City Cycling in Kyoto, or How to Make a Fully Equipped Bike for $300

During a recent visit to Kyoto, we rented bikes for a day. Cycling is a great way to get around this beautiful old city, and it also presented an opportunity to experience Japanese city bikes.

Our guest house offered bike rentals for the equivalent of $ 5 per day. In Kyoto, bicycles are one of the main means of transportation. We saw them everywhere, ridden by everybody: men and women of all ages, some dressed in business attire, others carrying one or two children in child seats. Not only grown-ups rode bikes, but also teenagers and children. Only a few college students were on what you could call performance bikes; everybody else rode the ubiquitous Japanese city bikes. That is what we were going to ride as well.

After breakfast, we headed out on two almost-new Maruishi bikes. Our first destination was the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), one of the most famous Zen Bhuddist temples in Japan. In front of the gates, we saw signs for the bike parking lot.

And, this being Japan, there were instructions on how to park your bike in an orderly fashion. With a sign this cute, we tried our best to line up the bikes as shown.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Golden Pavilion, but as so often in Japan, the reality exceeded anything I could have imagined. Not only are the walls of the Golden Pavilion covered in real gold, but it’s next to a lake that shows its reflection. Islands with carefully trained trees are designed to enhance the view. Even on this overcast day, the temple was luminescent, but rather than gaudy, it looked beautiful and tasteful. It took my breath away.

After a visit to another temple, we had lunch at an former bathhouse that had been converted to a café. It was one of the beautiful old buildings that give Kyoto its charm.

After lunch, I looked over our bikes. Japanese city bikes are designed to offer basic transportation at a very affordable price. Our Maruishis – the brand hasn’t been imported to the U.S. in decades – were among the better city bikes. They had pleasing overall lines, and the chrome-plated frames and all-silver parts added to the appeal.

A little web searching showed that this model comes in a single size, designed to fit riders over 146 cm (4’9.5″) tall. At 181 cm (5’11”), I was at the upper end of the spectrum: With the seat post extended to its maximum, the saddle was still a bit low for efficient pedaling. I noticed that most people rode their bikes that way, making it easier to put a foot down when stopping. The handlebars aren’t adjustable, so they are either high (for tall riders) or very high (for shorter ones).

These Maruishis cost just 32,800 yen (about $ 300). For that price, you get a fully equipped bike, with fenders, lights, a basket and even a lock. There is nothing else you need to buy; the bike is ready for a few years of daily use.

To understand how a fully equipped, decent-quality bike can be so inexpensive, it’s perhaps best to compare it to a car. Imagine the Maruishi as a basic Honda Civic – one of the nicer mass-produced cars, but not something an enthusiast would want to drive. The low cost is the result of designing every part to be as inexpensive and as easy to assemble as possible – while maintaining adequate quality – and then producing huge numbers. For the Maruishi, the result surprised me in many ways.

The bike comes with a Shimano Nexus three-speed hub gear that should give years of reliable service. However, the gearing was so large that I never got out of first gear! These bikes aren’t intended for riders spinning at a high cadence.

At the rear, there is a band brake that serves as the main brake. Even on our almost-new bikes, this was barely able to skid the rear wheel. Once the friction surfaces wear on these brakes, the braking power is further reduced, but the metal-on-metal friction produces a high-pitched squeal that acts as a warning: The cyclist can’t stop, but pedestrians can jump out of the way!

There is a sturdy kickstand. Frame construction is adequate – there are real dropouts, not just squished chainstays as on older German city bikes. Look carefully, and you can see the non-adjustable fender stays. The fenders are designed to fit just right, and the stays are held by the rear axle bolts.

The aluminum fenders are perhaps the biggest surprise: They are made by Honjo, just like the fenders on the most expensive custom bikes. These ones don’t have a polished finish, and, while the edges are not crimped over, they are dipped in rubber to prevent cuts from sharp edges. And, as mentioned before, the stays are not adjustable, which eliminates most of the hardware. Features like these cut costs and reduce maintenance, but the function of the fenders is the same as on the more expensive Honjos we use on our own bikes: Uninterrupted interiors and rolled edges keep the water from dripping off the edges.

I’d like a little more fender coverage on the front wheel, but at the relatively low speeds of these bikes, spray from the front wheel doesn’t fly as high as it does during spirited riding, so it’s less of a problem. (And I suspect these bikes are shipped with the front wheel removed, hence the short-ish fender.) At least the fender extends far enough at the front to keep spray out of your basket…

The bridges are made from stamped steel (rather than tubing), but they incorporate fender mounts. Direct fender mounting speeds up assembly; it also ensures that the fenders will neither resonate nor break prematurely. And indeed, even older Japanese city bikes are silent as they roll around the city (except for the occasional high-pitched squeal of the brakes).

Despite its relatively low cost, the Maruishi comes standard with a generator hub. However, cost savings are evident in the fork: It doesn’t have dropouts. The ends of the fork blades are squeezed and slotted. At this price, don’t expect fine craftsmanship!

At the front, there is an LED headlight that provides sufficient illumination. The basket is permanently mounted on the bike, supported by stays that run down to the dropouts. The right stay curves around the headlight, doubling as a protector.

The front brake is a simple side pull, stamped from flat steel stock, but it worked adequately. The right lever operates the front brake, Italian- and British-style, yet most riders seem to use the rear brake, operated with the left hand. It’s not that most Japanese are left-handed, but it’s another indication that the debates over “which hand for which brake” are besides the point: It doesn’t matter!

Most Japanese city bikes don’t have taillights, just a very rudimentary reflector. More often than not, this tends to go missing after a while. It’s surprising to see thousands of almost-invisible cyclists zoom around Kyoto at night, yet there seem to be very few accidents. Drivers are used to cyclists being everywhere, and with narrow streets and the need to weave around utility poles in the roadway, “distracted driving” is not an option! You can’t help but feel that despite all this apparent anarchy, it’s actually safer than riding in Seattle.

The seatpost binder bolt only looks like a quick release: It’s just a lever for turning the bolt. That makes it easy to adjust the saddle height without tools, useful when a bike is shared among several family members. (It’s like a car’s seats that are easy to adjust for different drivers.)

The lock is permanently installed. The key stays on the bike; it can be removed only after you’ve locked it by pushing the ring through the spokes. That way, there is little risk of misplacing the key. The lock provides only basic protection: Somebody could carry away the bike. But at 19.5 kg (43 lb), it’s heavy enough to defeat most would-be thieves.

Another surprising spec: the wheels. Who said 27-inch wheels were obsolete? The tires are nominally 37 mm wide, but in reality, they probably measure closer to 32. They are sturdy Kendas, and they didn’t roll fast. Why such large wheels? I suspect it makes the bike more stable.

How is it to ride one of these bikes? Unusual at first! Of course, Maruishi doesn’t publish the geometry of the bike, but measuring from photos, I came up with a super-shallow head angle of 67° and a whopping 135 mm of fork offset! This results in zero trail, and thus zero wheel flop…

With my heavy backpack in the front basket, the fork wanted to turn even without wheel flop, and at first, it was difficult to ride in a straight line. Then I realized that the problem was my trying to guide the bike with a gentle touch. With a firm grip on the bars and my elbows locked, the bike tracked straight and handled predictably. Even rising out of the saddle – necessary for me on the hills – the bike didn’t veer off its line. With no trail, it’s easy to turn the fork to avoid a bump, but since there is no wheel flop, the movement isn’t amplified. And the large, heavy front wheel’s inertia immediately recenters the fork. Now I understand why Japanese city cyclists look wobbly, but actually move in very straight lines.

This handling trait is actually very important in the congested Japanese cities. With cars, trucks and buses passing cyclists with just inches to spare, it’s crucial not to wobble or weave! As long as cyclists move in a straight line, they are predictable, and other traffic can avoid them. As a pedestrian here in Japan, I had to learn this. When cyclists come barreling toward me on the sidewalk, I tend to freeze, figuring they will go around me. But they head straight toward me, expecting me to jump out of the way. It’s the opposite of how we do it on the trails in Seattle. I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter who moves out of the way, as long as everybody is on the same page.

One place where nobody seems to be on the same page is traffic rules. Natsuko and I are used to riding out in the country, on the left side of the road. Imagine our surprise when cyclists coming toward us sometimes moved left, sometimes right, with no rhyme or reason. Cyclists are like pedestrians here – moving at low enough speeds that they don’t crash into each other, but not bound by rules beyond common courtesy and self-preservation. We didn’t see a single cyclists wearing a helmet, yet cycling injuries in Japan are extremely rare.

As the sun started to set on this autumn day, we headed to another public bath, this one still in operation. While I soaked in the hot water, I thought about the Maruishi. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering, designed for affordability and reliability above all. That you can buy a complete, fully-equipped bike for just $ 300 intrigues me. But then, the Maruishi’s car equivalent also offers remarkable value: If you calculated all the components of a Honda Civic at the prices charged for bicycle components, you’d end up with a price many times higher than the $ 19,000 that the Honda costs these days.

Both the Maruishi and the Civic achieve their low cost through sophisticated design and huge economies of scale. Everything on them is just ‘good enough’ for a daily user. What is remarkable is that a generator hub and high-quality fenders are among these “absolute necessities” for everyday riding. Neither the bike nor the car feature beautiful craftsmanship, but they will offer satisfactory service for those who buy them. And both feature a little extra – the Maruishi’s chrome-plated frame and the nice interior of the Honda – to instill some pride of ownership.

What if the same approach was used to make a bike for more spirited riding? Something that isn’t just for transportation, but is also fun to ride? For less than twice the price of a Civic, you can buy a real sports car, like the Mazda Miata or the Subaru BRZ. Imagine a fully equipped randonneur bike – with integrated fenders, lights and racks – for twice the price of the Maruishi! I guess you’d need to get the weight down and the performance up a bit, but even if you triple the price, you are still below $ 1,000. Imagine a bike that offers 80% of the performance and reliability of an expensive custom bike, but without any of the craftsmanship. I can’t see why this wouldn’t be possible, but it requires economies of scale that still elude the makers of performance bikes. But just think of the possibilities!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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25 Responses to City Cycling in Kyoto, or How to Make a Fully Equipped Bike for $300

  1. Adsign says:

    this reminds me of my trip to Japan, Kyoto and Myajima but also Hokkaido is a wonderful area and very friendly people.

  2. relish14 says:

    I envy these cities and countries that have embraced the bicycle. I live in a city, in the Bay Area no less, where cycling for transportation, especially at night is a lonely, dangerous journey. How I long for the masses of other cyclists gliding along beside me, creating space and safety when the sidewalk ends. On a side note, the Mazda Miyata is sure getting a lot of free advertising lately 🙂 I just want to say, as a Lexus IS300 owner, that I believe the IS300 is possibly the best combination of sport and utility ever produced in a Japanese car.

  3. George Rosselle says:

    The manufacture of bicycles is Miyata. The automobile is a Miata. Although Mazda has not officially used that name in a few years.

  4. John Duval says:

    80% of the performance for $1000? I think you set your expectations too low, far too low, in terms of real performance. Considering the distances more typical in America, such a bike would make an excellent transportation bike. The cost would be in making all of those sizes. But, Americans seem less inclined to buy identical bicycles than they are to buy identical cars.

  5. Conrad says:

    I’m guessing Japan will have more luck than Seattle with bike share. I was talking with a coworker yesterday that was lamenting his inability to find a functional bikeshare bike. Some were tossed in bushes, some were bent in various ways from obvious abuse. He even observed a guy casually chucking them into the Puget Sound from one of the piers downtown. Some people just can’t have nice things…
    I also wonder why bikes need to be so expensive. I can see why a custom bike is, given the hours of skilled labor going into the bike. Really, those bikes are the bargain. I’m not sure why a mass produced plastic bike needs to be priced like a motorcycle. A well designed performance bike with lights, fenders, and racks isn’t rocket science but yet they are so scarce! Mass produced, they wont have ultralight tubing, but otherwise I dont see what is preventing them from being properly designed: good lights, fenders, racks, tire clearance and so on.

    • The bikes we rented weren’t bike share bikes. I haven’t seen any bike shares in Japan, perhaps because there is less need for them. Everybody has a bike, and the “last mile” problem we have with public transit in the U.S. also doesn’t exist. Japanese public transit goes everywhere, on a frequent schedule, even to the tops of mountain passes to let off hikers for through hikes!

      The failure of Seattle’s bike share projects may have been predictable. The problem is the usual one – not allocating enough resources. In Paris, running the Velib costs about $ 50 million a year (in addition to the money collected from users). It’s run by the biggest ad agency, who gets free access to all billboards in the city in return. Velib has 15,000 bikes, with more than 1200 docking stations – one every few blocks. Crews of maintenance workers roam the streets to fix the bikes that break. Others move the bikes to distribute them evenly. (They tend to collect at the bottoms of hills.) The bikes themselves were custom-designed to be almost indestructible both in use and through vandalism – no rear fender stays that could get bent, just a floppy fender; all lighting wires hidden under fairings, special bolt heads to prevent component theft, etc.

      Seattle’s first bike share suffered from too few bikes and too few stations. Who’ll rent a bike if you don’t know where to drop it off at your destination? Some have suggested that the latest private-run, subsidy-free projects were approved only to show progress on bike share after the initial project failed… Putting a few thousand of the cheapest bikes you can find on the streets, with nobody to maintain them when they inevitably break, always seemed like an overly optimistic idea. Limebike, Spin Bike and Ofo don’t seem to have any staff in Seattle at all… And when things don’t work, they have no perceived value, so you get more vandalism. Without excusing vandalism and pollution, the guy throwing bikes in the Puget Sound may have just been a frustrated user, like your co-worker…

      As to why mass-market performance bikes cost more, it’s because they are not designed very differently from expensive custom bikes, and they are manufactured in small batches. They have none of the economies of mass production. Compare the price of a Porsche 911, which superficially is the same car as a Miata (except with the engine at the other end), yet costs four times as much because it’s made from better materials in much smaller numbers.

  6. Laurent Gagnon says:

    When I visited Japan in the late 70’s, I don’t recall seeing as many bikes as you report today. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention yet I do remember throngs of pedestrians on sidewalks and at intersections. My friend and I walked long distances and would gladly have traded cranking pedals to hoffing it.

    I too fondly remember the Kinkaku-ji as well as other magnificent temples and pagodas in Kyoto and Nara and, of course, the imperial palace in Tokyo.

    But to the subject at hand, it seems that someone with the resources could tap this market for affordable randonneur bikes but more likely starting where cycling is already well established and for sale not rental. Your post evoqued great memories!

  7. Sean Breslin says:

    Looks like you are in Japan quite a lot. Good stuff!

    I run a blog called http://www.bikepackingjapan.com, mostly about rides in central Japan. Take a look if you’re interested.

    Sean.

  8. Dave Cain says:

    This was a joy to read! We spent two weeks in Japan earlier this month and I was taken with the endless stream of unremarkable bikes everywhere in the cities. I found myself scanning the rows and rows of bikes for anything out of the the usual and rarely saw anything notable. My sense is the Japanese regard their bikes the way we Americans see our cars; as useful, but not necessarily precious, tools for transportation. With one or two exceptions the most interesting bikes I saw were a couple Bruno mini-velos.

    I was also impressed that generator hubs, lights, and fenders are pretty much the norm. Again, no big deal, but simply functional and common sense. As you mention, the saddles are almost universally low, but if you are only going a block or two perhaps it just becomes habit.

    Thanks for confirming my experience about the seemingly arbitrary rules of the road when it comes to city bicycle riding. I could never really determine a consistent pattern or rule. Like you say, courtesy and open eyes seem to keep it all working.

    • We’ve enjoyed the Instagram photos from your trip to Japan. It seems like you had a lot of fun!

      As you say, it’s rare to see a special bike in the cities here, but not all bikes in Japan are “unremarkable”. When you head out into the mountains, you see great bikes, and not just modern ones, but also great classics like this one. It’s just that they aren’t ridden for transportation in the cities. It seems that public transit is used for longer trips where a performance bike would make sense, and bikes are used mostly for shorter trips.

  9. Frank B. says:

    A very interesting aspect in Japanese cities is the fact, that no cars are parking on the streets, becaus this is forbidden. Streets and even many other public spaces in Japan are very much transit-oriented. Good luck trying to find a place for standing still in a Tokyo train/subway station to orient yourself as a tourist …

    No on-street-parking has two important effects on side roads: One is that the lane width is constant for the whole length of the streets, which make these streets very predictable. There is no dooring problem!
    The other effect is that there are no cars driving around in side streets looking for a parking space, because there simply are no parking spaces in side streets except in the designated areas and car parks.

    This effectively separates car traffic from cycle and pedestrian traffic in side roads.

    Unfortunatly only there: The bigger roads in Japanese towns lack proper separated cycling infrastructure so you see not a lot of “mamacharis” using these direct connections even with the cautious and polite Japanese car drivers. The cyclists on big roadss pretty much look like “weekend warriors” in EU/US with their helmets, reflector vests etc.

    In the West smart countries like the Netherlands and innovative cities also use the benefits of this “separation without cycle path by removing car parking”. The additional cycle paths the Dutch should be a model for Japan, if it wants to become an even better country for cycling.

    • You bring up some interesting points about Japanese traffic – it’s quite different from the U.S. and Europe in many ways. However, if you came to visit here, you’d find the reality is a little different from what you might expect.

      No on-street-parking […]: The lane width is constant for the whole length of the streets, which makse these streets very predictable.

      In Kyoto, the utility poles are in the narrow roadways – there was nowhere else to put them in this ancient city. That means that you are constantly weaving around them. The secret here is that the cyclists pretend to ignore the cars and weave around the poles without looking back, so the drivers must time it so they pass the cyclists in between the poles. As I mentioned in the blog, distracted driving isn’t an option!

      In Tokyo, you’ll find stopped delivery trucks and taxis pulling onto the curb every few hundred meters. So the “constant lane width” definitely isn’t the case, and there are sidewalks, so here it’s the cars who sometimes pretend the cyclists don’t exist, and you have to time your weaving to go in between the cars.

      cautious and polite Japanese car drivers

      Another myth. Japanese city drivers actually are quite assertive. They usually are very skilled, which means that it’s fine when they pass you with centimeters to spare, but I had to get used to it. Out in the mountains, drivers are more polite toward cyclists.

      The Japanese government has ignored cycling for a long time. Perhaps it was seen as a relic of an older time that didn’t fit with the image of a modern country. Only recently have they installed sharrows in Tokyo to make it clear that cyclists are allowed on the roadways. Most city bikes are ridden on the sidewalks. Some cities, like Nagoya, have built the separated cycling infrastructure you advocate. This works better in Japan than the U.S., since there are so many pedestrians that the “right hook” is less of a problem – drivers don’t expect to turn right without stopping. Overall, city riding in Japan works remarkably well despite the lack of support and rules.

      • Frank B. says:

        I have been to Japan several times and cycled in Kyoto and Osaka. I remember the utility poles in Kyoto, they are an issue also for pedestrians. However they still are predictable in that they do not suddenly open their doors and they don’t weave. 🙂
        Compared to German drivers, I have found the Japanese drivers to be sigificantly more considerate, if only in that they adhere to speed limits (no car driver in Germany respects these). But of course being considerate or skilled is not what prevents accidents … safe infrastructure does.
        I wouldn’t call it a “skill” when drivers are able to pass cyclists with centimeters to spare. Drivers who ignore this the need of cyclists for the additional space to balance lack an important traffic skill: to correctly predict the behaviour of other road users.
        And I hope the Japanese traffic planners don’t fall for the cheap fallacy that is sharrows and instead take their inspiration from best practices which have proven to be effective and sustainable in the long run. The existing separation with side road unattractive for cars is a good starting point: countries like Germany and the Netherlands had to re-create this kind of urban structure by traffic calming provisions starting in the seventies, which was very effective to let these countries regain or preserve their utility cycling culture.

      • I agree with you that cycling in Japan faces challenges. The biggest is that ebikes are now popular, and they are too fast to be ridden on the sidewalk. And with the longer distances that ebikes encourage, speeds need to be higher to be efficient. The main role of the sharrow is to legitimize cyclists right to be on the road. Japanese cyclists have fought hard for this right, and they are surprised that American cyclists seem eager to be corralled into “separate” infrastructure of the type first developed by Nazi Germany to clear the roads for cars… Of course, that is also why it’s so easy to get those adopted despite their high cost and increased frequency of accidents: Every car driver is excited to build infrastructure that gets those “pesky cyclists” off the road.

        In the end, as you point out, the ideal situation is a separate street network for cyclists. In the U.S., we are lucky that this is feasible thanks to the redundancy of our grid-like street network, and the “neighborhood boulevards” in Seattle are a great implementation, even though they are now starting to be used by drivers who use them as low-traffic shortcuts without frequent stop signs. In the medieval cities of Japan and Europe, there often is only a single path from A to B, and that means it has to be shared by cars and bikes.

  10. Alan says:

    https://www.prioritybicycles.com/products/continuumonyx
    Here’s an interesting mass-produced bike with a belt-drive CVT, hydraulic brakes, fenders, and dyno lighting setup for under $1000.

    And here’s a road bike with included aluminum fenders that retails under $800 and is going for $500 on sale in some sizes, which means that it could be manufactured with a dynohub for well under $1000 retail:
    https://www.amazon.com/Raleigh-Bikes-Clubman-Green-Medium/dp/B01MSQG3PL/ref=sr_1_3

    • The Raleigh is neat. It’s made by Araya, who also offers a cyclotouring bike. Both of them are remarkably affordable. The whole line appears to be the idea of one of their senior engineers, who is a great fan of René Herse. I met him a while ago, and we had a great chat about what is beautiful in bicycles. The bikes are made once a year, and usually sell out quickly. I think not keeping them in stock helps with keeping costs down.

  11. Joe Wein says:

    Maybe one bike that comes close to your idea of a randonneur bike for twice the price of the Maruishi is the Araya Federal. This spring I toured in Umbria and Tuscany with my son, with me on his Federal and loved it. The bike retails for about $600 here in Japan (with mudguards, rinko ready but without optional Nitto front carrier and without lights). It comes with down tube shifters and an 8 speed touring triple with a 28-30 lowest gear. The wheels are 650A (26×1-3/8, 37-590), but the cantilever brakes appear to have enough adjustment range that switching to 650B should be possible. The low trail fork (removable with minimal tools for rinko) is made from high tensile steel and the parts are pretty basic (e.g. 8 speed) but reliable. The only major omission is a dynamo hub and LED lights. I may get a dynamo hub 650B wheel set built for this so I can run Compass tires, then it will give me a rinko-able alternative to my main randonneur bike, the Elephant Bikes NFE.

    • I’ve been very interested in the Araya Federal. Unfortunately, not available in my size, so we can’t test one.

      • Christoph says:

        Jan,

        if you want to look into affordable Japanese touring bikes, you might be interested in the Araya Tourist (http://araya-rinkai.jp/bikes2016/4366.html) that is available in a 57cm size; at ¥95.000 ($832 at the time of writing), it looks like a great value for money.

        A friend of mine who is roughly your size (maybe even a bit taller) owns one of those bikes. So far, he is very happy with the Araya and reports it is handling very nicely. He keeps it in Japan so he doesn’t have to bring a bike every time he’s visiting. During his most recent stay, he has upgraded the tires (26 x 1-3/8″ like the Federal) and installed an LED front light and Velogical dynamo, so he can go for longer rides at a more spirited pace.

  12. Rick Thompson says:

    Great post, and very timely for an upcoming trip. Do you think a tall person could bring their own saddle and long seatpost to use on one of those Maruishis? And did you happen to notice the seatpost diameter?

    • I don’t think you need to bring your own saddle. It wouldn’t work on a bike like this – the wide saddle is perfect for the upright position. Just rent one and ride it around town! If you are much taller than 6′ or plan more ambitious trips, you’ll need to bring your own bike.

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