1. It’s either gradient or gridlock
Japan’s rugged volcanic topography dictates how and where the roads crisscross the land. Unsurprisingly, they either go over the mountains or around them. Those elegant concrete bridges and bullet-straight tunnels you might have seen cutting through Japan’s highlands – they’re not for you. You are generally left with a stark choice: Do you take the narrow mountain road and test your legs, or do you cruise and cough down the busy main roads that link small town after small town? Depending on the length of your trip you’ll probably want a bit of both, but it’s nearly always one or the other.
2. In the saddle, you won’t get much respect
Start practicing your sarcastic hand gestures and nonverbal road rage because you’re not going to get a lot of love out there on the tarmac. In a country full of cyclists so used to riding bikes on the pavement, into oncoming traffic, or generally wherever they please, drivers don’t seem to have a lot of time for cyclists who prefer to obey the law. Expect to be honked at and pushed around a bit.
3. Out of the saddle, you’re in good hands
In contrast, you will encounter nothing but gracious hospitality and genuine concern for your welfare (and sanity) when you are looking for help – and even when you’re not. A request for water, suido-mizu, will never be turned down and you may well stand befuddled for a moment as your simple request snowballs into an offer of dinner and a futon for the night. Learn to say yes. And thank you.
4. Beware of cycle paths
Occasionally a sign for a cycle path (saikuringu rōdo) will appear like an oasis in the desert. Beware: they are sirens and they are out to get you. A beautiful woodland path will meander deep into the thicket and then stop suddenly; an oceanside drive will peter out into a sand dune; a cruise through the rice fields will throw you headfirst into a muddy paddy. Avoid them. They are not to be trusted.
5. Distance is the least of your worries
If you’re planning a trip for a few days or longer you will undoubtedly spend time poring over maps and calculating the minutiae of your proposed mileage. Do so. It is certainly important to know how far you intend to go each day. However, there are things on the road that will play a much bigger part in how much you either enjoy or despise your day in the saddle. Terrain, traffic and weather are all worth researching before you head out. And remember, wind is the invisible enemy.