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Friday, June 20, 2014

Cycling in Japan


The bicycle has been a very common means of neighborhood transport in Japan from way back. Most towns and cities in Japan are generally flat, making cycling easy.

Homeless person and policeman on bicycles, Asakusabashi, Tokyo
Homeless man and policeman on bicycles, Asakusabashi, Tokyo

Bicycles in Japan know no boundaries when it comes to the rider's sex, age or economic status. The old lady out shopping, the young mother taking the kids to school, the old man off to get his ciggies, the junior high school team pedaling back from after-school club activities, the elementary school kids with their trainer wheels, the athletic types on their racing bikes in full Lycra, the policeman or policewoman on his or her white rattletrap, with a big box on the back—and then the delivery bikes: courier bicycles and post office delivery bicycles, often towing a trailer, and the traditional food delivery bicycles: stockily built things, ridden by men in white hats and rubber boots, with a special contraption on the back to carry bowls of raamen and the like without them spilling

Lexus cycle, Japan.
A Lexus bicycle - the higher of the high end.

Electrically assisted bicycles have become more common over the past decade, and you'll rarely go more than 10 minutes anywhere without encountering one. Snappy little folding bicycles are also becoming increasingly popular in Japan.

Unless they are new, bicycles in Japan can be in pretty poor repair, with unoiled chains, dodgy brakes and at least the beginnings of rust being the norm. The cacophony of horribly squeaky bicycle brakes is a standard part of the Japanese soundscape. Although all bicycles in Japan have gears, people rarely use them. Bicycles are parked often randomly on sidewalks with little thought for pedestrian thoroughfare.

Cycle parking stand in Japan
Bicycle parking stand in Japan

Bicycles in Japan must be registered against theft, usually at the shop where purchased. Bikes are at risk of being stolen, and should always be locked when left anywhere. They receive an official bicycle registration sticker to identify them in the case of their being stolen—unless of course the thief has removed the sticker.

When it comes to power relations between vehicles, Japan has a hierarchy based on vulnerability: if in any doubt, the bigger gives way to the smaller. Therefore, in situations where who should give way to whom isn't clear, motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles give way to bicycles, and bicycles give way to pedestrians.

Cyclists in Japan often cycle on the wrong side of the road with impunity, making for a hazard especially at night. Occasionally a crazy cyclist coming down the street the wrong way will want to play chicken with you. Don't budge. He will swerve away at the last split second. Many cyclists have no lights on their bike. Helmets and vivid-colored safety clothing are worn by a minority.

Heavily loaded delivery bicycle in Japan.
Heavily laden delivery bicycle, Tokyo

The reason there are so few bicycle accidents in Japan is that people are mutually indulgent and ready to give way.

Taxis are probably the biggest menace to the cyclist in Japan. Taxis are liable to suddenly brake and stop if flagged down, so don't follow them too closely. And never cycle between a stopped taxi and the kerb, unless you want a collision with a suddenly swung open back door letting a passenger on or off. Taxis in Japan are also notorious for not staying between the lines demarking lanes in their desire to be as close to the kerb as possible to pick up prospective fares.
A post office delivery bicycle pulling a trailer.
Post office delivery bicycle with trailer

Old men on bicycles are infamous for ringing their bells indiscriminately—so don't do it unless you want to be branded an "ojisan."

Cyclists in Japan generally get away with running red lights. This is dangerous, and I have a friend who has twice knocked over a pedestrian by doing this. He escaped prosecution only by the skin of his teeth—probably only because he injured himself more badly than he did the pedestrian.

Always wear a helmet. I have another friend who spent 6 months in hospital with a broken neck. He was cycling home at normal plodding speed during the daytime back from the supermarket and in a fluke moment of inattention collided with a lamppost. He said he would not have broken his neck if he had been wearing a helmet.

Local bicycle of a restaurant in a Japanese city.
Local food shop bicycle

Buy a seat that is fixed to the pole with screws, not the kind that comes off by pulling open a lever-style clip. My saddle was stolen twice before I changed to one that required a screwdriver to remove.

Don't park your bicycle in front of shuttered shops, especially at night. Often the shopkeeper lives upstairs and will remove it.

But do cycle in Japan as much as you can. It beats taking the train (literally in my case: 25 minutes to work door-to-door by bike, 35 minutes by train). It gives you a better idea of what's happening in town. And it's good for you. Just ride safely!

Bicycle parking in Japan

Bicycles in Japan

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  1. This is a wonderful summary of the anarchy that is cycling in Japan. Yet despite the lack of infrastructure, the ignorance of the rules and complete mayhem, cycling works here far better than you could possibly imagine.

    Despite this I do believe we've a hit tipping point in Japanese cities in that the sidewalks can no longer support such huge numbers of cyclists. It is time for authorities to recognise that cycling is an important part of Japan's transport mix and start to invest in safe modern cycling infrastructure.

    To learn more about cycling in Japan please visit Tokyo By Bike.

  2. Agree with the above comment whole-heartedly but as for the article from my experience "might seems to be right" and bigger entities bully the smaller ones. Cars expect bicycles to stop as they cut them up and cyclists expect pedestrians to get out of their way. Mayhem it certainly is.


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