5 Ways to Explore the Kansai Region on Bicycle

The Kansai region is blessed with an incredible public transit network, stretching from Himeji in the west, to Lake Biwa in the east, and all along the Sea of Japan coast as well. But once you arrive at your destination, getting around might be a bit difficult: walking takes time, buses are difficult to navigate (especially in English), and taxis are expensive. Thankfully, more and more areas in Japan are realizing the potential of bicycle tourism and are offering bikeshares and bike tours! Here are 5 areas in the Kansai region that you can fully explore on a bike!

*This article is sponsored by the Kansai Tourism Bureau.

1. The “Biwa-ichi”: Cycling Around Japan’s Largest Lake

The Lake Biwa cycling route is definitely one of Japan’s best-known cycling destinations. It is often called “Biwa-ichi,” short for “Biwako-isshu” (circling around Lake Biwa), and it is one of only three “National Cycle Routes” designated by the government.

The full trip is some 200 km, long enough that even experienced cyclists need to plan this in advance and should block off at least two days for it. You can plan a bike trip that’s as long or short as you want, though, as both sides of the lake have frequent rail services and plenty of places to take a break or stay overnight. There is also a bridge that spans the lake towards its southern edge, so if you start from Otsu (the closer side to Kyoto), you can make a mini-loop of about 48 km. This stretch of coastline sees the most traffic, but allows you to do the most sightseeing. As the lake is so close to Kyoto, Japan’s historical power center, you’ll bump into numerous buildings with histories of more than a thousand years.

Head to Otsu Station, which is 10 minutes from Kyoto on the Biwako Line, and rent a bicycle at the Otsu Station Tourist Information Center nearby. Bike down to the coastline and turn right. The first historical site of note you’ll come across is the ruins of Zeze Castle, built by Japan’s great unifier Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1601 but destroyed in 1870. You then come across the Seta no Karahashi bridge, which is noteworthy for being one of the Three Famous Bridges of Japan and was even mentioned in the Nihon-shoki (one of Japan’s oldest texts, from the 8th century).

Pedaling to the north will take you to the little Karasuma Peninsula, a park that also hosts the Lake Biwa Museum. It includes a mini-beach and a cafe as well, making it an excellent place to take a break. After a few more quiet kilometers – seemingly endless water to your left, alternating fields and towns on your right – you will come across the Lake Biwa Bridge. But you should briefly go past it first to explore the gorgeous Nagisa Park and its fields of seasonal flowers. 

Cross the Lake Biwa Bridge, then continue the counterclockwise loop. About 3 kilometers later, you’ll come across the floating Ukimido temple. Ogoto Onsen comes soon after, and if your bike plan allows it (if you booked a bike for multiple days, or you have enough time left), now’s an excellent time to take a soak in a hot spring. Wipe away your fatigue, and prepare your spirit for the remaining 14 km.

At Sakamoto, you can make a brief detour inland to visit Hiyoshi Shrine, an influential shrine for over a millennium. In its west hall, notice that all four corners are decorated with monkey figurines, as Masaru the Monkey is this shrine’s guardian. (The cable car leading up to Hiei-zan Enryaku-ji, perhaps the most important spot in Japanese Buddhism, is also nearby, although it would represent a considerable diversion.)

Heading back onto the path, the historical sites follow each other rapidly here: the ruins of Sakamoto Castle, built by the famous traitor figure Akechi Mitsuhide. Karasaki Shrine, whose legendary pine trees and lakeside location combine to create a truly Japanese image. To your right, the Omi Jingu, with its bright red Romon Gate, which celebrates the 7th-century Emperor who moved his capital to Otsu. And the "Otsu-kan" cultural center, a former hotel from Japan's first modernization period, with a lovely English garden. These sights are a testament to the prefecture's long and storied history.

And with that, you’re back in the center of Otsu. Wind down at a lakeside cafe, watching the Flower Fountain in the middle of the harbor. Of course, your bike trip might only have covered one-fifth of the mighty Lake Biwa, but this manageable trek lets you see a lot of what Shiga Prefecture has to offer.

2. Amano Hashidate and the Ine Boathouses: Wonderous Landscapes in Kyoto’s Northern Coast

Amano Hashidate, a little sandbar of land spanning an ocean inlet, roughly translates to a “bridge in heaven” and is thought of as a bridge connecting earth with the heavens. It is called one of Japan’s Three Great Views.

From Amano Hashidate station, pick up a bicycle at Chie Kurabe, a souvenir shop just across the street. The path around Amano Hashidate is 14 km (2-3 hours) and relatively accessible to beginners even without an e-bike, but it's always nice to get some mechanical help!

An immediate first spot is Chion-ji, a temple dedicated to the Buddhist god of wisdom, Monju Bosatsu. This temple is known for its special omikuji (fortune slips) that take the shape of a fan, which many visitors hang on the temple’s pine trees. After that, it’s time to cross the sandbar itself! Biking one way takes about 15 minutes. While seeming ephemeral from afar, Amano Hashidate is actually more than 20m wide (and up to 100m wide in places), which is enough space to cross on your bicycle. It is utterly lush with thousands of pine trees, and you can also find a shrine, a beach, and a tea house along the way.

Biking across Amano Hashidate itself is a perfectly fine experience, but everyone who visits should see it from up high. Kasamatsu Park is one excellent location for this, and you’ll come across it soon after you’re done crossing the sandbar. One quirky tradition that apparently dates back a thousand years is to look at it upside-down with your head between your legs. By confusing your sense of perspective and blurring the sea with the sky, it makes the sandbar appear as a heavenly bridge.

Once you climb back down from the park via cable car, you can visit the Motoise Kono Shrine and the Manai Shrine: the former is said to have been once inhabited by the sun goddess Amaterasu, while at the latter, you can taste water that is said to come from the heavens.

If you’re short on time, you can cycle back across the sandbar now and be content that you’ve fulfilled the classic Amano Hashidate experience. But the official route takes you around the little lagoon, where you can gaze upon the beautiful waters on your left and a classic Japanese small town on your right. Along the way, you can swing by the boathouses of Mizoshiri, the Amano Hashidate Winery (which offers family-friendly wine-flavored desserts!), and the Kurhaus Iwataki, a hot spring facility. Much of the path is a dedicated bike lane with an excellent view of the lake, and the rest are quiet side streets or ample sidewalks. No expert bike maneuvering needed!

Note that bikes from Chie Kurabe must be returned by 5 PM. After this you can then head up to Amano Hashidate Viewland, the other famous spot for gazing upon the natural monument. In addition to being an observation deck, the Viewland is also a decked-out amusement park with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, go-karts and mini golf. The view of the sandbar from here is known as the “Flying Dragon View,” because of the particular angle.

If you’re planning on visiting northern Kyoto, we recommend you spend at least a few hours in the town of Ine, a fishing town that has become famous for its colorful, picturesque boathouses. It’s accessible with a 1-hour bus ride from Amano Hashidate, and the Kyoto prefectural office has prepared a bike route here as well, part of its wider “Kyoto Kaido” network.

The course begins in the main street of this quintessential Japanese small town, which winds its way through a park before becoming a forested country road as you head northeast. Look out for Niizaki Shrine, on a small spit of land overlooking the ocean, the picturesque Norose Coast, and enormous rice terraces that spread out against the backdrop of the sea.

You make your way back to Ine by turning onto Route 178. It’s a manageable course – 13 km, good for a 2-hour journey – and accessible to beginners. More athletic visitors might opt to just keep going instead of turning back: further on in the Tango Peninsula, you can find a pretty lighthouse, excellent fresh seafood, and an onsen resort. But cycling the full peninsula is over 80 km, so it’s best to only make this trek if you’re confident in your abilities.

3. More Than Just Baths! A Tour of the Natural Delights of Kinosaki Onsen

Kinosaki Onsen has been a premier tourist destination for some 1400 years due to what was thought of as the magical healing properties of its springs. It’s a very Insta-worthy destination, with the pretty images of traditional buildings clustered around a central river, and the visitors walking between the various baths dressed in traditional yukata clothes. But there’s a lot more to see around Kinosaki Onsen than the central town and the open-air baths! The local tourist office offers a bicycle tour that shows you around everything there is to see, as well as the best places to grab a bite.

The tour begins with visits to the Ichi-no-Yu public bath, Gokuraku-ji temple, and Minato-ya, a traditional confectioner. It then heads out of the central town and follows the broad, sparkling Maruyama River down to the ocean coast. Once you’re at the coast, you can swing by a fresh fish market that specializes in catching snow crab. In particular, there is one store, Futakata, that specializes in freshly-made fish cakes called kamaboko and chikuwa.

The tour also makes two stops that most tourists to Kinosaki wouldn’t think to visit: one is the Hiyoriyama Coast facing the sea. It’s an impressive sight of craggy cliffs and far-off islands dotting the landscape, including the island that appears in the folk tale Urashima Taro. The little gazebos standing on the island make it really seem like a mystical fairy-tale world, especially when the island is shrouded in mist! There is also the Hachigoro Toshima Wetlands, further from the sea, which is a wildlife preserve for the endangered Oriental White Stork.

If you're looking for the full guided tour experience, you can find the information in the box below, including how to register.

Individual Bike Rental:

4. The Harima Region: History and Sake Along the Inland Sea

Another emerging cycling destination is the Harima area of western Hyogo Prefecture, where local governments have set up a “cluster” of nine bicycle routes that weave through mountains and valleys and small towns. The Sea Breeze Course is by far the longest of these courses, at 48 km and about 5 hours, and requires an intermediate level: there are stretches of road without sidewalks that require riders to stay vigilant.

The ride starts out at Banshu-Ako Station, accessible with a single ride from Kyoto and Osaka. Rent a bicycle at the nearby Tourist Information Center, and you’re off! Head southward from the station to head to the city’s two major attractions: the Ako Oishi Shrine and the Ako Castle Ruins.

You may have heard of the story of the 47 Ronin, where a local lord was executed in the capital for the crime of drawing his sword on a rude, offensive court official. 47 of his retainers swore to avenge their master’s honor and, after a year of plotting, successfully killed the court official before turning themselves in. This tale is widely known in Japan (and even overseas), as it exemplifies the samurai code of conduct.

This story actually takes place here in Ako, and Ako Castle was the seat of this lord’s government. It’s still being repaired, but it’s worth visiting for the lovely scenery of the moat and gardens. The nearby Ako Oishi Shrine specifically honors the 47 samurai and is located at the former home of their ringleader. One thing you can do here is write down a bad memory on special paper, float it on the small pool, and watch the words you wrote disappear, freeing you from the memory.

Much of the rest of the route follows the seaside Routes 32, 458, and 250. The latter is famed among cyclists nationwide for its gorgeous views of the ocean. You can see as far as the Shodo Island or, on a good day, even the island of Shikoku, all the way on the other side of the Seto Inland Sea!

In the town of Sakoshi, you can turn onto a quaint, old-fashioned commercial street where you can feel as if you’ve cycled back in time. The centerpiece is the Okuto Shuzo Kyodo-kan, a sake distillery and museum that dates back 400 years. Take a decorative bottle back home with you!

You’ll then come across the long-standing fishing port of Murotsu, and here, you can stop at Kamo Shrine, with excellent views of the ocean. Kamo Shrine is famous for its omamori (good-luck charms) that offer traffic safety for cyclists. Available in colorful pink and blue designs, these omamori are a must-have for any dedicated cyclist!

Towards the end of the ride, you will come across the Mt. Ayabe Plum Grove, where some 20,000 plum trees across 24 hectares offer some truly astonishing views. The plum trees blossom between mid-February and late March, blanketing the park in a gorgeous pale pink. Finally, the trail ends at Ikaruga Temple, whose main claim to fame is that it was founded some 1400 years ago by Shotoku Taishi, the famed imperial advisor whose name is still synonymous with wisdom and brilliance. The elegant three-story pagoda is so quintessentially Japanese and very Instagrammable.

From there, make your way to nearby Aboshi Station and take the westbound train back to Banshu-Ako. Trains allow you to take bikes on board so long as they’re in a bicycle cover. Make sure to return the bike by 5PM!

5. Fukui: Appreciate Nature With All Five Senses

The city of Fukui is where the Asuwa River, Hino River, and Kuzuryu River meet, and as a result, you can do a lot of sightseeing through riverside cycling. One option is to make a large, 50 km loop that swings east to the significant and beautiful monastery of Eiheiji, then south to the ruins of the former castle town of Ichijodani, then back to the city. While much of this route is flat, the approach to Eiheiji is quite steep, so cyclists with less experience should enlist the help of a fully-charged e-bike.

But we’ll go into the other main option, to cycle downstream until you end up at the fishing port of Mikuni and the impressive cliffs of Tojinbo. This route goes through some gorgeous flower gardens, so you want to plan your visit for spring or fall.

Start off at Fukui Station, where you can pick up an electric bicycle at the tourist information center. Make your way down to the Asuwa River and turn right; here, if you’re visiting in the spring, you’ll be greeted by the breathtaking sight of hundreds of pale pink sakura (cherry blossom) trees, lining the river over 2.2 km. It’s easily among the most expansive sakura spots in the country. A bit further down the same road is the Nanohana Road, where you can coast through a field of cheery yellow rapeseed blossoms.

Further down the river, you can encounter the Miyanoshita Cosmos Garden, where the cosmos flowers blossoms into a sweet purple in the autumn. You’ll also find broad expanses of rice farms, which turn the landscape golden in the fall.

The endpoint is Mikuni, where the river flows into the sea. There you’ll find parks and beaches, as well as cute townscapes and markets associated with the local fishing industry. Not only that, there is an onsen as well! You can truly enjoy nature with all of your senses here. The cliffs of Tojinbo are also a short hop away, and if you’ve made it all the way here, you absolutely must check it out.

The whole course is 26 km and can be done in about 3-4 hours. If you’re feeling too tired to bike the way back, then fret not! The local Echizen Railway has a “Cycle Train” program on weekends and holidays, where you can bring your bike on board at select stations, including the two stations at Mikuni. This program is available from 8 am to 6 pm, for most of the year (except the winter), and costs an additional fee of 200 yen. (The 2021 dates have not been announced.)

“Cycle Train” can’t take you all the way to Fukui Station, but you can get close to downtown, then get back on your bike and do some more sightseeing. You can drop off your bike at any of the bike rental network’s many stations.

The Kansai Region, Now Open to Cyclists

The international popularity of the Shimanami Kaido, a biking route across the Seto Inland Sea, has contributed to an explosion in areas throughout Japan that offer dedicated bike rentals and bike paths. Places that once relied on infrequent buses and trains can now be visited on your own time. 

So pack your flowy pants, sports-friendly shoes, and a water bottle, and plan your cycling getaway today!

The Kansai region is filled with all sorts of fascinating locations! Check out these links to find out everything the area has to offer:

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Koji Shiromoto
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