Thursday, 4 August 2011

Ohara to Kibune

During the hot summer months in Kyoto, cycling into the cooler northern climes is one of the best ways to escape the stifling heat of the city basin. There are any number of routes that loop climb and swoop around the northern mountains, through farms and rice fields, bamboo groves and cedar forests and past rustic shrines and thatched roofed houses - and crucially, a river is never far away for a cool dunk before you are on your way again. Of course, this means there are any number of ways to get up into the mountains from Kyoto city, but heading up past Kitayama to Ohara gives you the option also of continuing further, through the T Tunnel and down to Lake Biwa, where another hour's cycle up the lake you'll find some of the best swimming beaches in Kansai.

It was to the lake for a swim that I was headed the other morning, but after being distracted by a detour, ended up following another road further into the mountains and in the process discovering a great little loop from Ohara to Kurama via Momoi and back. It turned out to be a longer ride than I had intended, but it was very scenic, and there were a couple of great river spots along the way so that I didn't miss out on my swim!

The easiest way from Kyoto city to Ohara is to cycle up Kawabata (you can actually cycle along the Takano riverside for the most part, but it gets a little bumpy at times). Once you reach Kitayama, keep going, past the overbridge until you get to a bridge and a road sign signaling Ohara to your right. Follow the river up to Ohara (about 8km from the turnoff). The cycle up to Ohara has nice views of mountains on both sides of the road. Ohara is a good place to stop, there are a couple of convenience stores, which will be the last ones you'll see for some time. About ten minutes after Ohara, turn west off the main road into the mountains, following the signs to Momoi.

Now, until this point, the climb is steady but not too strenuous. Ohara sits at about 300 m elevation, but the climb up to Momoi is a gutbuster, I'm not going to lie to you. The sign read Momoi 5km, so my initial intention was to take a one hour detour, before rejoining the road to the lake, to still enjoy my swim well before lunchtime. What I didn't realise though, was that during that 5km I would also be climbing about 500m to an elevation of 800m. Luckily I had enough Pocari Sweat sports drink to replace my own sweat, which was at this point dripping from my pores like water through a sponge. The temperature was already in the 30s and it was only 10am. Yup, it's fair to say I was starting to regret my wee detour.

In saying that, there is always a sense of elation after a good climb that makes the slog worthwhile and when I reached the top, as wet as I would have been if I'd made it to the lake, I was pretty stoked. From the top, the road drops down into a valley and the sleepy little village of Momoi. When I say sleepy, I mean sleeepy. The only activity I saw was a solitary farmer toiling in his field and an old woman hand washing her clothes on the stoop of her house, which affirmed to me that this was about as remote as I could possibly be while, remarkably, still being in the Kyoto city limits. A really nice spot though and very picturesque.

So, if you make it to Momoi, you've done all the hard work. Pat yourself on your soggy back because it's all downhill from here. And what a downhill! Follow the road sign pointing to Kurama, you'll pass a shrine and wend your way through a sparse cedar forest before the verge of the road drops you into a thrilling, sometimes bumpy switchback descent.

After a brief few minutes of that, you'll end up back on the main road, that will zip you straight down into Kurama. A great place to stop off for a hot spring, or visit the stunning Kurama temple (founded in 770). I had only one thing on my mind, though: and it began with s
and ended with wim. I knew I would get my wish in Kibune, a five minute ride back uphill after leaving Kurama.

The road from Kibune train station to the township proper goes upstream and there are a couple of nice little spots where you can take a dip in the river. Blissful.

After a revitalising dunk , continue up through Kibune, famous for its riverside dining restaurants and the revered Kifune Shrine. There are loads of people here in the summer, all wanting to escape the heat of the city, but if you'd like to escape them, continue up the road (again this is when you'll really appreciate having your bike) for about a kilometer and keep your eyes peeled for a nice shady spot where you can have a break, and another swim.

On your bike again then, and back down the hill, through Kibune and through the intersection that leads back up to Kurama (follow the sign directing you to Kamigamo). Continue downhill for a while until you find yourself at a busy intersection, a Lawson convenience store and thus civilisation. The drop in altitude and rise in temperature is almost immediate, and this is probably a good spot to grab some more liquids before the 8km cycle back over to Ohara. You`ll see the sign at the intersection indicating Ohara to the east.The initial part of this stage of the ride isn't particularly pleasant, you'll pass a dusty sawmill above which the whole side of the mountain has been completely scoured of life and a refuse station, which stinks a little but definitely gets you pedaling again. Soon enough though, you're back into the idyllic surrounds of rice fields and gardens before one final downhill swoop brings you to the opposite side of Ohara from where you started.

The shiso fields in Ohara are stunning at this time of year and it's definitely worth stopping by the famous Tsuji pickle shop on the main road to try some of their shiso pickles (a good salty pick me up), or even grabbing a shiso beer to have in ten minutes at the final swimming spot at Yase Hieizanguchi.

The road down from Ohara is quite busy, but once you're through the tunnel keep yours eyes open for a 7 eleven store. The swimming spot is your next left across the bridge after the 7 eleven. It's a popular spot for families and there are lots of people barbecuing and enjoying the river. Enjoy one final swim before heading back to Kyoto the same way you came.

As I mentioned, it's a little more intrepid than a lot of people would endavour to do in this heat, but it's a goody if you're up for a bit of a bike ride. You can see the map of this route as I did it, here