"Bicycle" by Queen could be an anthem for the entire country of Japan. For the last week I've had it stuck in my head... Bicycles are still the most popular way to get around Kyoto probably because the sidewalks are maintained, people don't often steal them and they are a great way to stay in shape. I suspect that at birth the Japanese are immediately presented with a tiny little bike. Kyoto citizens of all ages seem to commute on bikes. There are all types of strange bike accessories to accommodate the different needs that one might have while biking. Biking at night? blinking light! Biking in the rain? umbrella holder! One of my favorite gadgets is a headrest for children so when they fall asleep in a bike they have a pillow. These come in a variety of different cartoon characters.
When I arrived here at the dorm, Okasan and Otousan (Mom and Dad in Japanese) offered me a bike for the time being. I'm very grateful they had a spare because I was able to ride around with the other English speaking girls instead of taking the train or traveling on my own. It gave me a good chance to get to know the city and the other exchange students. Unfortunately, the bike's breaks are a little shot.... and by a little I mean the back one doesn't work and the front one makes a horrible screeching sound. (rusty door+ imminent danger= my breaks )
Here's me with my original bike. It had many of the features one would want in a bike; a basket, chain guard, lady handles, a nice bell... but I kind of wanted breaks.
The other exchange students and I talked over our dilemma. Most of them were in a similar situation using a bike that was a little dangerous for downtown Kyoto. We decided to investigate our options. We looked at many used bike shops and also some new bike shops, such as this one. I can't imagine there being a shop just of bikes this large in the US. The prices range from about 12,000 yen to 300,000 yen.
It's hard to get a good idea of how popular the bikes are until you try to park yours and just see lines and lines of bikes. Here's some of the bikes at school. I started looking to see what other students had and investigating the many interesting varieties of the Japanese bicycle.
Here's is a very popular option: The folding bike. The hinge in the middle allows you to fold the bike in two and take it on the subway or get a little bag for it and carry it. I'm not sure if these are used in the states but they are supposedly very comfy to ride. The wheels are smaller than normal bike tires but both men and women gracefully ride these.
This is more of a road or racing bike. It has a very light frame and seat. This one also has some gears and is without a gear cover. This particular bike is made by a company based in Kyoto. These bikes are very expensive but also of a very high quality. Having a road bike to get around is practical in Kyoto because cyclists often ride on the sidewalk. This seems to be more of a masculine bike or a bike for the serious bike enthusiast.
Here's a photo of a bike I found that shows what a typical child's seat looks like on a bike. In Japan the kids tend to ride on the front of the bike instead of the back. However, if there are two kids then one will be in the front and one in the back. This bike also has a an electric assistance on it... maybe for going up hills?
I had to include this one because it's a Hello Kitty bike!! It's hard to tell the scale but this bike is quite little and meant for adults. Us Non Japanese people have noticed that bikes are ridden very low here. I was always taught to put the bike seat up so that your legs can be nearly straight when peddling. That's not common here and as a result you see a lot of people riding tiny bikes and its very hard to find a bike that is larger. This is not really a problem for me because I'm only 5'4", but it is a problem if you're taller than the average Japanese person.
After lots of looking and test driving I decided on what I wanted in a bike and splurged for this bike from the Eiren bike store in Downtown Kyoto.
I think the real charm of these bikes is that they exist in a culture that is so caught up in technology and innovation. Although there are much more snazzy bikes, there is still an appreciation for bikes such as this one. Although it is without gears it does pretty well going uphill and I manage to carry all of my groceries home in the basket or anything else I purchase. So far I'm really enjoying living somewhere that is so bike friendly.