Bicycles (自転車, jitensha) are widely used in Japan by people of all age groups and social standings. Tourists will find that rental bicycles are available in many tourist destinations as a pleasant option for getting around.
Types of bicycles
The most common bicycle type in Japan and at rental shops are simple bicycles for everyday use, called mamachari ("mom's bicycle"). Mamachari are typically equipped with a basket and/or a child seat, a simple lock, a kickstand and just one gear. More advanced models with multiple gears or electric assistance have also become popular. Foldable bicycles, mountain bikes and road racing bicycles are rarely available for rent and vastly outnumbered by the inexpensive mamachari.
Rental bicycles are available in many tourist destinations. They can be an inexpensive and convenient way to get around relatively compact cities or towns, where distances between attractions are slightly too far to cover on foot. Rental shops can usually be found at train stations. Some shops require a deposit and/or photo identification for rentals. They might also ask for the address and phone number of your accommodation.
The majority of bicycles available for rental are the typical mamachari. Rental fees are usually 100-300 yen per hour, 400-800 yen for half a day, and 1000-1200 yen for an entire day. Electric-assisted bicycles are also increasingly available for rental usually at slightly higher rates. On rare occasions, road bicycles and mountain bikes are also available. Most shops do not allow overnight rentals. In cycling-friendly areas, some lodgings provide staying guests with bicycles for free, although some also charge a fee.
Bicycle rules and parking
In theory, cyclists are supposed to use the streets and not the sidewalks, except when signs indicate that the sidewalks are for use by both pedestrians and cyclists. In practice, however, cyclists tend not to follow this rule and use the sidewalks out of convenience. Helmets are optional and are not usually provided by rental shops.
In many big cities, there are dedicated bicycle parking areas near railway stations and shopping centers. Here and there you may even find multi-storey parking garages for exclusive use by bicycles. Where there is a lack of designated parking space, do not follow bicycles that are ruthlessly parked even in clearly designated non-parking zones. Illegally parked bicycles may be removed by the local authorities and can only be retrieved by paying a fine. Park instead at a location where your bicycle will obviously not be a hindrance.
Nice places for cycling
Below are a few places in Japan that are particularly attractive for cycling:
The Shimanami Kaido is a 60 kilometer long road system that connects Japan's main island of Honshu to the island of Shikoku via multiple islands and bridges. A well-maintained, dedicated bicycle route leads along the road, providing views of beautiful scenery of the Seto Island Sea. A convenient rental system allows travelers to pick up and drop off bicycles at multiple outlets along the way.
The Kibi Plain is a charming, rural flatland just outside of central Okayama City. An attractive 17 kilometer cycling trail leads through the plain and visits several historic sights. Rental bicycles can be picked up at one end of the trail and dropped off at the other.
Considered the cradle of Japanese civilization, Asuka offers several historic sites of interest in its idyllic rural countryside. Rental bicycles are a popular means for exploring Asuka because of the pleasant environment and suitable distances between sights. Some rental shops allow bicycles to be dropped off at different locations.
Biei is a small town in the center of Hokkaido. The picturesque landscape of gently rolling hills surrounding the town is a pleasant cycling destination, although some people will prefer electrically powered bicycles due to the hilly terrain. Rental bicycles are available from multiple outlets in central Biei.
Rental bicycles have become a popular means among tourists for getting around Kyoto, a city that is not known for a particularly convenient public transportation system. The city's flat terrain, rectangular street network and pleasant cycling road along Kamo River make it a good cycling destination.
Hagi is a former castle town in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The city is best toured by rental bicycles as it is just slightly too large for convenient exploration on foot. Traffic is light and road surfaces are mostly even, making cycling in the city quite pleasant.
Many regions of Japan are suitable for long distance cycling, offering numerous roads with little traffic. The country is abound with nature and many roads outside of the cities provide views of scenic beauty. However, traffic can be heavy on main roads, especially along coasts and valleys where there is no space for secondary roads. Due to a general lack of cycling lanes, narrow roads and old tunnels can be a hazard to cyclists.
Renting a touring bicycle in Japan is difficult. Therefore, you may consider bringing one from your home country. Some airlines allow bicycles as free check-in luggage. An alternative is to purchase a bicycle in Japan.
Inside Japan, bicycles can be easily and relatively inexpensively sent across the country using the popular takuhaibin delivery services. Many railway companies allow bicycles to be brought onto trains if the front wheel is removed and the entire bicycle placed into a special bag. A small fee may be charged.
Bicycle theft and registration
Bicycle theft is not uncommon in Japan. In order to fight the crime, every bicycle in Japan is supposed to be registered with the police against a small one-time fee. If you buy a new bicycle, the registration process will likely be handled by the store, but if you take over a used one from someone else, you should re-register it under your name at the local police station in order to avoid future misunderstandings.
Most bicycles are equipped with a basic lock (see illustration below on how to use it), but more sturdy locks are required if you are concerned about bicycle theft.