Japan is well-known for its advanced transportation network, famous for its fast and high-quality trains, and precise, punctual timetable, busy metro lines, and cleanliness. People visiting the country can expect transportation services to be nearly perfect and top-notch.
Still, people prefer to use another means of transportation, even if the infrastructure and the system are not the most adequate for daily use.
Japan takes third place as a cycling nation in the world. Bicycles (‘jitensha’ 自転車 or ‘chari/charinko’ in the Kansai area) are widely used by all age and social groups as a recreational activity, exercise, and mainly as a cheaper and easier form of transportation.
The government also encourages its citizens to use the bike by initiating incentive programs and building more and more bicycle lanes in Tokyo and beyond.
Predominate type of bicycle that can be found throughout the country in many of its larger cities and even in the rural countryside. In America this type of bicycle is refered to as a “Beach Cruiser.”
The most commonly used bicycle is called “mamachari”, which is often translated as mom’s bicycle. It’s a cheap and convenient type of bicycle, usually equipped with a basket or a baby seat. These bycles are commonly considered a disposable item as they are priced around $100-200 USD.
It is not unusual to see moms with children sitting on the bicycle’s basket at the front and a seat at the back. That is why, advanced and higher quality and priced bicycles (like mountain bikes, race bicycles) are not that easy to find even for renting.
Many of Tokyo’s neighborhood are designed to only require a short trip to almost any need such as grocery, schools and convienence stores within a short distance. Primarily because zoning laws allow property owners to build a shop or business on their property.
This in turn has been a great design for people living in these neighborhoods as the need for cars are greatly diminished. On foot or by bicylcle any of your common daily needs can be served with just a short trip from your house or apartment.
Reasons for cycling
One of the reasons that make Japanese people use their bikes daily is the proximity of their destinations. Due to the geographical features of the country, the cities are densely populated and the buildings are frequently built very close together.
Riding your bicycle to a Lawson, Family Mart, Circle K or a family owned shop takes only moments from almost any home in any city across Japan. In general most of Japans population tends to gravitate to cities rather than the rural countryside.
Therefore, it seems unnecessary and less time-consuming to use bikes instead of cars to go for groceries, schools, department stores, etc.
Despite having an efficient, clean, and punctual transport system, using a bicycle helps Japanese people to avoid traffic jams, crowded train cars, exhausting searching for space in a parking lot, and spending money on maintenance and insurance.
Compared to owning a car which comes with different obligations (such as securing a parking spot), bicycles are more cost-effective and convenient.
Car parking options range from the uncommon free parking spaces to pricey inner-city parking areas, with normal parking rates ranging from 100 yen for 15 minutes to over 1,000 yen for 24 hours or more.
Although there’s a need for improving the infrastructure for cyclists around the country, the human factor also makes it more appealing to cycle. Japanese people generally follow the rules, but even if they don’t, they tend to commute safely, politely, and patiently. They prefer to use bicycles despite uncomfortable weather conditions.
Touring Japan’s cities and Countrside by Bicycle
Japan’s new tourism plan and economic boost also give a reason to use bikes in the country. As a new tourism incentive and a noticeable rise in demand for experience-based activities and authentic tourism experiences, locals invite tourists to cycle together with them while guiding them around their city.
It allows foreigners to connect with the locals on a different level while seeing the city from a different perspective.
Rules to follow
In Japan, there are some rules you need to follow if you want to cycle.
Cyclists are supposed to use the roads and streets unless a sign suggests otherwise. By practice although, people favor the sidewalks for comfort and easier, faster transportation. So, watch out for pedestrians.
While you are on your bicycle, do not listen to music nor play on your phone, because you can be fined! It is also common to form a line if you go with others, rather than taking up the whole sidewalks for yourself.
It’s also important to know where you can park your bike. Try to find a place where your bike is not in the way or cause trouble for others. In many cities although, there are designated parking areas near frequent places such as department stores or train stations.
There are also multi-level parking garages underground to park your vehicle for 300-500 yen.
Bike theft is a serious and frequently occurring crime in Tokyo and other major cities in Japan. Therefore, the government requires everyone to register their bicycle and for a certain value.
While there is no penalties for not registering a bicycle, if you are stopped by the police for a bicycle registration check, things may rapidly become complex, and you may be accused of stealing the bicycle you are riding, even if you are the legitimate owner.
If you buy a bicycle (new or used) the store usually takes care of this registration, but before buying a used bicycle from an individual, you need to re-register the bike. Many bikes are equipped with built-in locks, but it’s better to get a heavier lock as well.
Renting a ’Chari’
If you feel like hopping on a bicycle during your stay, luckily, there are several ways to rent a bicycle in Japan. It gives you the freedom to stop by anywhere on your way and helps you avoid heavy traffic on public transportation or the road.
Many cities now offer bicycle rentals directly on the street. The system is automated and usually has no attendant to assist to its best to check online with the system to see the requirement before renting. Usually an IC card and registration on the website will be sufficient.
Docomo bicycle sharing program allows you to rent a bicycle, ride it wherever you choose, and then return it.
By tapping the IC card to the rental device, anybody who has pre-registered and holds a membership card (with IC card registration) can rent a bicycle at any of the many Bike Stations.
Getting an IC card is similar to buying a prepaid credit card in most western countries. Many IC card machines can be found in local train stations, airports and some automated machines can be found in local retailers.
Bicycle Rental Shops
It can be helpful to look for the nearest tourist information center. They can provide information regarding the closest rental shops or just rent it for you. You can sign up for an hourly (few hundred yen) or a full-day rental package (1000-1500 yen). Many of these shops accept only cash (Yen), so it best to be prepared.
Another renting option is you can try to ask at your accommodation. A lot of guest houses or Japanese hotels offer bicycles to their guests for free or a small fee. Make sure to check early and book if it is necessary because it’s often a first come first served system.
As your third option, you can always visit independent bicycle shops to rent. You should consider the length of your trip, your fitness condition, and the terrain you are visiting. At the shops, they can help you find the perfect model for your trip.
Dream Rides In Japan
According to Rakuten, the number one cycling road in Japan is Imabari and the Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road in Ehime Prefecture, also known as the cyclist’s paradise.
It’s a 43.5 miles-long road between Hiroshima to Imabari perfectly made for cyclists. Along the road, there are 14 renting stations to pick up/ drop off your bicycle. Check out the website for more recommendations about a great cycling adventure.
If your destination is Tokyo and you prefer to explore the city by cycling around, then check out this informative and well-organized bicycle renting website, which guides you through a fair amount of rental options.