Tsukuba is a new city built around its university and research laboratories. It is unusual in not being on the rail network so getting there is a little complicated for visitors, however there is a lot of information on the web, partly because every scientific conference in the city has a website with information for visitors. A good starting point is the website of Alien Times, an English language newspaper for the many foreign residents that the university attracts to the city.
The city is modern and very cycle-friendly. It is just the right size to get around on a bike, not hilly, there are wide cycle tracks alongside all the main roads and a raised pedestrian/cycle route running down the spine of the city to link all the main places you would want to visit. On the minor roads you have the option of riding on the road (traffic is light and considerate) or on the wide sidewalk. Most Japanese do the latter but you will see them cycling on the road as well.
I was there for four days for a conference and it was worth taking the Brompton just for that short time. I whizzed from my hotel to the conference centre in a couple of minutes, passing others for whom it was a 15 minute trudge. If I had 20 minutes to spare I could go shopping or look around the city. In the evening I could get back to my hotel, have a shower and change and be in a restaurant in little more time than my colleagues took to walk straight there. And there’s little to beat cycling safely back home in the warm late evening, full of excellent Japanese food and drink.
The first time I rode up to the front entrance of the conference centre the security attendant waved me round the corner to the bicycle parking. Instead, I did my slickest 15 second Brompton foldup and she awarded me a spontaneous round of applause and held the door wide. Because it was an international design conference I felt very pleased to be providing several demonstrations daily of this excellent British design and a number of people asked me where they could get one.
Wherever you go with a Brompton, people take an interest. They are fascinated by the way it folds, by its elegance and lightness and by its magical seven-league boots effect. If you park it and stand aside anonymously for a while, you will soon see somebody come along and examine it. Fold it in public and look round, there’s always at least one person paying close attention. The only difference in Japan is that people are much more discreet and you are unlikely to get the obvious attention that you attract in Britain.
Our hosts wanted to provide some entertainment (obviously daily demonstrations of bicycle origami by a mad Gaijin were not sufficient) and, rather than employing a professional troupe, they brought in a group of drummers and dancers from a local organisation working with young people who have learning disabilities. The dancers were a mixed group and you had no definite way of knowing which were the ones with disabilities apart from a couple with Downs Syndrome. Their huge enjoyment was infectious, occasional moments of confusion punctuating an otherwise disciplined performance and I was emotionally affected as well as entertained.
The catering for this event was interesting. We were served quantities of excellent tempura – morsels of vegetable and seafood fried in crisp light batter – and tasty bowls of miso soup. However the only place to put the tempura was in the soup, and this seemed to be the normal thing to do. For a western palate the idea of turning such beautiful crisp bites into a soggy mess was very strange but I daresay that’s just my prejudice.
When it was time to move on from Tsukuba I had to cycle about 10km to Tsuchiura to catch a train. I set off along the cycleway alongside one of the very busy main roads and wondered if the traffic would be difficult once I left the town. I had paid close attention to the map, choosing a route that followed the secondary route between the two towns and worrying about getting lost. It soon became apparent that the route was very clearly signed with Romaji (western) as well as Kanji text and I only needed to consult my map when I entered Tsuchiura to ensure that I was going in the right direction for the railway station.
Once I reached the boundary of Tsukuba the cycleway vanished, the road changed from a 4-lane dual carriageway to a 2-lane country road and the heavy urban traffic faded away to almost nothing. The road surface was smooth, hills were gentle, the air was mild, the heavily loaded Brompton felt stable and under control and I bowled along feeling euphoric – I was really travelling by bike in Japan, depending on nobody but myself.
The predominate impression was that everything was in a small and human scale. The area was hardly scenic but the road wound its way through a pleasant mixture of town and country and, although this was just a brief bike interlude before a long train journey, I felt greatly encouraged that my plans were working and I was going to enjoy myself.