Cycling Japan’s Rice Fields

09/26/2022 | By Jordi Lippe-McGraw

There are countless ways to explore Japan, from driving and sailing to flying. But, there’s one less talked-about (and arguably more enchanting) way to see the country’s highlights: by bicycle.

In the spring, you can cycle through Gifu’s rice fields and visit local markets with the Hida Satoyama Cycling experience. From the graceful town of Hida Furukawa in the central part of Honshu all the way to a rustic farming village, the 2.5-hour agriculture journey takes guests through the deep culture of the town and its people, providing an off-the-radar experience into the culinary world, one-of-a-kind temples and shrines and “locals only” spots of Takayama.

The Hida Satoyama Cycling experience is all about getting travelers in touch with the Hida locals and the natural landscape. Travelers have three different tour options, each led by a local guide eager to share the area’s rich history, agriculture, seasons and produce not found in guidebooks. Knowledgeable, friendly and passionate, the Hida Satoyama Cycling tour guides take visitors through the scenic countryside and rice patty fields before stopping by shrines, temples and even local markets where they can taste what the area has to offer. Think sampling local sake and indulging in culinary delights and traditional sweets from artisans. Not to mention, pedaling past the rice fields themselves is like riding alongside Japan’s history.

Rice has been an essential part of Japan’s culture, history, religion, economy and cuisine for over 2,000 years. The staple grain’s role in Japan is essential in Shinto and Buddhist rituals and religious rites. In Buddhist homes, rice grains are placed on a saucer following a meal and at an altar to honor ancestors, while rice seedlings are believed to be a dwelling place of kami (spirits) in Shintoism. Kami are worshiped for a good harvest. As cyclists wander through Hida’s rice fields, their local tour guide will let them in on all the intricacies that make rice a pivotal part of Japanese culture.

During this tour, cyclists are also guided through the life of Hida locals, their dedication to rice production and how life adapts during the changing seasons. As they pass traditional architecture with the Japanese Alps in the distance, their visions come to life during the tour, especially when they meet locals along the way. It is a unique way to experience the story of Hida fully.

Ultimately, it’s all about taking a relaxing stroll through the culture of Gifu, an area ripe with distinguishing richness from the history to the landmarks, and connecting with locals. For example, it’s home to one of just 50 female sake brewers. Reiko Hayashi owns and operates Hayashi Honten Brewery in the Gifu prefecture. Seki City is regarded as one of the “three major blade producing areas in the world.” Kazuhiro Yoshida is the third-generation owner of Cutlery Sanshu and Seki Knife Museum, where travelers can purchase the finest knives forged by the master artisans of Seki, Japan’s most historic blacksmithing city.

Although Gifu and its rice fields are some of the best regions for exploring on a bike, other areas are primed for a cycling adventure. For example, Ibaraki Prefecture offers two-wheeled tours or a DIY itinerary where cyclists can stay overnight in towns like Inashiki City. There is also cycling along Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake in the nearby Shiga prefecture, on the 180-kilometer Biwa-Ichi or “Biwa Loop.”

Lastly, there is the famous Shimanami Kaido cycling route, a 70-kilometer-long road that connects the main island of Honshu to the island of Shikoku. The stunning cycling route takes cyclists through Japan’s most beautiful suspension bridges and six small islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

Cyclists looking to make the route a multi-day itinerary will find bicycle shops, rental and repair shops and even cyclist-themed accommodations like the chic Onomichi U2 with rooms equipped with bike racks and an on-site bike repair shop. Shimanami Kaido is also home to the official Shimanami Kaido Cycling Competition, held bi-annually and occurring this year in October, which sees an estimated 7,000 cyclists from across the world come together to ride the route.

But what makes cycling in Japan different from other cycling destinations? Well, no matter where you decide to pedal, Japan’s cycling routes are well thought out and prepared. It is easy to rent a bike and cycle down one of Japan’s scenic bike routes. Along the way, you can find local shops, breathtaking scenery, onsens and shrines and friendly locals ready to help. There are a plethora of different cycling routes for beginners to experts and suitable for all ages. Plus, the roads are well maintained, helping you avoid mechanical problems or a bumpy ride along the way.

Regarding practicality, two Gifu cycling options are available: standard and half. The standard is a 3.5-hour guided tour of Hida Satoyama. It is the most popular of the Hida Satoyama cycling excursions and the longest-running. The half is a 2.5-hour tour of Hida Satoyama that can be divided into two options: a private half tour or an afternoon group trip.

The private tour of Hida Furukawa is ideal for beginners, expert cyclists or families who want a more intimate experience. The group will start at Hida Furukawa and continue through shrines and a rustic farming village. Finally, you’ll enjoy the scenery while cycling through Satoyama and reaching a local spring.

Meanwhile, the afternoon group trip is similar to the private half tour and runs through the same points of interest. Cyclists will, however, have an opportunity to visit a local market on this tour. They’ll also have the chance to cycle through the town’s rice plants while the tour guide dives deep into the town’s harvest and rice history.

Touring parts of Japan by bike helps visitors slow down and become immersed in a particular area. Sure, you might not be able to see as many places as possible if you were to explore via car. But, you’re bound to walk away with the essence of what makes a particular region special. You’ll take in the history, artisanry, culinary scene and much more than just making a pit stop. Time slows down, and magic seeps in.