Most summers over the past few years, I’ve spent long days biking in quiet loops around Osaka, Japan. I will be visiting local friends, but also to eat, walk, drink and hang out in their beautiful city, a complex urban grid that is still easygoing and open, with its plethora of green spaces against the skyscrapers.
Somewhere along the way we started to cycle around, so our neighborhood-to-neighborhood biking routine in the heat began. Coming from Houston, I always thought the idea of a cycling city was fantastic, but I have since realized that cycling is a way of feeling that I have truly spent time in a place. It’s a little private pleasure, and unless I’ve been riding a bike in a city – stopping at intersections and fanning myself as I heel the crutch and rest next to buildings – I rarely feel To the earth.
Osaka is massive, made up of 24 neighborhoods. Two of its most important city centers are Umeda, the northern district where tourists go to shop, admire and be seen, and Namba in the south, with its nightlife and bright lights. Despite the size of the city, it is still accessible and you can travel through multiple neighborhoods in one trip. If I feel brave (a rare thing), I’ll go alone, but most of all, I just relish the chance to roll with friends, rolling from bar to bar.
One morning a few months ago in August, my pal R. and I embarked on what we planned to be a relaxed daytime ride along a familiar route. It was Obon week, a big Japanese holiday in which people honor their ancestors, so there weren’t too many cars on the road throughout the business district. As I followed R. on his bike, he used hand signals to direct me through alleys and bridges. Every once in a while we would meet next to a car, I would wave to the passengers, and they would give us a shrug or a smirk or a wave.
As the morning wore on and turned into a sweaty afternoon, R. and I rode from neighborhood park to neighborhood, alternating between a lighter pace and occasional acceleration. We rested between two shrines before pedaling to a small market in the center of the old town, where we stopped in front of a woman selling okonomiyaki, a popular tasty pancake drizzled with Japanese mayonnaise. A few miles later, we ate bent over our bikes, smelling the midday humidity and lamenting that we hadn’t bought extra pancakes.
I made a big trip the next day – I was taking the bullet train to Tokyo, where I would catch the first leg of a long flight home – and although I wanted to try my luck to stay there. Outside, R. and I met with another pal, K. Several hours later, we exited a gay bar, hopped on our bikes, and began to hover slowly around Doyama, the center of the city. queer city nightlife.
The streets had started to fill up. The three of us dived between the buildings and finally settled in single file. We passed groups of businessmen returning home after beers after work and couples walking hand in hand – and even a few solo bikers, who joined our path for a while, before doing turn around and disappear into town.
These were streets I had spent the last few months wandering around, feeling a kind of gravity pull me through them. Now knowing I was leaving the ride seemed like an end, but as long as we stayed on the bikes maybe the present could last a little longer.
We continued until well after midnight, meandering from one pocket of town to another, before finally parking our bikes in front of a juice vendor, who handed us an oversized mug that we all shared. It had been an eventful evening, and R. said – inarticulate, really – that Osaka was a city where anything that could happen to one place had already happened. If you tried hard enough, you could take the whole city in your hands.
And then K. told her it was fine, but shut it up, please, then R. folded his eyes, deeply, and cupped both of K.’s hands. It was maybe four in the morning and we were the only ones on the road, but this place seemed very busy, very populated. So K. followed suit with his palms, and so did I.
We did two more laps on our usual circuit and stopped at the edge of a bridge. The morning traffic was little more than a handful of taxis. The three of us hunched over our bikes, panting, taking in everything. Then K. asked me if I had caught my breath. I told him we were good and that we probably had time to do another round.
A version of this story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title Full circle.