Bicycles are pretty ubiquitous in Japan and a part of the everyday fabric. Kids, salarymen, sales ladies, and seniors all seem to ride bikes everywhere in Japan. Bikes are on sidewalks and on the street and nobody thinks anything of them. There isn’t the hyped up car versus bicycle antagonism that exists here in Vancouver. So I really wanted to experience what riding a bike was like in Japan.
First of all, there’s no shortage of bicycles in Japan. Look at how many people at Hokkaido University are riding and parking their bikes. That’s one busy bicycle parking lot. There isn’t anything that comes remotely close to this scene in Vancouver (and Vancouver is considered a bike friendly city by North American standards). Sapporo is also a pretty flat city which lends itself easily to riding far distances through much of the city.
My wife and I lucked out and got a couple of bicycles that were owned by the shared house group. There were a couple of residents at a sister shared house nearby that were leaving and they were no longer needing the bikes. One of our house mates helped to secure these bikes from the other place. I walked over to the sister house with my house mate in the evening to the other place and grab the bikes.
That was when I had my first taste of cycling in Japan. Most of the bicycles in Japan are of the cruiser type. The handle bars are high and one must sit up straight when riding. I’m used to my hybrid mountain bike with its bent over handlebars that force me to bend forward and down to ride. I wasn’t used to this cycling posture at first, but it was actually quite free feeling to me.
The upright position let me look around a little more easily and really gave me the sense of flying or floating above the ground. I guess growing up with BMX and mountain bikes gave a different sense of cycling than these cruiser bikes. It had also been ages since I to navigate a bike on a sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk is totally frowned upon in Vancouver. I hadn’t ridden on a sidewalk (consistently) since I was a kid.
Almost all riding of bicycles is done on the sidewalk in Japan. Cyclists do not yell at pedestrians to get out of the way. They don’t even use the bells or horns that might be on their bicycles. They simply slowly cruise behind pedestrians on the sidewalk until there is a safe opportunity to pass them. At times, it’s a bit disconcerting to suddenly notice a bicycle has been trailing you for the past minute or so, but they’ve been too polite to make a peep. This happened to me a few times while walking along a Sapporo sidewalk. Then I quickly make way and the bicycle passes.
When bikes are riding on the road, motorists just go around. There’s angry stares or sudden turns in front of bicycles. Everyone just seems to flow around each other here when it comes to bicycle and car interactions.
Also, you will find that people in Japan don’t have special cyclewear. Cyclists just wear whatever they would normally wear. Some people do look sportier on bike, but others are decked out in their suits or dresses. The most impressive thing I’ve seen is the women cycling in their high heels. How they manage to do that? I don’t know. Kudos to those ladies.
I’ve also seen quite a few gentlemen in their full, black suits riding along in the 30 degree heat of the Sapporo summer. There I was walking in my shorts, Birkenstocks, and T-shirt already sweating from the summer heat. Imagine these guys in their suits and biking.
Cycling is simply part of the Japanese landscape. They are pretty much everywhere and it’s a great way to get around Sapporo. I wish I actually rode around town a little more than I did. I guess I could have ridden my bike to school, but then I would have missed out on our great 45 minute walks with my house mates to class.