Cycling in Japan: Lessons I’ve Learned
I’ve been cycle commuting to work here in Japan for almost two years. My first 6 years in Japan I suffered like most others and commuted via public transit. Although Japan has an extremely efficient and relatively clean public transit system, being packed into a train like a sardine on a Monday morning with a car full of depressed looking salarymen can be more than a little demoralizing.
Thankfully, a few years ago I got a job position in Kobe, the city I live in. Before that I was working in nearby Akashi and Osaka. Those cities are relatively close if commuting via train, but a little too far for a daily cycle trip.
I now travel between 16-18 kilometers a day round trip (when I’m not plagued with hernias…it’s been an issue). I may not be the most experienced bike commuter in Japan, but I can give some ideas, tips and share some odd impressions with anyone out there thinking of cycling on a regular basis while in Japan.
Oh yeah, just as a frame of reference, I cycle everyday using a “mamachari.” Basically, it’s an old-fashioned “granny bike” which is probably the most popular style of bicycle in Japan. It’s normally a slow bicycle with no gears and a large basket on the front. Typically you may see mothers in Japan taking their kids to day care or grocery shopping using these bicycles. I take mine to work each day. Mind you, these days many people have “assisted” mamacharis, which basically means they have a motor that does most of the work. Mine has 6 speeds, but these days my gears don’t work do well!
Let’s talk about a few things I’ve learned while commuting daily. Some of these may be things you only see in Japan while others may be somewhat universal when it comes to cycle commuting.
Mentally uplifting – Cycling is the best way to get to work in the morning. I simply love it. I can avoid the crowded trains everyday. I feel better mentally because I’m not surrounded by depressed looking people who don’t want to go to work everyday. Sad faces attached to black suits holding onto straps on the train with hunched shoulders. I ride past the harbour each morning and see Grey Herons, Egrets and other great water-based wildlife. When I arrive at work I am more energized and star my teaching day off with a better mental attitude.
Illnesses Reduced – Standing on a train packed with people day to day is a great way to get sick. When you travel by train everyday you are surrounded by people literally breathing down your neck and many may be sick, hacking and coughing all over you. This is the perfect way to make sure you get sick as well. People may wear masks on the train when they are sick, but those masks don’t stop viruses and pathogens. They are more of a “show” than anything and basically are only good for stopping things like dust and pollen.
Since I started cycling and not taking the train, I have been ill far less. I used to be sick (cold or flu) at least once a month for many years and since I started cycle-commuting about two years ago have only had a few colds and I got those from my children.
Idiots are everywhere – Even in Japan there are idiots. Idiots on bicycles are normally ones who use their smart phones while cycling. They apparently have no problem with themselves dying or contributing to the deaths of others. I have had many near accidents with jerks texting or watching videos on their phones while they cycle. It’s illegal and frustrating, but police in Japan never police things like this!
Police don’t enforce bicycle laws – I honestly don’t know about what happens in cities like Tokyo, but where I live, police don’t police cyclists. Everyday I encounter many cyclists breaking rules, using smart phones, blowing through red lights, cutting across many lanes of traffic and there is never anyone around to penalize them. That’s a little frustrating.
Helmets – They simply aren’t a common sight in Japan. Most people never wear them. Most kids never wear them. I don’t even know if they are required, but if they are, no one is enforcing the law. Both of my children always wear helmets while on their bikes. Sadly, I do not. I don’t wear a helmet, because I have yet to find one that fits my fat head. I have a larger than normal head and even in Canada it was a challenge to find a helmet that fit. In Japan it has proven to be an even greater challenge. I’ve even gone into big box stores like Konan Home Center and they’ve told me they don’t sell helmets for adults, only children.
Hopefully I can get one!
Drinking and Riding – This is a BIG “NO NO” in Japan, but I sometimes see people do it. At least once or twice a week I’ll see a relatively weathered looking construction or factory worker riding home after a day at work with one hand on the handlebars and the other holding a can of bear or a Chu-hi (shochu cooler). Apparetnly if the police stop you doing this you are in BIG trouble, but since I rarely see police interacting with cyclists…who knows!
Btw…this is something I will NEVER do!
LIGHTS, LIGHTS, LIGHTS! – I cannot stress enough how important it I to have bright lights on the front and rear of your bike. I also recommend having them on your backpack and helmet if possible. If you cycle at night like I do, cars and trucks DO NOT see you. Even if you have lights they don’t see cyclists. It’s almost as if we have Harry Potter style invisibility cloaks on. Light yourself up like a Christmas tree and always cycle with the mindset that no one sees you and cycle accordingly.
Btw…people will never steal lights off your bicycle like in Canada or America so you can leave them on during the day or night when you park/lock up your bike.
Register your bike – When you buy a new bicycle, the shop or store you purchased it from will ask you to pay 500 yen for a police registration sticker. I recommend doing it so if your bicycle is stolen the police may be able to recover it. A few of my friends have had their bikes stolen and they were eventually recovered because they had the police registration sticker. It’s well worth the $5.00 expense!
Lock it up! – If you are riding a cheap mamachari, you probably don’t have to worry about someone stealing your ride, so the cheap lock that comes with a standard bike should be fine. If you have a serious set of wheels like a Trek, Cannondale or Louis Garneau, invest in a serious lock/chain to keep it safe. Even in a place like Japan with a very low crime/theft rate, high-end rides are a frequent target of criminals.
Typhoons and Rain Gear – Japan has a typhoon season and weather can change quickly. It’s always good to carry a set of rain gear in your pack. You never know when the weather may quickly change!
Cycling is a great way to get around in Japan. Bicycles are affordable and they are a convenient way to zip around town and keep in shape. If you have the chance to cycle in Japan, I recommend it.
A tune up at a reputable bike shop may cure your gear changing woes, although those parts do wear out it may be possible to replace the derailleur. (the part that moves the chain back and forth to switch gears).