I spent a few weeks this fall in Japan, on vacation. I took a folding bike with me so I could cycle around. While visiting, I was able to ride in:

  • Kyoto
  • Onomichi / the Shimanami Kaido
  • Tokyo

I won't speak much about the middle slice there, other than to say that the Shimanami Kaido is the best riding I've done. Not going to rave about it too much, but it is highly recommended. Moving on.

I only really got to experience a small slice of cycling life here. From those few days, though, I was able to see some interesting differences from home (Canada). I'll tell you a little bit about some things I noticed.

Cool bikes!

I haven't seen such an assortment of bikes of all different shapes and sizes. One bike was basically a scooter with a drive train and pedals. It was like Bike Friday's Pakit bike but smaaaaaaaller. The wheels might as well have been five or six inches in diameter.

More commonly, I saw a lot of what, I believe, are nicknamed Mamachari bikes, which are not dissimilar from Omafiets. The Mamachari's vary in shape, but interestingly, many of them have smaller wheels. Maybe 20". I don't know why. Many of them don't have a top tube, but a thick, curving down tube. I think these are everyday bikes – getting around town, getting groceries, picking up kids.

These city bikes also have a unique kickstand which seems quite durable. It's a very ubiquitous design.

Babies on Bikes

I saw so many parents riding bikes with their kids on them. Many times it will be on a Mamachari (I think) with one kid riding up front between the handlebars on some kind of mount, and then a kid in the back on a bike seat. It's a remarkable spectacle. The bikes seem pretty stable, but I would want to practice with two sacks of flour before putting any kids on them.

No Helmets

Speaking of safety, no one, except for kids being carted around, wears a helmet. Occasionally, the kids don't even have them on. At first, I was a little surprised by this. I'm still not sure why this is the case; maybe because people ride on the sidewalks (more on that in a second)? Perhaps culturally, helmets were less pushed, such as when I was learning to ride? No idea.

Riding the sidewalks

A lot of the sidewalks I saw in Kyoto and Tokyo are broad. They look like they are made of the same material as the road (sort of). Every so often, there is a ridged yellow line that divides the sidewalk vertically — perhaps to separate cyclists and pedestrians?

But, cyclists just do what they want, it seems. Generally, the flow of traffic is reverse from North America (cars et al. drive on the left side of the road). So typically, you can just bike on the left side of the sidewalk.

However, at least where I was in Kyoto and Tokyo, the sidewalks are so dense with people that cyclists will just weave in and out of people. It feels dangerous. More than once I almost walked into a cyclist when walking out of the store (my fault for looking the "wrong left").

When the roads felt too fast and big for me, I rode the sidewalks. But it is slow-going. There are sometimes a marked bike lane (blue arrows pointing the direction of traffic) but they certainly aren't separated from the main flow of traffic.

Lots of lights

Tokyo seems to have plenty of lights. I found this blog post when looking for routes, and despite the author's same conclusion ("There are just too many traffic lights in Tokyo"), I too found out how bad the start and stop is.

Riding with such frequent stops makes it feel like it takes forever to get where you're going. I don't mean that in such an obvious sense; what I found was playing tricks on me, was that when I would finally hit a good uninterrupted stretch of riding, I thought I would have covered a lot of ground. But it never was; it was just a lot relative to how far I had come so far.

Leaving your bike wherever

I found people who mentioned the phenomenon online. I have not seen a single freestanding bike lock in Japan (there are bike parking garages — even multi story ones) but people will usually do the following.

  1. Roll up to their destination
  2. Flip down a rear kickstand
  3. Lock the bike to itself.

Regarding 3) – the locks are of the type that are built into the rear seat stay, sort of where the rear brake is, and act like a stick going into your spokes that prevents the wheel from rotating. So, there's nothing stopping someone from picking up your bike and walking away. Other than that, those things look pretty heavy.

Image courtesy of japan-guide.com

That's it! I didn't have a lot of time to learn more about bike culture here. It was nonetheless impressive to see how people manage on a bike in a city as dense as Tokyo. I'm not sure if I would recommend it, except for the case of rocking a Mamachari.