Read all about our Tea and Temples cycling holiday through Japan in this great travel diary.
-I want this to be a holiday you’ll remember for the rest of your lives, said our ex-mountain bike champion and tour leader Vince. He was handing around our little Japanese survival kits in brightly coloured drawstring bags to our group of seven cyclists who were comfortably finishing our breakfast in the delightful Three Sisters Inn Annexe in Kyoto.Tentatively we withdrew the contents and discovered an attractive pair of chopsticks in their own patterned box, a One World cycling water bottle and an ominously small and thin towel, the purpose of which became clear as our trip progressed. For the present though we packed our newly acquired chopsticks,water bottle with our sunscreen and headed out to explore beautiful Kyoto for the next two days. As well as cultural sight seeing , this enabled us to test the comfort of our new steeds,Trek and Gary Fisher mountain bikes which Vince, originally a Goulburn lad, had efficiently adapted to suit each of us on our arrival the day before. Following our calm and competent leader who has spent almost twenty years cycling in Japan we cycled on a mixture of footpaths,tracks and roads, taking advantage of traffic in Kyoto being limited to 30kmh. We cycled along Kyoto’s huge landmark river, through intricate streets with exquisite tiny shops to Vince’s favourite temples, including the Pure Water Temple where we strolled in awe, enjoying the magnificent structures and cool, picturesque gardens which utilise many of those intriguing Zen features of rocks, moss, water and lush plants such as azaleas and maples. We soon realised our new chopsticks were for the first of many sumptuous picnic lunches that Masa, our Japanese support driver extraordinaire, provided in marvelous locations, which only became more impressive as our trip progressed. Kyoto, a former capital of Japan for over 1000 years, has 1600 Buddhist temples, over 400 Shinto shrines and 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Venturing out at night through the colourful Gion area we enjoyed several of the many styles of Japanese cuisine, including the ˜do it yourself’ okonumiyaki, where the table is really just a big hot plate for cooking highy seasoned omelette concoctions.
Farewelling the charming and traditional Three Sisters Inn on our third day we were soon following a winding river up and through the mountains which surround Kyoto on paved quiet roads . Lush, green and shady the mountain forests of pine and cedar boast waterfalls and drifts of wild iris, wisteria and azaleas. Our group was already declaring Japan a cycling paradise, a feeling which only increased as we cycled through small rural villages and mixed farms to a delightful thatched cottage in Miyama, which was our YHA home for the night. Before a calligraphy lesson and a traditional multi course dinner, Vince gently introduced us to the protocol of the Japanese bath, the onsen. We listened intently, particularly to the use of those small thin towels. The YHA provided an easy introduction for us to learn polite bath practice in preparation for a larger and more public bath house with a glorious view across Wakata Bay when we reached the Sea of Japan at Obama the following day. Here the traditional merged with the modern , when, after a traditional tea ceremony we meandered across to a rock concert on the beach, complete with hula girls which was launching a CD celebrating Obama for Obama.It was here that we discovered the joys of the yukata, the traditional cool, cotton kimono worn by both men and women alike to the bath house or just for a stroll along the beach. Views over Wakata from the beautiful mountain as we cycled up the next day were well worth the effort, with morning tea at the top. After a thrilling descent we enjoyed a Japanese curry al fresco at a woodcraft and gift shop. I do not know how we also managed a typical pub meal that night with a veritable feast of fried oysters, chicken, tofu and beef and an introduction to sake, which is definitely best when hot. Obviously in need of more sustenance we learnt how to make traditional dishes at a wonderful cooking school the next day, eating the products of our labour for lunch. Fortunately we rode all afternoon along the harbour’s edge and inland to the glorious Mikata Five lakes district where our bags were already waiting in the most beautiful accommodation I have ever seen, an up market yet traditional wooden ryokan.
We relaxed luxuriously in our segregated hot soaking indoors and outdoors bathing pools and discovered that here we were to wear our yukatas, always provided in our rooms, to dinner, alleviating the need to fuss about what to wear. Yukatas come with an elegant little jacket for cooler weather or a more formal look. Dinner was a meal to remember and linger over, with the moon reflecting on the lake, individual burners to cook slices of tender beef on, sushimi, crisp tempura and numerous tiny intriguing dishes. Our group sparkled conversationally, resplendent in our yukatas and sipping sake. Mirroring the elegance and simplicity of design of traditional architecture, each bedroom with its water view, tatami mats and flower arrangement was a work of art. It was difficult to leave, but an off road experience with an extensive climb over the Mihama Mountains, rewarded by an exciting downhill, was on the agenda. This was the only day I used my camelback and I was proud of my new found mountain bike skills as I zigzagged very bumpily the 11 km down to our next beautiful picnic site.Our group was a little quieter than usual as we contemplated not only our recent hill challenges but our last day on Honshu. The next day we were to travel to Osaka by train and after several hours of sightseeing, catch the very comfortable overnight ferry to Kyushu, island of steam, mud baths and volcanoes. Beppu, in the early morning light, sprouted columns of steam all through the town, already setting the scene for a different experience in its volcanic topography. After a glorious bus ride past alpine health and recreation facilities built in the 20’s, into Aso- Kuju National Park, we began our ride from the top of My Kuju Pass, with a dramatic descent into valleys of farmland, through forest on an intricate network of paved farm roads to a charming inside/ outside onsen set beside a river.A lunch time bath seemed perfect as by now we were proficient at politely juggling those small towels for modesty, which are also used as washers while showering before entering the soaking baths. Cycling clothes back on, we pedalled on and down into the world’s largest caldera to our destination, a small town at the foot of Mt Aso. We spent a welcome three days at Akamizu Lodge, cycling up mountains, through cedar forests, down mountain trails, picnicking beside river gorges including Kikuchi Gorge, with magnificent waterfalls and gasping at the stunning views. I believe that cycling up mountains beside an excellent raconteur renders any mountain insignificant. Our group had excellent opportunities to tell stories,discuss books,movies and our personal hopes and dreams while testing this theory. Climbing the popular Mt Aso was our hottest day (34) and also our only encounter with traffic. Fortunately the final section to the active volcano’s bubbling lake could be ridden in a gondola. Wild pink azaleas growing in the otherwise barren summit were astonishing and a reminder of the success of plants in their natural habitat. After yet another stunning descent, naturally heated mud baths were a once in a lifetime experience. Once again we were reluctant to leave our charming and comfortable traditional hotel with its beautiful rock pool hot bath and delicious Japanese breakfasts that included croissants. We were also very attached to the Aso yukatas, definitely our most attractive, and companionably cleaning our teeth with a stunning view of mountains such as the Sleeping Buddha out the window.
Rain greeted us for the first time as we prepared to make an energising descent from a volcano summit to an exquisite little town, Sensui, near the largest single span pedestrian bridge in Japan. After a rainy night and a twenty four course traditional dinner at our minshuku, we walked across the bridge which loomed impressively out of a dense mist much to Vince’s disappointment. The gorges, waterfalls and forests far below were just visible peeking through patches of swirling fog. We cycled on to our final destination, Yufuin, a charming little town surrounded by mountains and which offered shopping opportunities for us as well as for the many Japanese tourists who visit Kyushu to walk to a series of shrines as a pilgrimage, carrying decorative staffs. We shared a karaoke experience in a tiny bar and discovered that not everybody who cycles can sing. Our last cycling day was through a myriad of tiny paved roads, through villages, farmland and forest with a glorious picnic spot beside a lake, a site for summer camping. We arrived back at Beppu, tired but elated having completed for some of us, the most challenging but beautiful rides of our lives. Our group unanimously agreed that Vince and Masa deserve accolades for the extraordinary planning and research which underpin the success of their tour. Each day in this wonderfully exotic location provided variety and excitement and heaps of surprises and delights. As one of our group said, -Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better it does. We were sad to farewell each other after dinner back in Kyoto and sad to leave those excellent bikes without which I, at least , would not have reached the summit of those mountains. We were also already missing lovely Masa who had become a dear friend. Our small thin towels now serve as guest hand towels but evoke memories of a camaraderie in the bath house sadly not known in Western culture while our chopsticks have pride of place in the kitchen. Yes Vince, you certainly gave us all a holiday to remember for the rest of our lives.