Tour De Holland to Flanders, Belgium in Tokyo

4/13/2015 Byron Kidd 0 Comments

Last Sunday 319 people and an equal number of bicycles gathered under clear blue skies in the tulip filled gardens of the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Tokyo to partake in the third Tour De Holland to Flanders, Belgium bicycle ride an annual event hosted by the embassies of the Netherlands and Belgium, sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.


I arrived slightly before 9am to find the gates of the Embassy flung wide open (a rare sight indeed) and dismounted to walk my bicycle down a slightly curving driveway lined with trees and flowering tulips to a courtyard filled with hundreds of cyclists all enjoying a complementary breakfast, coffee and Van Houten hot chocolate. I grabbed myself a coffee before joining Deputy Head of Mission Cees Roels for a chat and a stroll through the sea of parked bicycles which consisted of almost every style of bicycle imaginable, mountain bikes, road bikes, mamachari, folding bikes, cargo bikes, and more Dutch bikes than I could have believed existed in Tokyo. Surprising there were also a high number of DoCoMo bike share bicycles indicating quite a number of casual cyclists among the crowd.

It was not only the range of bicycles that was surprising, but also the range of riders. I learnt afterwards that of the 319 registered guests 43% were women, an unusually high number for a cycling event in Japan. Attendees ranged in age from under 10 to over 70 while the group consisted of people from all walks of life including middle age men tight fitting bike wear to ladies in frocks clearly enjoying the warm weather after a week of dreary wet days leading up to the event. (In its three year history, this event has consistently been rained on!)

After a photo opportunity with the heads of the respective embassies, sponsors and other high ranking officials the ride got underway with groups of 10 to 15 cyclists setting off at regular intervals through the embassy gates. Rather than having each group lead by someone who knew the route each rider was given a map, and volunteers were posted at regular intervals cheerfully announcing where to turn left, right or continue on. I quite enjoyed that style of ride as it gave me the freedom to stop for photos without holding up the group as I could easily join the  next line of riders who cruised on past or continue along alone in confidence that volunteers would see to it that I did not stray off course.

The 13 kilometre course began at the Dutch Embassy, and circled Tokyo Tower before heading in the direction of Toranomon Hills. No surprisingly not a single cyclist in my group took advantage of the shiny new, but dangerously narrow, bicycle lanes on Shintora Doori preferring to take their chances on the road instead. After a short stop at Hibiya Koen to collect the KLM stamp in our "passports" we continued on ast Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace where we mingled with even more cyclists enjoying 8 lanes of road closed to traffic on the Imperial Palace cycling course. From there we cycled through the gardens surrounding Nippon Budokan before winding our way through the backstreets, guided by even more cheerful volunteers before completing our journey at the Embassy of Belgium.

At the goal we were treated to Belgium waffles, fries and friendly conversation in the embassy's courtyard gardens. I took the opportunity to speak to as many European guests as I could to learn how they feel about cycling in Tokyo. The overwhelming consensus was the despite the lack of infrastructure it was a joy to cycle in Tokyo as the drivers were perceived to be more courteous to cyclists, something the people I spoke to attributed to the fact that the majority of motorists also being cyclists themselves. Others stated that suburban Tokyo's narrow streets acted as natural speed limiters for vehicles, and that the lack of sidewalks, forcing cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles to mix, did more to improve the situation for pedestrians and cyclists than worsen it.  Surprising comments indeed from nationals of countries with the finest cycling infrastructure on the planet.

But for me the highlight of the day was hearing Ambassadors Radinck J. van Vollenhoven and Luc Liebaut speak proudly of European cycling culture. Citing over 45,000 kilometres of cycling paths between their two countries they compelled Tokyo's cyclists to visit and experience cycling as it should be experienced everywhere. They also spoke briefly of the numerous benefits of cycling including social, economic and health benefits pointing out that cycling plays an important role in long life expectancies of Japanese citizens.

In short this was a wonderful event on so many levels. It gave many of us access to the beautiful embassy buildings and gardens which are normally off limits and also gave us the opportunity to share in conversation and exchange ideas with cyclists from many different countries, backgrounds and walks of life. Amusingly it allowed us to literally cycle from The Netherlands to Belgium without leaving Tokyo as technically the embassies are the territory of their respective nations.  But what I found most striking was how approachable, friendly and "normal" the Ambssadors and other top officials were, a point that was driven home at the end of the event after most people had already left when the Dutch Ambassador simply mounted his bicycle announced his departure and simply cycled off into the distance!













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