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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bicycles in Japan

自転車

Collection truck for illegally parked bicycles, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Jitensha is the official word for them, but charinko, shortened to chari, is just as likely to be heard when the topic is bicycles. Cycling is huge in Japan, and is far the preferred means of transport when making your way around the neighborhood as opposed to cars or public transport.

Spidery, long-legged racing bikes and little folding bikes are the trendiest to be seen on the streets at the moment, but they are still way outnumbered by the mama-chari, i.e. ‘mom bike’. It’s hard to believe, but according to law, or perhaps by-law, bicycles are supposed to be ridden on the road in Japan, but you’d be lucky to see one in fifty on the road. The vast majority are ridden on footpaths. To be sure, many footpaths come with a special bicycle lane, but it is blithely ignored by cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Bicycles on the footpath add to what, as a pedestrian, you have to keep an eye out for. Most cyclists approaching will either ring their bell, apply squeaky brakes, or make some kind of noise that will alert whoever is in their path.

Bicycle parking is provided by most large stores and institutions. A word of warning: never park your bike in front of a shop at night. I have done it a few times and had my bike lugged and dumped a kilometer away – found only after hours of searching. Locking it to an immovable object is not the answer either, as the indignant tenant whose property front you are violating is likely to take to it with something.

Bicycle parking infringement ticket. Simply parking them on the street where there are no shops is a safe temporary option, but any more than an hour or two is asking for trouble. Most of the time you will return to find a relatively harmless warning label attached to it (see left), but if you’re unlucky the illegally parked bicycle collection truck (see top) may be doing the rounds, in which case you are unlikely to see it again. In theory you should find a notice explaining how to get it back – requiring payment of usually a 2 or 3 thousand yen fine, but anything can happen to a little slip of paper.

Having said all that, Japan is a cyclist’s paradise. If you avoid the obstacle course that is the footpath and stick to the roads, you will find that drivers are generally cautious and magnanimous towards cyclists. Furthermore, the streets are generally in excellent repair – usually making for a smoother ride than the footpath. Just don’t forget your helmet, keep those lights on, and oil those brakes!

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