Cycle Route Planning & Navigating in Japan: The Beginner’s Guide
This resource is going to show you how to plan your cycling routes and navigate around Japan on a bike.
There's a lot to know which can be overwhelming for beginners but in this guide I’ll show you the key things to know about planning and navigating that I’ve used for the last 15 years cycling in Japan.
Let's get into the guide.
- Apps and websites to use
- Navigating on the bike
- Paper maps
- Creating routes
- Internet in Japan
- Being comfortable lost
- Tips on Accommodation
- Points to watch
- Planning for emergencies
Apps and websites to use
When planning your route and navigating while on the bike you’ll find apps and websites invaluable.
But for the beginner just starting out, it can be hard to decide what to use.
Below we list the main apps and sites that we use to plan our cycling trips in Japan and also to keep us on track while pedaling into the unknown.
There are of course apps and sites out there that we don't use but are really popular with good reputations. We mention a couple of them in this section as they are definitely worth a look.
Strava is one of the most popular cycling apps and sites out there.
It’s mainly designed for runners and cyclists and it has a great mix of analytics, tracking, route functions and social interaction.
We use Strava at Globalwheels a lot. There are some some things the app and site do really well but there are some areas that could definitely be improved.
When you're planning your rides and routes being able to make your own route manually is very useful.
You set the starting place and then plot the route on the map by clicking down the roads and paths you want to go.
The route generator is quite smart so it keeps the route on recognised roads and paths even if you accidentally click off the path a bit.
But sometimes not all of the smaller paths and roads are in the Strava map so you might actually use manual mode sometimes to plot parts of your route.
After you have made your route, you can save it and navigate with it in the Strava app or download the GPX file.
You can record your rides which means the route map will be generated and saved along with your data from the ride (elevation, speed, moving time etc).
You can then share it with other people or download the GPX file and upload it to a GPS unit.
Download GPX files
GPX files are important when it comes to route planning. You can download them and then use them as the route file to upload to devices or other navigation software.
You should be aware that for newer Garmin Edge units they recommend using a FIT file for the best results when using turn-by-turn directions.
You can download GPX files from Strava but if you want to download other people's GPX files the free version is very limited.
On the freeware, you can download your own routes and also routes that are shared with you by other Strava members.
If someone shares a route with you, you should "star" the route but clicking on the star next to the route name.
Starring the route will put the route into "Your Routes" in Strava which means you can easily download the files, share with other people and also follow the route in the app while riding.
Search for routes (segments)
This is the main area where Strava trails some of the other competitor apps. If you are looking for some inspiration and new routes, the search feature on Strava is cumbersome but with some practice you can make it work.
You can only search for segments, which are parts of routes. But here is how to find segments and then full routes in Strava.
First, go to "Segment Explore" in the Explore menu.
Segment Explore is better when searching for places in Japan because you can move the map to the area you are looking for routes for instead of typing in the place name.
A lot of segments might be saved in Japanese so if you search for a place with the English (romaji) title you might not get all the results.
Second, find a segment you are interested in and click on the segment in the list on the left or on the segment line on the map.
Third, click the "View details" button in the box that will appear and load the segment details page.
After that, scroll down to the leaderboards and find the rider and segment (they should be in #1 position) and click on the date link to the right of their name.
You'll be taken to the activity and route the Strava member recorded on that date which included the segment you originally found in segment explore.
If you are a Strava summit member - you have a paid account - you can then download the GPX file from the button on the map.
Google maps is also a very useful navigation and trip planning app and site.
Of course, you can check maps, distance and recommended routes in Google by using the standard “destination” feature but unfortunately the “bikes” option doesn’t have any data in Japan yet.
Google My maps
But, one of the best features of Google maps is using the My Maps function where you can create custom maps and personalise them for you.
You can add a GPX file to a map and show the route, add photos or videos, notes and more making it very useful for cyclists.
After creating your custom map with your route, you can then view the map in Google maps on your phone making it a very valuable addition to your cycling planning and navigating resources.
Here's how to create your own map in My Maps.
First, go to the Google maps menu and click on the "Your places" link.
Second, select the "MAPS" tab at the top and then click "CREATE MAP" at the bottom.
Next, click on "Import" in the Untitled layer and choose the file or drag and drop it in the space.
Your route with then appear on the map. You can name the route, edit the style and design of the layer and also change sharing settings if you like.
We often use this at Globalwheels because you can simply check the route and your location via the GPS point in your Google maps app and not have to open Strava or Ride with GPS to check your progress.
You don’t get the turn-by-turn voice navigation but being able to see your location in relation to the map and route is often enough.
Ride With GPS
Ride with GPS is another very popular app and site for route planning and navigation.
The free plan has some great features such as turn-by-turn voice navigation, the ability to view maps offline, multiple file export options and a pretty good route search function.
Route search function
Ride with GPS is much better than Strava for searching for routes.
You can simply type in the area, and also input a few modifiers in the search (how far from location, length etc) hit search and then view all of the routes that appear.
You can click on anyone’s route, view all the details of the ride and also download the route in different file formats.
The search results are pretty extensive with thousands of routes showing up the search results and it seems that the better routes are also displayed higher up the search rankings.
Export different file types
This is a great feature that a lot of people love about Ride with GPS.
Click on "Export as File" in the dropdown menu of More.
You are then presented with a variety of file options to download.
Even though GPX files are the standard for most GPS devices, recently there are FIT and TCX files which are becoming more and more popular for modern devices.
KML files are also useful if you want to view a route in Google earth.
Komoot is another very popular route planning app that has a lot of the features of Strava but with even more focus on map details and route planning and creation.
The app is paid but many people who have bought and used the App love it and we have a large number of our cyclists from overseas navigating Japan using Kamoot.
One of the great features is the offline maps function. If you don’t have any internet you don’t have to worry about not being able to access your route and GPS point.
Detailed road info
The information from Komoot is very detailed and it will let you know if your route is suited for bikes, hiking or whatever.
You can also input things you want to see during you ride and the app will recommend a route that tries to take everything in. For example if you want to finish at the top of a mountain, start at a lake or pass by some waterfalls during your ride, simply input your requests and Komoot will try and include these things in your ride.
Map My Ride
Map My Ride is another popular and free route planner and navigation app.
We don't use it that much at Globalwheels but a lot of people do so it's worth mentioning.
The free plan is pretty good and it includes a solid route search function, in-app navigation on your phone or GPS unit and also the ability to download GPX files.
Learn more about Map My Ride here.
Navigating on the bike
If you’re new to Japan or visiting, as a large number of you are, you’ll need to get used to being in Japanese towns and on Japanese roads on the bike.
In small, rural towns you’ll find a lot of signs in Japanese but more and more you’ll see the roman alphabet used on signs.
Some popular cycling routes and roads have cycling specific signs however these are generally uncommon.
For example the Shimanami kaido cycling route has a painted line along the route and also the distance until your destination every 5 or 10km which is very nice.
Some main routes in Kansai such as the cycling path along the Katsura river in Kyoto also has useful signs for cyclists in English.
Using a GPS device
One of the great things about using a device specifically for navigation is that they are actually very good at what they do.
I know this sounds obvious but the directions given are usually clear and they can make an otherwise confusing section simple enough to navigate.
When you use a GPS device you also look at your phone MUCH less. This is important.
If you are constantly looking at your phone you are draining the battery and swiping through menus and different apps meaning less time appreciating the view and more time starting at a screen during your ride.
Also, GPS units are usually very weather resistant whereas if you are using your phone for most of your navigation you really need to be careful if it starts raining.
There are a fair few makers of GPS units out there but the main two brands you'll probably come across are Garmin and Wahoo. They both make excellent devices and both offer more affordable options as well as higher-end models.
This article in the Telegraph has a good summary of the 8 best cycling GPS units on the market.
One thing to note if if you buy a Garmin in Europe it will only come with maps for Europe. A lot of cyclists don't know this and only find out after arriving in Japan and trying to view their routes they uploaded.
There is a free solution which is to use OpenStreetMap. For details on how to download and install it successfully on your Garmin device, see our blog post on the topic.
Using your phone
Using your phone for navigating while on the bike is also a very good option.
The apps we mentioned above (Strava, Ride with GPS, Komoot) all work great for navigating and most of them also have turn-by-turn navigation too.
The main things you need to think of when using your phone for directions while on the bike are:
- Battery - you'll drain your battery much quicker when using the route and navigation apps so be sure to charge or maybe bring an external charging brick
- Weather - if you don't have a waterproof case, you'll need to put your phone away in bad weather leaving most of the navigating up to you
- Mount - you'll need a mount to attach your phone to your bike. There are lots of options for nearly ever phone so finding one should be easy
Paper maps are still very useful to have but of course the more maps you have, the more space they take up and weight they add.
Also, it can be a challenge to find paper maps in English, in Japan.
A map will always have the area and geography no matter what language it's in but all the towns, city, places of interest, names of rivers etc are of course very useful so if you can get an English map (or a map in your native language) they'll be more useful.
At Globalwheels we have a range of cycling maps but most of them are in Japanese.
We also have a few PDF maps that you are welcome to download and use. Check out the links below for some of our PDF maps.
Kyoto and Nara
These two PDFs are in English give some good information about cycling in Kyoto in Nara.
One of them highlights some different areas to cycle and some suggested routes whereas the other one has a detailed cycling route from Arashiyama to Nara.
Shiga and Lake Biwa
The below PDF is a great map and guide to cycling Shiga and Lake Biwa in particular.
Wakayama and the Kii peninsula is gaining in popularity which means more and more resources are appearing.
The below PDF is a Japanese map that shows the main cycling routes in the area but I have added some English place names to help you get your bearings when looking at the map.
When planning your cycling trip you will want to make up some routes so you can upload them to your device or cycling apps.
Depending on the app or site you are using, it’s relatively easy to make up routes.
Use route planner site
Use Strava, Ride with GPS, Map my Ride or Komoot to create a route manually. It's pretty easy to find the route builder in all of the apps but if you are unsure a simple Google search should do the trick.
But, how do you know what route to create if you haven’t been there before? Good question. Below are ways you can see what routes people are riding to help you plan and give you some inspiration.
To give you an idea of generally where cyclists ride, check out the Strava Global Heatmap.
You can look at any area in the world on the map and see what routes and roads people usually ride.
Activity is shown through lines on a map and the darker and bolder the lines, the more people are riding it.
Search Ride with GPS, MapMyRide & Strava
There is a chance someone else has already made a near perfect route that you were planning on doing that you can simply share with yourself or download the GPX file.
The route you find might only cover some of your planned route so if that's the case you can use their route for ideas and make up your own route using some of their and your ideas.
Go back to the sections for each app for instructions on how to find routes.
Forums and Groups
Forums are also a great place to see what other people do, ask questions or search the group answers. Facebook groups are very good and the members often have a lot of useful information that they are happy to share.
Two very good Facebook groups for Japan cycling are:
Reddit and Quora are also good resources to search and post questions in the forums.
Internet in Japan
As I'm sure you know, internet is important for your cycling trip.
On the bike, having internet is massive. If you venture a little too far, a simple look at Google maps and you’ll see where you are, where you need to get to and also have the ability to call if you need help.
So, what is the best way to get internet in Japan? There are lots of options which are outlined below so let’s have a look.
Recently more and more data sim options are popping up in Japan.
You can pick them up at airports, large electronic stores and even some convenience stores.
The going rate is around 2,500 - 3,000 yen for 3 GB of data. Here is an example of one available at Yodobashi camera in Osaka.
Pocket wifi. Probably the undisputed king of the internet for travelers in Japan.
The pocket wifi is a portable wifi router that you can connect your devices to. You turn it on and connect to it using the SSID and password that comes with the device.
For people who want faster speeds and more data (unlimited plans available) the pocket wifi is probably for you.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is another device which means you also need to charge it. But all rental units will come with a cable and adapter so you can charge via USB or through a wall socket.
They are usually rented from the airport so book one in advance and then pick it up at the airport after you land. You pay a daily fee which ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 yen depending on the data package.
Free Internet (cafes, city, trains)
There is free wifi around in Japan, but not much.
Cafe / Restaurants
The best free wifi you’ll find is the kind that’s not really free. Internet in cafes and fast food restaurants that usually involves buying something first.
The upside is you get the most reliable connection and fastest speeds. Some of the classics are Starbucks and McDonald’s. The internet is usually timed too, meaning you’ll get an hour free before you get kicked off and need to wait before reconnecting. So, get your coffee or big mac and get your list of things to do out and start knocking them off while you’ve got time.
You’ll see advertisements around the place saying “free Japan wifi” but I'm sorry to say, it's usually a trap!
Yes, you can connect (sometimes) but it hardly works, the speeds are painfully slow and you usually have to give up your personal information for the privilege. No doubt you’ll be heading for the nearest McDonald’s to get a cheeseburger and a dose of real internet.
Same as above, speeds are slow and it’s a struggle to get on. For example the Hankyu line has free wifi and on my hundreds of train trips between Kyoto and Osaka I’ve tried to connect countless times but I'm usually disappointed.
You'll see the stickers at train stations when it's offered so give it a try but don't get your hopes up.
One of the better options is using the paid wifi that is floating around. For example I was deep in the mountains in Nara recently and I’d maxed out my data on my phone and didn’t have internet.
I had some work to do and needed some net so browsed the wifi networks that were available and jumped on the Wi2 300 network where I paid 350 yen for 6 hours.
Since it’s paid, the connection was stable and the speeds pretty good. Not blazing fast but it was worth the fee.
There are other options available, but check out the Wi2 300 site.
They are still alive and kicking in Japan and can be useful for cyclists.
You often get unlimited drinks and snacks at their drink bar, sometimes use of a shower and booths that you can sleep in too.
Smoking is OK in most places so if you are a non-smoker the smell of cigarette smoke can sometimes be unbearable, especially if you are planning on sleeping for a bit.
If you are hungry, thirsty and could use a shower and a place to sleep internet cafes are worth checking out.
Being comfortable lost
One of the best things about riding bikes is the feeling or freedom. Under your own steam and with a reasonably amount of energy and fitness, you can really get quite far.
The fear of getting lost or too far over out head are common. But, with modern GPS and smartphones, nearly everyone has a very powerful mapping and navigational tool in their pocket.
Battery is something to be concerned about so make sure you charge up and consider carrying an external battery pack with you. These days the packs are compact and easy enough to bring along on a ride.
If you are riding further than usual or is unknown areas, some planning can keep you safe and give you the confidence to push on.
On top of making notes of the nearest train stations and your destination you should practice saying them too. You can ask staff at restaurants, hotels and train stations to say the words to give you an idea of the pronunciation.
Nothing worse than when you are trying to say Japanese words to a Japanese person and they have no idea what you are saying.
Is Japan safe?
The short answer is yes, very safe.
Compared to a lot of Western countries Japan is extremely safe. In the 2019 Safe Cities Index Tokyo came in at #1 and Osaka at #3 in overall rankings for safety.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be careful. You should always be aware of your surroundings but in Japan I generally feel very safe and I'm sure you will too.
This hopefully gives you a bit more confidence to branch out and explore a bit further.
Watch the dark
In the mountains, forests and rural areas it gets dark, very dark.
If you are cycling in winter especially, the days are short with sunset being around 5 to 5:30. If you are in the mountains or remote areas it can often get pitch black making navigation very difficult and cycling a bit dangerous.
Also, a lot of bike lights aren’t really designed to be used to see in the dark. They are designed so that other people can see you but don’t rely on your light to shine the way when it gets really dark.
You may have prepared for this and brought extra bright lights for your bike but a lot of bike lights are simply too small to really provide that much illumination.
So, watch the time and give yourself enough time to reach your destination before it gets dark and dangerous on the bike.
Tips on Accommodation
When it comes to booking accommodation, we recommend booking in advance. Japan is getting busier and busier every year with tourism and in peak seasons it’s not uncommon for hotels to be fully booked.
Yes, you can book accommodation during your trip as you ride, but try and reserve the room as far in advance as you can.
Same day bookings
A fair few hotels and camping grounds in Japan don’t accept same day bookings.
I’ve heard of campgrounds refusing same day bookings even when the camping site was 75% empty.
The rider who was refused was looking for an unpowered spot and it was also pouring with rain. After nearly begging the owner to let her stay, he didn’t budge and she had to continue on riding in the dark in the pouring rain.
Avoid this situation and book in advance when you can.
Points to watch
One thing to be aware of is the level of English in Japan is generally pretty low. There are some people who speak great English but you shouldn’t expect to be able to deal with most situations in English.
So, you should study a few Japanese phrases or print some out that you can pull out and show someone if you need to.
There are some great translation apps these days and Google translate seems to be improving every year.
Japan has 4 distinct seasons with varying weather conditions around the country.
Generally, the best seasons for cycling around are Spring and Autumn. In most areas of Japan the temperature is great for cycling and the scenery also really comes alive in the seasons.
You can cycle in Summer and Winter but in mainland Japan around Kanto, Kansai, Shikoku regions the summer is very hot and humid and the winters can be freezing with snow.
For more details about the weather conditions in Kyoto check out our Kyoto cycling guide and overview.
Roads to avoid
You can't ride on freeways in Japan. It's illegal and dangerous and not where you want to be on a bike.
They are busy roads and often have trucks and large vehicles flying down them with not much room on the side for you on your bike. These are toll-free highways so a lot of truckers and drivers drive on them to avoid paying tolls that you pay on freeways.
Japan has a lot of steep mountains, which means a lot of tunnels. Some tunnels are 500m while some are 15km. I’m not kidding, I went through a 15km tunnel (in a car) in Ishikawa last year.
They are dark and can be very dangerous.
There often isn’t much room for bikes but sometimes there is a very narrow footpath to ride along which is still pretty hairy.
If you touch your handlebars on the wall you can panic, potentially come off and could find yourself in a very dangerous situation sprawled out on the road.
If you can avoid them in your route planning we recommend doing so. There are often service roads to the side like you can see in the image above. But, there are times when the tunnel is your only option so be safe use some of the below tips:
- Lights on - the more lights you have the better. Turn them all on and if you have the flashing setting I would switch them to this
- Sunglasses off - sometimes you get so used to riding with your sunglasses on that you forget you are wearing them. Make sure you take them off before entering (Tip from David in the comments, thanks David!)
- Check length of tunnels in advance - you can measure distance in Google maps by right clicking on the map to choose your starting point, then select "measure distance", then I would add a point at the end of the tunnel, then you can shape the measuring line by clicking on the line to add points then dragging them along the path of the tunnel. When you finish it will look like the below image with the distance showing in kilometers and feet
Planning for Emergencies
When planning it's important to know the important numbers to call in case of emergencies.
The main two numbers are:
- 119 for fire and ambulance
- 110 for police
Of course health and travel insurance is vital while in Japan. You can still get medical treatment without insurance but be prepared for a large bill.
It's a good idea to make a note of the local hospital or clinic in your area and also don't assume they are open all weekend. You should check on Google or on the hospital website that they are open before going there.