Cycling in Kyoto – Genius or Madness?

Cycling in Kyoto – Genius or Madness?

Since there is not so much around on the internet on cycling in Kyoto, with the city being very popular destination right now, let’s talk about cycling in Kyoto! I recently visited Kyoto, and having read about the popularity of the city and the subsequent crowds, blocking public buses to a point that locals couldn’t get to work or appointments, I figured there must be a better way to visit less obtrusively.

Also, my mobility has been decreasing over the past couple years, and I was really worried that my sightseeing would be restricted by my limited ability to walk far. When I talked with my work colleague about this, he said “well, our hotel provided bicycles, wouldn’t that suit you, too?” I had a lightbulb moment. Why wouldn’t I try cycling in Kyoto?

The idea isn’t new, but I had to figure out a few things first

Firstly, searches bicycle hire shops online. Thankfully, there are quite a few in Kyoto. Next question – would they understand me, and how easy would it be to make a reservation? One or two responded to email requests, and within a couple of days I had successfully made my reservation for cycling in Kyoto. I then confirmed with my accommodation that I could park my bicycle there overnight.

I also hired a bicycle in my previous destination, Sasayama, which is ideal for cycling with its quiet street, flat paths and some cycle-only roads. This way I could road test the left-hand traffic and test my strength – I was really not very fit, would cycling knacker me out completely? On that day in Sasayama, I cycled 15km on a clunky single speed in one evening because I wanted to go to the bookshop in a nearby mall. I figured out cyclists, like drivers, are super considerate. So, all that was left was to figure out the bicycle rules in Kyoto, a much larger place, as well as the parking rules.

Kyoto Traffic Situation

Having been Japan’s capital for over a millennium, right until Meiji restoration in 1868, Kyoto is no small town, although some photos often suggest so. It is a big sprawling city and metropolitan area of 3 million people surrounded by mountains except to the south where it opens into Osaka bay. It is served by numerous rail companies ( Japan Rail plus 5 private ones) plus railway two underground lines.

One of Western Kyoto’s pleasant tertiary roads

Is Kyoto easy to navigate on public transport? Well, if you are a tourist, most of the places you’d want to visit are not so easy to access by rail or underground, so you have to rely on Kyotos’s bus network. Which, to be honest, isn’t bad. Only buses get full, very full.

Arrive at the main railway station and any bus going to a site of touristic interest will invariably full to the point of being crammed, so that you won’t be able to get on. I was told that citizens of Kyoto have difficulty reaching appointment because of the buses just being overly full, all the time.

Yasui Kompira-gu, a very cycle-friendly shrine

When I recently arrived in Kyoto, there were people with placards indicating where to queue and checking that you luggage is not too large for the bus ( small carry on just about ok).

The buses do go to most famous sights, but often a longer walk will be involved, making “hopping” all over Kyoto to see the most famous sights a time-consuming affair.

So, cycling in Kyoto all the way?

Cycling Roads and Paths in Kyoto

Very few streets have dedicated cycling lanes, but when they do, cycling there is a breeze. A bit like London cycleways, these are cycling paths away from the main road where you can cycle fast and without stopping much.

In Kyoto, Oike-dori has such a cycleway as part of the super wide pedestrian way, marked clearly, usually there are still pedestrians on it, but everyone just cycles around them. BUt most main roads have a strip of road or pavement clearly marked for cyclists.

There is a really nice map you can download for free, which shows you the no-go roads and bicycle parking areas.

A few Kyoto cycling rules

In general I would say it is relatively easy to cycle in Kyoto. The Downtown area is flat, with some dedicated bike lanes, nobody jumps red lights, everyone is very considerate.

Where to ride

Generally, you are advised to ride on the road rather than the pavement unless there is dedicated cycling lane on the pavement or the road is too dangerous to ride.

You can cycle almost anywhere – with clear rules

There are dedicated cycling lanes on the pavement on Oike-dori, Gojo-dori and other major routes, and at least cycling lanes marked on the road that motorists tend to respect but sometimes come quite close.

Some roads, especially downtown, are off limits for cyclists between 08.00 and 24.00. This is a large section of Shijo-dori Street into Downtown and Gion and the covered area of Teramachi-dori and Nishiki food market, and Kawaramachi-dori. Basically where the highest concentration of shops is. Some shopping arcades are also off limits to cycling. It’s fine to push the bike in these areas, though.

Usually, there are signs on the pavement indication that cycling is not allowed here. Thankfully, there are plenty of bicycle parking places in that area, often free if you stay less than three hours.

Kiyomizu area – a delight to cycle in the morning, in the daytime this would be busy

Next topic, one-way roads. That was the biggest issue to get my head around. A lot of Kyoto’s secondary and tertiary grid-like road in the centre are one-way streets. As a general rule, in Kyoto you can ride your bicycle into any one-way street in the “wrong direction”. Given they are quite narrow, it’s sometimes fund navigation the oncoming traffic, and figuring out who has right of way at crossroads, what with the left hand traffic etc. It definitely pays to slow down and make sure the bicycle has good brakes.

Bicycle parking in Kyoto

Now, to the second hot topic of cycling in Kyoto, which is bicycle parking!

That was the biggest change for me. Because here in Berlin, everyone plonks their bike wherever it’s convenient. Also, bikes get stolen a lot. Not in Kyoto. You park in designated bicycle parking areas only. Break the rule, and you bike may get removed and you can get it back for 2500 JPY fee, I think. Not worth the hassle. And generally, very few bicycles get stolen.

My bicycle at Tatsumi-jinja Shrine in the early morning – parking for a short visit was okay

I would say that 90% of tourist attractions have designated bicycle parking. Usually parking staff will direct you to them and advise whether they are free or ask for a parking fee, it’s very straightforward. Bike theft is not really an issue as long as you lock the bike.

Supermarkets, convenience stores, shops, restaurants etc. often have bicycle parking areas where you can park the bike for the duration of shopping. If in doubt, ask when you enter the shop or restaurant and show where you parked the bike, and they can tell you whether its okay, especially when parking on private land.

In three days of extensive cycling in Kyoto, I had two occasions where I could not park that easily: at Nishi Hongan-ji, no bicycle parking far and wide to see although they have one, on the Southern side, and when I really wanted to go to a small cafe in a tiny street with signs that forbade parking outside, so I sneakily parked it for half an hour by an apartment block but felt very nervous about it).

Higashiyama: Small roads, considerate drivers

When I planned my sightseeing and shopping while cycling in Kyoto every day, I would just search for “bicycle parking” in Google Maps then mark the bicycle parking. Pretty much every mall has bicycle parking but it is often hidden round the back. Malls that visitors may be interested in and that definitely have easily accessible bicycle parking are Mina (Uniqlo, Loft), ShinPuhKan, Keizai Centre (Cocoon MAll, Ogaki Book Store) . For the huge shopping madness around Kawaramachi Station, there are three bicycle parks just south, which always had plenty free places every time I went there (lots of shopping at Nomura Tailor) . The only area that doesn’t have lots of official bicycle parks is Gion, so it is best to leave bicycles in the parking lots at Keihan Shijo or Keihan Sanjo parking lots or outside Yasaka Shrine.

Hiring a bicycle in Kyoto

Thankfully, there are plenty of places to hire decent bicycles. There are bicycle share schemes, too, but, like in Europe, these bicycles are sturdy and not made for fast or nippy cycling, so I did not try them, and will not touch them in this post.

What kind of bicycle can you hire?

Kyoto rental shops have various types of bicycles. The “standard” is a ladies frame, single speed, with a front basket, usually. Doable, but going up a couple hills for Highashiyama sights or Kinkaku-ji, will make you wish for some gears.

I rented a three-speed ladies bicycle which was fine for gentle riding all over Kyoto. Five-speed is also available. Then you often get some kind of sports bike (hybrid type bike, 20+ gears, no rack), bicycles with children’s seats and folding bikes. And electric-assist (you still have to pedal) and fully electric bikes (you don’t have to pedal) bicycles which are often step-through sturdy ladies frames.

A rough idea of Higashiyama’s inclines – don’t need a mountain bike

Most rental shops have electric-assist bicycles, too – meaning some pedalling is still required. I can imagine that this will come in really useful if you are going to tackle some hills – for example, there are some gentle hills to get to Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji, or to Higashiyama. This will allow you to cycle for even longer and get a little assistance if and when you need it. I am planning to try an electric-assist bicycle for the first time next time I visit – here at home, it’s pancake flat, and I have resisted the electric assist bicycle idea so far.

Where to hire bicycles

When I planned to visit Kyoto, I first checked with my accommodation that they are able to accommodate a bicycle due to the bicycle parking restrictions.

Then I did a quick Google search for bicycle rental shops with good reviews, and contacted a couple. The first one that responded happened to have a very good rate of 1000JPY per day hire, and some nice bicycles, so I picked them – reservation was super easy per Email I confirmed what I wanted and the approximate time of pick up. This happened to be J-Cycle. I can recommend without hesitation. Another one that get good reviews is Bicycle rental Raku-Chari, very close to Higashiyama underground station. I did, however, have big problems with their online form to the point where I gave up.

I took a bus to J-Cycle at the appointed time. It would also be doable by walking from JR Kyoto at a push. I filled in a form, purchased extra insurance for 200 JPY a day, was given some instruction and I was off. The staff spoke really good English there. I had no issues in the three days of hire, so I just returned the bike before close of business, waved them goodbye, a total no-hassle rental. I will use them again if I am unable to rent a bicycle form my accommodation.

Because here is the thing: many hotels and guesthouses rent out bicycles to their guests – even more convenient!

Where to Stay when Cycling in Kyoto

It makes sense to rent a bicycle for multiple days and go on early morning rides, when there is little to no traffic, and some attractions (Gion, Yasaka Shrine, Sannen-zaka) are delightfully empty. To do so, you will need to make sure that your accommodation can accommodate bicycles overnight.

Where I stayed, at Kiraku Inn, they confirmed I can keep one bicycle overnight, adn were extremely accommodating fiddling my bicycle into a tiny broom cupboard over night.

Kiraku Inn in Gion: Small, friendly accommodated my hire bicycle, too

Space is at a premium in Kyoto so any places a but less central are likely to have more space, and some might even hire bicycles to guests.

Hotels and Inns that have bicycles for hire

I have done a bit of research, and looked for hotels that will rent you a bicycle. I use Booking.com pretty much all my hotel bookings, unless I book directly with the hotel, and they have a Search Filter where you can search for hotels that hire bicycles under “Leisure”. I have not yet stayed in any of the hotels mentioned below, but I liked one of them so much, I booked it for my next trip.

Iru Inn

This is a small inn in a very convenient yet quiet location close to Kyoto University, Heian-jingu and the Higashiyama temples. Rooms are Japanese style, traditional, with shared bathrooms. From 40 Euro per person, Iru Inn offers true style on a budget. A popular bus route is 100m away.

Guesthouse Umeya

Another beautiful old Japanese house, Guesthouse Umeya has traditional tatami rooms in a quiet location near Tenmangu Shrine and the Nishijin Textile District, you get some very nicely decorated large traditional rooms and you’re far away from the tourist hotspots, which are quite easily accessible by bus, which stops about 200m away.

Hotel Resol Kyoto Kawaramachi

For those who prefer to be in the thick of things: Of all the Hotel Resol locations in Kyoto, Resol Kawaramachi one is right opposite Mina Shopping Mall in a downtown area full of hotel and shops. It is a rather small hotel in Japanese style but with Western beds – and bicycle hire! Note that you will be pushing your bicycle a few hundred metres as cycling is not allowed in Kawaramachi Street in the daytime. Expect to pay 60-120 Euro per person per night depending on room type.

Hotels and Inns with bicycle parking

Generally, a hotel with a car park should be able to accommodate bicycles, but it’s better to confirm when booking. Here are some nice hotels in cycling-friendly locations – I tend to prefer Japanese style small inns over large / luxury hotels, so my selection is a bit biased.

Hotel MASTAY jingumichi

It wasn’t that easy to find a nice Higashiyama hotel that also offers parking, but the Hotel MASTAY, although on a relatively busy road, offers large modern apartments with hot tubs and kitchenettes starting at 120 Euro. The inclines are gentle, and many of the Higashiyama temples are a walk or a short cycle ride away. There’s various parks and a cluster of museums 200m away, which makes this hotel the perfect central yet peaceful stay in Kyoto.

Dozen Ryokan

Dozen Ryokan, in an old traditional house is a short walk from Kyoto Station yet in a quiet residential area between Higashi Hongan-ji and Shoseien Garden. You can choose from dormitories at just 20 Euros to tatami rooms, which don;t break the bank at 75 Euro for up to three people.

Hotel Ninja Black

A super well priced modern hotel with parking in a residential area near the IMperial Palace, Hotel Ninja Black offers incredible value for money and some nice quiet roads to cycle. All the Northern Kyoto sights are accessible on quieter roads from here, but a main route with frequent bus service is 150m away.

Some good cycling routes and maps

The most well-known Kyoto cycling route for tourists is probably the one along the Kamo River. There is a path shared with pedestrians running all the way along the river from Southern Kyoto (Fushimi INari) to Kamo Shrine, passing by Sanjusangen-do, Gion, Ponto-cho, Imperial PAlace and Shimogamo Shrine and Botanical Garden.

Quiet Higashiyama roads

A bicycle-only road is the Keinawa Cycle Road, leading all the way to Wakayama, but you can cycle the Kyoto bit from Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashiyama along Katsura River to the Imperial Katsura Villa, takin gin Saiho-ji (UNESCO World HEritage “Moss Temple”) and more bamboo forests than you can shake a selfie stick at on the way.

Obviously, if you want navigation, apps like Bikemap.net or Strava are good, but routing might be on roads.

Cycle right in: Cycling is allowed in many of the larger temples, like Myoshin-ji

Last not least, plenty of commercial operators run organised cycling tours. Cycle Kyoto runs half-day and full-day tours from Kyoto Station for 15-17000 JPY, taking in some of the Kyoto highlights, which seems good value as bicycle and helmet hire, entrance fees and lunch are included. Kyoto Cycling Tour Project has similar offerings, and Noru is enticing with “secret” bike tours. These are just a few, there are definitely more, and I have not done any tour, so I couldn’t possibly comment. My geographical orientation is pretty good, I have been to Kyoto before, and I am happy in my own company, so I did not feel the need to go on a group tour that offers standard access to the sights visited.

What to bring with you when cycling in Kyoto

Rule Number One would be, always carry your passport with you. It is a legal requirement in JApan to carry an official ID at all times.

A lot of the more “slow” bicycles have front baskets, and all have locks. So, just bring the bag you would normally carry, or a courier bag/backpack if you don’t have a rack. My Japanese bicycle was fairly well balanced despite being a bit top-heavy from the laode rack (shopping) so sometimes I preferred to have my backpack on my back when riding.

While bicycle helmets are only mandatory for children, I advise wearing one. You will definitely in the minority, but time in Neurosurgery has taught me that accidents without helmets rarely end well. You can rent them – or bring your own.

I also would advise on sun protection, whether that be long sleeves, sunscreen, a cap. Kyoto has a humid subtropical climate (Cfa) a bit like Southeastern USA, parts of Italy, Balkans, parts of China, Eastern Australia. It gets hot and humid from May to September, with long sun-filled days and more frequent rain between June and August.

Given the climate, you are likely to sweat a lot. I carried a 0.6l water bottle, which often wasn’t enough water. Thankfully, there are vending machines about everywhere, and the cold green tea is very nice in hot weather. Since nobody really steals, a bigger water bottle is definitely advisable which you can just leave with the bicycle. I even left my mobile phone by accident on the basket, and half an hour later, when I noticed, it was still there.

I cycled in my normal clothes, dressed for temple visits, so long wide trousers and long loose shirts. Including sandals that slipped off easily, not perfect cycling gear but doable. Tucked my trousers in, or a trouser clip comes in useful.

Also, take some coins. Many bike parking places are free for a set period of time, most I used wanted coins for payment.

What I really missed was a mobile phone holder. I had Google Maps downloaded and saved for offline use, which was sufficient for me. I did do a rough route before setting off, but did not buy a SIM, so didn’t really navigate but the GPS was very helpful.

Reward after a hot cycling and sightseeing morning

I also had a saddle cover which made riding in normal clothes a lot more comfortable.

Then, in the evening, you can soak in a hot bath -there are so many public baths all over Kyoto (and bigger hotels often have a sento or onsen) , definitely make use to soak your tired muscles.

The Small Print

I visited Kyoto in May 2024 and hired a bicycle from J-Cycle, all at my own cost. I was not asked to write this review – this was rather my own idea as cycling, for me, was the best way to get around Kyoto. This post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com.

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4 thoughts on “Cycling in Kyoto – Genius or Madness?”

  • these streets look BEAUTIFUL, i’m so in love with your photos!

    • Thank you! I don’t really like my photos, always think there is room for lots of improvement, so this compliment goes down well, thank you so much!

  • Wow, who would’ve known Kyoto was so bikeable. It’s been on my list for a while and I’m happy to hear I can also enjoy it via bike and get exercise when I finally get the chance to visit! Great article.

    • Hi Maddie, Kyoto is indeed a great city for cycling. Just going into the “wrong” end of one of the many one-ways and figuring out who has right of way freaked me a bit at first, but on the whole I found it really safe and easy.

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