The following day was the first day of our planned cycling tours and a chance to warm up our muscles for the longer stretches. I had found a cycle route online, starting from Soja station to Bizen, 17km one way, through the rural area of the Kibi plain. You can rent bikes at either station and do a one way or return trip using pedal power. They charge 1000Yen for one day’s bike rental if you drop the bike off at the other end of the trail. They also have an hourly rate if you return it to the same rent-a-cycle: 400 yen for two hours and 200 yen for every hour after that. The cycle rental shops are open from 9-6pm every day. It takes between 2 to 4 hours to complete the whole route depending on your pace. If you have small children I would recommend only doing part of the course or to use a child seat. Our car with our own bikes in the boot made it much easier to get to the starting point of the tour and avoided the hire costs. Normally we would have started at Soja station but as parking in towns is always difficult and expensive in Japan, we drove to the first site outside at Bitchu Kokubun-ji temple where we parked in a side street.
We take our bikes which can be an effort but gives us lots of flexibility where to ride.
Bitchu Kokubun-ji is situated beside the cycling path and is one of the historical sights on route. It has a five story wooden pagoda, which is a designated important Cultural Property of Japan and has become a symbol of the Kibi plain. Surrounded by fields of sunflowers and cosmos makes the perfect backdrop.
Thankfully the route is well signposted throughout.
I am glad I do not have to be a Japanese farmer individually wrapping my melons.
First we passed some fruit and vegetable fields, cycling up a gentle hill and down on the other side past houses and an old people’s home towards the lush green rice fields.
When we got to the rice fields we could see that there were thousands of dragon flies buzzing overhead. Jerome spotted a white crane, one of many we would see along the route.
There were farmers with their round, straw hats in the fields, still working with their hands.
The path wound for several kilometres through rice fields, along a river, the train line and residential houses but we only passed few people on the way. They probably thought we were crazy to cycle in the summer heat, but with plenty to drink in our packs and basket we enjoyed the sunshine.
Our next stop was at the Kibitsu shrine. One can spot the golden wooden beams of the main building from further ahead. Once we had locked our bikes, (a simple single lock will do as theft in Japan is still the lowest world wide) we climbed the shaded stone steps, lined by lanterns that led us up to the entrance gate.
The main feature of the Kibitsu shrine is a long wooden corridor. The lamps on the posts along the corridor were painted by local school children and one could see drawings of fireworks, flowers and many famous cartoon characters. We thought it was a great idea to get the children involved and Jerome was thinking about what he would have drawn on his lantern.
Back in the main courtyard we tried our luck at the oracle . We randomly got a number from a wooden shaker and then picked our fortune paper, Omikuji, from the numbered drawers. There even were English ones, which made it so much easier for us. We were all blessed with good fortune and tied the paper to one of the strings to make them come true. I cannot tell you what we selected as that is probably bad luck!
We pedalled on and quickly got to the Kibitsuhiko shrine. This shrine is associated with the story of Momotaro, the peach boy we had encountered the previous day, and dates back to 1425. Legend has it that this is where Prince Kibitsuhiko is said to have prayed before defeating the ogre. Just outside the temple we found a small Sanuki udon shop for lunch. We ordered three portions of homemade cold udon. They were delicious and afterwards we had iced coffee and soft ice cream. Outside the restaurant we could see lots of people put up stalls for the temple festival that evening.
The rest of the Kibiji plain cycle path was through more rice fields and small farms until it reached the outskirts of Okayama. In the summer heat and with no more obvious sights we decided to save our legs and we turned around as we reached the town for the ride back.
It was a very interesting bike ride, especially if you’re interested in temples and shrines, like to be off-the beaten-tourist-track and to enjoy the local countryside.
When we got back into the car at the other end, our legs tired from cycling 30km we made the decision rather than driving straight back to Bingoya to head to the temple festival at Kibuhitso.
If you have never been to a Japanese festival, you should try to attend one. The more rural the better as there won’t be many tourists around and it feel more authentic. The street in front of Kibuhitso was lined with food stall, there were so many good smelling temptations, like octopus balls, yaki soba and kakigori… to be found that we had to decide carefully which ones to go for as there is only so much space in our tummies.
The games on offer are a lot of fun, children should try to fish for rubber balls with a paper net for a small prize. There were so many children and teenagers all dressed up in colourful yukatas, with obis and pretty hairstyles to match their outfits. Some of the men also wore yukatas but they were much more plain than the female counterparts. Experiencing a Japanese summer festival is a once in a lifetime event and shouldn’t be missed.