There’s a hidden (but not quite secret) 17 km cycling trail through rural Okayama. Okayama is the prefecture nestled a little further west of Osaka and Kyoto and is often called the 'land of sunshine' due to its good weather. This cycling route allows you to stop off at temples, shrines and offers amazing sakura cherry blossom viewing opportunities.
It’s called the Kibi Plain Cycling Trail (or Kibiji Trail). Along the way you can see Kibitsuhiko Jinja, Kibitsu shrine, Koikui-jinja, Tsukuriyama-kofun and Bitchu Kokobun-ji. The trail follows the shrines and story of Prince Kibitsuhiko, who saved the Kibi Kingdom from a tyrannical ogre. This legend became the foundation of the Momotaro folktale that Okayama is famous for.
Sounds good? Let’s go!
The route is from Bizen-Ichinomiya station to Soja Station. Okayama station is easily accessible by shinkansen train from Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima. Once you get to Okayama take the Kibi Line from Okayama Station to Bizen-Ichinomiya; 11 minutes, 210 yen. The rental shop is called Uedo rent-a-cycle. When you arrive, turn to your right and it’s attached to the station (there’s a big yellow sign you can’t miss).
You’ll be given a Japanese map of the region explaining the route and main attractions but the most important tip I can give you is to follow the blue signs!
Get on your rent-a-cycle and start pedaling! After 1.7km of leisurely cycling through the streets you’ll arrive at Kibitsuhiko shrine. The shrine was built in 1697 and features some small lakes and a spacious courtyard. This is where Prince Kibitsuhiko is said to have prayed before defeating the ogre. You can see a lot of wildlife and plants around the grounds of the shrine.
After another 3.5 km an ornately-roofed shrine will peek out at you from the hills – Kibitsu shrine. This is where you’ll find some beautiful fountains, long wooden corridors and cherry blossoms. This is where Prince Kibitsuhiko is said to have battled the ogre and is the biggest and most impressive shrine on your route. There are often food stalls set up here offering the usual cheap and quick eats of yakisoba fried noodles and fried potatoes.
As you ride you can stop off at smaller shrines and temples at this point and there are also some traditional burial mounds. After a 6km stretch you’ll arrive at Bitchu-Kokubunji temple. This is one of the oldest sites on the trail – built in 741. They have an impressive 5-story pagoda and places to picnic under the cherry blossoms. Sometimes the locals hold events here and have food stalls set up outside the temple.
The last 5km is a flat ride through the rice fields. Seeing the rice fields while they’re growing is a pleasure - the fields are planted around June and grow through the summer to be harvested in fall. As you approach Soja station you’ll pass through a small residential shopping area with a few restaurants and shops. You can drop off the bike at Soja station’s Araki Rent-a-Cycle which is on the left side of the station as you approach. To return to Okayama you can take the Kibi line; 36 minutes, 400 yen.
It’s a cheap and healthy day out - it’s 1000 yen for one day’s bike rental if you drop the bike off at the other end of the trail. They also have an hourly rate if you return it to the same rent-a-cycle: 400 yen for two hours and 200 yen for every hour after that. The cycle rental shops are open from 9-6pm every day. It takes between 2 to 4 hours to complete depending on your pace.
The real treat is seeing the rice fields and local farmers going about their daily lives. It’s a rare insight that most tourists miss. Also, discovering little shrines and buildings slightly off the track makes you feel like a bona fide adventurer. It’s a quaint travel experience that’s a little off the beaten-tourist-track. Add it to your bucket-list if you want a workout and an authentic Japanese countryside experience!