Cycling Holidays in Japan | Beyond the Golden Route

Cycling Holidays in Japan | Beyond the Golden Route

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Japan is not just home to bullet trains, skyscrapers, and mega cities. Just beyond the city limits of the megalopolis of Tokyo stretches endless kilometers of amazing car free roads and rich nature. Couple this with beautiful ryokan hotels, delicious kaiseki meals, and a soak in natural onsen hot springs and you have the perfect recipe for a cycling holiday in Japan!

The Golden Route | Tokyo to Kyoto & Osaka

Stretching from Tokyo in the east to the cultural capitol of Kyoto and Osaka in the west the Golden Route is arguably the most traveled route for tourists visiting Japan.

For first time visitors to Japan, those who love cities, and seeing the classic sights, this route is well traveled and very English friendly. Thanks to the ample visitors, large number of tourism facing businesses, and bullet trains (and rail pass) this route is very accessible to all levels of travelers.

That said, for those looking to explore off the beaten path, those looking to avoid touristy areas, or return visitors to Japan getting off the Golden Route can open a whole new side of Japan seldom seen by tourists.

The New Golden Route | New Trains, New Routes

It is no surprise that the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train to Kanazawa City on the west side of Japan saw the area boom as a tourist destination.

While the previous line lead to Nagano City, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics & the famous Japow of Hakuba Ski Valley, this extension completed in 2014 saw a massive shift in tourism across the west coast of Japan.

Where the original route traces the old trade route of the Tokaido, this new train allowed tourists to take a much faster route out to the rural west coast and smaller cities of Nagano and Kanazawa en-route to Kyoto. This has made the former extremely unconnected Noto Peninsula now an easily accessible driving and cycling destination as well as began popularizing cycling around Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake just east of Kyoto.

A Blessing and a Curse | Being the New Golden Route

While the new uptick in tourism has proven to be a huge economic benefit for the areas along the New Golden Route, with the ever growing numbers of tourists coming to Japan overtourism has become a big concern of many areas.

Unlike many of the western world’s tourist attractions much of Japan’s famous sights are really quite small. Most temples are around the size of a typical American house or smaller, so you can imagine what that means for crowds when you have thousands of visitors a day. When they become “discovered” by the bloggers, influencers, and tourism sites they often become swamped with tourists.

It is a real concern in an ever growing world of international travel, and one of the reasons we find cycling off these Golden Routes to be the best way to see a whole different side of Japan.

Where To Go On A Cycle Holiday in Japan

While Japan is full of amazing places to ride a bike, we at Bike Tour Japan have a special love for the inland prefectures of Gunma, Tochigi, and Nagano, as well as the Setouchi Inland Sea. These inland prefectures are home to some of the best car free cycling, untouched wilderness, and onsen hot springs! The Setouchi Area is one of the easiest and most accessible areas for beginner cyclists and those looking to go without guides.

Kita Kanto Region | Central Honshu’s Cycling Sunbelt

Being based out of Kiryu City in Gunma Prefecture we believe the Kita Kanto Region has a one of a kind environment perfect for cycling holidays.

A large part of why we love cycling in this area comes down to the geography and accessibility of the region. Less than 2 hours from central Tokyo by train or car you will reach the towns of Kiryu and Ashikaga and the cities of Takasaki & Maebashi.

Thanks to the natural spine of the main island of Honshu that separates western and eastern Japan, and the distance from the ocean Kita Kanto Region is one of the sunniest and driest places in all of Japan. This means less rain and more awesome days on bike. Couple this with strings of car free roads, options for gentle flat rides, and climbs in excess of 1,500m gains, and you have a cycling region ready for all levels of riders.

For more about the weather in Japan check out our article on Cycling the Four Seasons of Japan.

Soaking in the views from atop the Kiryu Alps.
Soaking in the views from atop a beautiful Rindo Forest Road outside Kiryu, Gunma.

The Setouchi Sea & Shimanami Kaido Region

While in recent years the Shimanami Kaido しまなみ海道 has taken off as a cycling destination, few venture far off the main 70km route or spend much time in Shikoku on the other end.

We love to take our time crossing the Kaido (tr. Sea Road) and once across, spending even more time exploring Shikoku and other island chains within the Setonaikai 瀬戸内海.

This region also tends to be one of the last areas to have fall colors in the fall, and first to have cherry blossoms in the spring, making it a perfect trip for the start and end of each season!

Read our full guide on Cycling the Shimanami Kaido.

Sunset across the Onomichi strait.
Sunset across the Onomichi strait on the Shimanami Kaido Setouchi Sea Tour.

Other Regions to Consider

The Highest Road in Japan | Mount Norikura, Nagano

For those looking for the biggest climb in Japan, we venture further west from Tokyo to the Kita Alps & Kamikochi Region home to the highest road in Japan on Mt Norikura. At over 2,700m above sea, those that dare to take on this climb of over 2,200m gain from Matsumoto City are rewarded with sweeping views and a car free road for the final 13km!

Read our full guide on Cycling Mount Norikura.

The snaking switchbacks and stunning fall foliage on Mt Norikura in late September.
The snaking switchbacks and stunning fall foliage on Mt Norikura in late September.

Cycling the River Paths of Japan | Car Free for Hundreds of Kilometers!

Japan has an ever growing list of marked cycling routes. But the locals all know some of the best riding in Japan for gentle flatter routes is on the cycling roads built on the major rivers. Our favorite is the Tone River, the longest car free cycling road in Japan. The Tone River has over 200km of car free paths from the mountains to the ocean!

For a more complete list of Japan’s River Path Cycling Roads check this article!

Nikko National Park

Though most take the time to visit the shrines such as the Toshogu Shrine of the lower town of Nikko, the massive volcanoes and alpine lakes of the Nikko National Park provide some incredible cycling just beyond. While tourism and traffic has begun to increase in the area into the 2020s there are still many off the beaten path routes to explore in Nikko area.

Read our full guide on Cycling Nikko National Park.

The sandy shores of Lake Chuzenji and Mt Nantai.
The sandy shores of Lake Chuzenji and Mt Nantai in Nikko National Park.

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