As autumn kicks in and temperatures start to cool down, conditions get better for venturing out of Tokyo and exploring other parts of Japan’s beautiful diversity. With over 2.6 million inhabitants, Osaka is the third largest city in the country and a long-time rival of Tokyo for good reason, as it is filled with an abundance of sights, sounds and tastes to uncover.
One of the city’s top tourist attractions is Cycle Osaka, a cycle tour operator launched in 2013 that has rapidly gained popularity and has been recognized as TripAdvisor’s number one outdoor activity in Osaka. Founder Sam Crofts tells us why visitors all over the world are flocking to enjoy his beloved city on two wheels.
Scratching Below the Surface
Beyond famous attractions such as Osaka Castle and the Dotonbori shopping area, Osaka struggles to capture certain visitors who often complain about its lack of visual uniqueness. However, they’re failing to see the whole historical and cultural picture. “Osaka is a favorite among Japan connoisseurs – the people who take the time to look beyond the surface and therefore fall madly in love with the place and its hidden wonders. It has an atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else I know, and it’s on our tours that our passion is echoed and people delve a little deeper,” Sam explains.
The Time is Fall
Autumn is the best time to fall in love with Osaka. The need to hop from one air-conditioned room to another is replaced by the freedom to enjoy life outdoors, sweat-free. Sam explains how Osakans breathe a collective sigh of relief and set about really enjoying one of the best times of the year in the city.
“So much happens in fall. First, there’s the Kishiwada Danjiri festival, where intoxicated teams compete with each other, pulling huge portable shrines through the neighborhood streets – you really have to see it to believe it! As the season progresses, moon viewing parties and harvest festivals are common before the leaves turn and the locals shift their attention to the changing colors,” says Sam. “When foliage viewing becomes the main event, Osaka is mercifully free from the legions of tourists descending upon more popular spots in Kyoto and Tokyo.”
From the shocking yellow gingko trees of Midosuji Avenue to the rusty oranges of Osaka Castle Park and the deep red maple leaves of Minoh Park, the Osaka area is filled with color and can be enjoyed (as with most things in Osaka) at a slightly more relaxed pace, and with a distinctly local vibe.
Fall treats in Osaka come in the shape of deep fried maple leaves, or momiji tempura. Sam recommends getting them from Minoh, also home to Osaka’s most famous craft beer brewery. “The short walk from the station up towards the forest is lined with hawkers selling the seasonal snack, which goes perfectly with a local brew after a hike up to the waterfall.”
Prior to forming Cycle Osaka, many of Sam’s own city discoveries were made while out cycling. “I’ve stumbled across all my favorite eateries on bike, and made some amazing finds like Nintendo’s original 1889 headquarters! One night, from talking to a tourist in a bar about cycle tours, we realized they didn’t exist in Osaka and I ended up creating my own.”
But why should tourists choose to cycle over taking the train? Sam points out that it’s all about the details: “With cycling, you get to see real life going on in between the major landmarks, from school kids practicing sports and old ladies grocery shopping to business people rushing between meetings. Catching them while riding by gives you a really unique flavor for the personality and character of the city you would otherwise miss if you just went by train.”
A Passion for Osaka
Despite Cycle Osaka’s booming popularity, Sam keeps the business to a close-knit team of five. “The vibe is not a traditional guide/tourist relationship but more a group of friends enjoying a day out, some good food and each other’s company. There’s a good balance of amazing food, must-see sites and our own personal favorites or secret spots along the way.”
Photos and pedaling aside, expect the fun factor to feature heavily. “You’ll meet all kinds of people on the tours: we get groups of friends, couples, solo travelers and families. Everyone is keen to explore and just have a great time. Some people have actually made long-lasting friendships on our tours and that really is the spirit of our adventure together.”
Cycle Osaka offers full and half day city tours and food tours. Visit www.cycleosaka.com for more details.
Sam’s Top Four Cycling Spots in Osaka
Tsuruhashi Street Market
“This is where old meets new and Korea meets Japan. The market is on the edge of one of Japan’s biggest Korean neighborhoods and is alive with amazing food, fun people and an atmosphere unlike any other in the city.”
“Small but perfectly formed, this is where young couples and families spend their summer afternoons, frolicking in the fountains, drinking cold beers on the lawn and taking selfies in the rose garden.”
“A labyrinth of bars, izakayas and restaurants – the streets around Tenma Station make for a great evening of bar hopping. Post-work crowds from the business district mix with local residents, with many places spilling onto the streets, making it all a great spectacle.”
“Completely not what you think of when you imagine Osaka. Minoh is only about 20 minutes out of town but is a full-on forest complete with temples, ancient trees and a huge waterfall. A walk from the station to the end of the path and back takes a couple of hours but is a great way to spend a morning in the fresh air to de-city yourself.”
Getting to Osaka
Tokyo (Tokyo and Shinagawa stations) and Osaka (Shin-Osaka Station) are connected by the JR Tokaido Shinkansen (english.jr-central.co.jp), the easiest and most convenient way to travel to and from Osaka. Most domestic flights depart from Haneda Airport to Osaka’s Itami Airport (ITM). Overnight buses are the cheapest way to go, and can be booked via Willer Express (willerexpress.com/en).