With Japan's cherry blossom season still a few weeks away, I set off on a five-day journey that would include stops in the former Imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara and the island of Shikoku. But rather than fly, drive, or rely solely on Japan's famed and ultra-high-speed train network, as an alternative I opted to test a newly purchased bicycle. I figured this was a healthy way to see some of Japan's best cultural treasures at a leisurely pace. Despite a few mishaps--not least some unexpected snow in Kyoto--I wasn't to be disappointed.
Japan isn't exactly a cycling paradise. Cities are crowded, roads are narrow, and bikes cannot be taken on trains unless they've been partially dismantled and placed in a $30 rinko bukuro (bike bag). (Hey, this is Japan!) Yet for all that, road surfaces are billiard-table smooth--in part, thanks to the billions of dollars spent on public works to prop up the ailing economy over the last decade--plenty of scenic routes exist. Often, they are traffic-free cycling roads.
If Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are your thing, one pleasant journey is along a cycling road that links Kyoto and Nara. Starting just west of Kyoto at the foot of Mount Arashiyama, the Kizu-Arashiyama cycling route follows the Katsura and Kiza rivers to within a few miles of Nara. Less spread out than Kyoto, Nara is home to numerous splendid temples and shrines, such as the acclaimed Todaiji (literally, "Great Eastern Temple"), and friendly deer that wander freely. The journey from Kyoto was about 40 miles including diversions and one puncture.
Island BeautyIn search of something a little more rural, with spectacular views and a nice lineup of udon noodles, I found that Shikoku proved a good choice. Shikoku comprises four prefectures--Tokushima, Kagawa, Koichi, and Ehime--and is separated from Japan's main island of Honshu by several spectacular bridges. For art enthusiasts, the fascinating island of Nasohima, Japan's "art island," is a short ferry ride away from Takamatsu, Kagawa's capital city.
Among the road and rail bridges that link Shikoku to Honshu, only one permits cyclists. Luckily, that route, Shimanami Kaido, is part of a 50-mile "highway above the sea" that traverses seven smaller islands. Linking Imabari in Shikoku to Onomichi in Honshu, it is regarded as one of Japan's leading cycling destinations.
Unfortunately, by this point in the journey, a friend with whom I was traveling had caught a fever (must have been the snow in Kyoto), which meant we had to pass by Shimanami Kaido on a train to Matsuyama--close to Dogo Onsen, Japan's oldest hot spring and an inspiration for the Oscar-winning anime movie Spirited Away--and thankfully to some helpful medics.
Kyoto to Nara and Beyond: Travel TipsHow to get there: Three-hour ride on the bullet train from Tokyo. Be sure to pack the bike in a special bag (rinko bukuro) and try to book seats at the back of the carriage that have extra space behind them.
What to bring: As little as possible--you'll have to carry it, after all--but a Japanese phrase book always comes in handy.
Fun Fact: The deer that roam around Nara are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion.
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