I've been told there are 75 million bicycles in Japan. Surprising, considering I have never been stuck in a bicycle traffic jam in Kyoto. Rather my memories are more of seeing a relaxed grandmother tending to her garden in the back lanes of suburban Kitayama, or seeing yukata clad shopkeepers in Gion, delicately balancing bento boxes on a bicycle delivery run. It's like drifting into a scene from a Haruki Murakami novel.
One of my favorite pastimes is to ride up along the cycleway on the banks of the Kamogawa (Kamo River), heading north towards Kamigamo Shrine. Occasionally you can see beautiful herons flying over the river, with the gentle trickle of the river and the mountains in the distance making it a relaxing alternative to standing jammed packed on the 206 bus. And you bypass at least ten sets of traffic lights.
If the thought of cycling amongst cars and buses in a foreign city is daunting, there are many back lanes in Kyoto that are devoid of traffic even in the busiest hours, and you can also ride on the footpath. The chessboard pattern of the city streets means you can be lost in this floating world, without really getting lost. The back lanes are where you get to see the gems of Kyoto, whether it's the antique shops of Teramachi (temple district), the bric-a-brac treasure trove of home wares in Ebisugawa, or some of the most elegant French-inspired restaurants and bars this side of Paris.
Kyoto Cycling Tour Project is one of the better and most versatile outfits for both bike hire and tours. The main shop is 5 minutes' walk west of JR Kyoto. Take an immediate left after the JR Central Exit and you'll find them at the end of a back street. Mountain and city bikes are available for hire, and you can leave small luggage items there for storage if required. They offer both short (3 hour) and full day tours, often with visits to tea houses or markets. Even if you don't ride bikes at home, there's something here for everyone. And if you have your own small group or want a private tour, you can tailor the day to your needs. What's more, the price of the half day tour includes use of the bikes for the rest of the day until 7pm. Cycling is often quicker than the bus or taxi in the rush hour, so you might be able to see your Kyoto highlights in one day.
Another good location to hire bikes is at Arashiyama, where there are many rental shops near the Hankyu station. The winding roads past the Togetsukyo Bridge give you a great view of the rowboats on the river, and in the fall, you can see the bridge lit up at the evening.
Inside tips on bicycle hire in Kyoto
- If you're going near Kiyomizu temple or the tea houses/ merchant houses around Sannenzaka, park and lock your bike a good 500 meters away and then stroll up the hill along the stone cobbled streets. Between the slippery hill and the thousands of sightseers in the afternoon, you won't be going anywhere fast on the bicycle. Besides, you'll enjoy the window-shopping and people-watching more if you don't have to worry about your bike. Likewise, while you can cycle along the Path of Philosophy, it can be a bit tricky if there are people standing in the middle of the path, taking photos of the cherry blossoms. And who can blame them, being so beautiful in the middle of springtime. Slow down, stop by at the cute shops or tea houses, breathe in the country air, and you may even want to capture that same moment on film. Being a flat city, you would make up lost time quite easily. You're unlikely to break into sweat riding in Kyoto; the place is more for relaxing then triathlon training, unless you head into the hills outside Kyoto.
- If you're in a hurry, it's usually quicker to head north or south along the cycleway along the Kamo River than to go through the city streets. And you bypass the traffic lights on the way.
- If you want to pick up your bike in one location, and return it to another, try the Kyoto cycling tour project. If you can't find the main bike store near JR Kyoto, look out for Kyoto Tower, and then the shop is a minute's ride west of the shop.
- Nijo's Roujiya Guesthouse, JR Kyoto's Hana Hostel (10 min walk north of Central Exit) and J Hoppers Kyoto south of JR Kyoto hire bicycles for just 500 yen per day, which is one of the cheapest places around. What’s more, you can also ride the bikes at night. If you think Kyoto is beautiful during the day, wait till you see the lantern lit Machiya (Kyoto traditional townhouses) at night, especially along Higashiyama during the spring and fall light-up seasons, when many gardens, framed by mirror-like lakes and bamboo forests are lit up. You have to be a guest to hire a bike from these hostels though. There are around five bikes in each hostel, so if you have a large group, reserve the bikes in advance to avoid disappointment.
- While all bikes are fully equipped, should you want more equipment, pop down to Yodobashi Camera near Kyoto station. They sell everything from USB powered battery lights to bike locks. Cycling can be an additive pastime. You have been warned.
- Our guide on cycling rules in Japan may help set you on your way.