By J.L. McCreedy
Upon arriving in Kyoto recently, my husband and I immediately noticed the unique vibe of this city. As soon as we surfaced from the subway escalator, in fact, stepping onto the downtown sidewalk with giddy Hello World! grins and nearly slamming into a cyclist, we noticed it. Perhaps it was because the cyclist merely dring-dringed her bell at us, completely unflummoxed, then continued on her way down the sidewalk, cute coat flapping in the wind and platform shoes with clear, plastic soles sporting goldfish pumping calmly at the pedals.
That was my first clue I was going to love this city. They rode bikes on the sidewalk!
In the minutes that followed, this observation was confirmed fifty times over, and then expanded.
Because they don’t just ride bikes on the sidewalk; in Kyoto, they ride bikes everywhere. On the sidewalk, on the streets, through the park, along the river… everywhere one turned, bicyclists swished by in business suits and gym clothes and pretty, frilly dresses. Grandmothers and school children, old men and college kids. There was no particular demographic for the cyclists; everyone in Kyoto, it seemed, had a bike, and they definitely used it.
And not just any bike, either. Almost everyone in Kyoto rode the old-fashioned, roadster style bikes. You know, the ones with character — complete with the requisite basket fastened between handlebars and a generator headlight! Maybe this was the best thing of all about Kyoto because I have a special place in my heart for these creations.
It was now official: Kyoto rocks.
We knew the only thing that would make our visit better would be to join the two-wheeled throngs as soon as possible. Happily, the hotel where we stayed rented bicycles on the premises, so we booked two bikes for the afternoon and we were off.
An Afternoon in Kyoto
We only had one full afternoon to stay in Kyoto, so we wanted to experience as much of the city as possible in that time. After consulting our tourist map, we decided upon the Arashiyama bamboo grove to the west, the Philosopher’s Walk to the east and Kyoto’s famous geisha district of Gion in town central, before returning to our hotel via the Imperial Palace Park. The entire route would cover about 29 kilometers — doable in a city that is relatively flat.
As we made our way down Kyoto’s sidewalks toward the Arashiyama district, we passed curio and antique shops, cafes and ramen stalls, grocery stores and pachinko centers. We cycled through little neighborhoods where the only crowds were those going about their normal daily activities, where shopkeepers paused in their sweeping to let us pass, and where school children strolled with friends, their yellow hats bouncing in tandem over sidewalks. We even received a few heartfelt waves of approval from elderly folk obviously pleased to see a few visiting gaijin on bicycles.
And even though my husband and I enjoy riding bicycles as a general rule, we both realized there was something special about riding bikes in Kyoto. Here, as long as proper etiquette is followed (for example, when coming up on people from behind, lightly ring your bike bell once or twice as a polite warning), no one glares at you for wobbling down a sidewalk full of pedestrians. And if you venture onto the road, cars don’t honk or show annoyance. Everyone operates more or less in cooperation. It’s nice.
We felt as if we tasted a slice of Kyoto living in those afternoon hours. We forgot we were just visitors passing through, but rather, felt a part of it all somehow. We were free to stop when we saw something interesting; free to pop into a store, pause at a bridge for a photo-op, or chat with a fellow cyclist at a red light. With no tour itineraries or bus schedules to worry about, the city and its inhabitants became the true experience, not our little map of destinations.
But then again, we hadn’t yet reached our first destination.
Pedaling to the Arashiyama District
That’s when the magic really happened. Because it is one thing to arrive at a point of interest by motor vehicle and blearily disembark, and it’s another thing altogether to glance at one’s map at the corner of a busy street, decide “I think we should turn right at the next light,” and then, after huffing across an overpass and following traffic around the bend, all of the sudden—bam!—the scenery is transformed.
The business rush of Kyoto traffic instantly fades into another world. In its place, a glossy, green river flows alongside a wide, mostly-pedestrian street. On the street’s right, wooden shops and eateries line the way to a hilly park painted in fiery hues from fall foliage. Directly in front, but before the park, an ancient white bridge stretches across the river where visitors walk to and fro, snapping away with cameras.
On the bike, we were in the moment. We weren’t peering out of the window, wondering where the parking lot for the bamboo grove would be. We had no idea where we were exactly, but we knew we were somewhere intriguing and that, if we kept exploring, we’d find our destination eventually.
We made our way toward the hilly park, but soon determined that the bamboo grove was in a different location nearby. We didn’t mind. We pushed our bikes alongside the river where rowboats plied the water, some filled with laughing, sun-drunk tourists. We walked through woods carpeted in reds and golds. The trees, tumbling down to the river bank with their glowing maple-shaped leaves perfectly framing the glossy river, were made all the more beautiful by the sunlight twinkling through the boughs.
Lunching on the Fly
After consulting our map some more, we eventually hopped back on our bikes and headed in the direction of the bamboo grove. Along the way, we spotted a tiny café on a side street, completely devoid of the lunching tourists crowding the restaurants along the main road. When we peered through the window, we saw something delicious on the griddle, and decided to stop.
This husband-wife eatery serves a local specialty of stir-fried udon noodles and seafood called Yakiudon, which is scraped onto a personal table grill. Our little lunch was cheap and delicious, and once again, we delighted in the unexpected discoveries that cycling can bring.
From Bamboo Groves to Geisha’s Gion District
When we finally reached the bamboo grove, that feeling of discovery took over once more. While the area was bewilderingly overrun with visitors – and in truth, nothing like the serene scenes shown in those guidebook pages – there remained something magical about approaching the place by bike. Maybe it was because we’d had so much fun reaching it, that now, we didn’t mind being shoulder-to-shoulder with selfie sticks. We parked our bikes and joined the pilgrimage through the grove, before continuing our cycling journey to the Philosopher’s Walk and pedestrian streets of Gion, each destination made richer from the adventure of getting there.
At around five in the afternoon, we wrapped up our Kyoto tour with a ride through the Imperial Palace gardens. Here, paths twist off the park’s wide, gravel boulevard, leading to stone bridges arching over koi ponds and shrines strung with white paper lanterns. We wandered under cherry trees whose brilliant, autumn leaves carpet the winding trail like fairy petals. It was amazing.
And as we rode along the sidewalk to our hotel, our bike lights flicking over pavers, I thought about what the experience of cycling around Kyoto had meant to us — and what it might mean to others interested in doing the same.
It is true that cycling offers an environmentally responsible, engaged and personal view of any place – much like walking. The only difference? On a bike there is the added thrill and freedom to fly over streets, whizzing to places that would have taken hours by foot. There is something about finding your own way through a place that immediately familiarizes, that makes the streets and the destinations more intimate, that makes them uniquely yours.
But in the ancient municipality of Kyoto, you may find yourself at home in a way you’ve rarely felt before. Maybe because, in a city of nearly one and a half million souls, so many of those will be kindred spirits experiencing and exploring the world around them by bicycle, just like you.
Rental Cycle Resources
For more information regarding bike rental locations, routes and Kyoto bike laws see: www.cyclekyoto.com.
The Kyoto Cycling Tour Project offers affordable day rentals and multiple terminal locations, so bikes may be rented at one destination and returned at another.
In addition to bicycle rentals, www.jcycle.com offers illustrated, downloadable touring maps, including distances and bike parking information.
J.L. McCreedy is a cycling enthusiast and (confused) attorney who prefers writing stories over legal briefs. She developed an incurable condition of wanderlust while growing up in Southeast Asia as the child of missionaries, and has been wandering the globe ever since (but not as a missionary). She’s also the author of Liberty Frye and the Witches of Hessen and The Orphan of Torundi. She writes about travel, writing, cycling and living in other cultures at TongaTime.com.