It doesn’t take a great mind to read a map, and neither does it take one to get lost. I found myself doubting my direction three times as the Kibiji bike path — one of Japan’s top 100 cycling roads — wound its way through pear- and grape-growing country, past a continuous patchwork of rice fields to Okayama. My excuse: I was rushing against the threat of rain and I refused to take out my phone and check my current location. The second time (or was it the third?), I knew I was definitely lost when I came upon a French couple standing astride their bikes with maps out, engaging a Japanese farmer. All three were pointing in different directions.
The lost couple were tourists from Rennes, France, who were cycling in the opposite direction from me — I was bound for Okayama, they for Soja, a rural suburb of the prefectural capital where the cycle path stops (or begins). The French couple were the only other cyclists I met along the path that day, during O-Bon — a summer holiday that was afflicted with more rain than sun this year. We chatted for a while in mangled English about the usual topics: food, the weather, people and how they came to be on this cycling path.
Apropos food, the French couple told me that while the sushi was great, they didn’t care much for anything else they had eaten — a statement delivered with that quintessential French facial expression of indifference accompanied by a Gallic shrug, which was a pity because if I had more time and was headed in their direction I would have shown them that the Kibiji cycling path is more than a meander through temples, shrines, pagodas and burial grounds. There are some great places here to enjoy the fruits of Okayama but, as with most things in life, you have to put up with a few diversions and wander off the beaten track. That’s why a bicycle is great — it allows you to go locavoring (i.e., exploring an area and savoring the local produce).
Compared with the other cycling paths in Japan’s top 100, Kibiji — ranked No. 74 — is definitely one of the most unchallenging and enjoyable.
The path is about 15-20 km in total and it crosses right through the Kibi plain. The nearby hills run in parallel — they are always with you, but you’ll never encounter them (unless you get really lost).
It’s best to start the path on the Okayama side at Bizen-Ichinomiya Station, a 10-minute train ride from Okayama Station, where you can rent an unflashy shopping bicycle (¥1,000 for the day). You’ll miss nothing by starting here and you can return the bikes in Soja — the other end of the path — where you can board a train that will take you to Okayama in about 40 minutes. It is also possible to cycle from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station to Soja and back in one day, but only if you travel like a well-organized Japanese tourist with a minute-by-minute schedule.
Although the Kibiji cycling path can be enjoyed in any season, it’s most famous for peaches, which are harvested in summer. I visited Kibiji in mid-August, when there were still a few peaches to be seen in the groves en route, although, most were harvested and bound for local markets. According to Japanese folklore, a little peach boy named Momotaro and his band of animals friends originated in Okayama. Kibitsu Shrine, one of the sacred sites on the cycling route, holds one of the deities that inspired the fairy tale. There is plenty of history and culture along the path, and you’ll have no trouble finding it. In a great demonstration of Japanese incongruity, however, there is a tropical-themed love hotel set into the hill within a few hundred meters of Kibitsu shrine.
The first of many diversions is homemade ice cream. Beyond the halfway mark to Soja you’ll pass underneath a highway and come to Ashimori River where the Kougen and Kibiji cycle paths intersect. Follow the Kougen path north for about 5 km you’ll see a sign for a supermarket called Happy Town. From here, continue up the hill until you more or less cycle into a cowshed, with a herd of 70 Holstein Friesian cows inside. Voila — Yasutomi Bokujo, a family run dairy farm that produces a variety of ice cream. The farm dates back to the Showa Era (1926-89), but ice cream production started 15 years ago. The atmosphere at the parlor and the farm is relaxed — you can wander between the pens, sheds and rabbit hutches, and there’s even benches to sit and watch the cattle as you consume your ice cream.
From Yasutomi take the towpath downriver until you meet up again with the Kibiji path. Look out for the guiding blue arrows painted on the path: They are your friends. The path into Soja takes you past more burial grounds, a few ramen shops, a wee hill and then, once you’ve cleared a small wooded grove, Soja comes into sight. The skyline is punctuated by Bichu Kokubunji Temple — a striking five-story pagoda dating back to the eighth century.
I recommend you do most of your eating and drinking in Soja while you peruse the local markets. For a coffee break try Mahoroba or Coffee and Co. The former is leeward of the pagoda and breakfast starts at 7:30 a.m. At Coffee and Co., time appears to have slowed down: The cafe is in an old minshuku (guesthouse) where you can choose to sit at tables or Japanese-style, on the floor. The master told me that some of the woodwork in the cafe was actually taken from the pagoda itself. Make sure you wander upstairs to the gallery: It’s a quirkily distinctive space.
From Coffee and Co., you can pop next door to the Kokuminshukusha Sun Road Hotel. There’s a fruit and vegetable market here from 8:30 a.m. each morning. Peaches and grapes were drawing the crowds during the summer holiday, but the premium brands don’t come cheap. Japan Agriculture have a similar fruit and vegetable market nearby. More interesting — if you have time — is a conservation site for Japanese cranes (the one that Japan Airlines uses for its logo) at the back of the hotel. They feed the birds at different times during the day and you are welcome to join for a tour. Although the guide speaks only in Japanese, it’s worth attending for a chance to see this rare bird.
If you are traveling with kids, try Bistro Nana, which has a kids corner with plenty of toys and books; they also have the smallest burger I have ever eaten.
Also worth cycling to is Noumaru Engei, a market, nursery, cafeteria and fruit farm all rolled into one. Depending on the season, they usually have some fruit you can pick — grapes were ripening above me as I sat down to enjoy a Soja dog (Soja’s take on the venerable hot dog).
If you’re looking for some Japanese food, Judith Mikami — originally from New Zealand but a Soja resident for the past 20 years — recommends Warajino Cafe, a popular ramen shop beside the grounds of the Bichu Kokubunji Temple’s pagoda . Mikami, who works with Kaigai Connection (an organization that works with local companies to build overseas connections), also pointed me in the direction of Industry Bakery, run by a husband-and-wife team.
Industry Bakery is reason enough to visit Okayama — outside Europe or New York, I haven’t eaten deli-style sandwiches this good. Baker Junko Tomono takes her inspiration from Amy’s Bread, a New York deli and bakery. Tomono studied the craft in New York and makes regular trips to France as well, and the proof of her success is in the ciabattas, bagels, panini, baguettes and croissants. I have since developed an addiction to her coffee cake; Mikami swears by the brownie. The couple also run two other cafes, Witches and Always, the latter of which is just off the Kibiji path.
If Industry Bakery is your last stop, continue west along Shiyakusho-dori until you come to Soja Station where you can return your bike before boarding the train. Or, if there is still some energy left in the tank, pedal back to the Sun Road Hotel and wash away the sweat in its hot spring, which opens from 5 p.m. You’ll be doing yourself — and your fellow train-passengers — a favor for the ride back. Whichever direction you choose, there’s no harm in getting a little lost — there’s plenty to discover.
Getting there: Flights, buses and shinkansen leave major cities in Japan daily for Okayama. The Kibiji cycling path is a short train ride from Okayama Station.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5