Family biking weekends for a song


UTSUNOMIYA — Comfortable lodging for a family of four, with meals, for less than 20,000 yen? Yes, it’s possible, even in Japan. That’s all my family paid for a very enjoyable overnight in Utsunomiya, at a public facility that promotes bicycling.

Utsunomiya is a city of about half a million people, 130 km northwest of Tokyo. Most tourists go right by on their way to Tochigi Prefecture’s better-known destinations. But we’ve seen the shrines and temples at Nikko. We’ve done the ninja theme park and hot-springs baths at Kinugawa. What we really wanted was an active weekend outdoors with our kids.

I asked around for ideas, preferably ones that wouldn’t break the bank. So my ears perked up when my friend Izumi told me about “cycling terminals.” You can rent bikes and the rooms are cheap, she said. This sounded perfect for us, and it was.

The Japan Cycling Association sent me a “pocket guide” with details on the 60 cycling terminals throughout Japan. JCA is the quasi-government organization that manages keirin (professional track bicycling). Some of the revenue JCA earns from betting at the keirin track goes to local governments to build and operate cycling terminals to promote bicycling as a healthy leisure activity. I called the Utsunomiya terminal and was pleased to get a room on an upcoming holiday weekend. Normally you have to send a cash deposit of 2,000 yen per person by registered mail (genkin kakitome), but since it was only a week or two before we’d be there, they waived the deposit requirement.

Most visitors get there by car, but we made our way by train and cab. For about 5,000 yen, a taxi took us right to the cycling terminal, which is located inside Utsunomiya City Shinrin Koen, a large forest park with plenty of quiet roads for cycling.

Since we arrived before check-in (3 p.m.), we dropped our bags at the front desk and got ready to ride. My husband, a serious cyclist, brought his fancy folding racing cycle, but the kids and I rented bikes from the terminal’s large and well-maintained fleet. A two-hour rental is 310 yen for adults and 150 yen for children. They had a good range of sizes, including adult bikes with child seats and kids’ bikes with training wheels, and they adjusted our seats and handlebars for us.

My children had a blast riding in circles around the 5-km course recommended for families, all of which is closed to traffic. One flat stretch of this course, along the dam in the middle of the park, is great for little kids, including those just learning to ride a two-wheeler. For the more ambitious, there are 10-, 14 1/2- and 30-km courses. Truly nutty cyclists (like my husband) can venture up the rindo (forest service roads) for thigh-busting climbs, or follow the grueling course used every October for the Japan Cup, the biggest cycle road race in Asia.

There’s a lot to do in the park besides cycling. We enjoyed the “field athletic” exercise and obstacle courses, but there is also fishing, camping and barbeques. If we had had more time, I would have liked to hike up Kogashiyama, a 583-meter peak within the boundaries of the park.

After a few hours of biking, we were ready to relax and clean up for dinner. Our room was Japanese-style, a 10-tatami-mat room (about 15 sq. meters) with a separate sitting area at the end by the window. It was very much like the rooms we’ve had (for a much higher price) at ryokan-style hotels, except without a private toilet or bath. The johns across the hall were institutional but very clean, and the public baths were spacious and pleasant. I had the women’s bath to myself both times I used it. The futons were “self-service,” which means we laid out the bedding ourselves. But we didn’t have to put it away in the morning.

The rate (5,130 yen per adult; 4,390 yen per child) included dinner the night we arrived and breakfast the next morning, served on Formica-topped tables in a brightly lit room off the main lobby. The food was Japanese and much simpler than the sumptuous meals you get at a ryokan. But portions were ample, even for hungry bikers. When our waitress saw that my kids wouldn’t eat the natto (fermented soybeans) at breakfast, she had the cook whip them up some scrambled eggs instead.

It was right after breakfast that I realized I had left my wallet at home. Cycling terminals don’t accept credit cards, and we were a long way from the nearest cash machine. Fortunately, my husband had some cash, but by the time we’d paid our bill, modest as it was, we didn’t have enough money for a taxi back to town. We were debating whether to walk 40 minutes to the nearest bus stop when one of the staff offered to drive us there. Or, he could take us to one of the local attractions, the Oya Mine. We could catch a bus to town from there, too, he said.

We took him up on his kind offer and got dropped off at the Oya Historical Museum. After counting our coins to make sure we’d have enough for the bus, we paid our admission and were given a helpful pamphlet in English. We toured a fascinating exhibit on old mining operations, then took the stairs 30 meters down into the mine. During World War II, the mine was used as a secret airplane factory, a fact that didn’t come to light until the Occupation. These days, the cavernous space, as big as a baseball stadium, is used for concerts, noh productions and art shows, including an Andy Warhol exhibition in 1983. There is still a little mining going on. Although the rock mined at Oya is now considered too weak for construction, it used to be prized for being easy to work and heat-resistant. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright chose Oya rock for the original Imperial Hotel, built in 1922.

We caught a bus back to JR Utsunomiya Station and made a beeline for a bank. Now that we could afford to feed our kids again, we took them to one of the city’s many gyoza restaurants. After extensive sampling, I can confirm that Utsunomiya is justifiably famous for these Chinese-style meat and vegetable dumplings.

We had such a good time, now we’re planning our next cycling trip. I’m torn between trying a different cycling terminal or going back to Utsunomiya so I can hike up Kogashiyama. Either way, you can be sure I’ll remember to take enough cash. It’s nice to know I won’t need much.