The 15min-long Kibi Plain bicycle road (吉備路サイクリングロード), accessed from either Okayama or Kurashiki, is an enjoyable way to see an area of countryside studded with ancient burial grounds, shrines and temples. Running from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station in the east to Sōja Station in the west, the route takes about four hours to cycle, or a full day to walk. Bikes can be rented at either station (¥200/hr, or ¥1000/day) and dropped off at the other end.
In the fourth century this area, known as Kibi-no-kuni, was the centre of early Japanese civilization. Lords were buried in giant keyhole-shaped mounds known as kofun, one of which can be visited along the cycle route. Starting from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station (備前一宮駅), three stops from Okayama on the JR Kibi line, cross the tracks and follow the cycle path to Kibitsuhiko-jinja, an ordinary shrine beside a pond notable only for its huge stone lantern, one of the largest in Japan. Around 300m further southwest is the much more impressive Kibitsu-jinja (吉備津神社), dating from 1425 and dedicated to Kibitsu-no-mikoto, the valiant prince who served as the inspiration for the legend of Momotarō, the boy who popped out of the centre of a giant peach rescued from a river by a childless farmer’s wife. This shrine nestles at the foot of Mount Naka and has a magnificently roofed outer sanctum, with twin gables.
Several kilometres further west is the Tsukuriyama-kofun (造山古墳), a burial mound constructed in the fifth century in the characteristic keyhole-shape (only really appreciated from the air). Measuring 350m in length and 30m at its highest point, this wooded mound in the midst of rice fields is the fourth-largest kofun in Japan. Around 1km east of here is a cluster of sights, including the foundation stones of Bitchū Kokubun-niji, an eighth-century convent, another burial mound and the five-storey pagoda of Bitchū Kokubun-ji (備中国分寺), a temple dating from the seventeenth century.
It’s another couple of kilometres to the train station at Sōja (総社), from where you can return to either Okayama or to Kurashiki. Before leaving, check out Iyama Hōfuku-ji (井山宝福寺), a pretty Zen Buddhist temple, 1km north of Sōja Station along a footpath that follows the railway line. The celebrated artist and landscape gardener Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506) trained here as a priest.