Bicycling in Japan

Cycling Japan is easier for visitors to jump into because bicycles are ubiquitous in Japan. Although probably not quite as popular as somewhere like the Netherlands, bicycles are a very common and easy way of getting around in Japan. The bicycle culture should leave you feeling safe either bringing your own bike or renting one. And if you’re going to be visiting your tattoo studio on a regular basis and the distance there is ideal a daily bicycle arrangement is worth looking into.

It’s been a few years since I’ve ridden my bicycle in Japan. It was a standard ‘charinko’ with the super convenient basket on the front, pannier at the back, built in lock with key, and a light you can switch on that is driven by a gear touching the front wheel. The faster you pedal the brighter the light! In the past this was a regular daily activity. I would ride my bike everywhere and so did many other people I knew and worked with. Rules have changed slightly since then.

A bicycle stands in front of three way intersection sign on the side of a road. The road is immediately adjacent to a green rice field.

Cycling Japan is one of the only ways to experience sights that you’ll otherwise miss in a car or train. And you can cover much more ground than you would on foot.

Cycling Japan Rules

Here’s a few basics you should know before jumping on the nearest rental bike or excitedly packing up your fancy folding machine:

  • You are supposed to drive on the left hand side when bicycling in Japan.
  • Helmets are not mandatory and are rarely worn by anyone. They are required by law for grade school children and they often leave it hanging from the handlebars.
  • You are not supposed to drive on the sidewalk. But where there was no bike lane I only saw people driving on the sidewalk. So feel free to avoid the roadway but don’t go tearing around.
  • You are not supposed to drive and use an umbrella. And yet every time it rains I saw people doing this. It’s actually quite difficult.
  • Or use a mobile phone. I was amazed to see so many students texting while bicycling. Texting! I didn’t know whether to be horrified or amazed.
  • You’re not allowed to ride a bicycle after drinking. Like cars, not a single drink is allowed. And yet a drunk salaryman bicycling home is not an uncommon site.
  • You must use a light when it’s dark. Rental bikes always come with a light.
  • The brakes on your bicycle must be functioning. You’re unlikely to find a poorly maintained rental bike.
  • You must obey all road signs. That means coming to a complete stop and putting down your feet at intersections with stop signs.

 

Bicycle Rental

Bicycle rental rates are usually around 1200-1500 yen for a full day and just over half that for a morning or afternoon. You can also rent at hourly rates. In my experience there are a few shops that will allow bike returns after hours if you arrange it beforehand but there are rarely any shops that allow multiple day rentals (no overnights).

When you take your bicycle out and about make sure to park only in designated areas. You may see many people leaving their bikes in inappropriate areas but keep in mind that the police regularly remove illegally parked bicycles. Parking spots can be located at most stations, large department stores, and popular public areas.

When It’s a Good Idea to Ride a Bike

Overall bicycles can be beneficial to a visitor if they have a long walking trip planned from starting point to destination. Examples could include a Kyoto temple/shrine tour without the use of buses or visiting the daibutsu in Kamakura. Outside of this I have rarely (see ‘never’) seen people doing long distance bicycle trips between cities, excepting the large Northern island of Hokkaido.  But it is an increasingly popular experience for cycling enthusiasts and those with longer travel plans.

I cannot stress enough that renting a bicycle in a large city like Tokyo or Osaka is not recommended. You’re likely just going to get lost faster than you would on foot. So I guess it’s still more convenient than walking?

A man in a business suit on a folding bicycle is pedalling through a crosswalk. In the foreground is a traffic sign showing a drawing of a figure on a bicycle and a large red x covering the drawing. Cycling Japan is safest when following the rules of the road.

It’s important to understand the rules of the road when travelling in another country. Your safety relies on observing the customs when in a new place.

Final Advice

As a final tip, make sure you put the bike key somewhere safe when it’s locked up. Speaking from personal experience, a wonderful time out and about is ruined pretty quickly when you have to spend hours retracing your steps looking for the proverbial needle in a hay stack.  In this case it was more like a key in the beach sand.   Hours lost just to make sure you can return the bike on time and avoid having to buy an expensive hunk of metal you can’t ride anywhere.

You’ll get some exercise, save time, and see parts of the community you otherwise wouldn’t if traveling by bus or taxi. Bike rentals are a great idea if you follow the advice above.

A time lapse photo of a bicycle at night on a bridge. A trailing red stream of car lights is visible behind the bicycle.

Cycling Japan is a great way to experience the country. Try to include a bicycle in your travel plans to really explore during your trip!