Transforming abandoned railway lines into dedicated cycling trails has become a fashionable option for rural areas of Japan that are hoping lycra-clad tourists can put them on the road to economic viability.

With the central government having identified cycling as a growth area that can bring spending from both local and overseas enthusiasts to the countryside, dedicated cycling trails have been built or are being planned across the country.

Nearly 10 routes already use discontinued railway lines in locations from Hokkaido to the north to Nagasaki and Oita to the south on the island of Kyushu.

Cyclists ride on the Kubiki Cycling Road in Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, in October 2021. (Photo courtesy of a committee for improving the attractiveness of Kubiki Cycling Road)(Kyodo)

Formerly lifelines for local communities, the regional railways were progressively shut down as automobiles, depopulation and a shift to high-speed intercity trains cut passenger numbers.

Aside from these factors, natural disasters have also forced some regional rail lines with damage to close without ever being restored due to a lack of financial resources and demand.

Currently, there are about a dozen railway lines where services are suspended, partially or entirely, after being affected by natural disasters including heavy rains, typhoons and earthquakes.

The future looks uncertain for some of these debt-burdened lines, with the railway operators and local governments keen to seriously consider a future where the lines can be put to another use.

Photo taken Dec. 1, 2023, of employees of the Shimabara peninsula tourism federation riding on a cycling path built on the abandoned Shimabara Railway line in Minamishimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture. (Kyodo)

Hoping to create a railway-to-cycling trail conversion model, work on a defunct railroad in Nagasaki Prefecture is underway, with those involved hoping to create a world-class cycle tourism attraction.

A 35-kilometer section of what was once the 78.5-km Shimabara Railway line is being rebuilt as a cycling route 16 years after the last train ran there.

A series of eruptions of a nearby volcano halted services in that section several times in the 1990s, although the lack of passengers was a direct cause for it to be indefinitely shut in 2008.

The city of Minamishimabara, which has jurisdiction for areas encompassing the section, decided in 2019 to convert most of it into a cycle and pedestrian path.

The cycling trail was partially opened in 2022 and the rest is expected to be available during the 2024 fiscal year starting in April, although snowballing construction costs are giving city authorities major headaches.

The city is home to the ruins of Hara Castle, a World Heritage site and the scene of the Shimabara Rebellion, a fierce battle between peasants, most of whom were Christians, and the Tokugawa shogunate that took place nearly 400 years ago. There are also hot springs along the way.

Photo taken on Jan. 11, 2024, shows a cycling path built on the site of the abandoned Shimabara Railway line in Minamishimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture.(Kyodo)

"We want to attract people who enjoy cycling and stay in hot spring facilities," Hiromasa Yoshioka, a 42-year-old city employee, said. "Riding on the wide road is exhilarating."

Yoshioka served as a guide for a tour in a coastal section of the trail in early December involving about 20 cyclists who enjoyed stops at a lookout and souvenir shop, among other spots.

Cycle tourism is becoming increasingly popular in Japan due to the health benefits, not to mention the fact it can be a relatively cheap activity that allows people a low-impact way to get close to nature.

The gentle gradients of roads originally laid out for trains make ideal cycling paths, with existing stations and other facilities making perfect rest stops.

According to a central government white paper on transportation policy, there were approximately 560 km of railroad lines in Japan discontinued between April 2010 and April 2023.

The government scheme that encourages conversion of the lines to cycling trails was approved by the Cabinet in June 2018, paving the way for an increase in pedal-powered activities.

Even before the government endorsement, a 180-km cycling course opened in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, in 2016, featuring the abandoned tracks of the former Tsukuba Railway and a public road that runs along the Kasumigaura lakeshore.

Photo taken in April 2019 of a cycling path utilizing the abandoned former Tsukuba Railway line, with a rest stop using the station building, in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the Ibaraki prefectural government)(Kyodo)

The Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring Ring Road is attracting many cyclists who appreciate its easy-to-access location and the retro-tinged atmosphere surrounding old-fashioned station buildings used as rest stops.

The Kubiki Cycling Road was developed on the site of an abandoned Japanese National Railways line. Steam locomotives used to run on the road in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture. The date of the top photo is unknown. The photo of the road below was taken in October 2019. (Photo courtesy of a committee for improving the attractiveness of Kubiki Cycling Road)(Kyodo)

The Kubiki Cycling Road in the Joetsu area, Niigata Prefecture, stretches a little more than 30 km along the Sea of Japan coast. It was transformed from railway tracks used for a Hokuriku Line section that was rerouted.

Kubiki Cycling Road public relations character Kubiki Rin. (Image courtesy of a committee for improving the attractiveness of the Kubiki Cycling Road)(Kyodo)

The road has gained popularity among young people for its public relations character, Kubiki Rin, which was created by students at a local vocational school and plays a major social media promotional role.

Of these, Tsukuba-Kasumigaura has been designated as one of the handful of the "National Cycle Routes" under government-backed campaigns for creating cycling roads capable of meeting international standards and thus attracting cyclists of various levels from Japan and elsewhere.

Other designees include the Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road, a 70-km toll road running along the expressway linking Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures across the Seto Inland Sea in western Japan, and the 403-km Tokapchi 400 route in Hokkaido that is laid amidst vast plains.

A 2021 survey by Roots Sports Japan, a Tokyo-based company promoting cycling and running sports, showed there were an estimated 13.82 million cycle tourists in Japan from 2020 to 2021, with expectations high that there will be an influx of Europeans who are known to enjoy two-wheeled touring.

"Areas around train stations originally had many shops, and converting these (abandoned tracks) into cycling routes is an effective means of promoting tourism," said Masahito Ono, 59, a senior official in the office for promoting the use of bicycles at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Ono, who also heads the Sanso Network, an organization that encourages leisure cycling, emphasized the importance of creating environments that are easy for tourists to visit, with the necessary wayfinding signs and other amenities.

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