Cycling Japan: Kyoto and Arashiyama

Since our friends at Doowaroda are currently on their much anticipated cycling trip in Japan, we've been bombarded by pictures and videos from Kyoto. Naturally this has gotten us into the mood to reminisce, and I'm feeling very nostalgic as I write this. It also made me realise that we'd not posted about the two iconic Japanese cities that we explored (Kyoto and Tokyo), in between our cycling tour of the Noto Peninsula. 

The first time we were in Kyoto in 2015 was for our 5-day hike along the Nakasendo Trail. Being completely focused on the long hike ahead of us, we spent very little time exploring Kyoto itself. For our subsequent trip a year later in 2016, we made a conscious decision to set aside a few days to see the city before touring Noto. Our route in Kyoto covered around 40km, riding to Arashiyama along the Katsura river and to the golden pavilion Kinkakuji (pictured in the banner above), explored the Gion district and also wandered around in search of food. 

Kyoto is heaven for urban cycling, even though it has a limited network of dedicated bike paths. Cyclists ride on the sidewalk even though it is actually banned, other parts you will have to cycle on the pavement or roads. Either way, you will cover different areas of the city, as you can see from the pictures below.

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In addition, bike parking is available at all the main tourist spots and train stations, not forgetting the awesome underground parking system. We missed the chance to test it while in Kyoto, but do check out Doowaroda's video to get an idea of how it works. 

For our base of operations, we chose the cyclist-friendly Seibido Inn which had its own bike parking in front, excellent staff who speak english, and a coin-operated laundry on the premises so that we could wash and dry our clothes right before setting off on our Noto tour. We opted for the premium room, but any of their rooms will comfortably sleep two people.

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I also need to make a special mention of the boys at Loro World Recumbents, who helped tune up our Birdy folding bikes that needed minor tweaks and not-so-quick fixes for some knocks sustained during the flight from KLIA. If you're ever in Kyoto, give them some love. These chaps were a lot nicer and chattier than those at their Tokyo branch, perhaps because they are less busy than in the capital city. Beware though, because there is some serious bike porn at the shop!

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For the rest of our cycling experience in Kyoto, read the full article below.

This article was first published in the Cycling Plus Malaysia November-December 2016 issue.

 

In Japan, bicycles have generally been popular since World War II, with their usage spiking since the two oil crises in the 1970s. Today, there are apparently some 80 million bicycles in the country as a whole, which means cycling is generally a huge part of everyday life. It’s a fairly common mode of transport for the Japanese, with some even owning more than one for commuting from home to the train stations and to their end destinations, and the same way back. Even senior citizens bent over from osteoporosis can be seen cycling on a daily basis.

Kyoto in particular, is widely known as one of the best bicycle cities in Asia, for a number of reasons, particularly the cycling infrastructure and facilities. Most of the landscape is also flat and easily traversed by bike, be it a rental or your own shipped in from overseas. There are some rolling hills or a few more challenging uphill climbs in some less visited or residential areas, but chances are if you’re serious enough to fly your own bike in, you’re likely to be able to handle these with ease.

Most of the sightseeing districts will have bike rentals available at less than RM20 per day, but these will often be the fixed gear bikes with big wicker baskets in front to hold your shopping finds of the day. If you need a specific type or size, there are other options if you do a bit of searching online.

If you’re finicky about your set of wheels or the saddle you ride on like me, remember that there are a number of logistical challenges that you need to keep in mind. For any travelling cyclist, it will be quite clear that full fledged airlines are your best friend, since checked in baggage allowance will generally be sufficient, with enough leftover for the rest of your luggage, clothes and all.

After touchdown, the easiest option is to use the ta-q-bin (read as tak-you-bin) or luggage forwarding service straight from the airport to Kyoto. This option will not be available for those checking into Airbnb, but any decent hotel will be able to hold your bike and any other accompanying bags until you arrive. The key to this, is a waiting concierge or staff who can receive your forwarded luggage. Fees will vary depending on the size of your bag and the distance of the journey, with a general guide available on the company’s website.

For the more adventurous or budget conscious, taking your bike on the train with you is definitely possible, but will require effort. First of all, a decent soft case will be your best bet, because a big hard case will make it difficult to maneuver in tight spaces (i.e. through the ticket gantry, train door, etc). However, keep in mind that anywhere in Japan, airport gates, train platforms and the like are always several kilometres apart, not a distance you would want to lug more than 10kgs around. A soft case with proper protection for the more sensitive mechanical parts, coupled with a folding trolley seemed to be the best option for our trip to Kyoto. Train companies will require you have the bike inside it’s bag at all times while onboard, but many travelling cyclists have been able to quietly wheel folding bikes in if they are sufficiently disguised as luggage or at least completely covered with the wheels not outwardly visible.

On the Narita Express, there will be limited spots for big luggage or similar items like your bike, with a combination lock stretchable cord to attach it to. These get taken up pretty fast though, so be the first in line at your station to make use of it. For other train services including the Shinkansen, the general space where the toilets are can be used for bike storage, with bungee cords to secure your bike to the wall. If all available spaces in your carriage are taken, find the next one available, or better still slot your bike into the space between the final row of seats and the wall. Since you can book your seats, get the advice of the rail staff on what is the best spot for big luggage.

As for the train ride itself, take note that you’d need at least half an hour in between switching from one to another, since the different train lines can be somewhat confusing. The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto costs around JPY16,000 yen per person, so it’s a fairly expensive ticket to replace if you don’t make it for your original train (which we missed). You do have the option of jumping onto the next available one provided it is on the same day, taking an unreserved seat at no extra charge, but these will be on a first come first served basis, so a little luck is involved. If not, purchase another reserved seat on the next train, at a third of the original ticket price. When in doubt, always ask the rail staff.

Once in Kyoto, remember that cycling on the road will be on the left, the same side as the cars. Once on the pedestrian lane or sidewalk, either direction is fine. Remember that it is illegal to ride without a bell, and a front light is mandatory for cycling in the evenings. The police have been known to stop foreigners who don’t follow these rules, even though many locals don’t always abide by them. A rear light doesn’t appear to be a prerequisite, but it is a smart thing to do, since not all areas of the city are well lit at night.

Ironically, because there are bicycles on every corner, at every crossing and on every road, other cyclists are more of a hazard than motorised vehicles, besides pedestrians themselves. By the end of your stay, you will acquire some decent skills to avoid crashing into fellow cyclists. Most areas will have a sidewalk wide enough for two bikes and a pedestrian or two, while others will separate pedestrians from a two-way bike path. The more remote locations in Kyoto have bike paths that run parallel to the river, or snake through pretty residential zones. However, there will be some tight spots here and there, where cyclists will have to be a bit more cautious. As a general rule, always look before turning a corner or coming blind out of an alley, and remember all the normal safety rules that most cyclists adhere to. Cars and other vehicles will make way or stop for cyclists, who can take to the actual roads where you are confident enough to ride alongside cars.

There’s also the question of parking. Everywhere in the city, bicycles can be seen parked by the curb, but the best is still to seek out designated parking bays for bicycles. Tourists who park illegally have been known to come back and find their bikes gone, with a sticker left in the spot by the city’s enforcement officials who carted it away. Bailing out your bike is fairly cheap, at JPY3,000, but it’s best to avoid this hassle in general. There’s at least five of these bike jails, and since any foreign bike will be unregistered like their locally owned counterparts, it could be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Also, if you’ve lost your bike, you may have more than a little trouble getting to the bike jail itself, and a taxi ride makes it a somewhat pricey mistake.

Keeping all these mind, Kyoto should definitely be on the bucket list for urban cyclists. Aside from Tokyo and Osaka, the city is one of the most visited destinations across the nation, and cycling will allow you to cover more ground in a small amount of time, in addition to giving you an insight into areas that tourists on foot do not normally get to see.

*This article has been reproduced here with permission from the magazine.

Scroll down for pictures, and a quick video of our brief visit at the very bottom of the page.

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From Kyoto, we took the train to Kanazawa, the starting point for our Noto Tour, which Eka has documented in three parts. For the cyclists who want to see something different than the normal touring routes, Noto gives you a glimpse into a completely unseen part of Japan (their sushi is different too, and insanely good!):

Cycling Noto, Japan - Part 1

Cycling Noto, Japan - Part 2

Cycling Noto, Japan - Part 3