Kyoto – Nara – Osaka

Three bikers stand at sign marking Kuragari Pass

Fearless Leader Joe is always on the lookout for new adventures, and so he suggested we use our three-day weekend in November for a triangle ride starting in Kyoto and hitting Nara and Osaka before returning to Kyoto. He and Sanborn have frequently ridden two of the legs of the triangle: Kyoto-Nara and Kyoto-Osaka. But the Nara-Osaka leg was a new challenge, and with its climb up Mt. Ikoma to Kuragari Pass, it was more of a challenge than we’d hoped for.

Backpack and helmet, bicycle in a delivery bag
Packed for the trip

I’ve traveled to Kyoto with a bicycle via the shinkansen before, when the same Three Gaijin-teers circumnavigated Lake Biwa. There’s very little luggage space on the bullet trains and so it’s a matter of securing the last seat in the car and stuffing the bike behind the seat. And of course it means carrying the bike to and from the train station (unless I’m prepared to cycle to the train station and disassemble the bike on the spot). All things considered, for this trip I decided to have Kuroko delivered ahead to FLJ’s house.

That proved to be a very wise choice, because I’d put off everything until after the last minute on this trip. When I went to book the shinkansen, I learned to my horror that all seats were full. Not just for the first train of the morning, which I’d planned to catch, but up through about 9:30. With the three-day weekend and the peak of the autumn foliage, Kyoto was an extremely popular destination. I was able to secure tickets for non-reserved seats on line, but of course that meant showing up on the day and taking my chances.

And what a chance I took! I arrived at Tokyo Station about 5:15 on Friday and rushed to the ticket area, where I bided my time until the ticketing opened at 5:30. By the time I’d picked up my ticket and found my way to the train platform, the conductor advised me that the open seat cars on the first train were already full, and he directed me to the next train on a different platform. I rushed to the further platform and ran to the cars with open seating and found — I would have to stand. Well, a little standing won’t kill me, and I soon realized I didn’t have to remain squeezed in next to the toilet. I could stand in the aisle between seats in the middle of the car, which allowed me to put my bag and helmet up on the luggage shelf and be reasonably comfortable.

Note to self: Get the smartphone app which allows you to board the train without waiting in the line for tickets.

Selfie of three bikers in helmets and sunglasses
The Three Gaijin-teers

Sad to say, I remained standing for the entire 2-hour-8-minute trip to Kyoto. On my arrival I followed Joe’s directions to the subway, where I found myself standing again on a packed train. Mercifully, it’s only 15 minutes from there to FLJ’s home station, where FLJ himself was waiting for me in a car. In almost less time than it takes to tell, I was removing Kuroko from her bag and assembling her while having a second breakfast of coffee and delicious cake baked by FLJ’s sister. With another five minutes spent changing clothes and filling water bottles, we were on our way.

I followed FLJ into the heart of Kyoto and we soon met up with Sanborn on the banks of the Kamogawa River. We continued south on the river path, which was quite bumpy in spots, until it blended into the Katsuragawa, finally bringing us to the confluence with the Yodogawa. Here we turned east and followed the Kizugawa until we came to the famous Koutsuya bridge, Japan’s longest wooden bridge at 356m, where we stopped for some refreshments.

The Kizugawa took us within 10km of Nara. Unfortunately we had to leave the path at this point and continue in traffic as we started a gentle but long climb into the city. We turned navigation duty over to Sanborn at this point and he led us directly to Nara Park, home of the famous bowing deer, and thence to the city center.

Bikes parked in front of no parking sign
No bicycle parking

After a minute of discussion, we chained our bicycles to a no bicycle parking sign and took a seat in a nearby Italian restaurant. The salad and pizza were quickly served and just as quickly consumed, and provided some much-needed energy. When we emerged from the restaurant, the sun was hidden behind clouds and the temperature had dropped noticeably. Our first couple of kilometers were a bit chilly until we had worked up some energy.

As we left Nara behind we picked up Rte. 308, which would lead us up to Kuragari Pass near Mt. Ikoma. I had plotted this portion of the ride on the Garmin and so I took over navigational duties. Within 8km of leaving Nara we came to the first foothill, which on the Google Maps profile looked like a slow, gradual climb. Reality turned out to have a few surprises in store for us, though. The little foothill route had gradients exceeding 15% in places, and I soon found myself pushing Kuroko upwards as my cleats scraped on the pavement. FLJ and Sanborn stuck it out a bit better, but there were portions where they also succumbed and had to dismount and push.

At the top of the foothill
At the top of the foothill

After a short breather we began a sharp descent which brought us to a small town where — despite the assistance of the Garmin — we had a couple of moments of difficulty determining our route. When we found it, we were a bit surprised. Our prefectural route was a narrow, winding and poorly maintained bit of pavement. We also knew at this point we were in for the long haul: more than 4km of climbing at an average gradient of 9%. And again, that average left leeway for portions exceeding 15%.

I was again the first to dismount and begin pushing. I knew from the feeling in my thighs that I might be able to power up a slope or two, but I would pay for it in the long run. Sanborn held out longer by zig-zagging across the steepest parts of the climb, but he was not making a better pace overall than I was by walking.

The view back down the mountain
The view back down the mountain

Out in the lead (where he belongs) was Fearless Leader Joe on his new carbon fibre bike, grunting along in his lowest gear and taking frequent breaks. At times he was only advancing 50-100m between breaks, where he would wait until we caught up with him. But in the end he cycled the entire climb! (I’ll just briefly note that as he waited for us to catch up on each break, and as I set out first from the final break point before the goal, that I was the first one to the top.)

Three bikers stand at sign marking Kuragari Pass
Kuragari Pass between Nara and Osaka

There was a café in the pass with a number of bicycles parked outside, but we only lingered a few minutes. We were looking forward to a swift descent and then onwards into Osaka where dinner and bed awaited. We set out downhill and soon found our optimism was unwarranted: the descent was far steeper than the climb, the pavement was pockmarked with anti-skid divots, and the switchbacks were treacherous. We descended with our brake levers pulled right back to the handlebars. FLJ soon started skidding and ended up walking his bike down the mountainside (he, the one who had ridden the entire way up)!

Roadside shrine on the Mt. Ikoma descent
Roadside shrine on the Mt. Ikoma descent

The descent was peppered by little shrines at nearly every switchback. It was unfortunate we were racing sundown at this point and couldn’t spend much time enjoying the scenery (although we did have a bit of time as we waited for Joe to catch up to us at his walking pace). We came out onto comparatively flat streets and took stock. Sanborn noted that he’d worn his new brake pads halfway through! (FLJ and I have discs and so were better off in this regard.)

The sun was fading quickly now and we turned on our lights and joined the traffic entering Osaka. FLJ and Sanborn had a good idea where we were going and that was good because when we were still about 8km from our destination, the Garmin suddenly began insisting we turn to the north. The two Kinki natives were sure we wanted to continue due west to the Osaka Castle, and so I followed their advice and we disregarded the Garmin for the rest of the evening.

Cheap accommodation: the love hotel
Cheap accommodation: the love hotel

By the time we rounded the castle and turned towards the hotel, the sun was well and truly gone. Sanborn again took the lead and guided us unerringly to the goal: a love hotel. All the regular hotels had been booked for the three-day weekend, and we’d hit on this as an alternative. I let the others negotiate with the hotel staff as I guarded the bikes (yes, leaving the dirty work to them). It took some talking and convincing, but we eventually secured three rooms for the night. We agreed to meet in 15 minutes for dinner, and that gave me enough time to shower and change into civilian undershorts and shoes.

Sanborn was first out the gate and had located a nearby Mexican restaurant and called to get a table for us. We quickly flagged a taxi and were off. I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurant as the tacos were much closer than I had expected to the street food I’d had in Guadalajara. We ate mountains of food and drank schooners of beer — in fact, we drank up every last Tecate in the place. (They apparently only had 10 or so bottles when we arrived.)

Full up from dinner, and getting chilled as the night drew on, we caught a cab back to the love hotel. We were all so tired that we didn’t even think to check on the bikes, which we’d left chained to a traffic sign around the corner from the hotel entrance. I poured a nice hot bath and soaked my muscle aches away, and then was asleep the moment I touched the pillow.

A hot bath and a warm bed
A hot bath and a warm bed

According to Strava, we’d covered 89.2km from Joe’s house to the love hotel in a total elapsed time of 7 hours 56 minutes. Garmin gave a slightly shorter distance and a much shorter riding time (although the total elapsed time was identical). I believe it doesn’t track the time I spent pushing the bike uphill.

Kyoto Nara Osaka route
Kyoto Nara Osaka route

Part II

Part II covers our morning tour of Osaka on Saturday and the triumphal (but very easygoing) return to Kyoto.

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