Japan 2023: Day 9
Biking in the winter at Lake Biwa, stumbling upon the "theme park of sweets", and delicious teppanyaki.
I woke up before 6 a.m. after a good long sleep (over 5 hours!). I stayed in bed for awhile, planning out a few more days of activities in Kyoto and Kinosaki Onsen. Then I got ready to head out for today's adventure, which involved bicycling around Biwako or Lake Biwa. Unfortunately, I realized that even though I remembered to bring this niche phone holder for the bike, I forgot to bring gloves. I stashed some small towels in my bag to use as makeshift gloves; in retrospect, socks would've worked better like mittens, but I made do...
- Steps taken: 10,003
- Miles biked: 26.14
- Money spent: 17,188円 | $132.35 USD
Table of Contents
- My first konbini meal experience
- Finally learning how train platform numbers work
- On the way to Lake Biwa
- Renting my first Japanese sport bike
- On the way back to Kyoto
- At least I had a great dinner
My first konbini meal experience
At around 8 a.m., I grabbed a quick breakfast at the Family Mart closest to my hostel for 308 yen, which included a mackerel musubi and a can of Boss cafe au lait. Usually when I go to this Family Mart, it's late at night, and the eating area is closed off, so I have to take my food to go. However, this morning it was open! I learned that konbini eating areas are a good spot to throw away combustible trash, along with PET bottles and cans.
Finally learning how train platform numbers work
I made my way from my home station to Kyoto Station, where I would figure out where to transfer to get to the Lake Biwa area and this specific bike rental store called Giant Store (not to be confused with the U.S. grocery chain).
At Kyoto Station, I made several mistakes waiting at the wrong platform for a specific train. I was used to Washington, DC where multiple train lines can land on the same platform but usually go in the same direction for at least some of the time. It seemed like a lot of trains on the JR lines went in vastly different directions (??). I also was just not used to dealing with multiple platforms of the same color (and letter) -- JR lines I think are all blue, and multiple lines have the same letter (A, B, etc.). I think this confusion cost me at least a half hour of missing trains and changing route plans. But hey, now I know how it all works!
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On the way to Lake Biwa
I got a JR train to Katata Station. As we passed Ogoto Onsen, suddenly the scenery was filled with snow-covered ground. I was having second thoughts now whether I should change my bike plans...
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Not all buses have numbers, romanji, or "next stop" screens
When I got to Katata train station, I misread the sign for one of the first buses I saw since I had to fully rely on kanji. I thought it was the one I should get, but nope! It took me a bit to realize while on the bus because, unlike in the cities, there wasn't a "next stop" screen giving me live updates, or romanji (Japanese pronunciation of names in Roman alphabet) available in Google Maps; I had to rely on recognizing the kanji reading via the bus driver's announcements. That cost me an extra 240 yen and 30 minutes back tracking. I suspect the lack of screens and numbers is more common in rural areas like Lake Biwa / this part of Shiga prefecture; though that's not a universal comment since other rural areas I've been to have had bus numbers and/or screens.
On the right bus, the last stop that would take me closest to Giant Store still made me walk 20 minutes to it. I wanted to save energy for my bike ride -- I was going to stick with the plan! -- and I noticed Google Maps updated to tell me that another bus would get me a bit closer so I'd only have to walk 6 minutes. I took up that plan, but was frustrated that this bus was 3 minutes late! -- perhaps the largest tardiness I've experienced so far in Japan. I did wonder as well whether the 14 minutes less of walking (but 3 more minutes of standing) was worth 240 yen, but whatever.
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Renting my first Japanese sport bike
I finally made it to Giant Store at 10:14 a.m. Since I knew I didn't have bicycle vocabulary down in Japanese, I asked (in Japanese) if the clerk could speak English. He hesitantly said sukoshi ("a little") and I said I also speak Japanese sukoshi, so together we'd figure it out! It was also good I was upfront about knowing English more so he could give me the English Terms of Service and liability form to fill out -- no, I don't know Japanese legal terms very well either, yet!
Paperwork aside, the clerk got out a bike for me and showed me how to use it. He explained that it's a "Japanese style" gear bike that has brake and gear controls for both the front and back wheels -- the left is for the back, and the right is for the front (or vice versa, I forget). He suggested I just stick with using the right gear to shift gears and the left brake to brake.
For a rental, the bike was really good quality, in my opinion. Renting it for the whole day until effectively sunset (5:30 p.m. or so), which included a helmet, repair kit, and lock, cost me 5,250 yen or $38.47 USD.
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Off I go!
I decided to do their suggested beginner course of an estimated 37 km or 22 miles that would take me on the north side of the lake to a town called Omihachiman, with stops at a shrine and temple along the way.
It was about 10:30 a.m. when I began pedaling. Immediately I was colder than when I was walking! It was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit. The combination of my own increased speed on the bike with the winds from the lake that were unblocked because I was crossing bridges without trees, etc., took a hit on my face and hands with their makeshift gloves. I stopped to put on my Airism mask and put up my jacket hoodie, and tried to better wrap my hands in the towels. It was not ideal, but I made it work.
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Landmarks on the way
I skipped the bicycle park statue, completely missed the hidden turn for Fujigasaki Ryujin shrine, and missed the turn for Chomeji Port -- but at least for the latter, not long after I realized my mistake. I backtracked to Chomeji Port to look around. I was at the base of the hike to the temple, which would involve going up 808 steep steps. Google estimated it would take 26 minutes to go up them, so that would be about an hour detour of going up, looking around, and coming back down. I didn't think I would have the energy for that with my bike ride, waking up so early, and knowing my body was used to sleeping at 3 p.m.... So, sadly, I just took a picture of the steps and continued on with my journey.
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La Collina "Theme park of sweets"
At around noon, I had biked about 12 miles and finally reached the landmark in Omihachiman called La Collina. When I arrived, I was stunned -- I thought I was just going to some restaurant that Giant Store sponsored, but instead it was a giant (no pun intended) complex of (mostly) sweets shops. Clearly I didn't read the itinerary closely enough! I learned the layout was done by an architect named Terunobu Fujimori whose work generally evokes Ghibli vibes -- though I forget if there's also an official connection. Apparently this place is popular among Japanese tourists, and I definitely saw a decent crowd, along with a lot of car traffic in an otherwise very remote area.
The complex is more or less a giant circle or oval of pathways and buildings surrounding a natural landscape in the middle. I turned right from the entrance and wandered around for a few minutes, trying to find something savory for lunch.
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The search for lunch x2
I gave up and settled for a cafe that served "mini set"s of a drink and circular cake for a little over a 1,000 yen. When I went to order, I got an ice cream with a ginger (?) cookie and also wanted a mini set with two drinks -- an assam black tea and apple juice -- but I didn't realize the cashier thought I wanted two sets for the two drinks! I ended up paying 2,960 yen or $21.69. When I realized what happened, I resigned and figured my body would welcome the extra calories anyway.
After I finished eating all the delicious foods and drinks, I called my partner and wandered around the complex a little longer. There were little buildings with doors small enough that only little people could enter them -- children were having a blast. There was a big shed-like building that had a retro American garage feel to it, and on the wall were tons of U.S. and Canadian license plates. It was a bit bizarre to me, seeing this display of what the Japanese thought was Americana -- and they weren't far off! I think it was a bit too Japanese-cute in some areas, though, but I'm not complaining.
As I was heading back to the entrance, I found what was apparently the hot and savory foods section. Ugh. I mean, they weren't any healthier than the sweets -- fried breads stuffed with meat or cheese or both, more or less -- but they were things I would've preferred for lunch over (yummy) cake and ice cream.
I was about to skip everything when I smelled garlic... There was a small shop selling long and narrow sticks of garlic toast and pizza toast. There was a line as well, but I overheard the cashier saying the food would be ready in about 10 minutes. I couldn't resist... It was 1:30 by the time I placed my order, and about 1:45 when I received my garlic toast. It was so yummy and oily. I finished eating and went back to my bike. It was about 2 p.m. when I hit the road again. Was that 30 minute detour for more carbs / garlic toast worth it? Hmm, maybe not, but I enjoyed it...
I was a bit worried about my wifi battery since I forgot to bring the charging cable for it and was using a lot of data for the GPS, but I knew the way back, so I was able to keep my usage low.
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Back to Giant Store
There is some psychology into feeling (and maybe directly experiencing?) the way back being so much shorter. With myself taking my time, especially when my butt was hurting from the bike seat (!), I managed to get back to the vicinity of the Giant Store at 3:30 p.m.
Along the way back, I remembered to stop by the Fujigasaki Ryujin shrine. That was super cool. I had the place all to myself. It was a shrine right by the beach with raked sand and trees that at least reminded me of bonsai (if they were not actually bonsai). I just felt like I was in the world of Ghost of Tsushima, completing some shrine puzzle at one of the beaches.
I also stopped by the bicyclist statue that was very close to the Giant Store. There I awfully mirrored the statue's pose and took a few other pictures. That detour got me to return the bike at around 3:50 p.m.
Along the way to and from, I had the sense that this part of Lake Biwa was frequented by folks who like outdoor activities. I saw a few campsites and RV sites with families playing games like Frisbee or croquet along the beach shores. In the water I saw windsurfers and speedboats, and in the sky I saw a para-glider. Accompanying me on the bike path were other cyclists and runners. It was cool to see that, of course, there are plenty of Japanese folks who like this stuff, too -- stupidly I forgot that, being in the city most of the time.
While there were some evergreen trees and shrubs, unfortunately many other trees were bare. The snow at Otogo onsen seemed to not stick or carry on here in this area, but the view of the snowy mountains in the distance was beautiful; and there were a few instances of snow falling while I was riding. All in all, I wished I could've done this activity later in the year, when it is less cold and more lush with blooming trees and flowers.
Nonetheless, I had a good time, and I was satisfied with most of the bike/pedestrian path as it was mostly well-paved and marked. There was a section, however, that was both a hill and under construction (to continue the great bike/pedestrian path) and made me cycle very close to the cars on the road. I did not like that at all, but I appreciated that the cars were super courteous and considerate of me. One time I got honked at, but it was a very soft "Be careful!" honk, not an "I'm angry you are inconveniencing or scared me!" one.
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On the way back to Kyoto
I told myself, no more plan changing. I took the same bus back to Katata station and the same trains back to Kyoto and my home station. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the bus stop, it turned out I missed the last bus by a few minutes, and needed to wait another 25 minutes for the next one (weekends? rural area?). And then, when transferring to the last local train line, I once again went in the wrong direction. Sigh. I ended up back in my home area at around 5:45 p.m., the latest I've ever gotten back.
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At least I had a great dinner
The one good thing about getting back at 5:45 p.m. was that all the dinner restaurants had opened -- normally they close for lunch at 2:30 and reopen for dinner at 5:30. I picked a teppanyaki izakaya literally within a block of my hostel, called ぞろんぱ 室町仏光寺店 ・Zorompa Muromachibukkojiten. It was so goooood! and set me back 5,500 yen or about $40 USD.
I got back to my place at 7:30 p.m....
More pictures pending.
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See the rest of my posts about Japan 2023.