Cycling Through Japan: My three-part adventure

   By Bruce Robertson

  Bruce Robertson

Embarking on a bike tour in Japan was a long-held wish for me. This experience came in three distinct and different phases, each offering a unique blend of cycling, cultural exploration, and culinary delights.

I was with a group of friends, several of whom I hadn’t seen for some time – some since last year’s group tour in Spain! - so it was great to spend time together again. This time it was led by Akio (from Redleaf Tours) – a friend as well as a Japan travel expert – who was ably assisted by John as sweep.

Lake Biwa: Cycling Serenity

The journey began with two days of cycling around Lake Biwa. The terrain, mostly flat with occasional gentle climbs (mainly for bridges), provided a smooth ride on fairly quiet roads. Despite my lack of recent cycling practice, the well-maintained rental bikes eased the journey.
A memorable stop was Hikone Castle, one of the few original castes in Japan. The castle itself was small but impressive - from the outside anyway. However the gorgeous and extensive grounds certainly made the stop worthwhile

The ryokan we stayed at halfway around the lake, offered a traditional Japanese lodging experience with a family who had owned it for generations. The hotel's hot baths were a welcome chance to recover, and the delicious local cuisine showcased the diversity of Japanese flavours.

The following morning we were waved off for the second half of the 150km circumnavigation of the lake. I thought it was a much nicer ride as the west side was less busy. We stopped again at a convenience store for our morning break – a recurring and welcome event on the bike tour. I believe the coffee wasn’t too bad but I enjoyed my ice-cream!

Kyoto: Temples, Trails, and Culinary Adventures

Moving on to Kyoto, the tour shifted to a walking exploration of the old town, including the iconic Ginkakuji and Joshoji temples, with their stunning gardens, and along the famous Philosophers Walk. The Kyoto walking tour was very flexible and for lunch Akio found us a fantastic local restaurant that specialised in local delicacies like okonomayaki – my new favourite food. We were very fortunate to get in, in such a busy area, as we almost took over the tiny restaurant. The cultural immersion continued with visits to the Fushimi Imari Taisha shrine and the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, offering a taste of Japan's rich history and traditional beverages. This included a sake tasting – I didn’t know they were so many variations!

Toji Temple rounded off the cultural experience. It was founded in the 8th century and contains some very impressive buildings like the five-storied Pagoda, the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan.

Our palates were again well looked after in our 3 days in Kyoto, with plenty of variety on offer, like a pork cutlet lunch at a Japanese Curry House and Chinese food, Japanese-style, for dinner, as well as of course, okonomiyaki.
Rob and I also needed to pick up a few things we’d forgotten to bring for the next few days and were steered towards an awesome bike shop I’d certainly recommend, Y's Road.

The Inland Sea: Island-Hopping on Two Wheels

The final and longest stage of the tour, was to take in Japan’s cycling mecca, the Shimanami Kaido. It started with another iconic Japanese trip on the Shinkansen or bullet train - at about 300 km/h! We picked up our hire bikes in Onomichi, a town now transformed from its shipbuilding past – despite still having a very visible presence - towards a new focus on cycling and the Shimanami Kaido, to which cyclists from all over Japan and the world flock in droves. A word of warning though, with so many hire bikes available, you need to be alert as I didn’t choose wisely and paid the price over the next few days.

Sazanami Kaido: Coastal exploration

Day 1 took us along the, the coast road south from Onomichi. Starting with breakfast at a charmingly old world European-styled restaurant, the day's ride offered picturesque views of the islands, bridges, and coastlines. The route, though occasionally hilly, revealed the industrial heart of Japan's shipbuilding industry, adding an unexpected but intriguing dimension to the tour.
The small guesthouse at Kawajiri near Kure, blending Japanese, French, and Finnish influences, provided a cosy retreat after a day of cycling adventures. It wasn’t the easiest to find but the detour and destination were well worth it for the views, scenery and meeting locals on the way.

Tobishima Kaido: Culinary Delights and A Ferry Ride

Navigating the Tobishima Kaido we left the mainland and went on to the islands, encountering hills and bridges; culminating in a delightful ferry trip across the inland sea to Imabari. Although it was a Wednesday and many places were closed, a local restaurant opened its doors for us with a delicious pork and egg lunch, showcasing Japanese hospitality. The day ended at a hotel catering to mostly cyclists, with plenty of bike storage and facilities plus a Japanese shower and hot bath, offering relaxation with an excellent view over the nearby bridge.

Shimanami Kaido: Coastal Wonders and Culinary Feasts

The final stretch of the tour was 2 days along the famous route with its excellent bike paths. After an early steep climb to Kirosan Park for an amazing view, we explored the less-travelled east coast of Oshima Island, relishing Hiroshima-style okonomyaki for lunch, and then on to the west coast of Omishima Island. A visit to a salt factory added an educational touch to the journey, while a fantastic onsen provided a soothing break. The day concluded with an elaborate dinner in our ryokan - a veritable feast for seafood lovers and an excellent example of Japanese culinary artistry.

On the final day we were treated to street food at a roadside snack bar, famous among cyclists and well worth the small diversion. A few more magnificent bridges, and a steep trek to a hilltop shrine, brought us back to Onomichi, where we had our final dinner together. We were lucky enough to experience the Betcha Matsuri festival and a portable shine arriving at the main Ikkyu Shrine.

The next morning we went our separate ways, enriched by the shared experiences, improved friendships, and a deeper appreciation for the beauty, culture, and cuisine of Japan.

Route Maps

Bike tour: Lake Biwa, Kyoto and the Inland Sea

Lake Biwa, Kyoto and the Inland Sea


 12 days (Bike: 6 days)

  350 km  (~58km per day)

Custom Bike & Hike Tour


 Some hills, On-road



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