Few people know how beautiful Japan is. Aside from the Aussies who flock to the ski resorts in winter most tourists visit just Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, 3 enormous cities. Either way the vision people have is crowded cities and bullet trains which is one aspect but beyond the highly urbanised areas lies one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my travels around the world.
Riding a motorcycle in Japan is a very special experience. A land with a rugged spectacular coastlines, a mountainous interior as high as European alps with deep valleys criss-crossed with superb roads. It is also one of the safest places on earth. There is no petty crime, none, you can leave your wallet on a bench and it will remain there while people sit either side of it. The people are really friendly and go out of their way to help you even if you don’t speak the language. It is easy to access anything you need and as well as amazing scenery you have rich history and wonderful food to explore if you choose.
In this post I am going to write a few things aiming to help motorcycle riders thinking about Japan but not sure. It is not intended to be a general travel guide for Japan, there are 1000’s of people writing those already. Nor is it for the intrepid adventurer riding around the world who will likely find this article too basic. This is written for the average rider like myself, curious about riding different places but not always sure about their ability to deal with every challenge. It’s a collection of simple ways for almost anyone to experience motorcycling in a Japan.
1. When is the best time to visit Japan for motorcycle riding?
Timing your ride to here is essential. Japan might have four distinctly different seasons as people here like to promote but unfortunately none of them are dry. This I feel is the biggest single challenge to biking in Japan. While it is true you could ride here any month of the year the best time in my opinion is May and mid September to late October. A week of fine sunny days is rare in Japan but that time of year is the best chance to limit the rain you will encounter. Other times of the year you may find more rain but I have ridden all months from March to November so anything is possible but nobody really likes rain.
January and February is winter, rather cold, to the north of Tokyo and the west coast of Japan is extremely cold with heavy snow but coastal roads to the south can be ridden but not ideal. Late March early April is a turning point when the Cherry Blossoms bloom. Limited mountain riding perhaps sub 1000m to the south can commence about now. The higher mountains cannot be ridden but coastal roads will be fine and from Tokyo south it will start to be milder temperatures. Most lower mountain passes to the west and south will be open by March 31st (not the alps) and you can ride south to Kyushu. North to Tohoku region the countryside will still have deep snow in higher areas yet some roads will be open and this can be rather spectacular time to ride the snow line roads up around Aomori. Mid April can be mixed weather with showers, it is said the short display of cherry blossoms often ends with rain but some fine days will emerge then and more snow is melted. May arrives and this is usually one of the best months in Japan with mild and fine days. Summer in Japan is accompanied by a rainy season except for Hokkaido which is far enough north to not be affected.
Japan rainy season (Tsuyu)
|Okinawa||May 8||June 23|
|Southern Kyushu||May 29||July 13|
|Shikoku||June 4||July 17|
|Kinki||June 6||July 19|
|Kanto||June 8||July 20|
|Northern Tohoku||June 12||July 27|
The above chart is not a prediction but rather the official dates that are an average of historical data and it could be longer or shorter in any region. As you can see June to mid July may not the best time to ride in Japan except Hokkaido but there is no guarantee. Some years it can be dry, I rode right through June 2014 summer with barely a wet day (update – this summer 2016 has also had no more than a few wet days in June in the Kanto area at least)
August varies, in the south it can be low rain fall, around Tokyo it can be mixed weather with more frequent showers. September and October can be the arrival of another period of nice weather in Autumn. Generally less rain however there is the chance of a typhoon getting blown up to Japan from the Philippines during these months. November is less rain and December mostly clear but you are into winter now and that limits where you can ride.
If you visit in May then be aware there is a national public holiday period called Golden week where many people take small holiday and hotels and bike rentals need to be booked well in advance. In Autumn there is another period called Silver week which whilst busy is not as crazy as Golden week (update – Silver week is pretty congested). Try to avoid riding to or from Tokyo on the start and end day of either of these unless you are comfortable to lane filter for a couple of hours as traffic is going to be gridlock. Actually Tokyo is gridlock on the metro expressway all day every day and I strongly advise not riding at all in Tokyo.
The descriptions are my own based that I come from a hot tropical location. So I feel the cold more than others might but not the heat.
The weather in the south is milder in the winter but warmer in summer. The north has severe winters but mild summers. If riding March or April in the south you can encounter temperatures as low as 2 degrees and up to 20 degrees.
May the days warm up to mid 20’s. It can feel like more in city traffic if stopped in full sun but less when moving in the mountains where it can still be cool perhaps down to 10 degrees. The alpine roads all start to open then but snow will remain at higher levels.
Summer in Japan is humid getting briefly to 30. I actually find the temperature this time of year agreeable for me to ride but I come from the tropics so this just feels normal to me but people from UK, Europe and most of North America may find this time of year almost too hot but mesh gear really works well for humid conditions.
September is already changing temperature and bit like May, can be warm but the heat of the summer may also end prematurely. Warmer down low but already getting cold in mountains. North is already cold but south to Kyushu still nice and warm. October you are into Autumn proper with the colour leaves and the temperatures falling. Personally I am already riding in my winter gear by then. Temperatures can already be 10 degrees in lower 1000m mountain passes with alpine roads risk of black ice but down on lower coastal roads high teens and into 20’s if in the south.November can be cool nice riding south to Kyushu with last of the autumn leaves in the country. North it will already be very cold and possibly snow. December is winter and cold but mostly dry clear air days. If riding only coastal roads or Kyushu then this would still be ok but dress for winter. Riding high mountains is out and danger from black ice increases even on lower roads.
None of this applies to Hokkaido or Okinawa. Hokkaido is really only a Summer riding destination, middle of year June to August when it is mild weather around low 20’s. Okinawa is so far south it’s climate is tropical and like South East Asia but given there is not much in the way of riding there I am not going to elaborate.
Here is some ride reports to give an idea of the different seasons in Japan. Early in the year mid March still snow to be seen and the vegetation is brown and grey. Mid year there can be some fine days in the rain season (but you know weather is unpredictable) this is lovely time for short ride somewhere. Autumn is spectacular in Japan and my favourite time of year here.
2. Where can I rent a motorcycle in Japan?
You are likely to be arriving in Tokyo which is also where you can rent a motorcycle. To be honest Tokyo is a lousy place to start and end your ride being a metropolis of 30+ million people and as already stated has grid lock traffic even on the so called expressway system all day long which can take you hours to try ride out of however for now I am not aware of many English speaking rental options.
Rental819 is a very large national motorcycle rental agency. There are three stores in Tokyo that have English speaking staff and they offer a wide model range.
Apex Moto is a motorcycle shop run by an Australian which is located west of Tokyo and this would be my pick to avoid Tokyo riding.
Japan Bike Rentals is a Tokyo rental shop with English speaking staff.
There are many other rental options if you know Japanese but I am not going to try list them as if you can read and write Japanese then you already know more information than me. If I find any other rental shops with English speaking staff then I will update. Feel free to contact me if you offer this service.
3. What gear to bring?
Your gear should be aligned to the season you will be riding here. Unless you plan to do a day ride in summer then the temperatures as noted in the first section lean towards cool so dress as you might for that. Most important you should have a good rain solution with you be it Gore-Tex outfit or a quality rain outfit, waterproof gloves, waterproof boots or good covers. You will encounter some rain on any tour in Japan unless you have some magic power to the gods like a guy called Hagler I know has able to go to places in monsoon and have the rain stop for a week for him. Best to have gear that you have tested in rain to know works well. Finding out your Gore-Tex jacket leaks or pants leak or flap about and let water into boots or boot covers let water splash up from beneath (a few of my personal mistakes on tour) are things best discovered on a day ride at home not on a tour. A tour overseas is a great excuse to buy some new gear but not the time to first be trying it out – as I also know from experience.
Gore-tex gear here in summer is a bit too hot in my experience but if it can vent air a bit and you also brought riding jeans then could get by with that. The temperatures might only get to 28 in some places but the humidity is like 90% so mesh gear in summer is better but then you may need to add a liner as you go up in the mountains where it can fall into teens.
If you are from warmer locations like me then the temperatures here in spring and autumn are going to be much cooler than you are used to and something I find very helpful is technical base layer shirts rather than riding in cotton t-shirts which are hopeless in cold weather. Same for socks, any of those outdoor shops has the gear. Also your gloves really need to be up to the task of dealing with say a wet day 10 degrees if riding in Autumn as that is always a possibility. Glove covers even for goretex gloves would be useful, I carry two pairs of goretex gloves always so I can change half way through a wet day if needed. Make sure you include some dry bags for your clothes and electronics. My panniers are waterproof but many motorcycle cases are not.
But don’t let the prospect of rain put you off. Any riding destination you can encounter some rain on a tour.
I would include some visor anti-fog as I encounter the visor fog issues here all the time with cold air and on wet days which I had never really experienced in warmer places. You will also need a International drivers permit. It is an out-dated document in these days of Google translate but you need one here so make sure you grab one from your RAC type organisation before leaving.
4. Where to ride?
If starting with a small ride from Tokyo I would suggest riding two areas close by. If you only had a couple of days then Izu peninsular seems a natural choice. There is a high concentration of good riding roads there and Mt Fuji views. If you had a couple more days (and here in the right season) then Izu region and and Nagano region would be a great combo to experience the Japanese alps. With more time again perhaps 6 days you could expand further and include Toyama and Fukui in a loop like my Summer Ride. I would suggest reviewing some of my rides in Japan posted to this blog for ideas on these areas and beyond if time permits.
There is good riding everywhere in Japan and a wealth of information about where to ride but of course it is all in Japanese. There are monthly magazines that focus on motorcycle touring in Japan with frequent features on the best roads. There is no doubt many clubs, forums and personal blogs on the net but naturally in Japanese. There is also a series of touring maps produced specifically for motorcycle touring in Japan.
I have a set of these now, the Touring Mapples. In my experience so far they are good but not always the best source of road information. They have shown me a few good roads but then in some areas the roads they suggest are narrow and poor riding when much nice roads nearby have not been highlighted and they miss out many view points. I also previously had purchased a few motorcycle touring magazines to get me started on where to ride but after all is said and done I found it was better to explore myself using Google maps and street view to virtually look at roads beforehand then build a route with ones that seem interesting and don’t turn into a narrow walking track in the mountains – as can often happen here.
I have been asked where is my favourite riding area and that is hard to answer. Perhaps I will compile my top ten rides here later but looking at the whole country I have a few areas that I like riding a lot at present. Kyushu is a fabulous place to ride a motorcycle but a little far away for someone not doing a long tour (update the region was hit by multiple earthquakes as I was writing this and needs to be avoided for the moment but then deserves you visit it again soon as this crisis has passed). Tottori and Shimane in Autumn are ablaze with colour and are truly jaw dropping at times. Aomori is another beautiful riding destination and I really want to explore the Tohoku region more since it is being overlooked since the tragic 3/11 tsunami. I recently discovered the Seto inland sea which is incredible too so to be honest I am yet to find a rural region of Japan that is not terrific riding in one form or another as I hope my amateur photos in my ride reports are starting to reveal to readers.
I am compiling a Google map with some of the good motorcycle roads in Japan. I want to stress this was just a crude working map made originally for myself to log roads and get my bearings on each ride and plot nice roads I had read on forums or driving sites like Precious Roads and never intended to be published but I will post it and try clean this up and add descriptions to the roads in coming months. Here is is as it currently stands attempting to show a few of the best motorcycle roads in Japan but I stress it is still a work in progress. Black lines are good riding roads. Blue are also good but might be narrow or busy. Green is scenic road or alternative to busy road. Red is favourite roads of mine. Symbols are for view points, hotels I have stayed at, attractions and warnings.
Some route suggestions and multi day touring suggestions will be added to this post in the future as indeed will be more content but for now you could always look on ridewithgps.com at my routes there (look for me under user name Warren).
5. Do I need to learn Japanese and chopsticks and all about Japanese gas stations.
You need not learn the language but if you learn a few words then it would certainly help. On the other hand I would urge you to practice using chopsticks if you have never used them before because you may encounter that this is only eating utensil provided. Pretty easy once you know how, Google it or YouTube for instructions and tips and get some and practice before leaving home. I travelled to Japan first time knowing not a word and never having used chopsticks nor read any guide book – but I have done all the dumb things in life. Grab a few apps on your smart phone about Japan, a language one, a Tokyo rail map and Google translate app. To translate written Japanese use the Google translate app to take a photo which it then scans and (occasionally) translates. Very valuable tool so make sure you have a phone that can access data to provide this when you need it.
Actually some English-Japanese slang that is going to really help with your riding tour are Hi-Oc meaning premium fuel, Man-Tan meaning full tank of fuel, Card-O meaning I want to pay with credit card. When pulling up to the petrol bowser many are full service, especially small gas stations and you do not pump your own fuel. In this case you need to say those things and you must say Card-O before any fuel is pumped. Not everywhere takes cards so small country side gas station might be cash only - you can ask Card-OK? or take out card from wallet and say OK? They will swipe the card and always give it back to you then start to pump and afterwards present the credit card payment slip to sign.
In Japan credit card payment is still always sign for authorisation.
You need not remove your helmet at the gas station. Yep, how good is that. Of course if driving a car you need not even get out of the car. The attendant will come to your window and also wipe your screen – just like you see in the old movies, it all still happens here. You will usually see a large stack of damp towels (sometimes inside a small ‘esky’ cooler box). Theses are to wipe windscreens and feel free to grab one and wipe down your screen or helmet as you wish.
Above you can see a typical suburban gas station. A rider has arrived and an attendant is about to fill the scooter. One of the attendants has run out to the footpath to help guide the car leaving, this is all part of the service, he may even step out to the road and stop traffic to allow the car to leave then yell thanks so much for your business as the customer drives away. This is standard level of service in Japan. There is no shop selling food or drinks at Japanese gas stations, they usually fix flat tyres and some offer car washing but no shop because when the driver need not get out of car then obviously the shop would not work. Payment is after not in advance (which I have only seen in USA anyway) but at self serve of course your card has to be authorised in advance.
The self serve petrol pumps can be very difficult to work out how to operate but the trade off is fuel there is cheaper. Some like Esso have English menu option but the more common Japanese gas stations in a self serve can be really tough to understand and many I have had to get back on the motorcycle and simply ride on to the next gas station. Another thing that gets confusing is there is no fixed colours for the fuel types in Japan. So different brand gas stations have different colour pumps for regular, premium and diesel – yeah that can get tricky. One gas station chain might have green for regular then another will use red for regular and green for diesel and another red for premium. I have seen a enough variations to realise that unless the fuel type of the pump is clear to me then forget it.
I look for full service pumps now. You pay a few cents more per litre usually for full service but your riding a motorcycle not using huge amounts of fuel and if here for a one off tour for a week or so the total difference is likely to be less than a Starbucks coffee so enjoy the service that you cannot experience elsewhere.
6. Riding the Japanese road network.
Japan drives on the left if you come from one of the countries that drives on the right then I would not let this concern you. I travel a lot switching between left and right side sometimes one week to the next and on a motorcycle I find you adjust very easy unlike driving a car which I find awkward to be sitting on the opposite side of the vehicle with strange to me layout and perspective looking forward. None of this happens on two wheels and the only thing I might do is when pulling into a shopping mall car park get bit confused for a moment.
The speed limits in Japan are ultra low if not on the national highway network. 50 kph on open country roads, 40 kph if those roads have many bends which is most so nearly all roads are 40kph/25mph which is really silly on roads that would be 100kph even in over policed nanny state Australia. I presume that like many things in Japan the speed limit dates back to past, perhaps the first cars and to roads that were all narrow one lane which you still encounter in places but most have been widened and made into modern roads as good as any in the world but the original speed limits have remained in place. (Japan has this habit of keeping old things in place even though it is often illogical) It is not all bad for riding in reality as not everyone drives at these low limits but it can get annoying at times. In town traffic often is flowing 50/60 kph same as Australia and out of the towns the flow is often around 75kph. These roads are full of driveways and farms and not the place to be going that fast anyway. When away from everything in the mountains you may well be the only vehicle so then you can basically ride to the conditions however the roads will likely be posted 40kph so if you only see things black and white then you might want to skip coming here since needing to work in the grey applies to many aspects of life here. The mountain roads will be very tight and twisty so todays high power bikes are a complete waste on the road here, a 600cc is probably ideal for riding rural Japan roads, a 400cc or 250cc might even work for many people if avoiding the highways.
However with those speed limits it would be unfair not to point out you will spend a lot of time dealing with slow moving traffic too. Small farm 600 cc pick up trucks/utes that clog farm roads crawling along and the opposite of the people bending the rules are those who sit exactly on 40kph everywhere and the density of traffic means you will not be able to pass as much as you want so will find yourself drawn into the almost comical long lines of vehicles all stuck crawling along like a Mr Bean movie.
Venus Line, Nagano.
The national highway network is a privately owned network of toll roads called Nexco. The speed on them is normally 100kph but is dynamic and limits are reduced in rain or wind or some people claim sarcastically if the sun goes behind a cloud, as often there appears no logic to the 80kph being shown in the LED signage but anyway by in large the speed limits on the expressways are ignored. When 80kph is posted most people drive at 100kph. When 100kph is posted you have three groups. Buses and trucks are limited to around the posted speeds. Then you find many people are driving at around 110kph and the third group are those in the fast lane which are travelling at 120-140kph. There is so far low policing of speeding in Japan. A few fixed mounted speed cameras that people briefly slow down for (only forward facing so motorcycle rear plates are immune) and occasionally you might see a police car but it is like stepping back to the 80’s in Australia before the government diverted police away from crime prevention to revenue raising.
Now I am not suggesting you break any speed limits, far from it, you are in a foreign land and not in a race so sit back and enjoy the ride but I mention all of this so you understand the road environment here.
The Nexco expressway network is all toll roads. The toll fees can vary depending on where you ride and if you change highways as despite being one network it was built not by one company and so you might go all day on a single toll gate ticket and exit the network paying just one toll or you might change a few times to different networks in the space of an hour and each time you will pay a separate toll and this can make the cost blow out. There is probably no reason to worry about this if here on a tour, you are unlikely to be using toll roads much and on the odd occasion just accept it and move on.
Using the toll roads here you need to know a few things. Unless the rental motorbike has been fitted with a electronic toll gate device with valid Nexco approved credit card then you need to go to the manual gates. The automatic electronic gates are marked ETC and you need to avoid these. At the manual gate you must stop and take the ticket issued by the machine and put this in a safe place to present later at the toll booth (or you stop and pay a flat fee on some smaller toll roads). When arriving at a toll booth again move to the manual non ETC lane and stop to pay toll. Most booths will be manned and you hand the ticket to the Nexco staff member. Some but not all booths will accept credit cards. Look for the international symbols of Visa and MasterCard being displayed to recognise that booth accepts payment by card. It is very important you always carry enough cash to pay for tolls in case the booth does not take credit cards. One part of network may then you change to another that is cash only. Some booths are unmanned and you need to insert the ticket into the slot as marked and then depending on the network again it may only take cash or it may take credit cards. (update the Tokyo metropolitan expressway system does not take credit cards)
Here is a explanation from Nexco with photos of how to use the toll gates and a further link to a pdf on how to use the machines.
Like most expressway systems if you take the wrong ramp you likely will have to ride 10 km before you can exit then return back to the junction to take the right one so if in any doubt at junctions try to pull over and make sure rather than taking a guess. Here is where a GPS with junction view graphics pays for itself.
The Nexco network not only allows you to cross the country very easy and fast it has the most amazing parking areas (service areas/rest areas) of any highway network I have even been on. There are two types, the basic rest area with toilet and vending machines just for call of nature stop and the full Monty parking areas that can have a huge range of facilities including hot showers, massage chairs, quiet zones for a sleep, laundry, dog walking park, children's activity centre, cafes, bakeries and full restaurants. Some now have a Starbucks or specialised stores selling fashion, even motorcycle accessories. A few remain that are old and underutilized but many are quite fabulous places to stop for a rest and have dedicated under cover motorcycle parking. You can check facilities at the Nexco site.
Just be aware that the price of fuel at these parking area places is 10 to 20 cents a litre above the prices on the street. If you need fuel nothing much can do as to exit and re-join besides wasting time will certainly increase the overall toll anyway but try fill up before any long ride on the expressways.
All the expressway signs are dual language (update - actually I recently found some that were not at major junctions on my last ride and had no idea which lane to take at the split and ended up taking wrong one and doing a 20km detour to exit and rejoin back again) and away from the expressway most intersection signs now are dual language until you get well off the beaten track. But if you are not familiar with the towns in-route to your final destination then this may not be much help and so a good GPS earns its keep in Japan. (Note that you will encounter junctions on highways that the GPS gives no indication which way to go as road splits, I get caught every tour often going off the wrong ramp then the GPS decides to inform me I should have taken the other option. I have no bullet proof solution to this issue so far)
Some oddities you may encounter is intersections with confusing traffic light signals, an example is a red proceed light but then a green proceed arrow may appear while the red light remains lit. Not sure the thinking on this one. There is a lot of colour markings on the roads. On new roads in mountains you find yellow or red stripes to be careful and slow down. Some roads have slightly raised stripes which I think has been fitted to annoy the car drifters which is a big scene here but can be a hassle for bikers too but mostly the markings are just painted on and are always using grit/glass particle so not slippery.
Suzuka Skyline, Mie
Cars stop at all railway crossings all the time (so fortunately most crossing have been grade separated by bridge or tunnel). There is no stop sign at rail crossing that I have noticed but I presume the rule to stop dates back to before flashing lights were fitted to railway crossings and like many things in Japan the tradition lives on. Many traffic lights do not have a turn arrow but oncoming traffic can get a red light for about a minute before your light goes red to allow you to turn right across flow. There is nothing to tell you the traffic light on other side of intersection is displaying red but if the cars have properly stopped then go ahead and turn.
The solid middle yellow line marking means no passing like double yellow or double white in other countries. Sometimes cars will put on there hazard lights to indicate they are stopping which then allows you to pass. Often then they continue on behind you having just been courteous. Other cars flash their hazards back to the car that has let them pass, this is a way to say thanks. I give a wave on the bike. How much you find this happens depends, like anywhere on earth some people despise motorcycles, some are neutral and some wish they were on one themselves but generally people let me pass often and are nothing like motorcycle hating Australia. The solid yellow line seems to be the only way new roads are made with no overtaking anywhere even on huge straights, some new elevated roadways have plastic beacons stopping any over taking despite the road at times being clear and straight for km’s ahead. Not much you can do in that situation. You really do need a lot of patience riding in Japan as you will spend considerable time stuck at very low speeds.
Rest areas with toilets on rural roads will surprise most people. They will nearly always be spotless and have ample supply of paper and many will have heated seats and clean towels and flowers that local people change frequently. In many parts of the world public toilets are disgusting but in Japan people have pride and do not vandalize everything so you end up with toilets that sometimes would not look out of place in a 5 star hotel. Convenience stores will nearly always have toilets too so you need not wonder where to go like in so many countries. But whatever you do unless you understand what all the buttons on the computer toilets do don’t touch them. Flushing will be by a turn handle located separately from those buttons.
Planning your route and GPS navigation in Japan
When planning your ride in Japan it is important to not over estimate the distance that can be covered in a day. If renting a motorcycle in Tokyo the shops in Japan do not open until 10.00am then you need to fill out paperwork, store luggage, pack get your gear on, perhaps you your ride day is starting at nearly 11.00am. You need to find an expressway and get out of Tokyo which depending on the shop and what direction you intend to ride and traffic could take between 1 and 2 hours. Tokyo is truly huge and has over 30 million people so that means high traffic density. So even without any other delays your first day should be a shorter route as you really have only half the day to ride.
I mention this first up as I have seen a few people plan very ambitious rides here that looked doomed to fail on the first day to me with distances you cannot easy ride here being applied. If using the expressway then sure you can cover ground just like you might in other countries but off those concrete elevated toll roads it is not possible. Average speed on regional roads is low but enjoyment is usually high. Regional roads do not open up between towns like you might expect so no going from town speed to highway speed like you might in Australia or USA. The speed between towns remains low as the roads are often twisty and closed in. Then in the towns you will find the usual amount of traffic lights to slow progress.
For me around 300km is a nice full day of riding on regional Japan roads. On the road wheels rolling 8.00am and finish around 4.00pm. During Spring you have longer days but Autumn days are short with sunset around 4.30pm and I don’t want to be on country roads with animals coming out at dusk or sunset. I know some people leave before daybreak and that sort of thing and thus can ride much further but if you are here on holiday from another country do you want to be doing this. My suggestion is less distance and more time to take everything in, and there is so many interesting things in rural Japan. 300km means not needing to rush with space to take a look at a few things but still not dawdling.
If I am on the expressways that is a different matter. Pure expressway riding I have done 600km in a day without any effort at all in about 7 hours with breaks and lunch and easy could extend that to say 800km on my current bike without too much trouble. If riding part expressway part rural roads then the figure will be somewhere in between depending on the ratio but I try stay off the expressways except to by pass major cities or enter and exit large regional towns where I would other wise be stuck in traffic trying to reach my hotel.
Another important thing is look closely in google street view at the roads you will taking if not familiar with them as a two lane road can turn to one lane to nothing more than forest walking track where it has been abandoned but Google will show it as a main through road. Referring to one of those ambitious ride plans again a group were going to ride the entire route 299 from Tokyo then the 361 to Takayama after picking up bikes from Tokyo and I wonder how they went. The 299 starts out two lane sweepers but ends up a one lane goat track later that in it’s entirety takes many hours to go a couple of hundred km.
The other issue is roads here can be closed due to land slides from earthquakes or typhoons, Bridges and tunnels can be closed after an earthquake while they await repairs. The signage is always in Japanese only and may be a white sign with the route number and a red circle with a red X marked (I will add a photo in future) or it may be a electronic signboard. Either way if you do not read Japanese it is usually not clear if the road is closed totally or just to trucks too heavy or if there is a detour ahead or you need to detour now and not proceed. The 361 that group was riding had a detour mid section last time I was there. Not the thing you want to come upon late in the day let alone after dark as I presume they did.
Here is a link to a site where you can check road closures. It is all Japanese and not easy to use but handy particularly for the roads between Nagoya and Lake Biwa that seem to be affected by closures a lot.
I only know the Garmin GPS systems not the Tom Tom as only Garmin offered a Japanese GPS solution when I got into GPS navigation so this part will talk solely about that brand. I currently use a Garmin Zumo 660 GPS in Japan and an older Nuvi 760 elsewhere. I use a site called RidewithGPS to build my daily riding routes. You can point and click to draw a route, easy undo and zoom in and switch to Google street view on the fly to see what the road is like. It is free to use once you register and can export files in .gpx format that you can copy to your Garmin GPS. If you use Google chrome then have it set to auto translate Japanese to English and your planning map will appear in English.
Some tips for planning with this tool is zoom in to make sure you click on the road and not a side street or the GPS will want to take you to the same side street. Use the orange man icon to view each road in Google street view as you plan to make sure you do not end up on some road that turns into a walking track as can happen in the mountains of Japan despite the road showing as a yellow main road in Google maps. Always double check at closer zoom the finished route to look for things like having clicked on the other side of a four lane divided roadway. The cue sheet entries for any toll road sections must be deleted or your Garmin will go crazy trying to calculate the route.
Personally I now delete all the cue sheet entries (shown in window on left of work space - see photo) and then use the option to manually add cues just at the key places in the route to keep the gps locked to my preferred roads but let it otherwise be able to operate freely so it can provide all the turn by turn cues itself rather than ones generated by the Google map data. Export file as a gpx route file after saving and then preview in your GPS device before your ride, zoom in to examine if the gps has calculated your route as you wanted or has decided it knows better and has made a short cut or taken the expressway when you wanted to stay on rural roads. If incorrect see what short cut it is taking and go back to the route and add additional cue sheet entry to guide the gps to take that bit of road then it knows to navigate as you want.
Edit - I realised some people are not aware how to use these or other gpx routes in a GPS. You need to save the file to your computer first, in ridewithgps that option is in the View Route screen and the export section then choose export route file (not track file as they suggest). Next you need to plug in your GPS to your computer via USB cable and when it shows up as a device select the option view files. Now you copy the route file to the Garmin/GPX sub directory. Disconnect your device from the computer and boot it up. Some devices will prompt you new data found do you wish to import, if this happens of course follow the prompts. On older devices you need to go to the My Data button then select import data or route and then select the route file. Either way after it calculates the route you should always look at how the device has calculated the route to ensure it is accurate. Go to Custom Routes or Routes depending on device and then select the route you have imported then select Preview. Examine the route carefully by zooming and panning.
It is debatable as to the best mapping but most say the official Garmin Japan road map which is currently version 15. There has been a persistent effort by some people online to misinform that Japanese language maps do not work in non Japanese Garmin's. This is totally untrue. Any Garmin made since 2008 is multi language or can be auto updated from the Garmin web updater and even the older Zumos that people claim don’t handle other languages can be manually updated. Getting the junction view data to work on your non Japanese model however is a separate issue and in that I am not able to advise but the GPS forums say it is possible but these are GPS nerds talking and it might be difficult.
Above, junction view in action, amusingly at a junction that it did not work at about 15 minutes prior to this photo and with all the signage in only Japanese (rare) I had to guess which way to go when the road split in two and of course I chose the wrong way and had a 20 km round trip to the first exit then u-turn and back through the toll gates and back to this intersection for 2nd time.
The junction view is in my opinion really the only real advantage of the Japanese model Garmin's and their maps. Apart from that I found many places where the roads have changed and new highways are missing even on the latest map version I have. So other map options you have are the Open Street Maps (OSM) which are pretty good and free! Also there is the UUD maps of Japan which are a bit out of date but on country roads I found this this map is still ok. If you look at Navigation forums like GPS Power you will find lots of mapping info and data.
You do not need a Zumo GPS. I navigate the rest of the world with a 8 year old Garmin Nuvi 760 that I put in a waterproof case along with a battery and strap to the handlebars of rental bikes. This means I do not have to be fitting things to the bike to mount a Zumo and trying to access the battery to wire it up. I use a case by Soeasyrider which has worked for years and the notion that you need a waterproof Zumo is not true (just nicer). For power I have a 6000mvh battery and the tricky part is you need a two wire power only USB cable to connect otherwise the Garmin's go to data mode. I made my own originally but they can be purchased on eBay now like the battery.
Smart phone navigation
You do not need a Garmin or a GPS at all to navigate these days. Away from the huge cities and off the expressway you could just as easy use a navigation tool like Google Maps navigation on your phone or perhaps OSMand the open source navigation app which is gaining a strong following. Pocket Earth Pro offers offline custom routing as well and Waze offers city Navigation that draws in user info on road delays to better route you. (update, since writing this Google maps on smart phones has expanded to allow user defined route guidance with off line maps which is gaining in popularity for people without a GPS)
Ride with GPS have their own app which I like to use as a overview of the days ride and it can show me where I am on the route or if off the route but have not tried to navigate with it as I already have the Zumo. Even more simple navigation is offline mapping with the fantastic app Mapsme which I used to navigate Philippines better than the Garmin mapping could do but this does not offer user defined routes so more old school if you prefer to stop and check things and use road signs. I find it too difficult in Japan to navigate this way.
Japan expressway junctions, this is a minor one.
If you are going to be in a big city and want assistance to navigate it with proper junction view and lane assist then there is one app that offers that and easy outclasses the dedicated Japanese Garmin map with accurate 3D building graphics as well but does not offer user defined routes which is a shame as it otherwise would be a killer app. I initially was using this phone based navigation app called Go Go Navi. I had the Nuvi 760 and a older Japan map but no junction view. This was fine in the countryside but I struggled to get out of and back into Nagoya. The highway junctions in Nagoya were so complicated that without GPS junction and lane assistance I was left to guess and often took the wrong ramp. After spending two hours one evening lost I decided to try the Go Go Navi app to navigate in Nagoya city areas.
The app provides excellent lane and junction guidance (not shown above) as well as 3D like navigation. It also unlike a regular GPS can use phone tower signals to continue to navigate underground. Huge sections of the Tokyo (and Nagoya) expressway are below the ground and first time I tried to go across town with the Garmin I got a blank screen and was left to guess each underground junction and which exit to take. Naturally that did not end well. You also get navigation to phone number function with this app which is how you navigate to a location here as Japan does not use the western address system of street and number and town (something the reviewers of this app did not understand).
So that is a few ideas and it is now up to you how much electronic guidance you want to have riding here.
Consisting of many islands Japan also has many ferries. To use these some need to be booked, for example the ferries to and from Hokkaido, where as most of the others you do not need to book or cannot book, just turn up. You will need your motorcycle registration paperwork when buying the ticket. There is usually a ticket office nearby, it may not open until the departure time gets nearer if you arrive a long way in advance. Small islands might have a ticket machine which will be all in Japanese but I found someone turned up to help before the ferry arrived. That sort of tiny ferry did not ask for registration paperwork. The ferry from Kagoshima you simply ride on a pay at the toll gate on other side of harbor. There can be different fees for the engine capacity of the motorcycle. I see some have discount for 700cc or under and some have three prices for different capacity engine sizes. This really is out of date method of pricing since a KTM Super Duke 1290cc weighs less than a Honda NC700X.
The crew will secure your motorcycle on larger ferries. Small inter island hopping you may just be sitting on the open deck. Longer journeys there will be a kiosk with food and area with tatami mats where you will see people lying down taking a rest. Be sure to remove your boots before entering that area. There will always be vending machines and clean toilets with paper.
7. Access and money.
This is a motorcycling blog so I am not going to try cover things that regular travel blog might talk about but I have a couple of tips for visiting riders.
Everyone knows about the Japan Rail NEX airport train but did you know there is a rival airport train that is both faster and about 30% cheaper called the Skyliner. It’s just 36 minutes from Narita to Nippori station which is where you should change to the JR Tokyo network. When you exit from customs there is a counter for the Skyliner and NEX tickets just outside the arrivals area. If you wait until you go down the levels to the train station you might find there is a big queue for tickets and you will miss the next train in the wait. In addition to the Skyliner that same rail company provides a budget service that most of the local people choose called Narita Sky Access which just uses regular rollingstock but still runs partly express and can save you a good bit of money.
You can access anywhere in Tokyo via the rail network. There are many lines and it is worth getting a rail map application on your smart phone. Some stations you can pick up a paper map of the network. I see people spending a lot of time at ticket machines or ticket counters buying single tickets when using the train networks in Tokyo. The easy way is to get a ‘Suica’ smart card and load $10 to $20 on it then you simply touch the sensor and the fare is automatically worked out and is at a discount to buying paper tickets. You may end up not using every dollar on the card but in the scale of things a couple of dollars unused seems trivial for the ease and simplicity of operation and time saved.
Apart from the Suica Japan is a cash society. Credit card use is slowly expanding but you should never assume anywhere will take a credit card. In my travels to Japan before living here I found I could easy obtain better exchange rates buying Yen in my home country than in Japan. Once you leave the airport there are not a lot of currency exchanges on the streets. Major bank branches of course will have FOREX counter. Easier perhaps to withdraw from ATM’s using your credit card but things to be aware of there too. Most ATM’s will be totally in Japanese with zero English. I have found I can operate most of them using Google translate on my phone with the option to take a photo and have the app scan and translate the Japanese script. This requires a data connection on your phone. Not all ATM’s accept credit cards issued by banks outside of Japan, even though they might have the international Visa and MasterCard symbols on them they still will only accept Japan bank issued cards. It's not common now but I came across this as recent as a year ago with a Nagoya bank ATM.
Related to this is some merchants can only process payments with Japan bank issued credit cards. All this stuff is a legacy issue. Japan developed its own systems separate to the rest of the world for many things. For example it is not long since all Japanese mobile phones worked only in Japan, no roaming whatsoever as different frequency and even today my Japan Citibank card does not work outside of Japan nor does my Australian Citibank Visa work in Japan Citibank ATM’s, two separate banking systems.
Convenience stores can help you with almost anything you may need while in Japan, including cash. 7/11 have ATM’s that kind of have English but then switch back to Japanese at what looks like the confirm screen (if you wait while it says something 3 times in Japanese it will then continue and issue your cash) Lawson stores seem to vary but I have found some with English option ATM’s. Family Mart also have an ATM, I found theirs in Japanese was simple to operate. Good to have Google translate on the phone and not be in a rush. Many bank ATM’s only operate until a certain hour at night i.e. perhaps 9.00pm then they turn off. Also bank ATM's on public holidays or weekends or generally after hours charge a higher fee than business hours. How the banks here managed to sell this idea to the public that ATM's cost more to run after hours I do not know but please do not tell the Australian banks or they will no doubt try to emulate this scam.
I only stay in hotels when riding. I like the idea of camping away from the city in the evening and I have simple tastes so a BBQ or some rice and instant curry camp dinner is fine by me too but the problem is the weather. If it was warm and dry then I would look into camping more but riding in Japan you will always encounter some rain and nights are cold at the time of year I usually ride, like single digit temps overnight, so camping in that mix and trying to get my gear dry and cook something at night or next day and be huddled inside a tent is just not for me. I can get a excellent hotel here between $40 to $60 a night (hotel prices fluctuate school holidays, festivals and last minute bookings will raise costs) It might be more expensive but with a hotel I have a warm heated room with laundry usually on site with dryer to clean and prep things for next day. I can connect to high speed wi-fi and most importantly take a long hot shower which is first thing I want to do after a days riding.
But I know many people love camping. I joined a couple of ride groups here online but never attended any of their rides yet because they always go camping every single ride which is so annoying. Japan has excellent commercial camp sites with great facilities but they are not cheap often focusing on cabins for families. Free camping has become more popular and here is a map of free camp sites around the country which may interest the adventure rider coming here.
AirBnB is another option. If you like just having a bed in someone’s house style of travel then it is worth taking a look. I have used it a few times elsewhere for renting studio apartments instead of hotel room and originally it was great value but now whenever I look the prices are consistently more than a hotel room. Prices here are as low as 3000Yen a night for basic hotels and less for backpacker type places so do compare.
Hotel chains I like include Route Inn, Super Hotel, and Green Hotel. You can easy find many hotels in Japan that were not on the big western accommodation sites using Rakuten Travel. (actually Hotels.com seems to be listing most hotels here now and at better prices . As usual check all the hotel sites to find better deal) There are quite a few other chains, some offer 1/2 board with dinner and breakfast which can be good value if you book when a promo price is available. I think I have mentioned before but rooms will be much smaller than western hotels and check out is earlier, 10.00am when 12.00 is more common in other countries.
I constantly see bad reviews of hotels based on the room being small. This is normal here not a bad hotel. If you try harder you can find the Best Western style hotels - but you came to experience Japan right?… Breakfasts usually start as early as 6.30am which is handy if you like to get on the road early. Food will not be western breakfast so look at what others are eating and follow – again you came here to experience a new culture didn’t you?…
I was told to simply say Check In at hotel counters upon arrival and they will understand this term as it is used by Japanese but that is not exactly true and staff rarely understand because of my Aussie accent but give it a go anyway. Away from the major cities it is likely you will be the only non Japanese staying and they will look at the register when you first arrive and say
Dr Livingstone I presume Mr. Warren? or what every your name is. Many hotel staff have done English training but it might be the first time to use it and they might try then suddenly switch back to Japanese even though their English had been very good.
Most of the ‘business hotel chains’ as they are known offer large buffet breakfast included in the room rate which sets you up for a big ride each day. The big three chains I mentioned above have lots of little extras. Super Hotel lets you pick the type and height of pillow. Route Inn has free espresso coffee machine. Green hotels have free welcome drinks. You will find all have a computer corner with free use of PC and a printer. You will find a bottle of Japanese version of Febreeze in your room. This is standard and is great for the motorcycle rider, I apply to riding jacket, pants, boots and helmet.
Your hotel room will always have a Japanese style deep bath/shower combo but you also may find the hotel has a public bath on the ground floor. Japanese people are obsessed with public bathing. I tried this on my first trip to Japan. I am not too shy but honestly I have no idea what the attraction is in taking a bath with a bunch of other blokes. Definitely something cultural you have to grow up with to understand or perhaps be one of those foreigners that has to embrace everything Japanese. For reasons I will not elaborate on I am rarely able to use a onsen/spa even if I wanted to so I cannot give much info on them but you can Google peoples experiences, some wax lyrically about using a Japanese onsen. The water temperature in them seems to be just below scolding and uncomfortable to me. I find a luxury bathroom with a overhead ‘rain’ showerhead is a far nicer way to bathe - but that is just me.
Hotels are the one place that almost always accept credit cards. And nice thing in Japan the idea of charging an extra fee for using a card does not seem to exist yet unlike many countries. enjoy while it lasts.
We all need to wash clothes on tour and while you will not be spoilt to have laundry shop on every corner like South East Asia you will find in Japan many business hotels have a coin laundry on site. The chains I use like Route Inn, Super Hotel, Green Hotel nearly always have a coin laundry and if one doesn’t the next nights one will so I can easy wash a few things properly and further more I can remove liners from my riding gear and wash them too which makes for a far more pleasant tour since even in winter we perspire and while I always wipe down my jacket and pants inside with a wet towel and use febreeze supplied by the business hotels every day after a week I really want to wash the liners. In summer with the liners removed it is not so easy to get textile outfits dry over night as they cannot be placed in the dryer (actually they say not to machine wash them but I have been doing so for years no problems) however if you have a spare day then perfect chance to do this. All bigger towns will have coin laundries scattered about as well unlike Europe where coin laundries are extremely rare (still have no idea what people do there for washing clothes…) You will find small one use packets or laundry detergent at the convenience stores so no need to bring with you.
9. Food and drink
Japan is a country where food and eating is almost a religion. TV channels broadcast very little else except food and cooking shows 24/7. I would need a whole new blog to try talk about the food and dining options in Japan so this is not going to explore that at all. Instead I am going to give some ideas for simple and economical food that is easy for a non Japanese speaking biker who may have some trepidation about eating out in a foreign country or someone thinking I’d like to ride Japan but I don’t eat raw fish as some people seem to associate with Japan. Riding with a friend or in a group then you are able to combine skills to overcome language barriers and broaden your options. But if riding solo like me after travelling all day in another country I just want the simple no fuss option and to unwind not be seeking out unique or challenging dining experiences.
If you are staying at a business hotel in Japan then a breakfast buffet is included and personally after eating this I rarely feel any desire to have a big sit down restaurant lunch. As long as it is fine I like to get something light at the convenience store and make a stop somewhere scenic or relaxing near a river or view point where there is a parking area. Usually road side parking spots have seating and tables and toilets.
The convenience stores offer a wide variety of fresh food. I usually grab some sandwiches but there is onigiri rice balls with filling which are very popular and lots of salads from simple to elaborate. The Japanese have a tangy cold noodle dish in warmer months which is delicious and you can find many bakery items as well as a wide range of hot food, some have a table and chair eating area. I have a cooler bag I got from a 100 yen shop along with a cooler pack I freeze each night in the hotel room fridge then I can buy something mid morning when I stop for a coffee and place it on my bike for later and stop whenever I feel like it. This works really well as in the mountains or following a valley there will usually be nice rest spots but the shops are of course in the towns either side so having something with me already works best.
There is always many small cafes along the way serving Japanese dishes. None will speak any English or have a menu in English so it is a little hard to access them but some hot ramen noodles on a cold day is a nice option if you can get around the language barrier. If on the expressway then the service areas have a wide variety of food and make a great place to stop for lunch, as well you will find it usually easier there with the food portrayed in photos or window displays. You may encounter the system there that you pay via a machine picking the number that matches the food item you want and then get a coupon to give to the counter. It seems harder than it actually is, just watch someone else and you will understand it. In large towns options will expand and may include some western fast food chains if you felt like something familiar for lunch. I have been following a round the world rider from Australia who loves nothing better than some McDonalds for lunch in every country he visits. That chain is of course in Japan along with Burger King and KFC but not as common as elsewhere. Lotteria is a Japanese burger chain styled like McDonalds.
After a big day riding II tend to look for family restaurants or other simple dining options in the evening. Often I take a walk to see what is around but if I see one of the big chains then that will do me. Some of the family restaurants I like include Denny's, Royal Host, Joyful and Gusto to mention just a few. These all will have menus with pictures, some may have English menus but usually you will be able to work it out from the photos and a bit of Google translate on your phone. A meal at these sort of places will be between $8.00 and $12.00 on average. The menus are a fusion of western and Japanese and they are not daunting places to eat at if you are not adept at solo dining.
Above Saizeriya are often attached to supermarkets or department stores and offer very good value meals.
Japanese fast food chains you might sample include Sukiya and Yoshinoya which while having a focus on soy sauce flavour beef on rice but also offer some other amazing value meals sets. In the south there is Ringer Hut which seems to have a focus on Nagasaki style noodles but also offers other meals and is similarly very good value. You wont find any English menus but it will all be in photos. Craving a burger then I suggest you try Mos Burger which is a large chain but offers fresh made burgers with unique sauce and fresh cooked home style fries and if you add on their corn soup it makes a nice set and change from rice if not used to eating that.
Alternatively you might just want to relax in your room, plan next days ride, catch up on Facebook. You can get an excellent hot meal from any convenience store nearby. Each evening fresh made meals fill the shelves and the shop will heat the meal for you and provide chop sticks or fork and spoon for dessert items. Lots of people stop on the way home and get dinner this way because it is difficult to make it by yourself for less as many meals are $3 to $4. And the quality is very high as with all food in Japan. Supermarkets also have an area with premade meals and will have a microwave at the front somewhere for you to heat it and all the business hotels have microwaves near the foyer for this purpose as well. I used to think it odd but it is a way of life here and you will see workers who are staying at the hotel perhaps on business coming back to the hotel with dinner from the nearby convenience store. If you want the convenience shop to heat up something (and they have not already motioned to the microwave) then simply say ‘Ting’ to indicate you want it microwaved, Ting being the sound of the microwave when finished. No, I am not making a joke.
There is a chain of obento (boxed dinner) shops called Hotto Motto that are a great takeaway option if one is nearby. Their meals are huge and made fresh on the spot. I sometimes get a dinner from them and a beer and just relax in the room, especially after being on the road awhile.
If you like a beer then you can get one at any convenience store. Beer from a supermarket or the large warehouse style pharmacies (drug stores) is much cheaper, as low as $1 a can but when you order a beer with a meal in a restaurant you will find the standard price is $5 for a glass, even when the meal might only be $8. Soft drinks also get marked up steeply but the great thing is iced water is always free and will be served with every meal, even fast food burger shops have iced water available although you will mostly have self serve water there. Some places also will provide free tea, hot or iced depending on the season. So to eat cheap in Japan skip the drink and have the complimentary water. By the way tap water in Japan is safe to drink, actually the water quality here is amongst the best.
As I said at the beginning if more adventurous or a foodie then the dining options are unlimited in Japan so this is intended for the biker who wants some simple options with the focus of travel here being the ride. I try to explore the larger towns I am in and eat something out but smaller towns the meals from the convenience stores are really very good as is the food you will find at the local supermarket and I am just as happy to grab something and wander back to the room and catch up on the latest motogp round or do some laundry or waste time on Facebook with glass of something so for more detailed dining out information please look at sites dedicated to that.
You can buy a sim card at the major electrical retailers. Yodobashi, Bic Camera, Yamada, Softmap to mention a few should all have a travel sim or tourist sim sold for visitors to Japan. Of course your phone needs to be unlocked to be able to use this and if your phone is locked to a provider via contract that may not be possible. I have seen rental wi-fi devices at airports which you can obtain before you leave your country or upon arrival here but they usually are not cheap. In some countries now you can pre purchase a certain amount of international data roaming or put a cap on the data roaming costs per day and this is another option to look at.
Being able to use the Google translate app as you need to see what things say is terrific and I would strongly advise that you have some mobile data capability for that even if just 100/200MB a day turned on as needed to translate menus, food labels, road closure signs and pharmacy/medical items should you need something.
While on that medications in Japan have very low dosages. I am not sure why, someone said body size is smaller as one reason but still very conservative. For example when I had a broken collar bone and was prescribed Panadol the dosage was 1/4. The instruction was one tablet which in turn was only half the strength of Australia Panadol who recommends two tablets per dose for adults. I needed to take 4 tablets to get the same dosage and gain any pain relief. Other simple non prescription medicine is also half strength so if you buy something keep this in mind.
I hope you never need this but dial 119 for ambulance in Japan.
Hotels will always have internet, wi-fi is usually fast, Japan has very high speed internet. Some old hotels might only have ethernet internet, I encountered this once but think it is very rare now in the era of tablets and smart phones. Lots of other free wi-fi in major urban areas.
Need to print out flights then if not staying at a hotel with printer head to the nearest convenience store. Most have printers that accept USB memory drives, the file format needs to be PDF but that is likely the case already anyway. Family Mart always have big copier machines as far as I can tell and theirs are multi language. Very cheap just 0.10yen. I don’t bother to own a printer here, makes no sense.
Well I am going to post this article as it currently is and come back to add more content as it already is quite large in word count and also I figure this is the sort of post I can keep adding and expanding for as as I am in Japan so to wait until it is more complete might mean I post it in a year from now which helps no one sitting at home thinking about doing a ride a here. Feel free to post any questions which will help me get an idea of what I need to add or expand.