Bike Culture in Japan
Warning : This post contains bike nerdery and references to chains and dungeons.
This picture may look like a huge bike impound lot but it is actually one of three bike parking lots at my local train station.(yes,I did say three) Even though Japan is famous for its car industry and its high tech solutions to daily problems, for a huge number of people in Tokyo (including me ) bicycles are still a primary mode of transportation. In Japan you will see nearly everyone, from salary men in pin stripped suits to six year old kids riding a bike at some time. In fact bikes are so prevalent in Japan that an entire culture has grown up around them that makes owning and using a bike much more convenient than in the US.
The first aspect is the bikes themselves. Unlike the five pound space age alloy racing bikes or those irritating “fixies” that so many bike nerds ride in the US, Japanese bikes are much heavier and stronger and appear to be made for more than riding around the park in a pair of spandex shorts. Most people have several baskets for hauling groceries and child seats and it is pretty common to see a Japanese housewife riding down the street with two kids and a couple of bags of groceries. This is probably one reason why the average life expectancy for Japanese women is now close to ninety. Also, because of the low crime rate in Japan, you do not need to buy a titanium U-lock or a chain to keep your bike from being stolen when you go to the local 7-11. Most bikes have a small internal key lock built into the back fork that will keep the bike from moving if anyone else tries to ride it While this probably won’t keep the local organized crime syndicate from putting your bike on a truck and selling it in Indonesia, it should work fine for most people’s purposes.
Another thing that will keep your bike safe is the huge number of bike parking lots and bike racks all over the city. Every shopping center or train station has one. My personal favorite is the one by my job which is located two floors under the streets of Tokyo, can hold over 1,000 bikes and looks like a huge bike dungeon. For 100 yen (about $1) you can store your bike indefinitely. Plus there is usually an attendant around to help clueless foreigners like me navigate the system. However, these bike parking lots lead to some of the same bizarre behaviour usually found among drivers. I have to admit that I have circled the block several times looking for a good parking space and have hovered impatiently waiting for someone unlock their bike so I could get a prime spot at the grocery store.
Bikes are also perfectly designed for Japanese roads. In many places these are not much wider than an alley on the south side of Chicago but they are expected to accommodate two lanes of traffic and two lanes of pedestrians, so a bicycle is a perfect solution to this dilemma. Since this is Japan there is one high tech gadget which makes bicycling easier: the electric bicycle. This is a small battery operated motor which helps people to get up the hilly streets of the Hachioji neighborhood where I live Although I have never used one myself there have been a few times when I have had to get off my bike and push it up a steep hill only to be passed by a spry eighty year old on an electric bike.