09 June 2009

Ode To Japan

In this current climate of enthusiasm for the bicycle and all the efforts of emerging bicycle cultures to get their citizens back on bikes, most of the focus is often on Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world.

When we think of Asia, we all too often only think of the dwindling masses of cyclists in their blue Mao suits dominating the cityscapes and the country lanes of China, as well as the critical masses in India and other Asian countries.

Poor Japan. A wealthy and developed nation if there ever was one and what I often call the Third Great Cycling Nation, after the Netherlands and Denmark. And yet they get so little press.

Like in Netherlands and Denmark, they don't seem fussed. They just get on with it. You can't find bike parking outside train stations to save your life and there are cyclists everywhere you look, as I've posted about recently.

The video above is a great indication of how Tokyo, for example, is saturated with bikes. On my last evening I stood outside my hotel for about 40 minutes and just filmed as many cyclists as I could. This is an average Wednesday night in the Shibuya district. How does that compare with the big cities in emerging bicycle countries?

There are bicycles everywhere, outside every flat and house when you take a train through the country. Outside every train station there are thousands of bicycles.

We really should pay more attention to Japan's bicycle culture. In smaller cities there are often fine bike lanes but in Tokyo there are few. People just mix and mingle together, as you can see in the video.

The Danish ambassador, speaking with Tokyo's Governor on the subject of bicycle infrastructure, said that if Tokyo really wants to stay a world-class city they need to get moving on infrastructure like London, Paris and New York. It made an impression, I can tell you.

One of the amazing things about Japan in general is that when they embrace a trend they go to it full on. No cutting corners. It's the same with bicycles in general and the fixie fad in particular.

There is no consumer nation on the planet as dedicated as the Japanese. In Shibuya, Tokyo there is a massive department store called Tokyu Hands. There is nothing like it anywhere on the planet. I visited the bicycle department last time I was there and had a look around. This time, with the fixie fad in full swing, it was amazing to see the goods on offer. [I had to walk through the bathroom scale department and counted 32 different brands...]

Here in Copenhagen if I want fixie-like bike parts or gear, there is basically one cool shop. In Tokyu Hands you could have anything you wanted in 145 colours. There were cheap and cheerful bikes for kid transport and there were the craziest fixies - and everything in between.

Bendy Bicycle Thingys
With my baggage already filled with presents for my kids and wife, I wasn't in the position to go mad. But hey! I bought bendy bicycle thingys! Valves that make it easier to fill my tyres with air, instead of having to force the air nozzle between the spokes.
Bicycle Brolley Holder Back Racks
I bought an umbrella holder! Just because I could! It's for carrying your umbrella on your bicycle until you need it, something that is very common in Japan.

Then there was the back rack section. Okay, not THAT impressive, but I accidentally deleted my photo of the chainguard section so it got bumped up.

Bicycle Pedals Bicycle Chains
Coloured chains or pedals? Take your pick.

Bicycle Rims Bicycle Rims2
Bicycle Tyres
I saw more coloured rims in one blink of the eye than I see in a month in Copenhagen. And then there were the coloured tyres.

Tokyo Hands USB light Tokyu Hands Bike Lights
Tokyu Hands Bike Lights
Bike Lights, bike lights, bike lights. If you can't have Reelights, then you are spoiled for choice here. The USB chargable one on the top left is quite cool.

Bicycles on Sale
Oh and there were loads of bicycles, too. Here's some hanging around. The TOKYOBIKES were supernice.

Now I'll have to go back so I can report on the other 75% of the bicycle department.


henryinamsterdam said...

Tokyo Hands is my favorite store in the whole world. I love their hobby sections: entire aisles of pieces of rubber, or balsa wood, or wire in every imaginable thickness/material/color. Or thousands of LED flashlights from cheap to amazingly expensive military stuff...

rhodeskc said...

When I went to Japan I really enjoyed the mobility that you had without a car. However, the one downside was that a bicycle could not be taken on the subway with you. No matter though - bikes were really cheap, readily available and had a bike registration system that was easy even for foreigners like myself to use. If I recall correctly, they would also return a bike that was recovered too.

Here is a photo of trendy Japan on a bike... with a bicycling policeman behind her.

administrador said...

Can Reelights lights be installed in a Brompton folding bike? Does the installation affect the Brompton’s folding system?

Adrienne Johnson said...

Thank you. I will have that damn song stuck in my head all day. And an uncontrollable desire to hit the Japanese Dollar store in Japantown where I will spend money on things for no better reason than the broken English on the packaging is just too damn funny.

Craig said...

I think you are somewhat exaggerating the selection available in Tokyu Hands, I presume you're talking about either the Shibuya or Shijuku branch. Their bicycle departments are quite small. Although you see a lot of bicycles here, this is by no means a cycle friendly society, roads and the drivers on them are often dangerous places for cyclists. There is very little concept of cyclist's rights and the police are inept at enforcing road safety. The bicycles you see at train stations are mostly cheapo low tech ones ridden by people smoking cigarettes, holding umbrellas and using cellphones to send text messages. The people riding these bikes have a very low concept of cycling safety or manners, helmets are completely out of the question. There are a fair number of road/mountain bike shops here too and any and all parts are available. taking bikes on trains can be difficult, but not impossible, they have to be partially taken apart and put in a bike bag. Companies often forbid employees to cycle to work because workplace insurance also covers the commute and they don't want the liability,besides most companies would be very unhappy if there workers showed up on bikes and needed to change/shower before work, instead of in business attire. Sorry for shooting down your travel experience and cute video, I just thought it needs to be clarified for those wishing to cycle in Japan or use Japan as a basis for arguing better cycling conditions at home.

Mikael said...

don't worry, you didn't shoot anything down, mostly because I don't agree with much of what you said.

why ridicule people who ride cheap bikes? japan is one of the world's great bicycle cultures because these regular people choose the bicycle. most of the bikes in denmark and holland are cheap and crap. that's the whole flipping point. taking away bicycle culture from the bikegeeks/gearheads and giving it to the people.

bike geeks are everywhere, but in Denmark, Holland and Japan, we have reached the tipping point where bicycle as transport is a normal and acceptable form of transport.

sure, japan needs more infrastructure and all the politicians I spoke with when I was there are aware of this.

it'll come. and it'll be easier to implement because of the organic critical mass that exists in japanese cities.

the tokyu hands store does have an amazing selection. if you know other department stores in japan, great. but i am comparing the selection in toyku hands with other countries, not other japanese stores.

Craig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rhodeskc said...

Mikael - Thank you for the post. I've been trying to find out the name of the Reelights for ages, after seeing one fitted to my friend's Brompton. I believe he had issues with the front light, but the back one works just fine. I've just ordered a set of SL150's, which will go well with my commuter bike, adhering to the ideal of "maintenance free and safe riding, regardless of the conditions" mantra that I have for that bike.

Mikael said...

rhodeskc : that's great to hear. and it's cool to hear that reelights can be fitted on a brompton. i've been trying to answer the other reader's question about that.

Herbert Tiemens said...

Hee there,
One month ago I was in Tokyo too, to lecture about Dutch cycling culture at BikeTope, an event to promote daily use of cycling. From my experience I don't think Tokyo is bicycle-heaven, although it is rather conveniant to cycle.
The longer I think of it, and the more I read about Tokyo, I see less reasons to get people in Tokyo more on a bicycle. Obesitas is not a reason (walking keeps you also healthy), CO2 is just a little reason (thanks to the best public transport in the world), and cylces take a lot of space. I don't have any knowledge about the suburbs or the countryside. I know that I like bicycles, and cycling in Tokyo. The video might give a false view about Tokyo, it is still rather nice.

Mikael said...

thanks herbert. i understand your point. many other japanese cities are well ahead regarding infrastructure and facilities. tokyo is a bit chaotic but i never feel in danger when cycling there and people on bicycles are wonderfully relaxed.

i understand your point about the video, but it was shot over a mere 40 minutes on a weekday evening. and i had to edit many other bicycles out to make it smooth and nice.

compared to basically any other city outside of denmark and holland, it's paradise.