Spring is the perfect season to explore Kansai by bicycle. Going with the flow along largely flat cycle routes beside the Yodo, Katsura and Kizu rivers, it’s possible to chart a comfortable six-day trip — or, in my case, a rather challenging four-day one — between the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.
However fast or slow your pace, though, you’ll find much of the journey lit up with blossoms as Kansai’s waterways and hidden byways unfurl to reveal unexpected glimpses of wild birds and elegant maiko (trainee geisha).
After picking up a cheap secondhand bicycle from a shop in Osaka, I take it for a preliminary light-hearted evening spin around Osaka Castle Park.
Hovering there above clouds of pink blossom, the arresting sight of the city’s iconic fortress raises my spirits for the adventure ahead, and the next morning I quickly find my way north from the castle grounds to the Yodo River.
Unlike the chaotic jumble of Tokyo that I’m used to, all three of the aforementioned cities are built on an easy-to-navigate grid system that’s ideal for cyclists.
Heading inland along the riverside, the distant mountains of Kyoto are wreathed in milky mist, but the scenery nearby is crisp and clear, abuzz with early morning energy.
I whiz past golfers, runners, junior league baseball teams and even a squad of speed skaters whirling around a circular track. As I look down from the elevated riverbank path, these regimented groups in their freshly pressed uniforms could almost be toy figures animated by some unseen mechanism.
By late morning, nature takes over and the carefully manicured grass beside the track morphs into wilder wetlands. The air is sweet with the tweeting of birds, some of which dart across in front of me in a flash of colorful plumage.
When the wetlands tail off, I reach the small town of Oyamazaki in Kyoto Prefecture, home to the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. Overlooking the valley below, the Tudor-Gothic-style villa is the perfect pit stop between Osaka and Kyoto.
Only slightly saddle sore so far, I enjoy a cup of tea and an almond cake on the veranda before exploring the impressive art collection.
The works on display — carefully chosen by the villa’s original owner, a renowned financier named Shotaro Kaga (1888-1954) — are an elegant blend of Western and Eastern art. Among them, Monet fans will surely delight in a selection of his “Water-Lilies” series housed in a modern, Tadao Ando-designed annex connected by a glass-and-concrete corridor to the main building. Meanwhile, Oyamazaki is also home to some beautiful temples, but if you’re planning on making Kyoto by nightfall, sadly there’s not really time to explore.
Back in the saddle, I trace the Katsura River up to the former Imperial capital past well-tended fields and pretty suburban scenery. Osaka to Kyoto is 55 km, so inexperienced cyclists would do well to break up the trip by staying a night at Oyamazaki (allowing them to take in the temples, too), or come prepared with a sturdy bike and even sturdier calf muscles.
I’m booked in at The Screen, a chic boutique hotel next to the green expanse of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace gardens. Each room in the hotel is designed by a different artist and is therefore utterly unique. Mine — by Japan-based French artist Dominic Lutringer — features a humorous wooden collage of cutouts in the shape of wine glasses.
The sumptuous surroundings are heaven after a long bike ride, and I luxuriate in my en-suite Jacuzzi for a good half hour before descending to chill out in the lobby awhile.
The atmosphere of the hotel is a perfect introduction to the quiet charms of Kyoto. Reclining in sofas upholstered with exquisite kimono fabric, I drink in the inimitable atmosphere that combines Western comfort with delicate Japanese design sensibilities. Shortly after, I hit the hay, worn out from my daylong bike ride.
The following day, I have a much gentler cycling experience in store. The Kyoto Cycling Tour Project is the best way to experience the hidden byways of the ancient and historic city.
My English-speaking guide, Akie Watanabe, takes me along charming backstreets while illuminating the scenery around us with fascinating details. She explains, for instance, how the bamboo guard fences outside the tea houses are there to prevent spies from listening in to private parties and learning secrets.
Though we are a little early for the cherry blossoms, we do catch sight of some rarer flowers, as maiko clatter past on their wooden clogs, disappearing down tiny alleys as suddenly as they appear.
I’m surprised to learn from Watanabe that maiko are allowed to ditch mathematics and sport from their school curriculum once they become formal apprentices at the age of 15. While this may sound like a cushy youth for some, on the flip side the poor mites aren’t able to sleep on their sides for fear of ruining their elaborate hairstyles.
Watanabe is on friendly terms with the local characters and, if you’re lucky, she’ll take you to meet Ms. Kawashima, whose family are descendents of Akechi Mitsuhide, a samurai infamous for being complicit in the death of the warlord and politician Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), whose efforts laid the foundation for the unification of Japan under the shoguns in 1603.
Jolly Ms. Kawahima tends a nearby shrine, which marks the burial spot of Mitsuhide’s severed head — and she combines this with running nearby Mochitora, a stall selling delicious cakes. I treat myself to a sticky sakura mochi (cherry-blossom-flavored rice cake), and eat it in the sunshine while hearing about Mitsuhide’s shenanigans.
The tranquil tour is the perfect way to recharge my batteries for the cycle ride to Nara the next day.
I spend my final night in Kyoto at First Cabin, a capsule hotel which has convenient bicycle parking beneath. Though extremely reasonable, the hotel doesn’t cut corners on design. Its First Class cabins measure a generous 2.1 meters in each of their three dimensions, and give this occupant the futuristic feeling of staying aboard a luxury spaceship. Pulling across the magnetized curtain allows you to enjoy the privacy of your compact cubicle without any sense of claustrophobia, while cleverly designed storage space under the bed means you can leave your belongings in the room without fear of theft.
The next morning, I to set off early for my final destination: Nara. The distance is slightly less than Osaka to Kyoto, coming in at around 50 km, but for those feeling saddle sore, it might be wise to break up this final leg with an overnight stop along the way.
This particular spring morning is fresh and clear, and after breaking clear of Kyoto’s city streets I speed off down the Katsura cycle path. Plump white clouds overhead are my constant companions as I pass through pleasant pastoral scenery.
The route from the Katsura River to the Kizu River takes you a short distance along a main road, but mostly the ride is easy and pleasurable. Though you will have to take a main road again in the approach to Nara, once you get to Nara Park it’s easy to regain the deep sense of composure established earlier beside the riversides’ gleaming waters.
There in the park, lying on a bench in a deer enclosure, a deep sense of peace seems to exude from the moss-covered stones around me — accompanied by a marvelous sense of satisfaction at having drunk deeply from Kansai’s flowing riverside scenery.
All there is left to do in my two-wheel odyssey is to rouse myself from that reverie and hand over my trusty steed to a friend in the city who fortuitously just happens to be between bikes.
A backstreets tour of Kyoto with the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project costs ¥3,800 per person for a group of four. For details, visit www.kctp.net/en/index.html, call (075) 354-3636 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Prices for a semi-suite room at The Screen, Kyoto, start from ¥16,500 per person based on a couple sharing (rates vary according to season). For details, visit www.screen-hotel.jp. A night at First Cabin costs ¥5,500 for a room (all rooms are single). For details, visit www.first-cabin.jp.