TOKYO — Capitalizing on the increasing popularity of bicycles for their health and environmental benefits, many local Japanese communities are trying to attract tourists and encourage them to stay longer by offering bicycle-rental services at a low price.
The Maebashi Convention & Visitors Bureau, a foundation backed by the government of Maebashi, launched full-scale operations of its bicycle-rental service in May, increasing the number of bikes available in front of JR East Maebashi Station to 46 from 16.
The foundation has nicknamed the bicycles Maechari, a combination of the first kanji character in Maebashi and chari, a word often used to mean a bike, especially among young people.
Maebashi native Satoru Morota, 60, currently of Tokyo, said he uses a Maechari when he returns to his hometown each week.
"We can easily rent the bicycles for a reasonable price. They're very convenient," Morota said.
The rental station is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and charges a flat fee of 200 yen, irrespective of how long someone uses a bike.
A bureau official said more than 90 percent of renters are people who come from outside the city, about one-third of whom use the bicycles for sightseeing purposes, such as touring spots known for their beautiful flowers.
Many businesspeople also favor the rental bicycles, the bureau said, using them instead of taxis to cut back on work-related travel expenses.
As another step to promote tourism in the city, cyclists are allowed to take their bicycles on Jomo Electric Railroad trains that run through Maebashi, except on morning rush hours on weekdays.
A major tourism-promotion drive dubbed "Gunma Destination Campaign" is scheduled to be held for three months from July 2011, sponsored by JR East and other JR group member firms in cooperation with the prefectural government and different municipalities in Gunma Prefecture. Preliminary events began this month.
The campaign is expected to be a key incentive for expanding the Maechari rental bicycle services, officials said.
On Awajishima island, Hyogo Prefecture, the governments of Awaji, Sumoto and Minami-Awaji have started jointly renting electric bicycles at low fees in cooperation with the island's tourism association.
An estimated 12 million sightseers visit Awajishima each year, about 80 percent by car. As many visitors are from major nearby cities such as Kobe and Osaka, they come only for day trips, a situation that has long been a headache for the local tourism association.
The association hit on the idea of renting electric bicycles in the hope it will lead more tourists to stay for at least one night, thereby helping to reinvigorate the local economy.
Three rental stations have been set up on the island, with a total of 40 electric bicycles available for 500 yen for two hours and a maximum of 3,000 yen for three days. The association hopes the bikes will be used by 2,000 sightseers a year, association officials said.
The association is distributing free leaflets at the island's tourist information centers introducing three tour routes, ranging from 60 kilometers to an around-the-island course of 150 kilometers, with a map attached showing differences of elevation on Awajishima.
Another map is being made that will introduce a visit to Awaji Hanasajiki, a 15-hectare park run by the prefectural government that features flowers in every season, and a view of Akashi Kaikyo bridge, a suspension bridge linking Kobe and the island, the association said.
As Tomomi Suzuki, an official of Awaji's tourism policy planning department, put it, "Traveling around our island by bicycle is really fascinating, as you can enjoy dramatic changes in scenery and fragrant flowers."
Yet another city tapping bicycles to promote tourism is Mino, Gifu Prefecture, which is known for traditional Japanese Mino washi paper and streets reminiscent of the early Edo period (1603-1868).
Aiming to have tourists travel around the city by bicycle, authorities applied to a program sponsored by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry to support cycling projects. Mino was designated as a model area by the ministry in 2004.
The city government has 29 rental bicycles, including electric ones, available at ministry-funded Michi no Eki rest areas for tourists and elsewhere. The city also has established cycling paths, while designating nine model tour courses for them.
An especially popular course lets tourists experience centuries-old paper-manufacturing techniques at Mino-Washi Museum and visit the Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Nagaragawa Power Station, a hydraulic power plant noted for its red-brick building built in 1910, city government officials said.
Since 2007, the city also has been host to the Mino Stage of the Tour of Japan cycling competition, held in May and certified by the Union Cycliste Internationale.
Mino drew about 25,000 tourists this spring, including spectators of the race, more than its resident population of 23,000.
Having been recognized by UCI as an "advanced area in terms of bicycle utilization," the city also has been chosen to host cycling races in the 67th National Sports Festival scheduled for 2012 in Gifu Prefecture.