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Choosing your own bicycle in Japan

From folding bikes to road bikes and everything else in between.

By 4 min read

Japan is a country for people who love bicycles. High gas prices, convenient roads, and safety laws make cycling a cheaper alternative than cars or trains for many people.

Moreover, riding bicycles allows you to explore anything interesting en route and get a more local feel while connecting the major points of interest in any big city or neighborhood.

The question is: Which bicycle is best for you? Choosing a bike can be confusing, but we’ve narrowed it down to what kind of riding you plan to do, your lifestyle and your budget.

How to choose your bike

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Join the club!

The most important thing to consider is the purpose of your rides. Are you planning to use your bike only to get to the supermarket or the station? Then perhaps a trusty mama-chari (mom’s bike) is the right bike for you. Regarding your lifestyle, road bikes are a better match if you’re looking to get more fit and cover longer distances.

Next, think about your budget. Second-hand shops in your area or Sayonara sales groups on Facebook might yield something reasonable, but this is usually a hit-or-miss situation. On the other hand, buying brand new gives you the luxury of choice. Mama-charis are the cheapest option, with single-speed bikes starting at ¥20,000. Depending on the brand, road bikes in Japan are around ¥80,000. Some of them are even on par with the price of a motorcycle.

Types of bikes

While there are tons of other types of bikes from single-speed city bikes to custom steel models, we round up the four of the most common types you’ll see on the road.

Mama-chari

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This “chariot” is the ultimate definition of a utilitarian ride.

If you only plan to use your bike to ride short distances to your local supermarket or train station, consider a mama-chari. A mama-chari is Japanese slang for “mom’s bike,” which is basically who they’re built for. If you see a mom carting a kid around on a bicycle, it’s a mama-chari. It’s also one of the most common types of bikes you’ll see while walking the streets of Japan.

Mama-charis provide the convenience of carrying your groceries, helping you bring your kids to kindergarten and making short commutes. These bikes are popular because they are great for running errands. Typically equipped with a basket, they can be further customized to add up to two children’s seats.

While much more expensive, some people prefer to buy electric mama-charis to help them climb steep hills in their neighborhood or give them that extra power boost to shuttle their kids from one appointment to the next. However, regular mama-charis are typically inexpensive and have up to six gears.

Recommended for: Families and students
Price range: ¥20,000 ~ ¥100,000

Cross Bike or Road Bike

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A cross bike is perfect for exploring Japan’s many cycling routes.

If you’re looking to cover longer distances, stay fit or explore Japan’s famed cycling roads, then a cross bike (kurosu baiku) or road bike (rodo baiku) will best suit your needs. They are built for speed and are significantly lighter than their mama-chari counterparts due to the materials used in their frames.

The parts are lighter and provide a wider option for gearing suitable for most terrain. These bikes don’t typically come with baskets or children’s seats, as their main draw is more towards speed.

Recommended for: Fitness enthusiasts, long-distance commuters
Price range: ¥80,000 ~ ¥300,000

Mountain Bike or Gravel Bike

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This bike can handle all the roughness that nature can offer.

For the outdoorsy type wishing to conquer Japan’s many mountain bike trails, you’ll need something a step ahead of mere road bikes. While most road bikes are built for smoother roads, mountain bikes are built for going off the beaten track—literally.

Moreover, if you live in the inaka (Japanese countryside) and happen to pass by unpaved or gravel roads daily, it’s worth investing in a mountain bike (maunten baiku). While small towns and city outskirts will (usually) have perfectly fine roads for getting around and running errands, it’s essential to be mindful of bad terrain or weather you might encounter like mud and sleet.

Mountain bikes typically come with knobby tires that can eat bumps, making the ride fun and safe. Wide-range gearing is the default, so your knees won’t hurt as much when managing the hill you need to pass to get home.

Recommended for: Outdoor enthusiasts, adrenaline junkies
Price range: ¥100,000 ~ ¥200,000

Folding Bikes

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Commute to your commute.

As the name suggests, folding bikes are for people who want something compact. With small apartments in Japan being the norm and apartment bike parking ever so scarce, this is definitely for a rider looking to optimize space.

Due to its smaller wheels, it’s not for fast, long-distance riding but it’s perfect if you’re living somewhere flat and just need to get to the station. It’s also much more portable making it possible for you to carry on the train. Some models have small baskets attached to them to make it easier to run errands.

Recommended for: People with small apartments or living somewhere without bike parking
Price range: ¥15,000 ~ ¥100,000
Whatever bicycle you buy, getting from A to B using your own strength brings priceless satisfaction and a good sense of accomplishment. Adventure is out there, and it starts with one pedal at a time!

What kind of bicycle do you have and how did you choose it? Let us know in the comments below!

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