Walking and taking public transportation are two common ways to explore a new city. In Kyoto however, the best way to discover the former capital of Japan is by cycling.
It’s easy to see why everyone seems to commute by bike here. After all, CNN Travel ranks Kyoto as one of the best biking cities in Asia, noting that there are “plenty of alleyways make for quick shortcuts. The city’s grid pattern makes it hard to get lost.”
Furthermore, the flat terrain and orderly traffic of Kyoto makes cycling around the city a breeze.
You’ll see a lot more of the city by bike if you have a limited amount of time here, especially when you don’t have to spend time figuring out the public transportation system.
If you prefer to do a tried-and-tested route rather than going into the city unguided, Inside Kyoto recommends two easy options that you can do. Both routes have roughly the same distance and duration but explores different sides of the city.
The first route takes you on a journey pass the charming Kamo-gawa River (Wild Duck River), which rises from Mount Sajikigatake in the north of Kyoto.
Route 1: Kyoto Station to the Kyoto Botanical Gardens via Kamo-gawa River
Difficulty: Easy | Duration: About two hours | Distance: About 8.5KM (one way)
This is a great way to enjoy a nice leisurely cycle up the Kamo-gawa River – which is the main highway for cyclists going north/south in Kyoto. Start at Kyoto Station.
• Cycle north on Karasuma-dori, passing Kyoto Tower, until you get to Shichijo-dori, where you turn right (east). Cycle east to the Kamo-gawa and cross it on the bridge. Immediately after crossing the river, pick up your bicycle and walk down the steps to the excellent foot/bicycle path that runs along the river.
• Cycle north all the way to Imadegawa-dori. Here, you’ll have to come up to surface roads. Take a left on Imadegawa and cross the bridge over the river heading west.
• Immediately after crossing the river, descend again to the bike path that runs along the west bank of the Kamo-gawa. Take a right and ride north until you get to the bridge over Kitaoji-dori.
• Come up to street level, cross the river via the bridge and turn left. Kyoto Botanical Gardens will be on your right as you cycle north. To get home, simply retrace your route.
To discover more of Kyoto’s impressive architectural structures, take the second route that passes a few of the cities temples, the most popular being Ginkaku-ji Temple (Temple of the Silver Pavillion).
Route 2: Kyoto Station to Ginkaku-ji Temple via the Path of Philosophy
Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Duration: About two hours | Distance: About 8KM (one way)
This route takes you along the Kamo-gawa River and then along the famed Path of Philosophy, among the most scenic pathways in the city.
• Start at Kyoto Station. Cycle north on Karasuma-dori, passing Kyoto Tower, until you get to Shichijo-dori, where you turn right (east). Cycle east to the Kamo-gawa and cross it on the bridge. Immediately after crossing the river, pick up your bicycle and walk down the steps to the foot/bicycle path that runs along the river.
• Cycle north all the way to Sanjo-dori, where you must pick up your bike and climb to street level. Cycle east on Sanjo for about 1.6km, heading uphill toward the mountains.
• When you reach Shirakawa-dori at an angled T-junction, cross the road and ride on the sidewalk on the opposite side, heading uphill. After less than 100m, you will see a tunnel on your left. Go through it and follow that road until you hit the main road to Nanzen-ji Temple.
• Enter Nanzen-ji (there’s a small bike parking area near the main gate). Then exit the north side of the temple precincts and work your way around on that road, at first heading toward the mountains and then heading north, past a high school. After passing the entrance to Eikan-do Temple, you’ll soon see a small sign written in English and Japanese pointing up the hill to the Path of Philosophy. Ride 150m toward the mountains and at the top of a short rise, you’ll find the start of the Path of Philosophy. It’s the path that runs along the canal.
• Ride all the way north on the Path of Philosophy until you reach the shop-lined approach road to Ginkaku-ji Temple. Park your bike in front and explore the temple.
• You can return to Kyoto Station by retracing your route, but for a quicker way, just ride down the temple approach road until you reach Shirakawa-dori, which you cross. Then follow Imadegawa-dori west (downhill) until you reach the Kamo-gawa River. Go left (south) here and ride all the way until Shiokoji-dori, where you turn right to reach Kyoto Station.
Bicycle rental shops are aplenty in Kyoto, especially in the main sightseeing sights like Arashimaya. There are also plenty of guided cycle tours that makes for a fun group activity. Ask the bicycle rental shops for maps and route options, they will be happy to oblige.
Kyoto Eco Trip has a pretty comprehensive map online available for download.
For more on cycling in Kyoto, read Inside Kyoto’s article here.
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