Bicycling in Japan

A typical bicycle in front of a gate in Kyoto Japan.

As I’ve mentioned previously this September I spent nearly two weeks in Japan.  I’d gone over to see the Amplify 2008: Light music festival and didn’t do any cycling while I was there.  However Japan is one of the worlds great cycling cultures so I was very interested in it while I was there. I visited Tokyo and Kyoto while I was there and while that leaves the vast bulk of the country unvisited I did see quite a bit of those areas. Of course Tokyo is endlessly huge but I got to see both the super urban city areas, but also a more pragmatic region, Musashi-sakai, that was a more typical city dweller region.

Bicycle parking lot in Musashi-sakai
Bicycle parking lot in Musashi-sakai

While the roads are fairly crowded with cars in Tokyo the majority of the city dwellers use the public transportation and as dense as that is that still means a lot of people need to go a decent distance to get to a station.  A lot of those people bicycle. A lot.  For the first couple of days I was in Musashi-sakai I was waking up very early and I’d ta ke walks around the city as commuters were just starting to head in.  It’d get more and more dense with people riding into the station becoming a full on throng around 8am.  Vast parking lots for bicycles were all around the station and by 9am these would be packed. Most people would lock up their bicycles with this brilliant lock that was a ring that would grip the rear wheel. This was against the rear of the frame and when you unlocked it, it would open a gap the wheel could ruin through, allowing you to leave the lock on.  Considering the situation there (not likely for someone to just toss the bicycles in the back of a pickup) this is a simple and elegant solution.

Fairly typical bicycle in Japan.

The bicycles were predominantly highly pragmatic.. Sure you’d see some racer bicycles, and some that are more about style then riding, but for the most part they were designed to as easily as possible get you to the train station.  The bicycle above was a highly typical example, though clearly an older (though very well maintained) model. The first picture above shows a more modern (and less stylish you ask me) take on the same bicycle.  These bicycles were ridden by all types of people: businessmen in suits with a briefcase in the front basket, woman of a all stripes wearing suits to dresses with a purse or bag in the baskets, Kids heading to school with their book bag up front and so on.  The step through frame makes it easier in normal clothes: suits, skirts, jeans, dresses they always had a kick stand for ease of parking anywhere – you certainly couldn’t count on a bicycle rack being empty. Fenders for the frequent rain and an easy upright riding posture.

Bicycle parking lot in Mitaka Japan.

People mostly rode on the sidewalks.  Yeah that’s as weird as it seems, but you get used to it. Once you managed to get with the flow that is: the traffic runs on the opposite side of the street then the US and the sidewalk etiquette is likewise reversed.  The bicycles would go fairly slow, though faster then walking pace.  They would weave through the pedestrians and everyone was very courteous and accommodating.  You pretty much just kept on walking and let them handle interference. Considering that people would riding with umbrellas, cell phones, coffee, a briefcase in one hand and so on, it was remarkably fluid.  When intersecting with traffic, drivers seemed to always be courteous and careful.  With so many bicyclers this isn’t too shocking and it is a pretty reasonable assumption that most of the drivers were riders at one point in their lives (or even still depending on the circumstances) which I think always leads to better awareness of bicycles.

I did take a look at several bicycles shops, from small town mom and pop to the bicycle floor at larger shops like Yobidashi Camera. Lots of accessories: baskets, locks and so on.  Nothing that seemed as far ahead of the US as you’d see on the cell phone, camera and other electronics floors. Just supremely practical.  And I have to say I greatly respect and envy their situation. For in the US, it’s bicycling as a sport not transportation and as someone who bicycles to work every day I’m atypical.   How I’d love for that infrastructure, awareness and commonality of cheap, durable practical bicycles.

If I’d spent a bit more time in Kyoto I’d probably have rented a bicycle and saw more of the city that way, I think it’d be the best way to get to some of the more far flung sites without dealing with the (very convenient and easy to use) bus system.  Next Time!  Bicycling of course wasn’t a huge part of the trip so if you are interested in the rest of my trip there I post three blog posts that link to over a dozen photo galleries I put together:

Kyoto part 1

Kyoto part 2

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