That thing about Japan I forgot to mention ages ago

Bicycle Tokyo Niseko from thomas on Vimeo.

The other day.. in May… last year.. we found ourselves in the Land of Sunrises and Cherry Blossoms. You know, Japan. A year on, and having recently moved back into Newcastle and doing a lot more urban riding, I’m reminded of how excellent Tokyo treats its citizens on two wheels relative to Australia.

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Yes, you heard me correctly. Let’s put things into perspective here. Tokyo, the city that fits Australia’s population into an area the size of Sydney does a better job at making getting around on a bike safe and stress-free. Tokyo’s sidewalks on its main boulevards are huge. We saw people riding on the sidewalks and on the roads, some with helmets, some without.

To be sure of what was legal, we thought best to ask when renting our small electric bikes. Initially we came unstuck by the language barrier, but after a few hand drawn sketches of a stick figure riding a bike on the sidewalk and furious nods and smiles followed by “OK OK” by our hosts, we felt good to go.

The main boulevards, we found, are flanked by smaller lane-ways where pedestrians, bicyclists, delivery vehicles, taxis and private vehicles mix with ease. In fact, just about everywhere it seemed, pedestrians and bicyclists were welcome.

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One of the smaller lane ways we encountered

What struck me was a legacy of catering for all transport modes and whether true or not, this is certainly how it felt–seamless. With so many people in one area, it is clear Tokyo has gone to great lengths to provide quality open space, superb streets and surprisingly, lots of greenery. Perhaps most delightful was happening upon a main boulevard completely shut off from vehicular traffic to accommodate the weekend crowds, not unlike the ‘Sunday Streets’ movement elsewhere.

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Combine these efforts with the legendary Japanese etiquette and you get a very comfortable bicycling experience. If you are yet to experience the wonder of Japanese politeness, I envy you. I envy you for the day you first encounter genuine mutual respect and patience among total strangers, social conduct that is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture. This politeness was as evident on the roads as it was on the sidewalks. Commonplace were bikes and belongings, unattended and unlocked.

Still, it has to be said our visit was short-lived and locals might say a lot more can be done for better bicycling. But our time in Tokyo (even if we just saw the “good bits”) showed us Australia has a long way to go if it is to better cater for pedestrians and bicyclists, particularly as private single occupant vehicles make less and less sense in our growing cities. Perhaps the most striking difference was what I call the ‘street experience’–namely, how pleasant it is to walk down a street where cars are not roaring past but instead moving at a speed respectable to other users of the world. And this street experience wasn’t reserved for selected shopping or cafe strips as in Oz, it was in fact commonplace.

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A main street closed to traffic

Outside of Tokyo, after trying our luck on the Spring snow speckled Niseko ski fields, we took the opportunity to hire e-bikes and ride around the township. A vastly different landscape from Tokyo unfolded before us, but certainly the experience was just as hassle free. Even out here, it seemed the sidewalks were made with cyclists in mind, even if a little rough around the edges and missing a connection here and there.

At the end of the day, I’m not saying the streets of Tokyo and the streets of Australia’s urban centres could or should be like for like. But one things for sure, there’s a lot to learn from the often overlooked, quietly achieving and totally chic Tokyo.

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