City Cycling: Tokyo Style

I’ve taken a recent hiatus from this blog because I was visiting my brother in Tokyo, which is home to 13 million people (nearly the entire population of the Netherlands,) and where there were more than enough bicycles to keep my camera occupied.  Japan boasts roughly 86 million cyclists and when visiting Tokyo, it’s quickly clear how urban cycling has a foothold here.

I’d heard before arriving that Japanese bikes weren’t that cool, reflected by the Japanese phrase mama cherry, which means an old-fashioned, sturdy-looking bike, perfect for a mother carting her children to school—very much like the Dutch equivalent the oma fiets, literally: grandma bike. But there was incredible variety, as you might expect in a major metropolis. This is a photo of a bike parking lot just around the corner from my brother’s house. At the back, you can just see the parking attendant, who was busy sweeping falling leaves off bike seats and generally looking out for thieves:

Bikes in a 'bike lot'

And here’s an example of a woman on a mama cherry:

The mama cherry in action...

I have always loved/hated the Japanese penchant for being brand whores, but in this case, found it both amusing and ironic:

driving the point home

A commuter, mask and high heels at the ready:

And for good measure, a unicyclist (hey, one wheel still counts!) who was entertaining crowds at the Japanese aquarium:


Despite the prevalence of bicycles, Japanese cycling laws are rather obscure, though the police typically turn a blind eye until someone gets hurt. Then it’s time for hefty fines and even imprisonment—c’mon, a policeman’s gotta do his job. Some examples are: for riding two to a bike, which is typical in the Netherlands and has probably helped solidify many friendships and romances over the years, you could be fined up to 20,000 yen (roughly 200 euros); ignore a red light or stop sign, which Dutch cyclists claim as a birthright, and you could face 3 months in the slinger and a 50,000 yen (roughly 500 euro) fine. There’s also riding drunk, using a cell phone, umbrella or iPod, which the Dutch do with panache (well, not sure about the drinking but they certainly smoke whilst above spokes.)

Witnessing so many bikes in Tokyo was inspiring, though in my experience, little compares to Amsterdam and Copenhagen for sheer volumes charging through any given intersection. Still, I hope Tokyo serves as an example to other cities because being able to cycle, whether for commuting purposes or enjoying the cityscape, makes a city truly livable And this is the direction we eventually need to go to make life sustainable.



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