Fushimi-Momoyama Castle. One of a great many historical sites, or other sites of interest, that I might never have made it to if I did not have a bike. Or, even if I had taken the train and gotten off at the nearest station and walked, I think it would have taken long enough, or tired me enough, that I would not have seen as many other sites as I did that day – including the Teradaya and the official tomb sites of Emperors Kammu and Meiji – because I had a bike.
This month, Japan Blog Matsuri is focusing on the theme of “Reasons to Visit Japan.” As this month’s hostess, A Modern Girl, writes, “This year has been particularly challenging for Japan due to the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Although much work still needs to be done in terms of reconstruction and policy reform, the country and its people have persevered and provided constant reminders of the things that make Japan such a special place.”
Well, if you’re not already interested in going to Japan, I don’t imagine that talking about how safe it is to bike there is going to be the tipping point to inspire you to hop on a plane and fly halfway around the world. But, let me tell you, as someone already interested in Japanese history and culture, as someone who would visit there anyway, as often and for as long as possible, the ease and safety and comfortableness of bicycling in Japan’s cities is, for me, a major element of what makes living in Japan – the everyday lifestyle – so pleasant. Along with clean streets, excellent customer service, delicious food, and a half dozen other points, bike riding is, for me, a major part of what makes Japan’s cities so sumi yasui (easy to live there).
Many people bike ride long distances, using that as their main mode of transportation to go from city to city, across the country, “exploring Japan by bike.” I have never done this; in fact, I’ve never left a given city on a bike, but always biked within either Yokohama or Kyoto. But I think I’d love to some day. Biking the Tôkaidô from Tokyo to Kyoto, or biking around Okinawa Island, most of which is pretty inaccessible without your own bike or car (or taking a cab, as even the public buses don’t really go everywhere the history-geek tourist wants to go).
The bike I had in Yokohama. I know it’s not the greatest picture, and it doesn’t look like much, but this bike fit me like a glove, so to speak. It was the best bike I’ve ever had, hands down. Flew along so smoothly, so beautifully, and stopped on a dime. Climbed hills with relative ease, and had all kinds of wonderful extras – baskets for schoolbag and groceries, a pedal-powered headlamp, lock mounted directly onto the rear wheel to lock the wheel from turning, a chain guard to protect your legs/pants, and a kickstand that went under the wheel and stood the bike up straight, so it wasn’t leaning or falling over. I still regret not keeping this bike, and shipping it home with me, however much that might have cost. You can’t find bikes like this in the States, I’ll tell you that much.
When I lived in Yokohama for a year in 2007-08, and again when I stayed in Kyoto for the summer in 2010, I biked to school pretty much every day. And, particularly in Kyoto, particularly because I knew I had such a short time and because there was soooo much to see, more often than not I would leave school and bike around in search of historical sites, neat cafés, interesting architecture, or the like for a few hours before returning ‘home’ to do my homework and settle in for the night.
Kyoto is a very walkable city, and I would definitely recommend walking it, rather than just taking the trains (which actually cover relatively little of the city), buses (which can take a long time, stuck in traffic, or on circuitous routes), or cabs (which are expensive). Walking – or, better yet, biking, since it’s faster, and more fun – allows you to experience the city first-hand, to see all the neighborhoods and storefronts and houses as you pass them by, on your way from one place to another, and, to happen upon extra sites, whether they be historical points of interest or quaint cafés, that you would never have found otherwise. I cannot imagine what my time in Kyoto would have been like without a bicycle – how many historical sites I would have missed, and how much less I would have gotten a feel for the city.
Outside Kizakura, a major saké brewery in Fushimi, southern Kyoto. June 2010.
One of countless similar street scene photos I have, of streets in Kyoto and elsewhere, each with their own interesting architecture or ambiance, many with specific historical or cultural significance. Were I limited to walking, i.e. if I did not have a bike, I would never have seen half as much of the city as I did. Take a look through my photos on Flickr and, moving from one to the next, you can see just how much of the city I managed to see. Not just specific sites I targeted, but all kinds of things along the way.
Shortly after arriving in Kyoto, I found a used bicycle shop, and bought myself a bike. It wasn’t the cheapest bike – at about 6000 yen if I remember right – but it was, like every other bike I’ve ridden in Japan, just about perfect. Despite being used, it was in perfect good-as-new working order, and I get the impression that this is truly standard practice in Japan, that even second-hand, used bicycles don’t get sold in anything less than excellent condition. And, it came with all kinds of convenient features that they just don’t come with in the US, including baskets to hold my schoolbag, groceries, whathaveyou, and a pedal-powered headlamp. I had a very similar bike when I lived in Yokohama a few years ago. Buy a used bike here in the US, you get a piece of crap half the time; buy one in Japan, and, in my experience at least, you may end up with one that feels just perfect, like an extension of yourself.
Riding a bike is much much safer in Japan, too. You ride on the sidewalk, so the risk of getting hit by cars is considerably lessened. The sidewalks are nice and wide, so there’s plenty of space for pedestrians and bikes to share the space. Bicycles count as pedestrians (as they should, in my opinion), so you’re safer there too. And, while bike theft is one of the most common crimes in Japan, it’s still on the whole relatively rare. And, perhaps most importantly, pedestrians and drivers both respect bicyclists – they share the road or sidewalk as if it’s a perfectly normal thing, and cars just about always stop for you when you’re crossing the road. I have never felt safer than when I am in Japan.
Schoolgirls ride past, just outside Fukuoka Castle. June 2008. Note the convenient baskets, the wide, very even (very well maintained) sidewalks, and the general fact that everyone bikes, that it’s a normal thing to do, not just for those select few who bike for fun or exercise, but for everyone, for just getting around. How wonderful!
Anyway, returning to the point, I had a fantastic time bicycling around Kyoto and Yokohama, and feel that I not only got around more efficiently (an important thing, whether you’re commuting, or just visiting the city for a day or two or three and are trying to explore as efficiently as possible), but really got a feel for the city in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. I cannot say that I have ever, yet, rented a bike for just a day or so in any other cities, strictly for the purposes of tourism/exploring, but now that I’m writing this post and thinking about it, I think I would definitely like to. There was so much I missed during my one day (just a few hours, really) in Hikone, my one day in Odawara, two days in Kanazawa (though, it was January, and quite cold..), three days in Naha. How much more might I have seen had I had a bike?
In conclusion, if you visit Japan for no other reason, visit Japan because it’s awesome for biking. Extremely safe, and lots of awesome things to see and do. I myself miss Japan for a myriad of reasons, but one of the reasons I miss living in Japan is simply because I miss biking.
All photos are my own.
Bicycle rentals can be found in most major cities in Japan, in my experience. I do not know the prices, however, or how reasonable they may be.