When you are a cycling guide in Japan and asked to join a small team to explore and create new routes in and around Kyoto, you don’t say no. While Kyoto proper has been overcrowded with visitors in recent years, the greater Kyoto Prefecture is often overlooked. Recently, local governments and tourist organizations have realized the potential on the door of the sacred old capital and are making an effort to introduce smaller communities that are off the well-worn path in an effort to spread the wealth—and the tourists—outside the city. My fellow guide on this journey was another American from the west coast. Joshua Bewig promotes walking and cycling tours in the picturesque seaside town of Obama, Fukui Prefecture.
We began our adventure at station in the western side of Kyoto. We met our fantastic support crew from Ridas, the bike people; we changed pedals, adjusted seat heights and began our journey by cycling through a tranquil yuzu forest, which provides the distinct flavor for many Kyoto dishes. Our super athletic guide, Miyuki Sasaki, from Satoyama Experience, was kind enough to slow down the pace up a few mountain passes as we soaked in views of cedar forests and terraced rice fields in the valleys.
We descended through mountain passes, stopping for the night in a hamlet. Our first stop was the famous Miyama no Megumi Milk Studio for soft-serve ice cream and we were not disappointed.
We met friendly locals from the tourism association and then arrived at the beautiful traditional thatched roof of Yamazato Ryori Ryokan Isobe. The meals and omotenashi service were amazing, making it easy to recommend this destination for inbound guests or long-term residents.
Rain was on the menu for the following morning so we decided to take a morning stroll through the living museum of Kayabuki-no Sato. It felt like stepping back in time as we walked through hillside temples and shrines shrouded in mist, listening to the rain and watching the traditional village wake up and greet the day. Our intrepid crew was chomping at the bit to get back on the bikes regardless of the drizzle as I was reminded of my grandfather’s favorite saying, “There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing.”
Fortunately, the skies cleared and we had a great day pioneering new routes with guest rider and strong climber, Koji Hosokawa. There are many mukashi michis—forgotten mountain roads over passes that are no longer used after large tunnels have made the trip safer for automotive traffic. This is a wonderful option for the recent gravel bike trend and much safer than competing for space on the road with two-ton killing machines. We met monkeys and deer in the forest and saw evidence of wild boars, making the ride feel like a page out of Hayao Miyazaki’s sketchbook.
We arrived in the village of “Miwa” and met our gracious hosts, Sayaka, Nicolas and Theo, who treated us like family and literally shared their Furamaya farmhouse with us for the night.
The experience lounging by the wood burning stove after a wet day on the bike was magical. Sayaka and her father remodeled the farmhouse with a beautiful bath, paying careful attention to detail. The meals were a showcase of local vegetables and fish, including “Nico Rice” grown by Nicolas, the only Belgian rice farmer I know in Kyoto. The smell of freshly ground coffee and homemade bread in the morning woke me up after the best sleep of my journey. After reluctant goodbyes and packing away a few kilos of rice for home, we set off in the direction of the Sea of Japan.
We made a stop at Kyoto by the Sea DMO, a destination marketing organization that was responsible for helping organize the tour. Sipping green tea outside and speaking with the local officials, I was reminded again of how grateful I am to live in Japan and connect with people who genuinely want to share their culture with the outside world. We enjoyed talking about the trip and left with an encouraging feeling we were somehow contributing to the sustainability of the area.
The large seaside torii was a welcome sight. Surfers were catching waves, the sun was out and we had a tailwind to help push us around the Tango Peninsula.
I’ve cycled Ishikawa’s beautiful Noto Hanto a few times and I would have to place this coastal route a notch above. Quieter roads, more dynamic scenery and some challenging climbs make it a special place for two-wheeled enthusiasts.
We finished our ride with rainbows in the distance and a rainy sunset just in time for shopping at a local sake brewery in the funaya boathouse village of Ine.
Our understated lodging turned out to be modern with all the conveniences of a five-star hotel. It would be an easy sell for my well-heeled guests to stay and soak up the “lost-in-time” village of Ine.
Waking up to the sounds of seagulls and fishing boats coming into port, I was reminded how far away from Tokyo I was. Our excellent local guide, Kazuki Masuda from Umino Kyoto E-bike, introduced the bustling morning market where we picked up some fresh fish for breakfast and took a boat trip around the bay. The oceanside ride was beautiful as we returned to busier roads and the unwelcome sight of a McDonalds in the distance. Convenience is a tradeoff, and while I shop at 7-11, there are places that would be better off without a Starbucks or the ubiquitous golden arches. I wanted to continue up the coast on the eastern side, and will certainly be returning next spring to see more of the area.
Much gratitude to Taku Yamada from Satoyama Experience for arranging this tour and to Joshua and Miyuki for putting up with me singing Grateful Dead songs while climbing hills. It is inspiring to see more areas in Japan welcoming cycle tourism. It seems that each prefecture would like their own version of the popular Shimanami Kaido. It will be interesting to see how the routes develop and which ones become popular. Regardless, a cycling revolution and the freedom it brings is happening in Japan and the future looks bright for human-powered adventures.
To book your Kyoto cycling adventure, contact Satoyama Experience.
Contact: Taku Yamada, Miyuki Sasaki
Tel: (0577) 73-2104
Yamazato Ryori Ryokan Isobe
Furumaya Guest House in Miwa
Nicolas, Sayaka and Theo
Funaya Stay in Ine
Contact: Kazuki Masuda (Ine Tourist Association)
Umino Kyoto eBike
Contact: Kazuki Masuda (Ine Tourist Association)
Kyoto By the Sea DMO
Destination Management and Marketing Organization
Contact: Mao Nishiki