The Road to Osaka
“I wish I got out more.”
As the breezes get colder and the days get shorter, please don't be one of the millions of people annoying your friends with this statement. Yes, Autumn is upon us, and the time for outdoor activities is dwindling. But it's not gone yet, and in Kansai, it's beautiful, brilliant, breezy, and justbetter.
Apart from tormenting rivers that dare to cross through their cities, the Japanese people show tremendous respect for nature, perhaps spoiled by having it on display in every direction. As stunning and intricate as their temples, towers, food, and way of life itself may be, the Japanese understand that it all draws from nature's inspiration. If you don't get out and experience that inspiration for yourself, you're just in a museum all over again. It's time to get past the human limits of art.
While there's still plenty of good weather left in Japan, get outside. Don't waste this last opportunity to enjoy the fresh air before March. There are many popular bike routes in every prefecture, including popular ones in Hiroshima done by your more organized, established friends in Japan. But you needn't find a tour or even available friends to have a bike ride. You can go anywhere – even from Kyoto to Osaka.
There are a number of reasons to make this kind of journey. One could be moving from Kyoto to Osaka. Perhaps a Kyoto resident could be inclined to sell their bike on Facebook's Osaka Sayonara Sales. If you live in Osaka and need a bike, you can purchase it in Kyoto (Kyoto Sayonara Sales). Or you could just bring your bike to Kyoto. On a Japanese train, you will probably have to take the wheels off your bike and put them in a bag.
Of course, this preferable to the reverse route. Kyoto is mostly 30 – 60 meters higher in elevation than Osaka (some of Osaka is actually below sea level). This doesn't seem like much, but for most of the ride, you'll be able to tell that you are traversing in slight descent, as you move downriver. There's something reassuring about following the water, which never fails to beat evaporation's slow pace in this part of the world, always finding the ocean, where Japanese concrete can be a forgotten nightmare at last.
You can start your journey in Sanjō along the Kamogawa (Kamo River), or alternatively you can start in Arashiyama, following the Katsuragawa (Katsura River). The Arashiyama path may be more straightforward without any atypical navigation, while Sanjō is the busier district, more centrally located in Kyoto, and perhaps more historically fitting.
In Sanjō, briefly before your departure, you can observe the quaint geisha houses on the 400-year-old Ponto-chō, nestled between the Kamogawa and Kiyamachi (Kiya Street). You can also take a moment to appreciate the beautiful Sanjō Ōhashi (Sanjō Big Bridge), once the ending point of both the Nakasendō and the Tokaidō Roads. During the Edo Period, these were two of the five traditional roads linking all of Japan to its administrative capital in Edo, modern day Tokyo. This makes Sanjō Ōhashi, believed to have originally been built in the 1500s, a very famous place to be, and indeed, a very suitable place to start a long, rewarding journey. Kyoto is just a happy place.
It's best to start your journey on the east side (the left bank), away from the crazy college kids. You could start on the same side as them (as in this picture), but you'll likely have to change at Shijo Street. And if you appear foreign, you may be stopped for an interview by very pretty Japanese girls with English homework to do. Of course, that can be a good thing.
Start your journey with plenty of daylight. In Fall, that means in the morning!
There is no better feeling than getting started. As the cool autumn breeze wraps around your face, gravity gives you an assist down the ever-so-slight descent. The city starts moving around you. Only the water follows with you, and just as you know that faithful water will not waiver in its journey to Osaka, so too will you feel encouraged to persevere. This isn't as hard as the advent of cars and trains in the 20th century would have you believe.
However, to start, it's a little tough to navigate. In Kyoto, you'll have to maze through Shichijo to Jujo. As of this publishing, you'll have to cross here at Shichijo:
You'll want to cross again at Jujo:
Work and changes are made relatively often, so don't take these instructions as a script. Explore, and you'll figure it out pretty quickly – in spirit with the bravery it took to start. When in doubt, pick streets parallel to the river and gravitate toward it. Soon the riverside paths face no more threat of interruption.
The city can be imposing and intimidating at times. Kyoto's classical Kamogawa waterfront soon fades for the daunting industrial lairs of Fushimi, with highway bridges and JR Line trains racing overhead.
Don't be frightened by the steel towers, noisy trains, or the absence of people. Don't head for the refuge of the wooded city because the gray bridges and factories make too much noise. The blessed water of the Kamogawa is your guide now. It won't let you down.
Break through the bottleneck. Once you escape Fushimi, you are largely south of the city, and the topography will start to reflect that.
Indeed, it may feel like you're dropping several centuries into the past. A bike path emerges, hoisting you with a brief surge high above the river below, offering a surprisingly good view both of the road ahead and the mighty ancient city you've left behind. Oddly enough, you should see Kyoto Tower, smack in the middle of the city, above Kyoto Station, somewhat on your right. You may have noticed the river slightly curving to the right the entire time. You're biking almost directly west for the time being, winding down on the road to Osaka.
The path gets more beaten.
Nature emerges. Even between two of its six biggest cities, in Japan, it's very beautiful.
As you progress along the windswept hills down the Kamogawa, you'll see the river's bigger sister, the Katsuragawa, sweep in and ride parallel to you. This river flows through Arashiyama and has a bike path of its own. Thus this area can be a bit confusing. The standard bike paths straddle the point where the rivers meet. There are intermittent crossings, so you can pick either side you want. The left bank is a little faster, and has a more consistent path.
When you pass the point, Route 79 emerges, a massive bridge over the newly expanded Katsuragawa, which swallowed the Kamogawa whole. The lower span of this bridge is suitable for local traffic, pedestrians, and yes, bikes. You are morally obligated to cross the bridge and observe the sights. Make sure to cross back – when you proceed from here, it's best to keep the rivers on your right.
Following the solitary river onward, you'll come to the river's final marriage. The sacred waters of Kyoto's Katsuragawa merge with their fatter, more sluggish cousin out of Kyoto's southern neighbor, Uji – of course, the Ujigawa.
You don't need to read a confusing list of directions from me to know where to go. Just follow the not-yellow-brick-road, keeping the river on your right. You'll keep finding wondrous things. Eventually you'll come to the point of the two rivers, represented by a sharp angle and nearby athletic fields.
You'll have to borrow from the automobiles for this one stretch. Turn right on this main road. It will take you across the Ujigawa, right on track, over what will become Osaka's flagship riverway, which will guide you home. When you see it, rejoin the path along the river. This is the magical road to Osaka.
Rejoining after Ujigawa
Alas, that terminus point is where the Katsuragawa and the Ujigawa merge – the berth of the Yodogawa, Osaka's founding river.
(this picture from the right side, or west bank of the Yodogawa)
The path is much easier, more straightforward, more heavily traveled, and wider from here, whether you take the higher road or the lower one level with the river. There are stretches even wider than streets where you can pick up speed. As the trees thin and settlement expands, one must prepare for heavy winds. If it isn't a warm day, you may wish you brought a sweatshirt.
As the bike path becomes clear, the newest obstacle emerges. This one is not only manmade, it's intentionally inconvenient. It will make you furious with Japanese style. It's a bike barrier. 100 times over.
The bike barriers are there to keep motorcycles and cars off the bike path, and possibly to moderate the speed of riders. There are way too many barriers for the first purpose and there will never be enough for the second purpose. The barriers are unnecessary and tedious, a testament to Japan's borderline dysfunctional obsession with public works projects. These barriers almost all vary in size and shape, as if the designers were bitter about their rejections from the branch of the armed services dealing with repelling seaborne invasions. Many of the barriers are perfectly positioned to smash your bike's sensitive parts to pieces, thus requiring careful navigation. You don't want yourself, like this angry writer, to suddenly wonder how long it takes a Japanese government office to process and reject a claim that their unnecessary structures unfairly damaged private property.
Maybe I'm a little bitter about those barriers.
For the most part, inside city limits, it's smooth sailing all the way into Osaka.
As you ride into busier and busier parts of the city, you'll soon find bridges frequently spanning the wide Yodogawa. Not all of these bridges are traversable. Some are for water or power lines. Some are major highways. And quite a few carry Osaka's many train lines, including Hankyu, JR, and the Osaka Monorail. There's something quite astounding seeing a train going overhead. Perhaps you'll beat some of those commuters home.
Because the time may yet have come to peel off the main path. If your journey is toward Osaka's city center, eventually it will lead to a large water gate, the Kema Gate. Possibly in operation when you arrive, it siphons water off the Yodogawa, into the Ōkawa.
As a matter of fact, the Ōkawa charts the original course of the Yodogawa. The Ōkawa is part of the larger Kyū-Yodogawa (“former Yodo River”), and is now mostly sustained by the mechanics of the Kema Gate. In 1907 the Japanese constructed the current basin of the Yodogawa, proving from bananas to massive rivers that there is no force of nature they will not attempt to artificially wrap up and control, if it dares go near their neatly packed society.
Yodogawa (Picture Source Wikipedia)
It is here, at the Kema Gate, that most groups will probably see a split. For those going to Umeda, continue straight on this riverside path. For those more interested in Osaka Castle or the Tenjimbashi area, turn left and follow the Ōkawa. There isn't much more this guide can do for you. The city has you now.
Either way, you made it to Osaka. Give each other, or yourself, a pat on the back.