Osaka is Japan’s second largest metropolitan area after Tokyo, with over 19 million inhabitants, and is a favourite destination for travellers to the country. While tourists would normally take JR West and subway trains to reach attractions such as Osaka Castle and Dotonbori in the south, bike tour company Cycle Osaka has pushed cycling forward to become a preferred method for visitors to explore the city. We speak to its founder Sam Crofts about why Japan, and in particular Osaka, is best explored via bike.
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Japan, a nation of cyclists
Bicycles are widely used in Japan by individuals of all ages and demographics. “People tend to ride slowly and thoughtfully compared with other big cities around the world, and motorists tend not to see cyclists as the “enemy”, so city riding in Japan is pretty safe. It also helps that bike ownership is so high, because both pedestrians and motorists (since you can ride on most pedestrian streets as well as the roads) usually own bikes too and therefore have a more empathetic approach to sharing space. Of course, accidents can and do happen but we’ve never had a major one in four years and with over 10,000 customers, I think that speaks for itself,” explains Crofts.
Getting close to real life
Exploring the city by bike gives visitors a peek at how the locals live. Crofts describes, “You get to see school kids practising baseball, old women telling stories on the street and office workers sprinting between meetings – catching them while riding by gives you a really unique flavour of the personality and character of the city that people often miss. I found pretty much all of my favourite eateries in Osaka while out planning routes and deciding on places to take guests.”
And his favourite spots in his city? “I love Nakanoshima Park and Utsubo Park (below), one in the west and one in the east. Osaka has some great green spaces with hip cafes and amazing restaurants all around and most importantly, plenty of space for my two-year-old to run about since he can’t ride a bike yet.”
The Cycle Osaka experience
“We try and make it feel like visiting a friend in town. Expect a relaxed local guide who knows and loves the city to put some of the things you are seeing into context, expect some like-minded riders from different worlds, expect amazing food and a balance between the must-see sites and our own little favourites along the way. Expect to laugh and expect to take loads of pictures.”
A front light and a bell are required. “I have heard of police stopping people for the former, but never the latter,” adds Crofts. It is also necessary to register your bike with the local authority if riding privately. Helmets are mandatory for children under 13 but not for adults. “We have helmets, but leave the choice of whether or not to wear them to the individual, most choose not to as we are off the road most of the time.” In terms of clothing, Crofts suggests layers in winter and loose-fitting sporty clothes in summer. Jeans and long dresses should be avoided and if possible wear bright colours, to stay visible to both motorists and pedestrians.
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The bikes and safety procedures
Cycle Osaka has a number of different types of bikes but the majority of riders use the ‘Trek’ hybrid models, which are light and smooth, with plenty of gears. Also available are smaller folding bikes, kid’s bikes and e-bikes with electric assist and extra seats for babies and toddlers. Cycle Osaka does not operate in rain and will cancel and refund all bookings if substantial rain is forecast.
“We have a basic safety briefing at the start of every ride after guests are presented their bikes and have them adjusted for height. The briefing covers how to operate brakes and gears, but I suspect what is of more use is passing on our experience about how people in Osaka ride and how to deal with certain situations if they even arise. When that’s done, all that’s left really is to go out and enjoy the ride.”
– TEXT BY SAM CROFTS
PHOTOS: SUPPLIED, INSTAGRAM, CYCLE OSAKA FACEBOOK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.