Here is a basic questions and answers post to hopefully address common questions that cyclists coming to Japan may have. If you have any more questions don't hesitate to leave a comment below, likewise if there's something I've missed. There's also more information on The Basics page as well as The Geography page.
Is Japan safe?
Yes. But that depends on what your definition of safe is. If it's related to other people then Japan is pretty safe and you won't have to worry about your personal safety or leaving your bike outside for extending periods of time.
However, that's not the case when it comes to natural disasters. Take a look at this list in the Guardian, where Tokyo, Yokohama, and Nagoya are considered to be among the top 10 cities in the world most at risk from natural disasters. After the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11th 2011, Japan has revised its preparation regarding major natural disasters and put into place more stringent evacuation procedures and readiness. You can receive earthquake warnings on your mobile devices in a variety of languages and local governments should be ready almost instantly to deal with a disaster (that wasn't the case during the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, or the Great Tohoku Earthquake).
During the rainy season and typhoon seasons heavy rains can also cause major flooding and mudslides. Closed roads in the mountains due to landslides are unfortunately quite common and it's up to you as to whether you risk hopping the barriers and continuing or following the signposted detour. I've generally jumped most barriers and continued as the signs are usually for larger vehicles but that has not always been the case when I've had to turn around and go back.
There's no need to be paranoid but it's best to know that natural disasters are a real threat.
Is Japan beautiful?
Japan suffers from a level of gentrification that would put other nations to shame. It's difficult, if not genuinely impossible in some cities, to tell places apart. Convenience stores, supermarkets, hair salons, walls of concrete... you name it, everywhere. The villages too, for the most part look very similar. That's why whenever possible it's good to head into the mountains or along isolated coastal fishing villages as these areas can be breathtaking. So, is Japan beautiful? Yes and no.
Is Japan really that different?
It depends where you are coming from. As Alastair Humphreys says in his book Thunder and Sunshine: Around the World by Bicycle;
"Like Britain, Japan is a developed country. There is a functioning infrastructure, people where similar clothes, and material things in Japan are similar. The Japanese people are like an extreme version of the British; harder working, more insular, more reserved and more conservative. Yet I felt that Japan was the most different, surprising country I had visited."
I'd agree with that observation.
Will my bike get stolen?
It's extremely unlikely but not impossible. I leave my bike unlocked when I pop into local stores etc. and have never had any problems. In major cities I'd be more cautious. Generally speaking the only bikes that are likely to get stolen are old shopping bikes (mamacharis) that people pinch when they can't get a taxi home after a hard night drinking in the izakaya.
Can I go into a hot spring if I have a tattoo?
Do you look like a Japanese gangster? If you do, then no you probably can't. If you don't then you'll probably be fine.
Are earthquakes a real threat?
See "Is Japan safe?" above.
Is Japanese food weird?
I'd like to say no but that's obviously because I've become accustomed to most things over the last 15+ years. So the honest answer is yes. But so the food of every culture on the planet.
From a cycling perspective I would caution anyone over relying too heavily on convenience store food and snacks. Yes, they are extremely convenient and cheap and I would be lying if I said I didn't use them, but a lot of the food sold is full of preservatives and additives and unrecognizable ingredients that I wouldn't like to consume on a regular basis. This article in the Japan Times from 2006 talks about some of the dangers.
Convenience store onigiri (rice balls) and instant ramen (noodles) in particular are full of chemicals that stop them going bad. I try to take my own food with me on rides and try to shop in regular supermarkets in the evening when bike packing or touring. I buy drinks from convenience stores (usually water) and only have onigiri when I'm really hungry. I never touch instant ramen.
Of course, it's not just Japan that suffers from a culture of too much processed food and instant food.
Are there really vending machines everywhere?
Unfortunately yes. It's not at all surprising to see them in some of the most remote places you're likely to cycle. But you can buy hot drinks in winter and refreshing cold drinks in the overwhelming heat and humidity of summer. Most vending machines in the countryside won't take anything larger than ¥1000 notes.
How do I take my bike on a train?
Put it in a train specific bike bag and away you go. There's more info here on our The Basics page.
Are road sign only written only in Japanese?
No. Most roads signs are in both Japanese and English. The exception to this is some of the older road signs in the countryside.
Is it true that there are convenience stores everywhere?
In the cities you're probably never more than a few hundred metres away from a convenience store. In the countryside it's a different story but even there I'd say you're probably no further than 20 or 30kms away from one at most.
What about bike shops?
There are basically two types: the local stores that cater for everyday people on shopping bikes and the more sporty stores that cater to roadies, mountain bikers etc.
You'll need to search out the sporty stores in most major cities if you want anything done to you bike that isn't a basic repair. Generally speaking if you need a replacement part expect the shop to order it in. This means that bike repairs could take a couple of days. Recently service has been improving but a couple of days turn around is not uncommon for some shops. I once had a pair of Campagnolo wheels serviced in a major shop just outside Nagoya, it took two weeks, cost ¥14,000 and was told that there was nothing wrong with them.
A few extras