Biking in Japan – Introduction

A General Introduction

In his book “Japan — A Travel Survival Kit”, Ian McQueen gives a great introduction to driving and motorcycles in Japan. (3rd edition Feb 1989; published by Lonely Planet; ISBN 0 86442 045 5).

In the following excerpts, our added editorial comments are given in [brackets]. Also, we have adjusted the spelling to conform with the rest of this FAQ. His observations about dangers particular to Japan, because they are accurate, are to be taken very seriously. Probably the most important thing to point out to the new foreign driver is:


The problem is that a new foreign driver WON’T KNOW THE PATTERN… the general Rules of the Road, and so won’t be prepared to defend himself properly. Be Careful.

Starting on page 149:

A person who likes motorcycles can have a very enjoyable time touring Japan by bike. The weather is favorable (or at least bearable) for at least eight months, there is the individual freedom afforded by any motor vehicle, plus the added advantage of being able to get through spaces that can stall a car for long periods when traffic gets snarled (which is quite often).

Except in metropolitan areas (where wealth is concentrated), bikes larger than 250cc are quite rare. Although many fire-breathing super bikes are built in Japan, most are exported. There are no new Japanese-made bikes for sale in Japan that are bigger than 750cc [this is one of the “voluntary restrictions” that the bike makers adhere to]. Any that you see have been exported, then re-imported, for there is no restriction on engine size for imported bikes.

The optimum size of a bike for touring Japan is 250cc. This is the smallest size allowed on expressways and the largest allowed on the major streets of Tokyo between 11pm and 6am [although I don’t know why anyone would want to be anywhere near Tokyo if they were _touring_]. An absurd law prohibits large bikes from using the major arteries between these hours. It penalizes law-abiding riders and is scoffed at by the Bosouzoku [groups of young assholes who steal motorcycles and rev the engines at 120 decibels plus] who intentionally ride on these streets, making as much noise as they can, to taunt the police [and everyone else, for that matter].

Best of all, a 250cc bike is the largest size that is not subject to SHAKEN [an expensive mandatory vehicle inspection]. Because of the low speed limits there is little sense buying anything bigger anyway. A lady friend of mine rode from one end of the country to another on a 50cc bike without problems. One thing you should be aware of, however, is that any bike of [50cc] or below is supposed to hug the side of the road an not ride in the lanes; a dangerous requirement in view of the way car drivers disregard space requirements of two-wheelers.


Honda has the largest dealer network in the country, followed by Yamaha then Suzuki. Kawasaki dealers seem comparatively rare. Remember that dealers in smaller centers don’t normally work on large bikes so spare parts will not likely be sitting on the shelf in such places.


Prices for used bikes have strange patterns. For example, a used 400cc bike won’t be much cheaper than a used 750cc (because the demand for the latter is less [because the license for the latter is so much more difficult to get]) and the price of bikes up to 250cc is also high because they escape the very high recurring cost of SHAKEN.


If buying a used bike in Tokyo, first check the _Tokyo_Weekender_. Since advertisers are usually other foreigners there should be no language problem in negotiating. You could even run an advertisement yourself, saying what size bike you want (and the date of your arrival in Japan if you’re doing it from another country). Write to: Tokyo Weekender, 55-11 Yayoi-cho 1-chome, Nakano-ku, Tokyo 164.


If you’re touring Japan by bike it is advisable to carry a tire repair kit and pump. There is nothing worse than getting a flat high up on a mountain road. [I can say, from experience, that popping the chain while coming out a major twistie can give a flat tire a run for its money. As for flat tires, I *highly* recommend tubeless tires. I once ran for 100km on a 100% “flat” tubeless tire, through both city and mountain roads, before I really noticed anything was amiss. Besides saying something about my powers of observation, it does say something very good about tubeless tires.]


Road Dangers — Japan is no more dangerous than other countries for motorcyclists – possibly less so because the speed limits are so low – but you must be aware of a few idiocies that persist.

Car and truck drivers have no appreciation of the space needs of bikes [or any other vehicles, for that matter] and drive close behind, unable to tolerate the sight of a clear space ahead of the vehicle in front. They will also go to ridiculous extremes to squeeze past a motorcycle, even if there is no space in front of it. It is not at all uncommon in city driving for a car to pass shortly before a corner, then abruptly cut across in front and make a left turn at the corner, instead of waiting a couple of seconds, pulling in behind, and making the turn leisurely. [Taxis are especially notorious for this].

Many car drivers simply don’t know the law regarding motorcycles. Small bikes are required to hug the edge of the road and not exceed 50 km/h [30km/h for 50cc scooters, 50 for others (see the “BIKE CLASSES” section), but virtually everyone exceeds the speed limit wherever possible]. Ignorant motorists — found in large numbers in small towns and remote areas — rarely see a bike bigger than 50cc and just don’t know that larger bikes have the same right to travel down the middle of the lane as a car does.

The necessity to stay by the edge of the road leaves you exposed to danger from another source – the road surface is often uneven due to deformation of the asphalt caused by heavy trucks and the heat. These ragged edges, along with uncertain shapes and slope of the gutter [as well as poor drainage], can making riding hazardous.

Another road surface danger is the fact that many curves on mountain roads are cambered *toward* the edge, not (safely) toward the hillside. Also, riders must always beware of taxis. Without warning they will cut across to the curb to pick up a fare, no matter how many lanes of traffic they have to cross. You must be on the watch for prospective passengers as much as the taxi drivers.

Another type of problem too-often encountered is the driver who pulls out from the curb or from a side road right in front of a motorcycle, even if the bike has the right of way and the road is completely clear once it has passed. It is also necessary to watch out for car doors opening in front of you, for few drivers look back to see if anything is coming. [In most cilvilized countries, drivers will check to see if the lane is clear. In Japan though many drivers just enter a lane whenever they want, expecting the whole world to stop for them. Feeling your bike tip over and shredding your clothes and skin to stop is NO fun].

The worst danger, however, is probably the riders of motor scooters [GENTSUKI] as they cut in with no regard for others [or themselves]. Among other things, they have no concept of the space needed for their own safety or that of other cyclists (both motor and pedal variety) nor of good road manners, stopping directly in front of other motorcycles at traffic lights. [Another hazard is after stopping for a light and waiting in the turn lane, many recklesly gun the engine as soon as the light turns green assuming they can turn through the intersection before oncoming traffic approaches. Buses and bicyclists can also be a danger. Buses are often road-slugs which completely fill the lane, making passing on either side impossible. They also have their exhaust pipes pointed right in your face (by law, for whatever God-forsaken reason) and will blast toxic diesel smoke at you for as long as you’re behind them. As for bicyclists, in other countries there are laws as well as common sense which dictate that they should go with the flow of traffic. But in Japanese cities it’s common for them to go on the street against traffic, coming directly at you.]

From the section on general driving habits, starting on page 143:

The main problem with drivers in Japan is lack of foresight. Too many do not think ahead to predict what might happen and consequently have to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. In this they are not always successful. Many drive so they are almost touching the vehicle ahead, relying solely on their reflexes to save them if a sudden stop is called for. This is probably a problem common to many countries but it seems to be a national characteristic in Japan… When moving away from the curb, many drivers pull a meter into the road before looking behind them to see if anything is coming. Going around corners in the city at quite high speed, without that there might be a pedestrian or car in the way, is all to common. Too many drivers change lanes without looking, and, once a vehicle they are passing is out of peripheral vision, many drivers immediately begin to cut over, forcing the other driver to brake abruptly.

Beware of cars coming through the red lights. A large percentage of Japanese drivers seem to hold the belief that if a light they are approaching has been green at any time while in their view, they have the right to continue through it even if it has been red for several seconds. This makes things interesting when one road has the green light, yet cars from the cross-street continue to stream across in front.

[We might add two observations ourselves: one is that drivers floor it the nano-second their light turns green. Secondly, If there is an oncoming car waiting to turn across your path, more than the slightest gap between you and the car in front of you will invite the waiting car to try to pull in front of you. This is probably the same as in many countries, and involves many of the same considerations for you as it would elsewhere. If you follow too close to the car in front, you risk rear-ending him if he slows suddenly. If you allow too large a gap, you risk both being rear-ended by the impatient car following you, as well as inviting the oncoming car to turn across your path. I have found that placing myself more towards the inside of the lane (to be closer to the oncoming lane) will help make me more visible to the waiting car and help me to “claim” my lane. A flash of the high beams is also helpful. ANYWAY, all this probably applies to most countries. One thing I have noticed about Japan is that if a waiting oncoming car does pull across your path, the car waiting right behind it will simultaneously (and blindly) pull into your lane as well, using the first car as a “shield”. Of course, since the first car is still actually there, there’s no place for the second car to go until the first has finished pulling across your lane, off the roadway, and out of the way. So the second car ends up just sitting in your lane for a few moments while waiting for the path to clear. What starts out as a chancy move by the first car ends up being a very dangerous hazard by the second driver. Of course, now that he’s in your lane, and he’s bigger anyway, it’s your problem and your responsibility to deal with it.]

Vestiges of the old days [in the 60s when personal car ownership was becoming popular, and the roads were a anarchic free-for-all] can be found on almost any mountain road, where every Japanese male driver seems to go silly, thinking himself highly skilled with the trained reflexes of a racing driver. The fact is that the low speed limits throughout Japan [though often ignored] prevent them from gaining any experience at high speeds on any kind of road, let alone twisty mountain ones. ALMOST EVERY DRIVER CUTS STRAIGHT THROUGH CURVES [emphasis added], so it is advisable to sound your horn at every blind corner [not that it will help]. Evidence of the bad driving is that there is scarcely a meter of guard rail in all Japan that isn’t scraped or bent. Containers of flowers by the roadside, often with some personal possessions and a flat stick with a name written on it, are mute testimony to a fatal accident, and are a common sight.


Although most truck drivers are careful and sane, their numbers include some of the most dangerous drivers in the country. Too many drive irresponsibly, indulging in games of chase, driving almost touching the vehicle ahead and unmindful of the mass [and/or length] of their vehicle. I have seen a multi-ton concrete mixer being put through maneuvers in heavy traffic that I would hesitate to perform in a sports car on an open track. One of the worst smashups in Japanese road history is believed to have been caused by the driver of a large truck loaded with chemicals playing “tag” with other drivers. The rear-end collision that he caused in a tunnel of the Tomei Expressway (Tokyo-Nagoya) killed seven people and destroyed 173 cars in the pile-up [whose drivers themselves apparently followed too close to be able to stop] and ensuing fire.


The amazing thing is that there are relatively few accidents. AS LONG AS EVERYONE HAS THE SAME HABITS AND EXPECTATIONS, A CERTAIN PATTERN OF DRIVING SEEMS TO DEVELOP AND IS EXPECTED [emphasis added] It would appear that other drivers just assume that it is up to them to allow for the problems caused by others.


The biking season in Japan varies according to the region you’re in. Japan has different climates according to where you are at. About 70% of the country is mountainous (hence a motorcyclist’s paradise) with lots of winding roads, valleys, waterfalls, out-of-the-way scenic places, etc. The Tohoku (northeast) area and the island of Hokkaido have very frigid, long winters with lots of snow. Summers are rather mild though, compared with the rest of the nation, where the summers are crushingly humid. Winter in the southern half (the Japanese call it the western half) of the country gets cold too, going down to about zero Celsius (32 F) in January and February in the cities, and colder naturally in the mountains.


Never, but NEVER underestimate the stupidity of the drivers around you!

Author: The Japan FAQ

Creator of Japan FAQ and former resident of The Land of the Rising Sun.