How to Cycle Japanese Style

Byron Kidd

There is nothing worse when visiting a foreign country for the first time and looking like a tourist. As the majority of my readers are cyclists (and by “majority”, I mean six), who would like to cycle around Tokyo when they visit Japan, I have compiled this list of tips to help you fit right into Japanese cycling culture. No need to thank me.

Occupy one hand with something other than cycling at all times.
Most bicycles have two hand grips, it's a little known fact that in Japan one of those is considered a backup for use only when the first one fails.  Be it an umbrella, mobile phone, bag of groceries or a rubber chicken, always have one hand fully occupied at all times.  If you’ve nothing to carry then it is perfectly acceptable to cycle while picking your nose.
Cycling while holding an umbrella, common in Tokyo, Japan.
Do not, under any circumstances, maintain your brakes.
They’re delicate and should never be adjusted, ever.  Ideally, your brakes should emit a sound akin to fingers down a blackboard when applied. If you’re cycling correctly, i.e. your free hand is occupied with Angry Birds or nose picking, you must use your brakes rather than your bell to inform pedestrians of your impending collision.

Maintain correct tyre pressure.
You may not know it, but Japan has four seasons, Japanese people lack an enzyme that processes alcohol and air pressure works completely different over here.  With that in mind be careful never to over-inflate your tires to the point where they are actually round and firm.

Carry more than two children on your bicycle.
Everyone in Japan cycles with children in front and rear child seats, sometimes with a third child seat behind the handlebars. If you do the same you’ll stick right out as a try-hard tourist. Therefore, you should carry at least 4 children under the age of 9, and a small dog, to demonstrate just how comfortable you are with the idea of ferrying passengers around by bike. Trust me, you’ll blend right in.

Ride against traffic.
That way you’ll get a good fix on the number of the car that is most certainly going to kill you.

Set your seat height correctly.
When sitting stationary on your bicycle you should be able to place both feet firmly on the ground while remaining in your saddle with your knees bent at 90 degrees.

Pedal for maximum power.
This is a tip aimed at advanced riders who want to extract the most power form their pedal stroke.  With your saddle height set as described above, place your heels on the pedals with your feet pointing 90 degrees out from the frame and begin pedalling squares. Be sure to lean in the direction of the foot making the down-stroke or maximum efficiency.

Avoid noisy distractions.
Cycling requires concentration and you don’t want that to be broken by annoying noises. To block out distracting traffic noise, sirens, and shouts from that pedestrian you almost toppled (but didn’t notice because you were reading a newspaper held firmly in your freehand) you should always listen to music with earbuds, or ideally, noise-cancelling headphones.  If you’re not the musical type then wear fluffy earmuffs (yes, even in the summer).

These are just a handful of tips I could list off the top of my head.  For a more comprehensive list please feel free to pick up a bicycle safety pamphlet from your city hall and proceed to do the exact opposite of what it recommends.  Do that and you’ll be cycling like a local in no time at all.

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  1. Very good, but no one has four kids any more.

  2. That being said Simon, yesterday in Kyoto I saw a lady on a mamchari with 3 kids on board and two trailing on bicycles, I was so stunned by the youngest with training wheels I forgot to pull the camera out and take a photo, by the way it was on Gojo-dori near Karasumi-dori.This is day 5 in Kyoto on my bike and I have seen as many as a dozen mothers dragging between two and 4 kids around on bikes.

  3. One of the things I love about bicycles in Japan is that they re a part of every child's life from the moment they are born. Carted around on their mothers bicycle till they graduate to a bike of their own and trail their mother like a string of ducklings. By the time they're old enough to question cycling as a valid means of transport it is already too late, the bicycle is already an important part of their life.

  4. The whole post is true, and I am often as frustrated, but just remember the N.American alternative: few cycle, and doing so is made dangerous by the obese driving population.

  5. Don't wear a safety helmet or even think of putting one on those children your carrying.

  6. Hello Byron,

    Great Tweet subject. I am following as of today. My family and I lived in Japan, Kanto Plain, Kanagawi-Ken, for nearly a decade. The bicycling was terrific. We brought three bicycles home with us.

  7. The Japanese would have won WWII had theybused bicycles and umbrellas instead of Mitsubishi Zeroes and Samurai swords.

  8. You forgot to say that you should not at any time break a max speed of around 8km/h.

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