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Pedaling Through the Past

Exploring new destinations by bike is a unique experience. Traveling with your bicycle, however, can be difficult, but renting is a great way to push the pedal toward your next adventure.

Kyoto is easily the most popular tourist city in Japan with its countless temples, cultural treasures and official title as a World Cultural Heritage site. With domestic tourism to Kyoto booming in recent years, there appears to be no end in sight to visitors lining up to get in. However, even with the significant crowds, Kyoto still is lacking in tourist-oriented public transportation, causing long traffic jams and confusing those who brave the city by car. The old city remains reluctant to make use of innovative traffic information and signage and, though Kyoto is making trains more user-friendly, they just haven’t been able to keep up with demand.

The Perfect Place for Pedal Power

Kyoto’s situation creates an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the city layout and tour by bicycle. Considering the relatively concentrated, flat area it occupies, as well as the “grid” layout, Kyoto is an excellent place to move about by bike, as evidenced by the many local residents rolling down the streets on a daily basis.

Also, the path running along the Kamo River, referred to by me as the “Kamo bypass,” allows bikers and walkers to follow along the banks of this central-city river without the interference of automobiles.
The path gives riders a non-stop trip without the concerns of intersections or traffic downtown. If you’re looking to get in some trail-riding, the mountains surrounding the city feature more mountain biking than you can handle and are less than an hour’s ride from the city.

Tourist Info: ‘Regular’ or ‘High-Octane’

There are several ways to experience Kyoto by bike. You could always pack up your own two-wheeler and hop a train, or there’s the option to rent on site.

With plenty of shops renting bikes throughout the city, and no shortage of tourists getting off trains with bikes in hand, it would appear both options are popular. If you’re just in town and, on a whim, want to roam the streets, I recommend taking a guided tour.

I had just met Mark and Lolie, two American tourists from Colorado and fresh off the train from Tokyo. This was their first trip to Japan and, although their stay would only be for a week, they were looking forward getting out and seeing as much as possible.

In researching their trip to Kyoto they had come across a “Guided Bike Tour” home page showcasing a half-day tour of Gion, the Heian Shrine and Kyoto’s gardens.
They had already made their reservations in advance and I had just caught them before departure and decided to tag along. The two expressed a deep curiosity of Japanese culture and explained why they joined the tour.

“We were clueless about the city and figured we’d be able to hit all the famous spots as well as the backstreets, and along the way maybe pick up some local knowledge,” they said.
When they arrived at the “Kyoto Cycling Tour Project” located in front of Kyoto Station, their bikes were already set up. Their guide, Kenzo, didn’t immediately inspire high expectations, but began explaining the tour in perfect English.

Japan established an “Interpreter Guide” certification which requires guides to pass a language examination. Kenzo began with some rules of the road, adding, “You’ll be following behind me, so just pay attention to my directions.” Keeping your customers safe is just one of the guide’s many tasks.

Surprising Routes and Narrow Passages

The tour began at a leisurely pace, not unlike a stroll around the neighborhood. We left the station making our way along highly trafficked Seventh St. when all of a sudden Kenzo gave the signal for a left turn, and we slid into a side street much too small for any automobile.

(Mark and Lolie Van Grack)
The married couple from Boulder, Colorado, operates a sushi and sake restaurant (www.hapasushi.com) and maintains quite an interest in Japanese culture. This was their first trip to Japan and, because they were travelling only in cities, they came to Kyoto with high expectations for experiencing local cultur)

Ah, yes – the amiable and peaceful backstreet route.
This was certainly more interesting. Mark and Lolie took their time viewing the passing scenery laced with old buildings, all the while managing to keep their bikes on the road and away from various pitfalls.

As we passed over the Fifth St. Bridge and made our way into the Gion area of town, the city began to take on the traditional feeling of Kyoto. Both expressed their hope of “running into a geisha on the streets of Gion.”

That would be unlikely, but wait. Lolie had happened upon a geisha and was snapping away photos with her digital camera. Kenzo, with a good natured laugh, broke the sad news that this was not a real geisha, but rather a young tourist who had donned the traditional garb.

“What? That’s too bad!” laughed Lolie who still seemed to enjoy the experience.

Although meeting a real geisha would have been a treat, perhaps just the chance of running into something “unique to Kyoto” was enough. We then turned toward the Heian Shrine and Kyoto gardens, both famous tourist attractions made all the more special when approached by bike. Neither let down the group’s expectations, and the artisans on street corners and children playing in the alleys added to the scene.

The “Kamo bypass” back to the station was slightly downhill and pedaling was much easier.
Mark and Lolie were in good shape and didn’t show any sign of fatigue as they stated,
“This was a fantastic tour. Although only half a day, we seemed to make good use of the limited time. Maybe we’ll have to make a reservation for tomorrow.”

It’s often said that Kyoto’s peak tourist season is autumn, which incidentally is also the best time for biking. If you’re up for Kyoto in the fall, why not get in the saddle and enjoy the full experience of this great city by bicycle?

Kyoto Cycling Tour Project (www.kctp.net)
Rental bikes are specifically set up to provide a comfortable tour of the old capital with a variety of guides available for tours. There are various bikes to choose from and, with outlets throughout the city, returning the bike to a convenient location is easy.

Mountain-Biking Off-Road Tours
The mountains surrounding Kyoto offer plenty of opportunities for mountain-biking. These tours are geared toward novices who want to try their hands at off-roading. Although there are some uphill climbs, participants will get their fill of trail riding. Fully equipped suspension bikes are also available for rental (¥2,000).

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