Japan, the land of the rising sun, is an 11 hour flight from the UK if you’re lucky. But of all the end to end cycle adventures, this one may have the most to offer given the contrasting landscape of the four main islands.
The archipelago consists of 6,852 islands of which 430 are inhabited. The four main islands, from north to south, are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu; Honshu is the largest and referred to as the Japanese mainland. Japan is famed for its dense cities, imperial palaces, mountainous national parks and thousands of shrines and temples. Shinkansen bullet trains connect the main islands of Kyushu (with Okinawa’s subtropical beaches), Honshu (home to Tokyo and Hiroshima’s atomic-bomb memorial) and Hokkaido (famous for skiing). Tokyo, the capital, is known for skyscrapers, shopping and pop culture.
In the north lies the start point, Cape Soya. The cycling distance to the southern tip of Honshu at Cape Sata is roughly 2,500 miles. A 1,570 miles option based on this tour itinerary of Japan Biking includes bullet train sections and rest days. The tour will be next run in Setember 2017:
Cycle from the 45th parallel to the 31st in one event!
Soak in outdoor onsen hot springs
Enjoy exquisite Japanese cuisine
Ride up Mount Fuji
Dance the awa odori in Tokushima
Visit the Hells in Beppu
And finally… enjoy a well deserved steaming sand bath in Ibusuki !
ride days 28
8 ride days on Hokkaido
10 ride days on Honshu
10 ride days on Shikoku+Kyushu
2 train days (Honshu)
total distance 2,500 km
total elevation gain 30,000 mt
average day 92km
average gain 1100 mt
2 longest days 144km/136km
2 biggest climb days 2500mt/2400mt (Fuji-san and lower Kansai)
Welcome to Wakkanai !
We join the group in Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan. Wakkanai is a small fishing port with a regular ferry that brings day tourists from the Russian Island of Sakhalinskay. Our first day will be spent getting our bikes set up and meeting our new cycling partners.
1 – 96 km: Wakkanai to Hamatonbetsu
As we leave Wakkanai, our first 40km segment of riding takes us north to Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Japan. After a group photo at the Soya Monument, we immediately head south which is our general direction for the next 2600 km’s. Our flat route today is along the coast where we’ll see massive piles of scallop shells along the deep blue coastal waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean.
2 – 112 km: Hamatonbetsu to Nayoro
Leaving the coastal town of Hamatonbetsu we head inland to venture into the lush interiors of Hokkaido. We’ll have a slightly longer day, but still quite flat. It’s usually along this section where the sounds of our bikes will be drowned out by the loud chirping of crickets as they dominate the local sound-scape.
3 – 80 km: Nayoro to Asahikawa
We leave the small town of Nayoro and head down a quiet river valley dotted with farms to Asahikawa, the second largest city in Hokkaido. The city is dense, but geographically small, so in less than 10km we enter and leave the city limits. For dinner, we’ll be sure to have the town’s signature dish, ramen.
4 – 64 km: Asahikawa to Furanosho
Our 5th cycling day takes us to the ski town of Furano that receives over 8 meters of snow each winter. This will be our first taste of the hills of Japan; we’ll be seeing plenty more as our journey progresses.
5 – 112 km: Furanosho to Sapporo
Today we head to Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido (and the 5th largest in Japan), known for hosting the first Winter Olympics in Asia in 1972, and for its famous Sapporo Brewery which we can tour if we arrive early enough after a long day on the bikes.
6 – 104 km: Sapporo to Toyako Hot Springs
This will be our largest climbing day so far as we leave Sapporo heading into the Kimobetsu foothills up over the 837m Nakayama Pass. We spend the night along the placid Lake Toyako; known for its many hot springs.
7 – 112 km: Toyako Hot Springs to Mori
Today we take a coastal route that winds us around Uchiura Bay where we’ll have a clear view of the active volcano Mount Komagatake that dominates the skyline of our destination, the small seaside town of Mori.
8 – 48 km: Mori to Hakodateko FERRY – Aomori
After leaving Mori, we head to the ferry port at Hakodateko across the hilly Kameda Peninsula. Despite the peninsula’s topography, this short route is relative flat, because the roads cut through the hills giving us a seemingly endless number of tunnels to pass through. We take the 4-hour ferry ride to Aomori on the northern coast of Honshu. Aomori sits at the base of the massive Aomori Bay and enjoys one of the highest snowfall records on Earth.
9 – 72 km: Aomori to Towada-Ko
Today is our first of 10 cycling days on Honshu. Our route out of Aomori is one of my favorite stretches of road in Japan. After only a few kilometers from the city center, we slowly wind upwards through some of the best cycling so far. Near our first summit we will stop at one of the courtesy roadside tea stands and take a break before our next section of climbs. The views along this road are breathtaking. The descent takes us deep into wooded parklands as we cycle through miles of dappled shade. We end at Lake Towada after an exhilarating day with over 72 km’s and 1800 meters of climbing on beautiful scenic roads.
10 – 139.2 km: Towada-Ko to Kakunodate
We leave earlier than normal today to climb out of Towada-ko as we work our legs winding upward through the seemingly endless hills of northern Honshu. This will be one of our biggest days on the bike with over 135km, and 1300mt of climbing. We end in the ancient castle town of Kakunodate. Our plan is to arrive early enough to walk through the historic Samurai Village before dinner. Today is Japan’s National Respect for the Aged Day… so be nice to everyone over 60!
11 – 136 km: Kakunodate to Sakata
The first half of today’s route takes us west to the coast by way of small rural roads with a few climbs, but mostly through a patchwork of farms and connected river valleys. The second half of the day is a flat coastal ride that meanders along the adjacent foothills that fall steeply into the sea. Our destination is the small town of Sakata, the “city of rice”; know for its old rice storehouses. Today we pedal over 135km, but with little climbing overall.
12 – 96 km: Sakata to Murikami
Our ride to Murakami follows the coastal road passing fishing ports on a flat, easy day of cycling. Murakami is known for its salmon, which can be seen hanging from many local shops, and even the train station!
0km: Murakami to Nagano – TRAIN
Today is a rest day where we board the train for Nagano. Most of this trip will be on the Shinkansen bullet train as it quietly travels at speeds up to 300km/hr. We’ll have plenty of time in Nagano to visit its famous Zenkō-ji, a 7th-century Buddhist temple that overlooks the city.
13 – 72 km: Nagano to Sakuho
It doesn’t take long cycling out of Nagano to understand why it was home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The hills start quickly, and continue. This is a fantastic cycling route, often used by local clubs for their hill training. The beautiful surfaced roads are quiet, and are a joy to ride.
14 – 104 km: Sakuho to Kofu
Leaving Sakuho we start out along the Chikuma River basin. But don’t be fooled, the road eventually turns upwards giving us two big climbs. Much of the route is on very small roads that twist and turn through the rural mountainside. We end in the flat river valley near Kofu.
15 – 64 km: Kofu to Fujinomiya
The ride today is longer than yesterday, but overall not has hilly, as we head to Fujinomiya, which sits at the base of Fuji-san, the world famous UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. Depending on the weather, we should start seeing Mount Fuji about half way on our route. Fujinomiya is a starting point for many hikers and visitors going to the mountain.
16 – 72 km: Fujinomiya to Mt Fuji/Return
Today will be a ride to remember, and the biggest climbing day by far. We’ll do an out and back route that covers 72 km’s and climbs 2364 meters. The ascent starts slowly within a kilometer of our hotel, but once we leave the industrial fringes of Fujinomiya, the climbing really starts. There are no elevation drops as we continue up and up to the parking area of Station 5 on the south side of the mountain. This 3-4 hour climb is a cycling meditation, with all our energies going into being on the bike. This ride challenges many of the classic European Alps climbs, and will be a noteworthy personal achievement for us all. And then… get ready for the downhill!
Tuesday 0km: Fujinomiya to Igaueno – TRAIN
We will have a leisurely start today, and our legs will thank us for this being a rest day. Once again, we’ll have a chance to travel by Shinkansen to our destination in Igaueno.
17 – 96 km: Igaueno to Oyodoko
After a flat 20km leaving Igaueno, we pass the small town of Nabari in Southern Kansai. Once leaving Nabari, we follow a hilly route on tiny roads that create a serpentine path through the quiet mountains. Much of this route is almost like being on big bike lanes, just wide enough for one car. There are many beautiful and remote sections of road throughout these wooded hills. We end in Oyodoko, which sits along the Yoshinogawa River.
18 – 72 km: Oyodoko to Wakayama FERRY – Tokushima
Today is a short, mostly downhill ride to the ferry at Wakayama. The 2 hour ferry takes us to Tokushima on the Island of Shikoku. Shikoku is noted for being home to Japan’s most famous pilgrimage route – The 88 Temple Pilgrimage (hachijūhakkasho-meguri), a 1200 km loop around the island founded by Kobo Daishi in the early 9th century. We’ll have plenty of time to explore Tokushima, a mid-size modern Japanese port city, home to Temples #13 through #17.
19 – 96 km: Tokushima to Kaiyo-cho
We follow the coastline along the Kii Channel and then along the Pacific Ocean. For the coming two days we’re on the heels of the ohenro, the 88 Temple pilgrims and we’re sure to see some of them today, although it is a bit late in the season to start the pilgrimage.
We leave Tokushima on the boards of Katsuragawa River, then cross to the banks of Nakagawa River and further upstream on Akamatsugawa River. We crest at 185m before plunging down to the Anan coast. The deep blue Pacific Ocean is influenced by the strong Kuroshio Current. Long way away from cities & factories, the
seawater is extremely clean with abundant marine life including rare sea turtles visiting the coast in crowds to lay their eggs every summer. Shishikui and Ikumi are also known as surfer’s Mecca’s.
20 – 128km: Kaiyo-cho to Kochi
We ride the beautiful shorelines throughout the day today. Soon we reach Cape Muroto. Kobo Daishi found enlightenment on this gorgeous, wild cape, and it’s easy to ponder why as you reach the ‘doorway to the land of the dead’. We round the cape and head back north towards Kochi.
We stop to admire the old streets of Kiragawa. Through late 19th into early 20th century, Kiragawa town prospered thanks to its high quality charcoal called Tosabinchotan. The streets with old buildings of charcoal dealers and shipping agents still retain the culture, history and atmosphere of the old days. We see traditional building techniques peculiar to typhoon-prone Kochi such as Tosa plastered walls, with their rows of water draining tiles, and windbreak fences called ‘Ishiguro’ made of round stones.
Nearing Kochi we enjoy riding on an old railway turned designated cycling path. Soon the 400-year-old Kochi Castle rises gloriously above the Kochi skyline, symbolising the spirit and heritage of Kochi.
21 – 136km: Kochi to Uchiko
This will be another long and hilly day as we cycle due west through the quiet and twisty roads of central Shikoku. We’ll need to start early to reach Uchiko before cocktail time! First along Niyodogawa River. Above Odo Dam the name mysteriously changes to Omogogawa River. Then further up Kurokawa River, cresting at 1003m Shishigoeto Pass. An exhilirating 10km descent drops us 700m lower on Odagawa River to coast into town.
Uchiko is a photographer’s dream. The town got wealthy thanks to tree wax and became even a global exporter. Entire sections of Uchiko have been perfectly preserved as a living museum, where people still reside and where traditional crafts are still alive. The candle shop may be the only place where Japanese candles are still made using the traditional method.
We stay in an old merchant house once owned and renovated by Mr. Takahashi, Japan’s beer king. It is now run by 5 neighbourhood ladies.
22 – 32 km: Uchiko to Yawatahama FERRY – Beppu
We have a short pedal, mostly downhill to the ferry at Yawatahama. From the ferry we see steam rising above Beppu, the famous hot-spring town on the island of Kyushu, producing more hot spring water than any other resort in the country.
We visit some of Beppu’s 7 Hells and then it is time to relax in the soothing hot water of our authentic ryokan in Kannawa Onsen.
23 – 104km: Beppu to Aso
Prepare for another epic day on the bike. Not our longest distance, but another hilly ride from the hot spring town of Beppu to the volcanic mountain region of Aso. Our ride takes us into the mountains that surround Beppu, and after a few hours we will be able to see the volcano range that makes up Mount Aso far into the distance. As we approach Aso, we drop down into the massive Aso Caldera, the largest in the world, measuring over 120km in circumference. Legend is that the outer crater was once a lake, but one day the god of the mountain kicked open the only break (through which rail and bus pass) emptying the water and leaving the plain fit for cultivation. We stay at the foot of the climb to Nakadake.
24 – 128km: Aso to Yatsushiro
Have a hearty breakfast because the day starts with the climb up Nakadake, one of the five volcanoes of the Aso Mountain Region. If the volcano is not too active, we are allowed a peak accross the rim. After the descent we sneak through the hole in the caldera and follow the Shirakawa river to the west. Our ride ends in the perfectly flat farming delta that surrounds the port city of Yatsushiro.
25 – 80 km: Yatsushiro to Izumi
We dance a tango with a little railroad and continue along the splendid Shiranui Sea. Mitachimisaki and Ashikita Beach merit a stop. Without noticing we arrive in Izumi, winter resting grounds for Siberian cranes and home to Japan Biking. We visit the samurai residences before another hot bath to finish the day.
26 – 88 km: Izumi to Kirishima
You won’t see the sea today, it is an inland ride. After a leisurely warm-up along Hirosegawa River we start climbing again, all the way up to Utsura Tunnel (378m). After the descent we reach the spectacular Sogi no Taki Waterfall. Here we have lunch. We then cross Sendai river and continue on Koganero Road up and down through the rice fields and some beautiful forest roads. Last task of the day: making it up the 600m to Kirishima.
27 – 88 km: Kirishima to Minamiosumi
In the morning we visit Kirishima Jingu, a Shinto shrine known for its red highlights which seem to permeate the place. You can feel the end is coming near as we come down our last mountain of the trip. A whole day along Kinko bay with views on Sakurajima Volcano and a visit to the Kurozu amber vinegar brewery. We end in Minamiosumi, within reach of Cape Sata.
28 – 80 km: Minamiosumi to Sata (rt) – Nejime FERRY – Ibusuki
On our last day cycling we head for Cape Sata at the southern tip of Kyushu. Cape Sata lies just below the 31st Parallel and is the most southerly point in the main Japanese archipelago. This last ride will be hilly, ending at the access tunnel for the Cape. If our legs are up to the challenge, we can make the final 30 minute hike to the Sata Monument (no bikes allowed) overlooking the deep blue waters of the East China Sea to our right, and the North Pacific to our left. We backtrack to Minamiosumi to take the ferry across Kinko Bay to Yamagawa. A short final ride to Ibusuki and that’s it. You’ve made it !
This all looks like a well planned tour.
For a full North to South ride (2,500 miles) check out Yumi and Thomas’ Blog from 2011 which gives a real feel of the adventure of cycling the full length of the main islands.