Cycling Osaka To Nara On Japan’s Steepest National Road

Jonny a.k.a. Backpackingman
Jonny a.k.a. Backpackingman

Jonny a.k.a. Backpackingman has had a go at Kuragari pass and writes about his exploit here.

Fearless Leader Joe, Sanborn and I took on this same mountain pass in November and lived to tell the tale with a few differences. First, we’d started from Kyoto and gone to Nara before joining Rte. 308 heading west, while Jonny started in Osaka and headed east. That means Jonny had a steeper walk/push up, but then a more navigable descent towards Nara. (The descent from Kuragari pass towards Osaka is too steep, too narrow and has too many switchbacks to work up any speed.)

Oh. And Jonny was riding a cheap city bike, a chari in the local patois, while we had a variety of mounts ranging from light-years beyond a chari all the way up to FLJ’s carbon-framed Jamis Renegade. (Of course, I was on Kuroko, but this was before I’d swapped out the crankset for better climbing ability. Not that it would have made much difference … )

Another difference is that Jonny was armed with the knowledge that Rte. 308 over Mt. Ikoma is Japan’s steepest national road. Had the three Gaijin-teers known this, we might have chosen a different route for our ride.

Always up for a challenge I said “screw it” and went for it.

Jonny

Watch below as Jonny pours water over the chari’s rear brake on the descent from Kuragari pass:

We didn’t have quite the same issues, although we had a steeper descent towards Osaka. On the other hand, FLJ had so much trouble with his rear wheel skidding on the descent that he was forced to walk, and Sanborn wore halfway through his (non-disk) brake pads.

Kyoto Nara Osaka route
Kyoto Nara Osaka route

Osaka – Kyoto

Two bikers standing in front of Osaka Castle

Part II of our Kyoto – Nara – Osaka saga was a leisurely day of riding from Osaka back to Kyoto. We’d agreed to meet in the lobby of the love hotel at 8, which gave me ample time after waking to soak in the tub and repack my kit. In fact, Fearless Leader Joe called not long after 7 and we agreed to meet at 7:30. Checking out turned out to be a simple matter of touching the screen on the machine mounted on the wall of the room and inserting the correct amount of money. We paid ¥4,390 each, using coupons that FLJ had found online.

While FLJ and Sanborn visit Osaka on a regular basis, I’d only been once, decades ago for wedding. So the first order of business was for Sanborn to lead us on a brief cycle tour of Osaka. The love hotel was quite close to Osakajo (Osaka Castle), so we started with that. And at the early hour of our visit, we were sharing the castle park only with busloads of Chinese tourists.

Two bikers in a cafe
Reviewing the day’s plan over coffee and scones

Photos taken, our next order of business was coffee and breakfast. We soon chanced across a Starbucks, where the counter workers were eager to hear details of our ride, how long we’d lived in Japan (and where), etc.

The next port of call was Dontonbori and the iconic Glico Man sign. By this point Osaka was waking up, and we needed to navigate our bikes through the crowds to get the photo.

Dontonbori and Glico Man
Dontonbori and Glico Man

After that, it was just a matter of finding our way to back to the river — the Yodogawa in this case. The cycling path is broad and straight, but every crossing is zealously guarded by a wicket designed to keep scooters off the path, and these required dismounting. (FLJ and Sanborn seem to have figured out how to navigate them by pushing their bikes through while still seated, but it looked like the kind of thing where I would be inviting a spill.) We rode under blue skies with mild temperatures (although with a bit of a headwind), stopping once for onigiri, until we reached the confluence with the Ujigawa.

Here, as we stopped to eat more onigiri and Snickers bars, we discovered an outdoor cycle fair in progress. As we snacked and drank water, a fellow Westerner emerged from the crowd and asked where we were riding. Gabriel turned out to be an artist who serves as designer for Muller, a local bike company. Last year he completed a 30,000km, two-year-nine-month ride around Japan. He’s a very amiable young Argentinian, and he and Fearless Leader Joe exchanged mail addresses before we continued our way up the Uji river.

Outdoor cycle fair at the confluence
Outdoor cycle fair at the confluence

We followed up the bike path up Ujigawa as far as the Kangetsukyo bridge while Fearless Leader Joe spoke of his plans to launch a Kinki Urban Cycling Network to promote the construction and maintenance of cycling courses in the region. We crossed the river and then continued west through city traffic until we reached the Kamogawa. Turning north, we began retracing our route of the previous day as we headed back into Kyoto.

We made a pitstop at a convenience store along the way, and this time it was my turn to befriend a local as a Japanese man from Shiga struck up a conversation. “Where are you going?” and “Where have you come from today?” are universal icebreakers among cyclists.

As we continued along the cycling path, it became more and more crowded the closer we got to the heart of Kyoto. With the beautiful weekend weather it seems the entire country had turned out to enjoy the fall colours. Joe, in the lead again, has no bell on his bicycle and so he would shout back a request for me to ring as we approached pedestrians who were not keeping an eye on where they were going.

We left Sanborn where we’d met him the previous day, at Demachiyanagi, and continued back through the city to home. After a shower and change of clothes, we set out on foot to enjoy a dinner of okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki for dinner
Okonomiyaki for dinner

Strava put our day’s effort at 70.4km over a relaxed 6 hours 47 minutes. It was certainly a leisurely pace following the strenuous climb of the day before. The combined effort of the two days came to just 160km. And in response to Sanborn’s “Never again!” remark atop the Kuragari Pass, FLJ has already proposed another route which takes us around the southern end of the mountain.

Osaka Kyoto route
Osaka Kyoto route

Don’t miss Part I, Kyoto – Nara – Osaka.

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.

One out of three ain’t bad

The next big adventure will be Kyoto-Nara-Osaka-Kyoto, a two-day trip at the end of this month together with L2P veterans Fearless Leader Joe and Sanborn. My plan is to ship the bike out and follow on by shinkansen. The lads had discussed (and more recently apparently affirmed) staying in tents for the night, but in my last discussion with FLJ he encouraged me to find a cheap hotel nearby in which to stay. Good — from my point of view, less to pack and carry (and I can show up in the morning freshly showered and full of kaiseki).

I’ll be leaving navigational duties to Kyoto residents Joe and Sanborn, so that leaves me with three basic tasks:

  1. Order the bike delivery
  2. Order the shinkansen tickets
  3. Book the hotel

My days have been quite full recently, including the weekends, and — together with a dash of procrastination — I’m just getting around to the list tonight. Tackling things in order, first up is ordering the bike delivery. I’d done this for Tour de Tohoku, a scheduled event, and it was fairly easy to book. The service wasn’t the greatest — the bike was jounced around a bit in transit — but basically everything was delivered on or ahead of schedule and in one piece. This time around, with no scheduled event, it was up to me to create a user account (by the end of which process I had six tabs open to the deliverer’s various websites), enter the dates and addresses, and of course whip out the credit card in the end. (That part was the same, but it was a tad cheaper this time.)

And I’m done with that bit. I’ve got the confirmation, which I’ve forwarded on to FLJ (since he’ll be hosting Kuroko between the delivery and my arrival, and the two of us for an additional day once the ride is over). Now, who knows when I’ll get around to Step Nos. 2 & 3? At least I have an excuse on Step No. 3 as I’m waiting for FLJ to confirm the location, and he and Sanborn have just come back from a reprise of Lake Biwa.