Monthly Archives: March 2017

Why Cycle? Because it works!

Cycling in Japan is more about getting the groceries than getting fit.  –Byron Kidd, tokyobybike.com

Anytime we travel or do something out of the ordinary, it gives us a special perspective on our daily lives.  That was certainly the case when I traveled to Japan.  A few things dawned on me that are working in Japan to create a robust walking and cycling culture.  It’s not perfect, but I learned a lot there.  Here are ten reasons why walking and cycling are thriving in Japan.

1. Everyone walks and cycles.  It is a daily necessity, and expected.  It’s the way people go shopping, and to work and school.  It’s the way people access open space, get fresh air, exercise, and spend time outside together.  Walking and cycling are routine, everyday habits.  Errands and exercise flow together.

Seniors ride their bikes to Thai Chi practice in the park

2. Automobile drivers are disciplined, careful and attentive.  Drivers expect to see people on streets and crossing at intersections, and are prepared to yield to slower traffic ahead and when turning.   Drivers reliably use blinkers to communicate intentions.  Driver education and training is extensive and the responsibility of driving is taken seriously and respected.

3. Communities are planned as villages, and are oriented around train stations.  Businesses cluster around the train station, creating a village center.  People live within a short walk or bike from the village center and walking and cycling are the easiest, cheapest, most convenient way of getting to where you want to go, and the best way to access shopping and services.

4. Japan’s train system is awesome.  You really don’t need a car because it makes more sense to take the train.  Trains are accurate, frequent, fast, smooth and safe.  Quality transit makes good community planning a lot easier, and is a building block for healthy, efficient and sustainable transportation.  You have freedom to read, relax, talk or meditate on the train.

5.  Japan has the lowest car usage rate of any of the G8 countries.  This means roads are smaller.  Smaller roads necessitate lower speeds.  Lower speeds for cars means calmer streets for walking, cycling.  Reduced speed differentials increases safety and comfort.  Smaller roads are easier to cross, cycle on, and navigate, and do business along, and it feels like healthier human habitat.

6. Compact, dense development makes destinations closer.  Japan is more careful about space efficiency because space is precious.  With denser building, more destinations are within easy reach by walking and cycling.  Compact, dense development makes walking and cycling very useful, as well as super interesting.  Cars are designed to be space efficient, as well, and the nimbleness of walking and cycling is prized.

7. Japan has a great cycling culture naturally.  From school children to elderly, business people to homemakers, everybody cycles.  It’s just normal.  People cycle in their day clothes, and functional athletic gear, too.  Whatever is fitting.  Towns and businesses serve cyclists by making parking convenient and easy because it makes rational sense and people use bikes for everything.

8.  People walk everywhere, and people are used to sharing space.  Cycling benefits from a strong walking culture.  It means drivers are accustomed to the presence of people on the streets, are on the lookout, and patient to share.  Walking is the foundation of the transportation system in Japan, and it anchors the streets in a culture of sharing.  People have priority.

9. Safety and security is high.  Bicycles are usually parked with a simple lock immobilizing the rear tire.  Streets are family space, and feel inhabited.  Public spaces are clean, organized, cared for and well-tended.  The architecture, design and the way things fit together is beautiful.  There is a strong sense of social responsibility, order, respect and dignity in Japan.  It feels neat and safe.

10.  Walking and cycling is easy, convenient, and effective.  The Japanese take advantage of the most basic forms of transportation by using them as organizing principles and practical tools for daily living, including making people healthier, happier and connected to the community where they live.

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Cycling Japan lights my fire

“Touch is the greatest thing on earth. “ –Ray Charles

After five trips to Japan with Mai, on my sixth trip I finally cycled there.  It made all the difference.  This time I was determined to take time for cycling.  I rented a bike on two different occasions, and cycled about 460 kilometers.  Cycling put me in touch with a lot of things.  Here are a few photos and a sketch of my cycling experiences.  I’ll add more detail in my next posts.

My first ride in Japan was in Kagoshima with Mai.  We took a ferry across the bay to Sakurajima, an active volcano.  Mai rented a bike there and we pedaled together on a combination of paved paths, village and farm roads, and highways.  What a beautiful way to experience Japan.  The next day Mai connected me with a local professional cyclist through the bicycle shop I rented from, Fun Ride in Kagoshima, and he led me on a ride through the city and out into the hills.

The vistas from the hills above Kagoshima looking out onto the city, bay and Sakurajima were mesmerizing.  Japan is over 70% mountains, and has more land covered by forest than any countries other than Sweden and Finland.  So once you get out of town, the landscape is rural and a complete contrast to the busy cities.  There are many small farms, and nature abounds.

After two days of cycling in Kagoshima, we took the Shinkansen (high-speed rail) back to Osaka where Mai’s parents live.  I rented a bicycle there, and ventured into the mountains straddling the border between Osaka and Wakayama, Mount Izumi Katsuragi, in the Kongo Range.

I was delighted by the back roads.  There are so many byways from the foothills up the mountains that are only a lane or a lane in a half wide.  There is hardly any motorized traffic on them so it seems more like a mountain bike ride.  Very peaceful, quiet and enchanting.  There are roads like this in California such as Ebbetts Pass (though it has more traffic) but Japan has an incredible network of them.   I had some knowledge of these roads based on what I’d seen on maps and Google Earth, but cycling them gave me an entirely new understanding.

The access to the mountains from Osaka is pretty amazing.   Since it was the start of Spring, blooms were beginning and farmers were busy working their fields.  Schools were on break.  It was a great time to be cycling, and I can’t wait to go back and explore more.  Arigato Japan!

Walking the land and thriving

That which we are, we shall teach.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

tent-rocks-expansive

For President’s Day, Mai and I headed north towards Santa Fe.  Before ascending La Bajada we veered west and crossed the Río Grande.  Nestled against the Jemez Mountains, there’s an unlikely place where volcanic pumice, tuff and ash cliffs have eroded into conical forms. This place is called Kasha-Katuwe, meaning “white cliffs” in the Keresan language of the Pueblo de Cochiti.  It’s also called Tent Rocks.  We took a hike there, and walked into surprising beauty.


this song by Gil and Cartas reminds me of walking in beauty

tent-rocks-climbing-the-canyon

It felt so good to get out of the car and walk into the fresh air.  Our legs reached for the land like a tree grows to light.  The trail begins at the base of the white cliffs.  We walked through juniper and piñon forest.  Then we entered a canyon, which narrows down to a slot several stories high and barely wide enough to walk through.  The trail curves around rock, its way carved by water.  It seems an improbable passage but it leads out into open higher ground.

tent-rocks-emerging-from-canyon

tent-rocks-perspective-from-slot

Unexpectedly we found ourselves at eye level with the tops of the “tent rocks”.  The last steep pitch delivered us to the plateau above the tent rocks and awesome views of the Southwest’s grandeur and splendor.  We gazed at mountains all around, the Sandia Crest above Albuquerque, the Sangre de Cristo above Santa Fe, and volcanic peaks of the Jemez Mountains.

tent-rocks-hello

tent-rocks-overview-with-cochiti-kids-climbing

At the top we sat on a rock and drank water.  A group of school kids climbed up the trail just behind us, and their teacher sat on a rock next to us.  The class was from the Cochiti Pueblo.  The kids had the day off from school.  They were wearing shirts with a slogan about being healthy and fit.  Their teacher said activities like this were helping the kids realize their powers to live a healthy life.  The kids were catching the wind, smiling, enjoying the day.  An experience like this walk helps us get acquainted with ourselves and the living land community first hand.  As humans we are constituted to walk.  It fills us with insight.  We inhabit the heart of nature.    When we joyfully obey this enthusiasm, we find ourselves in new country, walking into health.

tent-rocks-sandia-in-view