After exploring and enjoying the sights of Shikoku, my ferry across the Seto Inland Sea takes me into Okayama prefecture in Honshu. Back on Japan’s main island around late afternoon, I have a few hours of cycling left to reach Kurashiki, its scenic canals and my hotel for the night. Despite the muggy heat and sunshine of the afternoon, the temperature starts to drop and the sky darkens into a dull grey.
Cycling through the hills of Okayama from the coast, I soon reach a flat plain filled with pylons, factories and small-scale farms. Several of the farms are burning their fields, and a smokey fog blows across the roads, adding to the feeling of desolation. It’s almost like reaching the ends of the earth, or, less poetically, like I’ve entered Silent Hill. Trying not to inhale the fumes and ignoring the light drizzle, I pedal hard to make it to my destination ahead of sunset.
Eventually, I arrive in the city of Kurashiki. Without realizing it, my GPS takes me right into the historic canal area on a sightseeing loop. There are no tourists in sight, probably due to the weather, so I have a chance to soak in the atmosphere as I cycle along the streets. There’s a small hitch at the hotel, with the staff refusing to allow the bicycle to be kept on site. This is the first time it’s actually been refused and is a sign of things to come in Honshu’s hotels. Luckily, there’s an indoor bicycle parking area a block away. I’m learning this for the first time in Kurashiki, but dependent on the city/area, there are a lot of safe, secure bicycle parking lots in Japan – some safer than others. This one requires entering a unique pin-code and has 24/7 CCTV, with a cost of 100yen a night.
The historic canal quarter in Kurashiki
The next day, I wander a few streets over into the Bikan Historical Quarter from yesterday. Despite the light drizzle, there are tourists bustling around from shop to shop. I do a few laps of the lovely lanes, popping into the various souvenir shops and coffee houses. A few of the textile shops here are renowned for their denim, and there a few art and folk museums to explore too. Due to the rain, there are no boat tours available along the canal, not that you’d go very far or see much you couldn’t on foot.
Around lunchtime, I visit a relatively empty restaurant in the area that specialises in Okayama Barazushi – the local specialty of fresh seafood on top of sushi rice. The little old lady that runs it is very hospitable and goes out of her way to describe the various types of seafood on the platter. Afterwards, I wander some more before the rain starts to pour, then head back to the hotel. There are some nice restaurants and izakaya in the area, and I have a simple dinner of yakitori in one near to the hotel.
A cycle ride into Himeji city
After only two nights in Kurashiki, I head out eastwards towards Himeji city. The forecast is for rain, but I chance it and only have to endure some light drizzle throughout the day. A quick stopover in Okayama city for some Mamakari Zushi (essentially sardines sushi, another local specialty) and the rest of the day involves a lot of boring roads. Much of urban Japan blends together from one place to the next, as do the service stations, convenience stores and busy roads. Crossing from Okayama prefecture into Hyogo prefecture, I make good headway and after a hundred kilometres, I arrive in Himeji after dark.
Himeji Castle – the White Heron Castle
The next day begins with a sightseeing tour of Japan’s most famous castle, Himeji Castle. Considering most castles in Japan are reconstructions (many of Disneyland’s towers are older), this is one of the few well preserved historic castles in the country. Its white colour and imposing size and beauty make it a national treasure. Its location here in Himeji lies at a strategic vantage point on the road to Kyoto. The approach to the main keep through the many baileys and gates is long and winding, deliberately constructed this way to slow the advance of attacking enemies.
The interior of the keep isn’t well lit and involves climbing up many narrow wooden staircases through unfurnished floors. The darkness along with the well-maintained wooden floors, concealed spaces and portholes add to the sense of history. This keep was very much constructed as difficult to navigate, to confuse enemies and hide defending forces behind special walls and trapdoors. From the topmost floor, there’s a view of the city and hills beyond, as well as a view of the koi-fish roof ornaments.
On the way out, you can enter the west bailey, the former residence of a princess, with information about preservation efforts through the decades. There’s also a ghost story attached to Himeji Castle. It’s said that a woman named Okiku was falsely accused of a crime, executed and her body thrown into a well on the ground. It’s said you can hear her wailing from the well, and that she wanders the castle corridors still. There are preserved moats as well as cherry blossoms and other gardens to enjoy too.
Kobe beef on the road to Osaka
Before leaving Himeji city, I stop to enjoy some Akashiyaki – similar to Takoyaki in that it’s a dumpling made from egg and octopus, with the addition of being dipped into dashi sauce before eating. The plan now is to cycle all the way into central Osaka as a base to explore Kansai for a few days, as well as avoid another storm. The weather really hasn’t been on my side throughout the trip. Once again, the roads are dull and tedious, with a few convenience store stops to break up the monotony.
On the way, I divert to the coast and blue skies break through. I soon ride along up to the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the last bridge off Shikoku for the mainland. A local fisherman stops me to ask where I’m from and what I’m doing with so much luggage on my bicycle. I explain the trip to him and he seems shocked that a westerner would do such a thing. His daughter is married to an American, so he says he has a soft spot for foreigners. I ask him about his catch, and he lets me know that the blue waters around here are ideal for red sea bream. Wishing me luck as I set off, he salutes me as I go.
Reaching Kobe city in the mid-afternoon, I head into a teppanyaki restaurant to try some A5 sirloin wagyu beef. Kobe beef is well known throughout the world, along with other kinds of Japanese marbled beef. It’s very expensive even to try a small amount, but it’s worth it as an experience. This is what you come to this city to try after all. The beef is absolutely delicious and very rich. It helps to reinvigorate me as I ride the final dozen kilometres into Osaka.
Arriving in Osaka
The busy roads and pavements make it a very stressful experience of navigating, but I soon make it to my hotel in the centre of Osaka city. Once again, the hotel refuses to keep the bicycle on the premises. There’s an outside bicycle parking lot nearby, but without the pin-code or sophistication of the one in Kurashiki. After some hesitation, and help from a local, I decide to go for it and hope the bicycle doesn’t get stolen. Japan is a safe country but leaving a bicycle for several days outside in a major city is a worry anywhere in the world. Fingers crossed it survives my stay here and the bad weather intact…