The terrain around Saga city, the major city in Saga prefecture, is decidedly flat. As far as I have found, the only two hills are the railway viaduct on the South bypass road, and a slight incline up to the Tafuse River bridge, past the Glico chocolate factory. Most Japanese cities, with few exceptions, are like this. Strange, when you consider how mountainous Japan is. But building cities in the steep mountains of Japan is not very practical, given the amount it can rain, and the propensity for earthquakes. Flat, hill-less cities lend themselves to bicycle riding. And Japanese people have certainly taken to doing that with a vengeance. In almost every city in Japan, the bicycle rules the road, and very often the footpath, too. As you can see if you look at the amount of machines parked daily outside railway stations and shopping malls, or in the sheds at schools, or outside the lecture rooms at universities. Even propped up against signs warning owners of the dire consequences of leaving their bike there (the dire consequences are usually an attached label warning them personally).
All age groups in Japan ride bicycles. From octogenarians pushing home with a basket full of shopping, to kindergarten children buzzing around the car park of our apartments on tiny two-wheelers equipped with trainer wheels. Not to forget the myriad's of high school children, who ride in regimented groups, or more commonly for girls, in perfectly synchronized pairs, each holding their mobile phone in one hand, tapping out text messages on the move.
The strangest thing to me is the kind of bicycles that people here ride. The very old-fashioned kind. This is the land of high technology, and Japanese manufacturing companies like Shimano, and Shogun, very successfully manufacture high tech bicycle parts and bicycles. And Japan has a thriving bike racing scene, from where the sport of Keiran racing originated. But you almost never see those kind of bicycles being used for daily transport. You do see some mountain bikes on the street, usually being ridden by a foreigner, stationed in towns and cities all over Japan as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), occasionally ridden by young Japanese men. And young boys often ride a junior version of a mountain bike, but seem to resort to the conventional style when they get to high school. I think the ratio of old fashioned, narrow tyred, large wheeled, step-through bicycles with front baskets, compared to 'cool' style bikes, would be about one thousand to one. There has been a recent trend to small, folding bicycles, which are considered cool, but are really only suited to short journeys, as they require a lot of pedal effort per kilometre. They do transport well in the back of most cars, though, which is one reason for their popularity. And they are easier to put away safely, minimizing theft. But they are still far outnumbered by the normal Japanese bicycle.
These old-fashioned style bicycles are very practical in Japan. You can easily stop and stand at the many traffic signals without the need to get off the seat, just by putting one foot on the ground. And you can carry a huge stack of books to and from cram school every evening in the substantial baskets often fitted both front and back. And Japanese people tend to ride quite slowly and steadily, rather than swinging rapidly along the narrow roads and lane-ways that are unavoidable here in any journey. The amount of car traffic, and the frequency of blind access points, makes riding fast a very dangerous proposition. So comfort always takes precedence over speed. Another common site is young mothers, and grandparents of both sexes, transporting children in special child seats that replace the front or back, and sometimes front and back, baskets. And the old fashioned bicycle is often used to take the dog for a walk, when the owner doesn't feel up to walking himself.
New laws in Japan that require a payment to the local council any time that you get rid of any large goods, such as a fridge, or washing machine, or sofa, or even a bicycle, have created a new 'crime'. Abandoned bicycles. When it no longer works, rather than put it out in the rubbish, which would mean a levied payment, ex-owners just push the broken machine into the bushes, or more brazenly still, just leave it against an electricity pole somewhere in the suburbs, far from their home. Bicycle theft is a common crime in Japan, too, as far as any crime can be common in this very law-abiding society.
The majority of bicycle theft seems to be of the single-use variety, rather than a desire to permanently own a better machine. Intoxicated salary men coming home from bars, too drunk or too lazy to walk, and students walking out of cram school in a state of study-induced stupor, who cannot face the walk home in the cold. Easier to just 'borrow' any unlocked bicycle that will easily be found nearby, and leave it propped up against a fence close to the end of the journey. And there it will often stay, unfound, until the tyres go flat, and the rust sets in, and it becomes another 'abandoned' bicycle.
Some local councils have started a worthy scheme to collect abandoned and unclaimed bicycles, repair them, paint them a distinctive colour, and make them available to anybody who needs them on a short term loan. This is done with the intention of removing the eyesore, and hopefully reducing the rate of theft.
The doctors that I teach English to at the local Medical University told me an unusual and sad local story. As Saga is an agricultural area, small rice fields abound in the urban area of the city. They are often set three or four feet below the footpath level, so they can retain the water needed to grow rice. And usually these fields are not fenced. One of the major causes of serious injury, even death, in Saga, is drunken men riding bicycles off the cliff-edged footpath into a rice field in the dark, and seriously breaking bones, or even their necks.
Regardless how much Japan leads the world in consumer technology, the old-fashioned bicycle seems destined to remain a part of the flat cityscapes of Japan. It is just too convenient, comfortable and practical to change. And Japanese women look much more elegant on them than they could possibly look on a multi-geared, high-speed, 'cool' racing or mountain bike.
All photos (from top, left to right)
Click on any photo in the text to enlarge it.
(1). Conventional, old-fashioned bicycle still preferred by the vast majority of Japanese people, young and old. (2). Young women taking a rest from cycling along the river in Kyoto, an elderly man relaxing in Kono Park, Saga. (3). To see a group of three mountain bikes in Shinjuku, Tokyo, probably means three 'gaijin' on a night out. (4). Folding bicyclas for sale in a Saga shop, and students' bicycles outside a lecture theatre on campus. (5). An abandoned wreck in the forest. (6). Green-painted loan bicycles, and a stack of abandoned bikes. Their condition suggests they may have been left after theft, rather than abandoned due to malfunction. (7). A typical scene, a Kyoto restaurant with obligatory bicycle in the laneway, a sign imploring owners not to park their bicycles, and children's bicycles, which they quickly give up for convention by High School age.