wooden bicycle
Kanemoku's wooden bikes are carefully handcrafted by artisans. (Kanemoku Industry Co.)

A Revival in Japan's Cycling Culture
February 4, 2003

More and more people are riding bicycles these days. They use them for shopping, leisure, and sports, and some also ride them to school or work. For a while, the popularity of cycling as a means of transportation was waning, and bicycle sales were in a slump. But lately bicycles have experienced a revival as an environmentally sound vehicle whose use promotes good health. Most of the new cycling fans are bypassing that old standby, the standard-issue errand bike, for new-breed bikes with stylish designs and fancy features.

Sales Chalk Up 40% Growth
Sales figures attest to the growing popularity of bicycles. The number of bicycles sold in Japan increased from 8.2 million in 1991 to 11.3 million in 2001 - almost 40% growth in 10 years. Of all the bicycles made worldwide, 10% are sold in Japan. Imported bicycles are riding the crest of the popularity wave: They had a 63% share (7.1 million bikes) of the sales in 2001, and this share has been growing.

The bikes at the center of the recent boom are being manufactured by automakers. They have fancy features and stylish designs and are comfortable to ride, making them appealing to office workers in their twenties and thirties. The best-selling models are manufactured by European makers like BMW and Peugeot; prices start at around ¥60,000 ($500 at ¥120 to the dollar) and go up to more than double that amount. Some models are a result of collaboration among companies. For example, the Bridgestone Moulton, a model sold only in Japan at this point, is a joint effort of Japan's Bridgestone Cycle and Alex Moulton Bicycles, a British maker of high-end bikes. Thirtysomething office workers in particular have taken a liking to it.

Debut of the Front-Wheel Drive
Domestic bicycle manufacturers are understandably eager to cash in on this boom. In the increasingly competitive arena, they are coming out with new models one after another, from bikes with new and improved gearing mechanisms to folding models that can be carried around easily.

Of note is a brewing battle in the market for motor-assisted bicycles. October 2002 saw the debut of a bike embodying a new concept. Whereas the conventional motorized bike uses a combination of motor power and human power to drive the rear wheel, the newcomer has a motor-powered front wheel and a human-powered back wheel. The front-wheel drive is said to provide more stability, particularly on upward slopes. The bike was developed by Bike Lab (site is Japanese only), a venture company founded by former Toyota engineers, and it is getting plenty of attention.

Wooden bicycles have also appeared. The frame is made of beech wood, and metal is used in a minimum number of parts, including the handles and pedals. The sports model is priced at ¥290,000 ($2,420). Built to order by Kanemoku Industry Co. (site is Japanese only), a woodworking company, the bikes attracted much interest when the department store chain Takashimaya exhibited them at its Nihonbashi branch in Tokyo and held a campaign accepting orders for a limited period of two weeks.

The Beauty of Bicycling to Work
One 36-year-old man has been riding by bicycle to his job in Tokyo for about five years now. He used to make the 12-km trip by train, but he switched to a bike for two reasons. One is that he simply got fed up with sardine-packed trains. As is well known, Tokyo's trains and subways can get quite insane during rush hour. The other is that he had been gaining weight since he started work and wanted to get back in shape. Now he no longer needs to pass through commuter hell daily, and he has also slimmed down. And he has found a new reason to ride by bike: "Frankly I like the feel of the wind and the sense of the seasons you get, even in the heart of the city."

Nagoya City Hall has turned its attention to bicycles as an environmentally friendly means of transportation. In 2001 it began offering its employees who commute by bicycle twice the normal transportation allowance, and this triggered a jump in the number of bike riders from 360 to 1,200. In addition to helping to curb air pollution, the policy is also reducing traffic congestion.

Cycling sports are becoming more popular. In the fall of 2001 the Japan Cycling Association held its first Tokyo City Cycling event, a tour around a 30-km course inside the city designed to appeal to casual riders. The sponsors were pleasantly surprised when as many as 1,100 riders showed up, far more than they had anticipated, though they had to scramble to make the event go smoothly. The second city tour took place in September 2002 and drew 1,200 participants. The association also organizes similar events for mountain bikers and serious cyclists, and all are attracting entrants in increasing numbers.

Copyright (c) 2003 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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