In bike-friendly Kyoto, tourists and locals alike cruise around on two-wheelers. Liza Foreman hops on the path.
KYOTO, Japan – There’s plenty to see in the old imperial capital of Japan, famous for the gardens and temples that dot the mountain tops and river banks that run through town. I spent a few days in Arashiyama, a leafy area in northwest Kyoto that has long served as a summer getaway for the wealthy Japanese. From there, I traced my way through different neighborhoods on foot and by bike, taking advantage of the city’s size and cycle-friendly streets.
Central: Sanjo Street
Aside from its temples, Kyoto is famous for its craftsmanship. Sanjo Dori, a street that cuts through the center of Kyoto, is worth exploring for its boutiques and cafes. It is also the headquarters of Chiso, the oldest kimono-maker in Japan (circa 1555).
Light lunch is served in the modern tea house downstairs, called Iyemon Salon, which has beautiful interiors. Chiso also has a gallery space for exhibitions. Emi Kanasaki, a former Chiso employee, introduced me to the master artists who work from home hand-painting their kimonos. After the tour, we biked to the must-see dye workshop of Takahashi Toku, which spent ten years developing one indigo color. They often work with Chiso. Not many people know about the workshop, but guests can watch craftsmen dye strips of silk for kimonos and artists washing and painting the silk. Handcrafted items are sold in the shop and one can rent the beautiful tea ceremony room for private events.
East: Philosopher’s Path
The eastern mountains, one of the many mountain ranges that surround Kyoto, is a hotspot for temples. Cycle along Philosopher’s Walk, an old pedestrian path that runs through the historic district. At the southern end you’ll find museums and Nanzen-ji (86 Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Sakyo-ku; +81-75-771-0365), a Zen Buddhist temple and outdoor complex with beautiful gardens. Ginkaku-ji (2 Ginkakuji-cho, Sakyo-ku; +81-75-771-5725), or Silver Pavilion Temple, at the northern end of the path, is a big tourist highlight. The crowds fizz out near the smaller forgotten temples on the small street that runs parallel to the path.
For a crowd-free few hours, cycle up the Kamogawa River, which cuts through town, to the little-known ancient Shinto shrine of Kamigamo-jinja (1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku; +81-75-461-0013) in Kamigamo. The shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with nearby wooden buildings that formerly housed priests.
Central: Imperial Palace Gardens
Rent a bike and ride to Imperial Palace Gardens to marvel at its vast fortress (rentals are available for guests at the centrally located The Palace Side Hotel). Teramachi Dori, one of my favorite streets in the city, leads from a corner of the garden and is great for breakfast (try to find the tiny French bakery). Grab take-out tea at Ippodo, one of Japan’s most famous tea companies, and peruse the neighborhood shops for old-world paper, antiques, vintage footwear, and Japanese texts that cost pennies.
Head off the beaten path in northwest Kyoto to Daitoku-ji (53 Murasakino Daitokujicho, Kita-ku; +81-75-491-0019), a Buddhist temple and walled village for priests. The peaceful complex is full of old houses surrounded by gardens that are periodically opened to the public. Funaoka Onsen, a nearby bathhouse, is a great place to chat with locals. After a soak, fill your stomach at Sarasa, then cycle south through narrow no-name streets filled with well-preserved wooden houses to Nijo Castle (541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo-ku; +81-75-841-0096), another impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you cycle north from the baths, you’ll hit Rokuon-ji, a Buddhist temple also known as the Golden Pavilion (1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku; +81-75-461-0013), one of the most popular buildings in all of Japan. The ambitious can bike back to the Bamboo Forest (Ukyo-ku) in Arashiyama via a small road near the temple, stopping at Lake Hirozawa (Sagahirosawacho, Ukyo-ku) for a serene break.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Kon's Cycle is a terrific small-chain bike shop that stocks custom build bikes, accessories, and cool rentals. J-Cycle offers a wide range of two-wheelers with baskets and naviagtion.