Tokushima: Guided bike tours gain traction amid pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tour participants enjoy cycling amid blooming flowers on Zennyujito island in the Yoshino River in Tokushima Prefecture.

TOKUSHIMA — Guided bicycle tours have become a preferred way to enjoy the outdoors while avoiding crowds amid the pandemic.

Cycling offers wider mobility than walking and greater access to locations beyond the reach of cars. Such guided bike tours may take root as a new style of tourism as municipalities have already used them for city promotion campaigns and education.

The real Tokushima

Under the blue sky one recent day, 14 cyclists on folding bikes went on a tour in Tokushima Prefecture along the Yoshino River, one of the largest rivers in the Shikoku region.

The tour started at the Bandai Chuo Wharf in downtown Tokushima City. The members of the tour group then ventured to the city of Yoshinogawa in the prefecture by train and boat. They then rode about 20 kilometers along the river and though Zennyujito island, the largest sandbank on the river.

The tour was ¥8,000 per person for those who brought their own bikes and ¥13,000 for those needing to rent one. The group was escorted by a tour guide who took them to spots such as a cosmos field in full bloom and the Iwa no Hana scenic point along the river.

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“I was able to get a better feel of Tokushima than I would have if I had just visited the standard sightseeing spots,” said Ryota Ogoshi, a 21-year-old university student from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, who visited the prefecture for the first time.

The tour was organized by Yuki Manabe of Blue Cycle Labo bike shop in Tokushima City. Manabe, a 35-year-old Yoshinogawa native, came up with the idea of doing the tour to mark the first anniversary of his shop opening.

He made a tour route while consulting with the Shikoku Railway Co. (JR Shikoku) so that a number of bikes could be transported on their trains.

Manabe plans to organize more tours in the prefecture.

“I would love to promote the charms of Tokushima,” Manabe said. “I also want to spread bike culture.”

More participants

The Blue Cycle Labo tour is just one option amid an increasing number of guided bike tours that have been organized nationwide.

Osaka-based Asahi Co., which runs Cycle Base Asahi bike shops across the country, has been organizing bike tours with guides for about six years at its 36 shops in 22 prefectures.

The tours include lessons on how to ride road bikes and other sports bikes, and they take participants to local sightseeing spots. About 600 people have participated in Asahi’s tours.

In a survey conducted in June and July by Roots Sports Japan, a general incorporated association, 14.9% of about 1,000 respondents who joined cycling tourism in the past year outside of the area where they lived participated in guided tours. The figure is up from 7.4% in a 2018 survey.

Spurred by growing demand, many are working to create new aspects of tourism.

The city of Kobe, in cooperation with public transportation organizations, conducted bike tours on an experimental basis that take cyclists to farming communities in the city. Cyclists on the tours visited places such as farms and food companies, and they experienced vegetable harvesting and bread baking, among other attractions.

“We want to create opportunities for cyclists so they can know more about our local communities instead of taking them along ordinary sightseeing routes,” said an official of the project.

“More and more people are choosing cycling tourism because it allows them to avoid crowds. People also hope that they can experience the daily lives of communities by touring by bicycle.

Such things would never be offered by just visiting ordinary sightseeing spots,” said Tokushima University Prof. Takuya Yabe, a sociologist who has studied cycling tourism and community revitalization.

“It is possible to increase added value to bike tours by preparing various options to meet various needs. On top of that, if participants in the tour shop more at the locations they visit, the tour may bring the revitalization to the local communities.”

Conveying reality of disaster

The city of Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture, has bike tours for those considering relocating to the city. With the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road — one of the government-designated “national cycle routes” — running through the city, the municipal government hopes to promote local communities through cycling.

“We want people thinking about relocating here to come and ride around to get a feel of the city,” a city official said. “Hopefully, they will then want to relocate to the city.”

In Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, which was devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, bicycle tours are being held around the affected areas. The tours, called Takata Putter Cycle, have been organized by a roadside service area called Michi-no-Eki Takata-Matsubara since October of last year.

The facility’s four staffers serve as guides and take participants around the affected areas of the disaster, including former Kesen Junior High School, which was engulfed in massive tsunami. The guides tell vivid stories of the disaster and also bring cyclists to scenic points. The tours were suspended due to the pandemic, but the tours are now, in principle, being held once or twice a week.

“Many people who come to Rikuzen-Takata just visit the ‘miracle lone pine tree,’” an official of the program said, referring to a pine tree that survived the tsunami and has since become a symbol of reconstruction following the devastation.

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The miracle lone pine tree

“As a bike offers more mobility, we want the cyclists to see the reality of the afflicted areas and find new points of interest in the city,” the official added.