Cycling to explore the stunning coastal nature and secret history of the Goto Islands

Originally from the United States, Will Liew is wondertrunk & co.’s expert cycling guide on the Goto Islands. After living in Japan for 7 years, he discusses his passion for cycling, how he ended up living on Goto, and his top recommendations for visiting Japan by bicycle.

Discovering a passion for cycling

I moved to Japan shortly after graduating from university. This was an easy decision for me since I had fallen under the country’s charm when studying abroad there during my junior year. My initial path in Japan resembled that of most foreigners who wish to live and work in the country; I worked as an English teacher for several years in both Fukuoka and Kumamoto.

It was in these two prefectures that I really developed my passion for cycling. I ended up becoming a racer for a sponsored team called VC Fukuoka and working as a bike mechanic for a popular cycling shop. Through these roles, I made many contacts in the very welcoming Japanese cycling community.

It was through these contacts that I heard that wondertrunk & co. was looking for a bilingual elite cyclist to relocate to Fukue Island, the largest and most populated of the Goto Islands. I checked all the boxes for the position, so I applied immediately. I had plans of joining graduate school and researching more effective ways to teach conversational English in Japanese schools, but the prospect of a cycling career path was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

So that is how I found myself working as a cycling guide on a remote island and playing a part in Japan’s budding cycling tourism industry! I also help out at the wondertrunk travel bakery that serves as a travel hub and concierge service for travelers to the Goto Islands.

Goto is the perfect playground for cyclists

The islands offer such amazing natural beauty that cycling here always calms my heart and I never get bored of the diversity of routes and terrains available. There are multiple islands to explore, each with different scenic views and characteristics. For example, the islands of Fukue and Kamigoto both belong to the Goto archipelago but are totally different. Fukue depends on a mix of agriculture and fishing as its main industries, while Kamigoto relies solely on the ocean as its lifeline. These differences affect each island’s infrastructure and means cyclists can experience entirely different roads, views, and atmospheres depending on which island they explore.

I also love that it is possible to cycle year-round due to the mild climate. Personally, my favorite cycling season is fall since the rice fields turn wonderful shades of yellow and the air is refreshingly crisp.

That being said, all seasons have something special to offer. Although summer can get very busy, it is still the best time to experience the islands’ ocean views and water activities such as swimming, paddle boarding and kayaking. Spring is of course the ideal time to cycle among cherry blossoms while winter offers dramatic views of Goto’s lava coastlines and is the best time to eat delicious seafood!

Adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Goto Islands had been slowly gaining in popularity, particularly since they became UNESCO Cultural World Heritage sites in 2018. We were seeing an increasing number of travelers who were visiting Goto not just for its significant cultural and historical ties to Hidden Christian sites, but also as an opportunity to travel off the beaten path and experience authentic island life in Japan. The tourism industry is an important part of the Goto economy, so the pandemic has slowed it down quite a bit.

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Japan, Goto is following the rest of the country in proactively trying to curb the number of infections. We are doing our part in this by taking appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of our guests and the local community.

For our cycling tours, we check the body temperature of all participants prior to the tour and ensure that cyclists maintain the appropriate social distance. We also provide hand sanitizer and strongly encourage all guests to wear masks when appropriate. We disinfect all of our bikes and equipment after each tour.

Incorporating Goto into a Japan itinerary

For travelers who only have 2 to 3 weeks to explore Japan, I would of course recommend starting their trip by visiting Tokyo and Kyoto (about four days in each city). From there, I would suggest heading to Fukuoka, the largest city on Japan’s southern Kyushu island. Fukuoka is a vibrant city with great gastronomy and plenty of interesting cultural sites where you could easily spend two to three days. You can then fly directly to Goto from Fukuoka airport.

Once you get to the Goto Islands, I would recommend spending at least two to three days there as there is so much to do! Personally, I find the Goto islands to be a prime destination for cycling, so I would definitely recommend including at least one cycling tour in the itinerary. We usually also recommend that travelers divide their time between visiting some of the islands’ historical sites and other active pursuits, such as fishing, diving, and hiking. The Goto islands have so much to offer, from breathtaking nature to a rich and complex history, it is definitely a place one has to experience first-hand!