Japan's fast, efficient and reliable public transport system is world famous. However, the humble bicycle is also an extremely popular way of getting around in Japan - on average around 14% of journeys in Tokyo every day are made by bicycle.
Bicycles are available to rent in many well-known as well as lesser-known tourist destinations all over Japan, and make a great way of getting around, saving your legs some walking on the tourist trail, and getting acquainted with Japanese culture, history and scenery from a different perspective, all in one go.
In particular, they can be an inexpensive and convenient way to get around rural cities or towns, which have less extensive public transport systems and whose town centres are relatively flat and compact but the distances between attractions are slightly too far to cover on foot.
Rental bicycles (“rentaru saikuru” in Japanese) shops are found in front of or near train stations at many tourist destinations, from the gently rolling flower fields of Hokkaido in the north to sunny white sand beach-rimmed islands of Okinawa in the south.
Rental bicycles are nearly always of a type referred to as “mama-chari” (“mum bicycle” in Japanese), which is roughly translatable to “city bike” in English (also known as “cruiser bike” or “Dutch bike”). These bicycles typically have a low frame - making them easy to ride in all types of clothing - a wide saddle, just one gear, a basic lock, kickstand, and front basket. Mountain bikes or electric-assisted bicycles (no license is required) may also sometimes be available at a higher cost.
Rental fees are usually in the region of 100-300 yen per hour, 400-800 yen for half a day, and 100-1200 for a whole day. The majority of shops do not allow overnight rentals. In areas where many shops operate it can be worth comparing prices before hiring, as they may be significantly different from one shop to another.
When renting, shops may require additional securities such as a cash deposit, photo identification, and the name and address of your accommodation in Japan. Hotels and guesthouses may also offer use of bicycles to staying guests free of charge or at a very low cost, so it is worth checking in advance with your hotel if that is the case.
Suggested Places for Cycling in Japan
The following places are our top picks for locations that are perfect for exploring on two wheels rather than two legs. In all these places, you can receive a dose of fantastic natural or urban scenery at the same time as stretching your legs.
Shimanami Kaido (central Japan/Shikoku)
Shimanami Kaido should be at the top of any self-respecting bicycle lover’s Japan bucket list. It is a 60-70 km long dedicated bicycle route connecting Japan’s main island of Honshu to its fourth largest island of Shikoku, via a purpose-built network of cycle paths and bridges arching gracefully crossing six smaller islands and affording breathtaking views of the Seto Inland Sea. The cycle paths on the bridges are designed with cyclists in mind, from separating them from motor vehicle users, to adjusting the gradient of the slopes on the bridges to what the average cyclist can handle.
Two wheels can be a great way to explore Kyoto, Japan’s classical former Imperial capital, allowing you to wind your way round its ancient streets and stumble across dozens of unique finds, from unnamed shrines and temples to boutique shops and tiny restaurants and cafes tucked away in its backstreets. Kyoto’s city centre is flat with a mostly rectangular grid network that makes it easy to navigate - make sure to incorporate a spin down the pleasant cycling path beside the Kamo River into your route.
Biei is a small town in the centre of Hokkaido surrounded by gently rolling hills and vast flower fields. It has two main areas that make pleasant cycling destinations. Patchwork Road is a scenic area northwest of the town centre - so named for the appearance of its flower fields from above - that offers beautiful rural landscape views all year round. Meanwhile, Panorama Road, south of the town centre, offers similar picturesque views of flower fields, but with slightly hillier terrain for those with hardier thigh muscles.
Lake Biwa (central Japan)
Koto Sanzan, an area east of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, is popular for cycling due to its refreshing lakeside breezes and scenic views. The area lends itself to circular cycling tours around the lake, with a roughly 200 km circuit along well-maintained roads following the shoreline. Hikone, a castle town whose 400 year-old castle keep is a national treasure, makes the perfect stop-off en route for those who are history buffs as well as cycle enthusiasts.
Noto Peninsula (central Japan)
Jutting 100 km out into the Sea of Japan, the Noto Peninsula is known for its stunning coastal scenery and rural atmosphere. The popular approach is to start from Kanazawa city (a destination in and of itself) and cycle along the peninsula’s coastline clockwise, finishing at Notojima Island on the eastern coast. The majority of the route is on quiet coastal back roads through sleepy fishing villages with little traffic but impressive coastal views.
Suggested stop-offs en route include Keta Taisha Shrine, Myojo-ji Temple, Ganmon Cliff Park caves, rock formations in the historical port city of Wajima, and the terraced rice fields of Senmaida. After exploring Notojima Island on two wheels, soak away your aches and pains in hot springs baths at Wakura Onsen.
Japan’s longest bridge, which spans the gap between these two small islands in the southern tropical Okinawa island chain, opened just a few years ago in 2015. It is possible to traverse the 3540 metre bridge at no charge by bicycle, enjoying the beautiful ocean views as you peddle, and discovering places that can only be accessed by bicycle en route, from quaint, hidden cafes to near-empty golden-sand beaches.
Basic Cycling Rules
- If you intend to go for a spin during your time in Japan, here are some simple rules for safe cycling in Japan:
- Keep on the left.
- Do not ride on the pavement (unless you are under 13 years of age, over 70, or have a disability).
- Do not carry objects while riding (e.g. mobile phones, umbrellas).
- By law, cyclists riding at night must have lights. If you think you will be cycling at night, make sure that your bicycle is equipped with working lights before setting out. If you cycle after dark without lights you are likely to be stopped by the police.
- Helmets are optional and are not usually provided by rental shops (but are strongly recommended if available).
- Do not cycle while under the influence of alcohol.
- Always lock your bicycle up when parking it. Do not leave valuables in the basket, even temporarily.
- Do not park in clearly non-bicycle parking designated zones. Especially in large cities and near train stations, illegally parked bicycles are collected and impounded regularly by local authorities, and can only be retrieved after payment of a fine.