In addition to its great public transportation, Japan is a superb travel destination for those who love cycling. No matter which major city you find yourself in, you’ll only need to take a brief train ride in order to find lakes, mountains, and expansive plains where you can breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the sunshine while getting some exercise.
The Japanese enjoy cycling as much as anyone, as you’ll see from the crowded bike racks at train stations and streets filled with cyclists. Many of the best trails have conveniently-located bike shops where you can rent a bicycle for a day or more. We’ve collected some of the best spots for riding, whether you’re an expert capable of tackling steep hills or a novice who just wants to leisurely pedal and take a few pictures.
1. Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road
One thing you may not know about Japan is that it consists of almost 7,000 islands, of which only 421 are inhabited. Beyond the main four (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku), there are many smaller islands surrounding and between them. Not far from the gorgeous sights of Hiroshima, the Shimanami Kaido course takes advantage of these small islands, allowing you to island-hop on your way from Honshu to Shikoku.
Beginning in Onomichi, the course is 80 kilometers long and offers gorgeous views of the Seto Island sea as you pass over multiple bridges before arriving in Imabari. Or the other way around; the trail can be done both ways. Another advantage of the course is that you don’t have to ride the whole thing – there are several spots along the way where you can stop and return by boat or bus, or take a custom detour. The entire course is marked by a blue line on the road, so you won’t have to worry about getting lost if you have trouble deciphering the road signs. There are also more than 150 places on the route where you can stop and find toilets, drinking water, or air pumps.
A basic bike rental will likely cost around ¥1,000 for adults and ¥300 for children, or you can upgrade to an e-bike for around ¥1,500 for one day. You can also opt for the more expensive sport bikes offered by Giant, which are comfortable and lightweight or the entry-level aluminium road bikes from Red Bicycle Onomichi. In any case it is highly recommended to make your reservation online in advance to secure a nicer bike that fits you best. Because this is a popular spot for tourists, many hotels are accommodating to cyclists. Check with your lodging to see if they offer luggage storage or will allow you to keep you bike in your room. There is even a luggage transfer service from Imabari to Onomichi. This is a safe, well-designed course perfect for novices and expert riders alike.
2. Biwa-Ichi Cycling Route
Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan, and offers a 200-km cycling route that goes in a loop around the lake. To do the entire thing in one day is possible, but if you’re not a serious cyclist, you can take several days to complete it at your own pace. There are lots of cyclist-friendly facilities nearby, and it’s also possible to go camping near the lake. There is an online map that shows all the spots where you can rent a bicycle.
The terrain is mostly flat, except for on the north end of the route. You can shorten the route by taking the Biwako Ohashi Bridge or taking a cruise boat across part of the lake. You’ll see hundreds of other cyclists, and the lake being in sight makes it easy to avoid getting lost. The general etiquette is to circle the route counter-clockwise. There are some spots where you will encounter traffic, so keep aware of your surroundings.
Springtime provides an opportunity to view cherry blossoms, making it a great season for this ride. The lake’s proximity to Kyoto also makes it very easy to get to. You can couple this trip with a few days exploring the city, so you’ll be experiencing urban and rural Japanese life on the same trip.
2. Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road/Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course
The second-largest lake in Japan, Lake Kasumigaura is situated about 60 km northeast of Tokyo, not far inland and close to the hiking trails of Mount Tsukuba. There are cycling courses for all skill levels here, with excellent views of both the mountain and the lake. The shortest ride around the lake is around 41 km, while the longest is about 125 km. Mount Tsukuba has a relatively flat 40 km course as well as a much tougher “Hill Climb Course” that’s around 25 km. If you want to take in both areas, the full course is around 180 km.
Tsuchiura Station is home to Ring Ring Square, which has a bike shop, lockers, and everything you’ll need to start your journey. There are plenty of pleasant stopovers and detours along the route, including Kasumigaura park, where 30,000 tulips bloom in the spring.
The most attractive part about this course is it proximity to Tokyo. You can take a train out, ride one of the shorter courses, and be back to the city in time to reward yourself with dinner. Non-serious cyclists are able to enjoy the scenery and still stay at a nice hotel in the city, waking up refreshed for a tour of the metropolis in the morning.
3. Awaji Island
Nestled between Shikoku and the city of Kobe, Awaji Island is home to many designated Japanese Heritage sites. It’s also where you can find Awaichi, a 150-kilometer course that takes you around the entire island. If you don’t want to tackle the whole thing, there are also smaller courses that showcase the parks and shrines of the area.
One convenient thing about this course is you aren’t limited in your lodging options; it’s so close to nearby cities that you can easily visit the island and come back in one day. To take a bus from Kobe will cost around ¥900 and takes 45 minutes. If you’re coming from Osaka, it might take 90 minutes or more depending on where you’re staying. There are about a dozen places where you can rent a bike, costing anywhere from ¥500 JPY to ¥5,000. You can spend as much time on the island as you like, then enjoy the Kobe area or go parasailing or jet boating near Awaji Island.
4. Miyakojima and Irabushima
In terms of offering some truly spectacular views, the islands of Okinawa Prefecture are second to none. Most flights to Okinawa will take you to Naha, but if you’re willing to take a connecting flight, the island of Miyakojima has crystal blue water with breathtaking cycling routes. The longest bridge in Japan connects the island to Irabushima, and each island also has plenty of beaches and gardens to see as well. This one’s less convenient to get to than the others, but the climate and Instagram fodder of this area simply can’t be beat.
5. Kibi Plain
While some of the above routes are designed for recreation, the Kibi Plain bike path, near Okayama, is more about convenience. Riding a bicycle is the best way to see local sites like the Kibitsu Shrine and the Bitchu-Kokubunji Temple. At just 17 kilometers, it’s a quick ride, and mostly flat land. Bicycle rentals are ¥1,100 JPY per day, and the route goes between Bizen-Ichinomiya Station, about 30 minutes from Okayama, and Soja station, near the Soja Folklore Museum, which is free to attend. This is a relaxed route that will allow you to see the Chugoku region at your own pace, ideal for a one-day getaway.
6. Fuji Five Lakes
One of the most active ways to enjoy the refreshing natural landscape of Mount Fuji is by bicycle. The Fuji Five Lakes region offer several cycling opportunities for all levels of cyclist. You can ride around Lake Yamanakako on the eastern edge of the area, a course that is about 14 km in length and covers almost the whole lakeside. Bicycles can be rented at multiple shops on the northwestern side of the lake for about ¥3,000 for a full day.
Another popular leisurely course is cycling around Lake Kawaguchi, one of the main sightseeing spots at the base of Mount Fuji. The lake is the most easy accessible and offers a 26 kilometer circular course that is flat throughout and suitable for all levels of cyclists. Several types of bicycles can be rent at rental shops near Kawaguchiko Station.
There are of course many other places in Japan to go cycling, like Japan’s Art Island Naoshima, the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage route or Hiroshima Peace City, a city that is extremely suitable to explore on a bicycle. Whether you’re a city adventurer or a lover of the outdoors, Japan caters to all! Let us know your favorite places to ride a bicycle in Japan!
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Gregg Maxwell Parker is an author and screenwriter best known for the book Troublemakers. Originally from the United States, he moved to Kobe in 2018. Gregg and his wife, Eriko, are the minds behind the blog As Seen In Japan, where they share pictures and stories from everyday Japanese life. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram.
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