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Revitalizing Japan's Regions

A Bicycle-Friendly Town

Utsunomiya City 


Just fifty minutes from Tokyo Station by the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train, Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture is ideally situated as a tourist destination. Located at the northern end of the Kanto Plain, the city's center expands outward over flat terrain. The road infrastructure is robust, with three major orbital roadways, among them a vast loop line that encircles the downtown area. The road network also includes twelve bypass highways that connect straight to the suburbs. In addition, the area enjoys fine weather, such as relatively little rain and long periods of sunshine during winter. Utsunomiya City is drawing on these natural advantages in its ongoing effort to become a bicycle-friendly town.

Utsunomiya first drew attention as a hub for cyclists by hosting the Japan Cup, Asia's most prominent road race. The 22nd annual running of the event took place last October, with Japanese pros going head to head against leading cyclists from the Tour de France and European races. In effect, this race is an official circuit recognized by the Union Cycliste Internationale. The Cup's main venue was Utsunomiya City Forest Park, with the highway a long, three-lane thoroughfare that extends in one direction in front of Utsunomiya Station transformed into a criterium venue (a short circular race).

A hundred thousand ardent fans and the media descend on Utsunomiya every year for the Japan Cup, and the event has become the standard-bearer for international cycling in Japan. Fans from across Japan as well as Thailand, Taiwan and other countries come to watch. The city's businesses get back revenue more than ten times in excess of what the city invests in the event, giving the local economy a healthy boost. As Japan advocates sports tourism, Utsunomiya is leading the charge with this major success story.

Bicycles have long been a part of everyday life in Utsunomiya. Because of the flat terrain, two-wheeled transport has been a natural choice for people commuting within the city; 80 percent of high school students, for example, commute to school by bicycle. As the host of the 1990 World Cycling Championships and Japan Cup, the city stokes the passions of Japan's cycling fans for cycling races. In 2008, it even gave birth to the Utsunomiya Blitzen, a pro cycling road race team that calls Utsunomiya home.

In this way the city has succeeded at creating a safe, comfortable and fun place for people of all ages to enjoy cycling. Citywide efforts have rallied residents and firms to the cause, bringing everyone in the community together to push a range of initiatives forward. These have included the installation of dedicated facilities such as bicycle lanes, parking and rest spots, the creation of road bike rental services, and the Utsunomiya Blitzen giving cycling instruction at schools. As a result of the city's initiatives and the support from residents and businesses, the city is now a real-world example of a healthy, environmentally friendly and thriving "bicycle town."

Hajime Shimada of Utsunomiya's tourism and exchange section suggests a further goal: "We'd like people to make Utsunomiya a focal point of their travels, using bikes to tour nearby points of interest." By looking at issues of the environment, tourism and sports in a new light, Shimada and his section are aiming to make the city even more attractive for residents and visitors alike, using bicycles as a catalyst: good for the body, good for the environment. This positive cycle is enabling the city and its people to grow in tandem, and the process shows no sign of stopping.

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