A reality for many coming to Japan—even in Gunma, which boasts the highest number of cars per capita in mainland Japan—is that a bicycle becomes one’s main form of transportation.
What’s more, because bikes are so common, most major rivers are lined with bike paths, drivers are (typically) more courteous to bikers than many are used to, and so even people with cars take up biking as a pastime.
Regardless of whether you use your bike for utility, leisure or both, picking the right bike is extremely important. Many of you will come to Japan and inherit a free bike from your predecessor. Most often, this will be a mamachari—a town bike or “granny bike”. While this inherited bike is often free or very cheap, it may not be right for you. Picking the right bike that not only fits your intended use but also fits your body is extremely important, and can mean the difference between loving and hating your bike.
What does it matter? A bike’s a bike, right?
Sadly, it isn’t so simple. While yes, anyone can ride any bike (within reason), choosing a bike that is the proper size and style for your intended use is extremely important. It’s like choosing a proper shoe—it needs to not only match how you will use it, but the size and fit have to be right. Thus, the most important thing to do before deciding whether to keep that mamachari you inherited, or before buying a new bike, is to decide whether it’s properly sized. Then you should decide how you want to use your bike. This article has been designed to give you an idea of what to look for; however, particularly in deciding whether to buy more expensive bikes, you should do sufficient research on your own to help you in your decision.
Choosing a bike, Part 1: The importance of sizing
Even if you can inherit, you should make sure you’re getting a properly-sized bike.
If you’re not, you should probably considering buying one yourself, even if it is a cheap, used bike. If your bike is improperly sized, you run several risks:
- Safety risks—it’s easier to lose control, slide off the seat, have your foot slip off the pedal, etc. In general, you run a much higher risk of crashing, or being crashed into, if you’re on an improperly sized bike.
- Injury risks—in addition to injuries from low safety, the simple act of riding an improperly sized bike can cause strain or injury to your muscles and other parts of your body. Even after relatively short rides you might find your knees, legs, or butt hurting, and you could come to hate your painful bike.
- Inefficiency risks—even if you don’t manage to injure yourself or feel any discomfort, you will be much less efficient on an improperly sized bike. Hills will seem harder no matter how many gears you have and you’ll never get as much power or speed out of your bike as you should.
If you buy at a bike shop, they should help you choose a proper size, as well as adjust it properly. When inheriting, keep in mind that if something “looks right” or “feels comfortable” at first, it may still be improperly sized or adjusted, so it’s best to head over to your local shop and ask for an opinion on the sizing and get help in adjusting.
Choosing a bike, Part 2: What type of bike is for me?
As mentioned above, a bike is like a shoe—you want not only one that will fit, but one that will match your usage. Below, I’ve devised six categories of bike riding—the first three are more “casual” forms of riding, the second three more “serious”. These are, of course, my ideas, and so neither “professional” nor end-all-be-all classifications. After deciding which categories apply to you, you can decide what type of bike best fits your needs.
- Transportation—you use your bike to go to work, to get groceries, to go to the station. You might ride a far distance (less than one hour) occasionally.
- Casual exercise—you use your bike as a non-strenuous way to keep fit. Your goal is movement. You might ride to multiple stores to find the best deals, or bike a little ways into downtown instead of taking the bus.
- Exploring—you like to explore your area by bike. You sometimes take longer rides. You spend more than an hour on your bike, but get off frequently.
- Serious transportation—you use your bike not only to get to and from work and around town, but you ride it to neighboring towns, sometimes as far as a few hours away. Your bike is your main form of transport for both short and medium distances.
- Serious exercise—biking is your main form of exercise. You bike harder and faster to lose weight or for training goals. You are often on your bike for long distances, and/or at high speeds.
- Bike touring (“serious exploring”)—you get on your bike and head somewhere farther than most people would ride. You throw your bike in your car (or in a bike bag and onto a train) and go to ride around and explore a new area. You often spend many kilometers and hours on your bike in one day. You may even take multi-day trips.
Next are descriptions and pictures of the common types of bikes. Under each heading, I’ve included the usage category from above that best fits each type of bike. Additionally, potential uses (those that are a “half fit”) for each type are included in parentheses. By comparing your usage and the description of the bike, you can best decide which is for you.
Mamachari (city bike)
Usage: Transportation (Casual Exercise, Exploring)
This is the type of bike you most commonly see in Japan, as well as in cities around the world. They are designed for daily, local rides—shorter-distance commutes, trips to the nearby grocery store or shopping center, trips to visit friends who live locally. They often feature only one, or a very low number, of gears. They are affixed with a basket and/or a rear rack for hauling goods. The seat is typically wide and squishy, often with springs, and is designed to absorb the shock of going on/off sidewalks, over road bumps or dips, etc., and so is comfortable over short distances. Normally, you travel at lower speeds, around 10–15kph.
Major Benefits: You can often find them relatively cheap, particularly used. You can haul luggage in the basket or on the racks. You’ll “fit in” with most others you see on bikes, and even those tiny bike repair places can do basic repair/maintenance.
Major Drawbacks: Less thought on the ergonomics of the bike, so longer distances can be difficult or painful. Little or no gearing for hills. If you’re taller than an “average man” in Japan (about 175 cm, give or take) finding a proper size can be difficult or expensive.
Basic folding bike
Usage: Transportation (Exploring)
These small bikes are becoming more common, particularly in cities. The frames are small and collapse after undoing a few clips, so they are great if you haul your bike in your car, or live somewhere where it would be more efficient or necessary to store it inside. They are similar to mamachari in that they are designed for everyday use, although they may or may not have luggage capabilities.
Major Benefits: Small, collapsible, and fairly cheap. You can put it in a bag (sold separately, of course) and take it on most train lines for free.
Major Drawbacks: They are “one size fits all,” so if you’re taller or bigger you might find riding uncomfortable or difficult.
Usage: Transportation, Casual Exercise, Exploring, Serious Transportation, Serious Exercise, Bike Touring
If you’re looking at the usage for this type and thinking, “cross bikes can be used for anything,” then you’re pretty much right. Cross bikes take the best of several types of bikes and mash them together to create a bike that is as multi-purpose as possible. From road bikes, they take a lighter frame, higher gearing, thinner wheels, and a harder, more ergonomic seat, to allow for distance riding at higher speeds. From mountain bikes they take higher frame durability and a more upright-position (good if you’re not used to road bikes). Often, you can purchase a rear rack and sometimes a front rack for hauling luggage. If you’re interested in using your bike for more than just day-to-day commuting/shopping—particularly if you live in more hilly areas—then a cross bike can be very useful.
Major Benefits: Highly versatile. Lots of gears for climbing hills and cranking up speed, optional racks for storing gear, easy to use over either short or long distance.
Major Downside: Price is higher than mamachari or folding bikes. Used bikes can be more difficult to find, and start from around ¥35,000. New bikes start from around ¥60,000. Although some can be fitted with mountain bike tires, most are made mainly for paved routes or the occasional cinder path.
Usage: Serious Exercise (Transportation; Bike Touring; Exploring)
These bikes are built pretty much for one reason and one reason only: speed. Their frames are extremely light (think balance on two fingers without effort), their tires extremely thin and with little traction, and they typically have anywhere from around 20–30 gears to help you challenge any speed or slope. Most often they come with “drop” bars, allowing you to create the most streamlined form possible when cruising downhill, and typically the saddle is higher than the handlebars for the same reason. If you’ve never ridden a road bike before, it can take time and practice to become used to (or even unafraid of) the different position. In general, road/racing bikes are for serious bikers, not for everyday or leisurely biking.
Major Benefits: Fast, easy to climb hills and rack up the kilometers going downhill.
Major Disadvantages: Expensive; prices start around ¥40,000 used, ¥75,000 new, for low-end bikes. No potential for luggage. Body position makes it difficult to carry a pack, and can be difficult/scary for those not accustomed to it.
Usage: Transportation, Casual Exercise, Exploring, (Serious Transportation, Serious Exercise, Bike Touring)
Mountain Bikes resemble cross bikes in many ways, and can often be used similarly. The major difference is that the frames are bulkier and heavier, and the tires wider with more grip, to handle most types of terrain. Prices are similar to that of a cross-bike, although there are some cheaper models around. If you’re looking to do any off-roading with your bike, you’ll likely want a mountain bike.
Major Benefits: High stability, several gears for handling hills, and can be used on most terrain.
Major Drawbacks: Can get expensive. You might not find as many locations where a mountain bike is required. Are not always designed for long-distance, road riding (if you’re interested in that).
Choosing a bike, Part 3: Choosing the right size
The easiest way to choose a proper size is to go to a respectable bike shop and ask for their opinion. In your city or town, there may be many shops of varying sizes, so it’s best to ask local ALTs or your co-workers for their opinions, as there are shops that are truly knowledgeable and versatile, and those that exist almost exclusive to quickly hand off a bike or patch a tire for students and commuters. In any case, the most important thing is to make sure you give a potential bike a test ride—to go back to the shoe analogy, you wouldn’t buy a shoe without ever even taking a few steps in it, so you shouldn’t buy a bike without giving it a try.
If you would like to know more before buying, the first thing to do is choose a proper frame size. Different types of bikes often have different ways of measuring frame size, so knowing the type of bike you will ride is important. After that, take a look at this page to find the suggested frame size.
If you are buying a road, cross, or mountain bike, you may also have a choice between a frame where the seat is closer to or farther from the handlebars, handlebar height, and a few other details to ensure you are getting the best and most comfortable ride position for your body type. Also, many of these details can be adjusted to some extent, so if a seat feels too far away or the handlebars too low, make sure to express that to the seller as they can likely adjust it. In the end, if something feels noticeably wrong you should try a different model or adjustment.
Once you have your bike
The things you can do with your bike, particularly in Japan, are limitless. Whether you want to go to the mall, bike to Tokyo, or—if you’re really serious—bike the entire length of Japan, you can guarantee there is a ride out there for you. If you’re interested in more intense biking, you can try out this article, written by another Gunma JET about her experience, or keep a look out next month for an article on more leisurely biking and bike routes. You can also look on the internet for more ideas.
Biking for more than just utility is becoming more and more popular around the world; more and more Japanese bikers are sharing information in English, and more and more foreigner bikers in Japan are sharing their routes, stories, and information.