The eyes of the cycling world may be turning this week to the climax of the Tour de France, yet I think that the love affair between Japan and bicycles is one that deserves much greater international appreciation.
In the West, I hardly ever get on a bicycle — I certainly would not fancy cycling along Britain’s busy streets on one. Yet transport me to Japan and every day I am to be found whizzing around the quiet, bike-friendly back streets of the suburbs on my trusty mama-chari (shopping bike — literally, “moms’ bike”), performing every errand from getting the groceries to posting letters.
Life in Japan would be virtually unthinkable without a bike — the great expanse of suburbs assumes that you will navigate your way around them by a combination of train and bike. Japanese society and culture seem intrinsically suited to bicycles, which require a degree of safety of environment and intimacy that are alien to many thunderously car-based, brash and crime-ridden Western societies.
But it is not just the cycling environment in Japan that appeals but the bikes themselves. I adore the brilliant convenience of mama-chari shopping bikes, with their thoughtfully integrated front basket, bell, light, mud guards and rack. They are a design classic. In the West, such bikes are far more difficult to find. Instead, “cyclists” appear to be a breed of obsessives in Lycra outfits on mountain bikes and racers. In the West, cycling is a palaver; in Japan it is second nature to everyone.
The bicycle is not only essential for suburban life in Japan, it is also one of the very best ways of exploring the country itself. I know this because back in my student days, I attempted my own Japanese version of the Tour de France and, needless to say, my cycling odyssey did not occur on a racing bike but on the rather more carnivalesque form of a mama-chari.
When I was 20, not only did I cycle on my own from Tokyo to Osaka on a shopping bike, but I took all my worldly belongings with me. The experience had a profound impact on the way I perceived Japan itself.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to every prefecture in Japan and tried a wide variety of means of transport. I once spent two months walking around the northeastern region of Tohoku; I’ve hitchhiked all over the island of Shikoku and driven a car around the regions of Chugoku and Kyushu. I’ve bullet-trained here and there, taken boats to remote islands in the Sea of Japan and flown around the islands of Okinawa. But perhaps the greatest adventure you can have in Japan is to just get on a shopping bike, choose a direction and start to pedal.
My ‘Tour de Japon’
My Tokyo-to-Osaka meandering happened way back in my student days, when I spent an unhappy term at the International Christian University in Tokyo. I was living in a grim, bathless six-mat room by a railway line, towered over by enormous electricity pylons, in a distant western suburb of Tokyo.
It was just about endurable, but then immediately before Christmas a parcel arrived from my family in England. I opened it and discovered a variety of wrapped-up Christmas gifts, which soon lay forlornly on the floor of my desolate room and made me think all the more acutely of the people I was missing in England. Letters from a girlfriend back home had stopped arriving, and having begun to strongly identify Tokyo with unhappiness, I determined that I needed to escape.
I resolved that I would move to Kyoto and start over. But I did not particularly want to buy an expensive train ticket to get there, and besides, what would I do with my various belongings? Most of all, what would I do with the new shopping bike I had bought since I had arrived in Tokyo — my chief means of getting around? With the type of reckless sense of adventure and ruthless penny-pinching characteristic of youth, I decided I might as well cycle to Kyoto and take all my belongings with me.
Like all sturdy Japanese shopping bikes — a possession owned by just about every member of every suburban family in Japan — my bike had a strong wire basket at the front big enough to fit a shoulder bag and a rack at the back where I could tie on any extras. My luggage was not exactly Louis Vuitton: My books and other belongings were tied up in plastic bags and strapped to the rack.
It was morning on New Year’s Day. A new year and a new start was firmly in my head. If I had been more practically minded, it might have occurred to me that I was setting off during some major Japanese public holidays when lots of people were on the move and accommodations everywhere were completely booked out.
On that first day, fairly late in the evening, I arrived in Kamakura and made my way along the beach to the youth hostel — the cheapest accommodation in town. I was quickly disabused of the notion that I would be allowed to stay. Did I not know what a major holiday it was, and that the hostel had been booked out for months in advance?, they asked me with incredulity.
Increasingly desperate, I presented myself at the local fire station, where the crew were sitting around a brazier keeping themselves warm. I think they recognized in me a young man in need of rescue, and before I knew it I was taken home to spend the night at the house of one of the crew. I plunged into the warmth of white sheets and duvet and awoke to discover sunshine cascading in through the window as my kindly savior presented me with hot coffee and buttered toast.
Here was a prime example of why travel by bike is so suited to life in this country: Japan is a nation not of “great drives” and sweeping vistas, but of small-scale human intimacy, where personal endeavors and eccentricity are kindly appraised and indulged.
It would be the first, but by no means the last, time in my travels when the extraordinary kindness of the Japanese towards a complete stranger on his overloaded shopping bike manifested itself. From that very first day, the darkness and isolation of Tokyo was replaced with bright sunshine and the human warmth of the people I encountered along the way.
I passed a few happy days wandering the temples of Kamakura — I did eventually move into the youth hostel — and then took to the bike again and headed along the coast towards the Izu Peninsula. I threaded my way up mountain roads lined with forests and through rice paddy fields to arrive at charming villages. I picked and ate the mikan oranges hanging thickly from branches as I went.
I was navigating by means of a Japanese road map book I had bought at a petrol station. I remember I took a diversion up the steeply ascending, winding road to the mountain resort of Hakone and popped into the historic and highly expensive Fujiya Hotel, where celebrities from Charlie Chaplin and Yukio Mishima to John Lennon had once stayed. (It would be 20 years before I could afford to stay there myself.)
You might be wondering how it is possible to cycle a shopping bike without gears up steep mountain roads — and here I had a cunning strategy: I got off and pushed. Being young and full of energy helped too.
At a youth hostel on a windswept peninsula I hung out with a group of bikers, and as I moved towards the Kansai region, I found myself staying at a remote temple, run by a very stern-looking young priest and his strangely matched Australian wife, who must have found the isolation burdensome and yearned for contact with a wider world.
In Nara Prefecture I stayed at a remarkable commune in the wilds of the countryside where they looked after people with mental disabilities and had minimal contact with the outside world. I stayed with them for about a month and greatly improved my Japanese while I was there.
To penetrate the dense fabric of Japanese topography and culture, I found the “slow travel” of the bicycle the perfect instrument. I would have interacted with “hidden Japan” far less had I been whizzing around in a car.
And then I took to my shopping bike again, and after exploring the temples and historic sites of Nara and the Byodoin at Uji, I finally reached my promised land of Osaka. This vast commercial city, so hard to get one’s bearings in at first, made an instant impression upon me. It seemed strangely impenetrable — an enigma — and this piqued my interest. It left me with a passion to discover unshowy, heart-and-soul Osaka that has stayed with me to this day.
I finally freewheeled on my shopping bike into Kyoto — a true cyclist’s mecca — and started a new life in the suburb of Uzumasa. Superficially, not much had changed. I was still living in a tiny six-mat room with no air conditioning — this room did not even have its own toilet — yet I now cycled into the center of Kyoto every day and had the run of its temples and shrines and riverside paths. At the youth hostel I stayed at in Kyoto I met my first Japanese girlfriend. I commuted to a university in Osaka — much less regarded than the one I had attended in Tokyo — but one I found far more to my taste. I felt as if I had reconnected to a sense of community in Japan and to a true sense of self, which has never left me.
Eventually I would move again to the port city of Kobe and my sense of Kansai identity would be complete.
These days I believe there is no greater happiness than flying around Japanese suburbs on a shopping bike. I rarely now try to mount my entire worldly belongings on it, though I have, one after another, balanced each of my three children — which is arguably even more of an adventurous undertaking than anything I attempted in my youthful wanderings, and certainly more than anything they are attempting on wobbly bikes in France this week.
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