Adventure & Experience

Enjoy Rural Landscapes and Japanese Heritage on the Kibiji Cycling Route

Enjoy Rural Landscapes and Japanese Heritage on the Kibiji Cycling Route

The Kibiji cycling path is one of Japan’s top 100 cycling routes. It goes through a historical area of Okayama Prefecture called the Kibi District. Okayama, nicknamed the “Land of Sunshine” for its minimal rain and mild climate, is located on the western side of Japan’s main island. Close to the Seto Inland Sea to the south, you will find the rural flatland that is the Kibi Plain, which connects the cities of Soja and Okayama.

In the 4th century, the Kibi Kingdom, ruled by an ancient clan, centered around the Kibi Plain. At that time, the clan controlled much of Okayama. Though there is no ruling clan in this day and age, there are still historic sites scattered around Soja and Okayama related to them. The Kibi area is also home to many shrines and temples with interesting backgrounds in folklore, and a historic shopping street that used to be home for many wealthy merchants.

Through this self-guided cycling tour, I was very much looking forward to seeing the Kibi Plain and all the shrines and temples in this area.

Araki Rent-a-Cycle: Choosing a Bicycle for the Day

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My day officially started at Soja Station where I walked over to Araki Rent-a-Cycle to choose my bicycle for the Kibiji Cycling Route. The full cycling course is around 25 km, a bit long for beginners, but it is mostly a flat ride through gorgeous rice fields, river paths, and quiet roads in historical areas. The course runs between Okayama City and Soja City, though it can begin from either direction.

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Araki Rent-a-Cycle had options for regular bicycles, sports bicycles, or electric-assist bicycles, all in a plethora of colors. There are children’s bikes as well and child seats are also available as an add-on for adult-size bicycles.

A convenient option that Araki and other rent-a-cycle shops in the area have is to pick up and drop off the bicycles at different locations, for just an extra 500 JPY. Should you choose to start at a different location than Soja, some other rental shops are Takaya Rent-a-Cycle (near Kokubunji) and Uedo Rental Cycle (next to Bizen-Ichinomiya Station). I went with an electric-assist bicycle for comfort.

Tsunagru Cafe Sen: a Cafe Nurturing Connections In a 180 Year-Old Former House

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After cycling for a few minutes, I found myself in front of the Former Hori Wahei House on Soja Shopping Street, which was once a prosperous area where many wealthy merchants lined the streets. Some of their houses are now vacant, and the area has lost a lot of its former vitality. The 180-year-old building pictured above, which was the birthplace of Hori Wahei (1841-1892, a pioneer in the Western-style painting world in Okayama Prefecture), was donated to Soja City in 2002 and has been well taken care of since.

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The first thing I noticed from outside the building was the beautiful architecture with wooden beams and a tiled roof. I have a personal interest in old merchant homes and it’s interesting to see how they differ in each region. The most noticeable differences are usually in the windows and roof tiles.

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There is also a small vegetable stand right outside, selling freshly harvested local produce for a mere 100 JPY per bunch. The payment is through the honor system, and there was a small box on the shelf for customers to put in the money for the vegetables they chose.

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At Former Hori Wahei Residence, they also have an initiative called “Tsunagaru Cafe Sen” which aims to guide future cafe owners by letting them take over this building for their cafe so that they can challenge themselves and gain experience with customer service that will come in handy when they eventually open their own. While I was there, the cafe they were featuring was “orandana plus.” The set I ordered was beautifully arranged. Bringing the colors of local vegetables to the table, it was a mix of selected ingredients that were a treat for both the eye and palate.

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With tatami mats and a courtyard that were perfect to sit and take in the retro atmosphere, I could take my time and slowly appreciate the house’s perfectly preserved interiors. Passed down through the centuries almost untouched, they emitted an aura of sober beauty that put my soul at ease!

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Near the entrance, they also have a small library and an area where they sell a selection of local goods. I was intrigued by the “hakka” Japanese peppermint products on display as they are made with hakka grown in Former Hori Wahei House’s backyard. So, I ended up purchasing some hakka tea!

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After passing through Soja Shopping Street, I was met with one of my favorite sights: rice fields! It’s so freeing to cycle through the rice fields here in Japan. Some of this rice was already being harvested, as harvesting season is typically in September and October, and I was there at the end of October. When the rice is ready to be harvested, it turns a mild yellow and is very fluffy. Seeing a local resident in the distance walking her dog through the fields brought a smile to my face.

Bitchu Kokubunji Temple: A Rare Five-Storied Pagoda Surrounded by Seasonal Flowers

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When I made it through the thick of the fields, I began to see Bitchu Kokubunji’s pagoda in the distance. This is the only five-story pagoda in all of Okayama Prefecture and it is an important cultural property of Japan. The main temple standing today was built in the early 1700s and the pagoda was a later addition, and was completed around 1844.

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I was lucky to see colorful, cosmos flowers all around the temple grounds. It was the perfect photo opportunity. Luckily, Bitchu Kokubunji has many seasonal flowers throughout the year. If you visit in autumn like me, you will probably see the cosmos as well. You can also see lotus flowers and sunflowers at other times of the year.

Tsukuriyama Kofun Burial Mound: Mysterious Keyhole-Shaped Tombs

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Another very important part of the cultural identity of the Kibi area are the “kofun” - ancient burial mounds. These mounds come in many shapes, but they are most commonly key-hole shaped. They were created for members of the ancient ruling class of Japan.

Tsukuriyama Kofun is the fourth largest kofun in Japan. It is said that those entombed here were influential people from Kibi. Because it is not an imperial mausoleum, you’re actually allowed to walk around this one. From ground level, they look like a typical park. With an aerial view, though, the keyhole shape becomes very clear and it also is more apparent how enormous these mounds really are.

Kibitsujinja Shrine: Venerating the Prince Who Saved His People from a Terrible Demon

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I rode along a river path for a bit and could soon make out Japan’s heritage site, Kibitsujinja Shrine in the distance. This shrine is another designated national treasure and is famous for its 398-meter-long passageway. Walking through this beautiful wooden corridor felt like a pilgrimage in itself. Though the date of origin is unknown, the shrine was rebuilt in 1425. The main hall is the only remaining example of a unique architectural style called “Kibitsu-Zukuri,” represented in the double gabled roof.

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Kibitsujinja Shrine is dedicated to Kibitsuhiko, a prince in local folklore who saved his kingdom from a terrible “oni,” ogre or demon, named Ura. In the story, Ura builds a castle by the river and begins to attack passing ships and eventually starts taking women and children from the village and locks them in his castle. The villagers beg the imperial court for help and Prince Kibitsuhiko steps forward to help his people. After a fierce battle fought with bows and arrows, and an epic chase where both Ura and the prince turn into birds and fish, Ura is finally caught and defeated. Peace resumed in the kingdom and Kibitsuhiko is said to have lived a long life of 281 years before being enshrined here at Kibitsujinja Shrine.

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Momotaro, a popular Japanese fairytale about a boy who came from the heavens and was born from a peach, is said to have been inspired by Prince Kibitsuhiko’s story. For this reason, Okayama Prefecture is said to be the birthplace of the Momotaro folktale. In his story, Momotaro also fights demons similar to Ura and saves his people.

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Around Kibitsujinja Shrine, there are Kibitsuhiko and Momotaro motifs all over. The first I spotted was the artwork around the “omikuji” fortune station. There was even a section for children’s omikuji, which use simpler language and are easier for children to understand what’s written inside. I realized this when I mistakenly took one! It was indeed easier to understand.

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My fortune read “small luck,” so I decided to tie it up and leave it at the shrine. When drawing fortunes at shrines, people tend to tie up the bad ones. Personally, I will only keep it if it’s “daikichi” - great luck!

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In the shrine’s shop, they sell “ema” which are wooden plaques that people can write their wishes and prayers on. They also have “omamori” protection charms for various causes like health, safe travels, academic success, and love. I was fascinated by the “oni” demon masks displayed around the shop. Displaying this type of mask is said to ward off evil spirits.

JR Bizen Ichinomiya Station: The Cycle Comes to an End!

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Unfortunately I did not have time to complete all 25 km and I returned my bicycle to Uedo Rent-a-Cycle at JR Bizen Ichinomiya Station. To do the complete course, I recommend setting aside 4-5 hours so that you’ll have time to enjoy the sights and grab something to eat, all without having to rush.

This is the perfect day activity for those who are interested in folklore, rural landscapes, historical architecture, and local food. The wonderful thing about this self-guided cycling tour is that you can spend as much time as you like at any given sight, and only stop at the places you’re interested in. I had a wonderful time breathing the fresh, open air, while learning about the Kibi Plain’s history. I will surely be back again someday!

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RELATED DESTINATION

Okayama

The Okayama area has flourished as an area alive with various culture including swords, Bizen ware and other handicrafts. Because of its warm climate, fruits such as peaches and muscat grapes are actively grown there. It is also dotted with places where you can see the islands of the Seto Inland Sea.