese Staines perhaps). I expected dinner to be OK but it turned out to be sumptuous: tuna sashimi, carp from the local river in a rich soy glaze, delicate tofu creations, vegetables topped with spicy pickles, a savoury egg custard with wild mushrooms... all served beautifully in small servings in little bowls. It didn't look like it could possibly full me up but by the end both my stomach and taste buds were satisfied and I was ready for another day of riding.
6. The roads
From 1991 to 2000 (and arguably longer) Japan plunged into a lost decade of economic output. Spurred on by the construction lobby the country undertook a vast programme of public works in an attempt to rekindle growth. Some of this was deeply harmful such as the canalisation of rivers and the billions spent on pointless coastal defence schemes. But it has also left a network of brilliant roads criss-crossing the country.
On my sixth day I really relished these as I climbed over deserted cols, screamed down descents with more switchbacks than Alpe d'Huez. In March though I could only scratch at the surface of what's on offer because the highest passes are still covered by snow. I only managed to reach a little over 1,400m on this trip (no col marker on that pass...) yet you can climb up to a loft 2,715m at Norikura and nearly 2,500m on the flanks of Fuji-san - climbs that rank with the giants of the Alps.
It gets better though. When investing in roads the Japanese have often replaced the old one with a new one running in parallel. This leaves the quiet old road (still well maintained) as a perfect route for cyclists.
Best of all though are the speed limits. At most these are 60 km/h off the motorways and generally lower at 50 km/h or 40 km/h. So even when there is traffic it goes at a sensible pace. Bliss. Just don't ask how fast I went down some of the descents...
7. The trains
Sadly not all things go to plan. On my seventh day of riding my rear wheel fell apart with three spokes working their way loose and beyond my ability to true the wheel. In Japan though you are rarely far away from a train station and a regular, reliable bailout. Simply put your bike in a bag and you can get on the train. No questions asked, no additional fare.
For me this was a life-saver but it can also allow for create route finding. Staying in a city and don't want to schlep through urban sprawl? Jump on a train to the countryside ride to another station and cruise home. If only it were so simple in the UK...
I hope you've enjoyed this little taste of my trip and perhaps might give some of you a desire to take your bike to the Far East. I took loads more photos which are on my flickr account if anyone wants to see more.