Sinking deeper into the warm water, I feel the aches of physical exertion melt away. My muscles – tired from the day’s cycling – relax as soon as they are immersed in the hot spring. Onsen, the Japanese version of public baths, are said to have the power to heal thanks to their mineral-rich water. And this one – overlooking the shimmering Sea of Japan – is doing just that for me this evening.
Welcome to Suzu, a village on the northeastern tip of the Noto Peninsula, in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. The onsen I’m currently wallowing in is part of Notojiso, the traditional ryokan inn where I’m staying tonight. Watching the burnt-orange sun setting over the ocean, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that I’ve reached this peaceful spot entirely under my own steam, on a bicycle.
I’m on a new, 14-day cycling tour of Japan with Intrepid. The Cycle Japan trip blends moderate exercise with visits to some of the country’s best cultural and historic highlights. Pedalling between 10km and 75km per day, guests travel through some of Honshu’s most varied landscapes – from buzzing cityscapes to rugged seascapes – with plenty of pit stops along the way to refuel or pop into a temple, market or salt farm.
The route starts in Osaka and ends in Tokyo, with a four-day section in the rural Noto Peninsula in between. To cover more ground, there are a few train journeys, including one on a super-fast bullet train, considered a must-do experience by many tourists. And yet, on a bike, everything is slower and experiences are up-close – the ideal way to discover such a fascinating country.
I meet my group, our guide and our support car driver in the hotel lobby in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, and where our cycling will commence. My six fellow cyclists – all Australian – range from a writer in his thirties to a retired academic. We are united by a mutual eagerness to discover Japan by bike and by a sense of adventure.
And we are in very good hands. Our leader, Tatsuya, has ridden from Alaska to Argentina and across America on the same little fold-up bike that he is using for our trip. Not only does he have everything from an enviable fitness level to unfettered cycling know-how, as a local he is also the ideal candidate to lead us on a journey around his country. “Cycling makes me feel free,” he says. “It’s also a time to contemplate, to go deep into your own mind. It’s like meditation in that way, and helps keep you balanced.”
We are about to find out what he means. Helmeted and clad in padded cycling shorts, we set off on our two-wheeled jaunt, leaving behind Osaka with its tranquil canals and wedding-cake-like castle. Heading north, we follow a dedicated cycling path, tracing the Yodo and Katsura rivers, passing families having picnics beside the water, children playing baseball and fishermen reeling in their catch.
After a day in the saddle, we reach our destination for the night, Matsubaya Ryokan in central Kyoto. Staying in different ryokan along the route is one of the big highlights of the trip. These traditional inns offer an authentic taste of Japanese culture. When we arrive, we leave our shoes in the entry area and put on indoor slippers. The idea is to keep everything – particularly the tatami mat room where you sleep – clean from outside dirt.
We sleep on the floor on (surprisingly comfortable) futons, usually rolled out for us while we feast on dinners of tuna, yellowtail and prawn sashimi, cooked rockfish and bowls of rice. And each time we leave, we are waved off by the staff, wearing kimonos and wooden slippers, who bow in respect as we pedal away. It’s a level of service that puts these friendly ryokan far above the best hotels.
There’s plenty of free time to explore on foot, too. In Tokyo, I gawk at the colourful sea creatures on sale in Tsukiji fish market, get lost amidst the crowds in Shibuya and watch the city’s eccentric fashionistas shopping in Harajuku. In Kyoto, we head out for dinner and watch as red-lipped, kimono-clad geisha (known as ‘geiko’ in Kyoto) vanish around the corner in the Gion district, famed for these beautiful entertainers.
Of course, exercising for two weeks gives you the perfect excuse to eat whatever you like – a delight in Japan, where the food is sensational. And it’s not just sushi that’s on offer. I slurp steaming noodles in a ramen bar in Osaka, munch fishcakes in a Kanazawa market and try yakitori (chicken skewers) in a tiny izakaya bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, washed down with a glass of sake.
Travelling by bike sets the perfect pace. You move fast enough for your surroundings to be constantly changing, but slow enough to experience all the sights, smells and sounds – and to hop off when you please. We pedal on sand at Chirihama Beach Driveway where the sea breeze cools us; in Nara we dodge deer (once considered sacred messengers of the gods) that roam the park surrounding Tōdai-ji, a Buddhist temple housing the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue; and in rural Shiroyone we push our bikes through the ancient Senmaida rice terraces that snake up the hillside.
The Noto Peninsula is a peaceful escape from Japan’s urban sprawl. Here we encounter mercifully few tourists – this part of Japan is often overlooked in favour of larger cities – but we do face a few steep climbs, including an 11% gradient through lush forests. Sweat drips from my nose and my lungs heave as I crawl uphill beside the coastline of jagged cliffs dropping into the sea.
Just when my legs feel as though they can’t take another revolution, I glance up to see I’ve reached the summit – with the Sea of Japan and forest of green unfurling beneath me. I may be panting, but with onsen, exercise and freedom to escape the crowds amidst a beautiful and varied landscape, could there be a better way to explore Japan?
Ready to enjoy Japan under your own steam? You need our new 14-day Japan Cycle adventure!
Feature image: Oskar Krawczyk (Unsplash). All other images c/o – Shutterstock unless stated.