Japan by bike

I used to live in Japan, back in 2007. Those were largely days of little worry for me; a carefree time when I would try and teach English to people (normally to a pretty varied standard) but spend most of the time thinking of where I would explore next and how much drinking I could get done before heading to a karaoke place to sing until dawn. 6 years have passed by very quickly and lots of things have happened to me, both tragic and wonderful. One of the most joyful things I have done since I was a gaijin over in Nagoya was discovering cycling as a culture and a way of life.

It’s not that I didn’t ride bikes before 2010, when I bought my first London bicycle. I did have a bike for some of my time in central Nagoya, and I treated it like shit. It was purely a way for me to get from A to B; a massive, heavy rust heap with lights that didn’t work properly and a slow puncture that I was too lazy to fix. I would trundle around Japan by bike, riding to play football in the dusty parks and not locking it up apart from the lock for the back wheel. This prevented anyone from riding it away… but would not stop anyone picking it up and slinging it into a truck. Mind you, there were scores of bikes identical to mine that people left on the pavement. No-one would really want to steal them!

I bought this tank off someone in my apartment block who was leaving Japan and holding a sayonara sale. You could pick up some gems in these so-long sucka sales. I can’t remember how I ever did tell it apart from the other ones that were in the bike park of my building. The first time I rode it I think I must have had 5 or so near misses with people in the hectic streets of Fushimi. It is much more acceptable to ride on the pavement in Japan, so I would spend a lot of my time weaving in and out of crowds, dinging my bell at the groups of salary men and ladies in their kimono, trying to speak terrible Japanese to them.

Some of my fondest memories of exploring Japan by bike were when I went to Kyoto. The first time was in July for Gion Matsuri. This ancient and huge festival takes place over a number of days in the old capital, with millions visiting to watch and get involved in the street parades that date from the days when Kyoto’s residents would try and ward off the plague during the summer months. On the day after the festival, I was on my own as my friends had gone back to Nagoya. I had a whole day to try and see as much as possible by bike. I hired my steed from the hostel and set off on a day of exploring temples and shrines in my favourite Japanese city.

I hit the big sights that day, heading up through Gion to the Imperial Palace, where a cheerful junior high school class were running around the perimeter wall during a PE lesson.

Japan by bike - One man and his cricket
One man and his cricket – photo by Duncan Palmer

The heat and humidity was quite unbearable, but I carried on with my ride, determined to see as much as possible. Japan gets very hot and very humid in the summer, so riding in Japan by bike is often a muggy and tiring activity. I visited Daitoku-ji, which contained some utterly stunning gardens, before speeding down a hill to Kinkaku-ji, the famous temple of the golden pavilion. Ryoan-ji was up next. This temple has a zen garden where the rocks in raked gravel are set out so one of them is always hidden from view. Makes you think! I rode on via some more temples to the riverside town of Arashiyama and finally rode back to drop my bike back at the hostel.

Japan by Bike - Ryoan-ji's zen garden
Ryoan-ji’s zen garden – photo by Duncan Palmer

The second cycling experience in Kyoto was when I visited my pal Jonah, who was living for a month with a Japanese family. This was in November, when it was much more of a pleasant temperature to go cycling. I hired a bike from the guesthouse that I was staying at and met Jonah near Arashiyama. We rode on to the river singing ‘We Built This City on Rock and Roll’ for some unknown reason. The valley sides at Arashiyama are blanketed with trees and in the Autumn the colours of the changing leaves were enchanting. The day was spent riding from temple to shrine, looking at the most beautiful autumn leaves and chatting as we cruised through bamboo groves and past fishing ponds. This day was one of those ones that will stay with me forever. The company, the scenery and the riding. How it took me so long to get into cycling once I returned to England is a mystery


If you find yourself in Kyoto and you get the chance, hire a bicycle. Seeing Japan by bike is cheap and is a fantastic way to view the real Nihon. You get to view Japanese life in an insightful way, and you get the opportunity to visit some places off the beaten track that are guaranteed to take your breath away. The hills surrounding Kyoto can be challenging, but the views over the city will be worth your while.

by Duncan Palmer-san (@cyclodunc) for MadeGood