Sunsets alone along the Sea of Japan, or Nihonkai as it’s called in Japanese, make getting there well worth the effort, and the cycling and camping it offers make it more than well worth it. Akita City, Niigata City, Toyama City and Kanazawa City are all easy to get to from Tokyo and all make very fine points of departure for travel along the Sea of Japan. Of course all four provincial castle towns are in fact interesting destinations in of themselves.
There are numerous options and combinations of options for getting out to Nihonkai and back to Tokyo, including Shinkansen, highway bus, airplane and car. Bicycles can be carried onto the Shinkansen (in a simple carry bag), and airplanes (if they are packed in luggage style carry cases and checked), but generally not on busses (though some will take boxed bikes in the luggage compartment). They can also be shipped in proper boxes by courier to and from courier depots or hotels across the country. New folding bicycles are also a choice and are easy to bring almost anywhere, but may not be suited for long distance road riding and carrying camping gear.
The Shinkansen is arguably the best way to get to Nihonkai and my personal favorite. Imagine riding across the still dark city to Tokyo Station where you get your bicycle, gear and yourself onto an early morning bullet train, and glide out of the metropolis as the day is dawning. Then about two hours later you get off the train at say, Niigata Station, get your gear loaded onto your bicycle and by noon are eating an onigiri next to the sea for lunch.
Then you might keep heading south along the coast, camping, swimming and riding for about a week until you reach Toyama City. Maybe you stay a night in a business hotel to clean up then catch another early morning bullet train the following day with your bike and gear, and train back across Honshu to Tokyo.
Remember when bringing bicycles on the Shinkansen be careful where and what train you are boarding, along with the time of day and how busy the stations are at that time. Getting a reserved seat near the front or back of a train that is traveling before or after rush hour is the best strategy. There is space behind the last row of seats where you can stow your bicycle, so it’s best to get a seat in that row. It also may be possible to use luggage storage spaces for your bicycle if available, which are usually located between seating areas near the toilets. Be sure your train is not a double-decker type as you’ll never get your bike up or down the curved stairs, and get to the platform early.
Another option if you don’t want to carry your bicycle onto the Shinkansen is to send it ahead by courier to a courier depot in the city you’re going to start riding from, say Akita City. Then take a bullet train or an overnight bus there yourself with your gear. Once you arrive: hike, take a taxi or local bus or train to the courier depot, and pick up your bike. Then mail the box to your departure point for your return trip to Tokyo, say Aomori City, load your gear and head North along the coast.
After a week or so making your way up the Nihonkai coast and around the Tsugaru Peninsula you reach Aomori City, ship your bicycle home, and catch another overnight bus or Shinkansen back to Tokyo.
How ever you get there and whichever direction you travel, along the Nihonkai coast you’ll have no shortage of fascinating and beautiful sights.
For the most part the coastal roads are great for cycling. There are often sidewalks and even long stretches of dedicated cycling paths and tunnels, especially in Niigata and Toyama Prefectures.
While many of the coastal roads have sidewalks to ride on, certainly not all do. In particular beware of Oyashirazu, where the Japan Alps abruptly end at the sea. This has been a treacherous pass for centuries and I can attest that on a rainy day, with heavy traffic, it still is. There is no sidewalk or bike path along that part of the road and some rather unnerving tunnels that must be ridden through in traffic.
Local coastal lines like JR’s Gono, Ou and Utetsu lines are handy if you want to skip riding a section of the coast or need to cover distance more quickly, and bicycles are easily brought on them in a simple carry bag.
There are designated campsites both public and private all along the Nihonkai Coast, and the option of so called “free camping” which is camping in public areas that are not designated as camping areas.
Free camping, in Japan, is usually all right so long as you're responsible and considerate, the area is not an off-limits area, and there are no signs specifically forbidding camping. If you do free camp, set your tent up just before nightfall, don’t have a fire or draw attention to yourself, then pack up your tent at sun-up.
Designated public and private campgrounds range widely in price and amenities, from ones with only a very basic outhouse and place to wash up to ones with onsen and resort facilities, clothes washers/dryers and more.
Some campgrounds offer cabins that range from rustic to hotel room quality and many rent camping equipment and all that is needed for BBQs, including the food to be cooked.
Remember that many if not most campgrounds require reservations ahead of time (even the morning of the arrival date is OK if there are vacancies though). Also there are areas with few shopping options or very limited hours, including for food, so plan ahead or check when reserving your campsite or cabin.
There are some things to keep in mind when camping along the Sea of Japan, whatever your plans are. Look for and take note of information (notices and signs) at campgrounds relating to things like where to go in case of a tsunami (inland and higher ground usually), bad storm (storm shelter), and even warnings about suspicious ships.
Also pay attention to information about issues like bears or tides and weather, etc…. Remember that the weather can change suddenly as storms sometimes develop or strengthen quickly out over the water, and the storms can be ferocious.
If you plan ahead and plan well you’ll ensure a safe, enjoyable cycling/camping trip on the Nihonkai coast. Below are some links to help get you started on your plans. Safe travels and enjoy!
Nihonkai Camping Map
Information on campgrounds, train stations, beaches and onsens (check and uncheck layers as needed).
Bicycle Shipping (Japanese)
You can put together your own box and packing materials but Cyclo Express has a package deal for that and shipping that makes it easy. I still use my boxes from them but now make shipping arrangements on my own.
Yamato ships bicycles.
Low cost and easy to carry when riding and it’s not in use.