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.
I took this picture at a shrine located a few blocks from my home in the Kitano neighborhood of Hachioji, Tokyo. I was going grocery shopping in the middle of a snowstorm but I was really struck by the beauty of the shrine in the snow which reminded me of something out of a Kurosawa movie so I had to stop and take a picture of it. How I ended up there is another story.
When I came to Japan one thing that really excited me was the fact that I was finally leaving the Chicago winter behind. I spent the first twenty one years of my life in California and this experience formed my template for “normal weather.” Even after spending the next 28 years in Chicago, I could never get used to the frigid Midwestern winters. For about three weeks after arriving in Tokyo everything was going fine, the temperature was between 40 and 50 degrees and when people complained about the cold “Kyo wa samui desu ne.” I would nod in agreement even though I had just escaped from the first pass of Chiberia’s polar vortex and I really felt like I had landed in a country where it was always spring. Boy was I wrong.
While northern Japan is famous for its snow festivals, Tokyo rarely gets snow. So I was quite surprised to look out the window on February 8th and see a Chicago-style blizzard. When it was all over nearly eight inches of snow had fallen and Tokyo had survived its worst snowstorm in 45 years. (That’s right, the last time it snowed this much the Beatles were still together.) In many ways a snowstorm in Tokyo is just like a snowstorm anywhere else. It begins with breathless news coverage about the approaching storm followed by the inevitable warnings of “Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to” followed by footage of people falling on sidewalks and cars skidding out of control on slippery bridges and of course the footage of the local television station’s least senior reporter standing out in a snow bank someplace looking really uncomfortable or interviewing people who were stuck at the airport. However there were a few things that were really different about this blizzard
Since Tokyo has very little snow the city was not really prepared for this storm so there are few snowplows, no salt or sand to put down and only the biggest roads were plowed. I assumed that since this was a Saturday everyone would just stay inside, just like the recent shutdown of several southern states after a dusting of snow that was lighter than the powered sugar on a Krispy Kreme donut. But this was not the case. Japan is a country that is only about the size of California but they have an earthquake nearly every day and several typhoons hit the country each year during typhoon season, so 20 centimeters. of snow is not going to stop people from their daily routine. I went grocery shopping in the middle of the blizzard and saw plenty of other people out shopping too. Since many people in Tokyo do not have cars and there is usually a grocery store within walking distance of people’s homes, a lot of people simply went grocery shopping or took their kids out to play in the snow. Since it snows here so rarely many children who were five or six years old were experiencing snow for the first time. Also public transportation is reliable and easily available so while it was more difficult to get around it was not impossible.
The other thing that I noticed was the way that people relied much more on human power to dig out after the storm. The entire parking lot in front of my building was cleared out by a group of five people with shovels and a big basket mounted on top of a dolly. I saw several other people shoveling paths through side streets and clearing out the entrance to the local train station by hand as well. One thing that I think accounts for this attitude is a Japanese phrase “Shikata ga nai” which translates as “It can’t be helped.” While this phrase is often seen as fatalistic or passive, it also has the meaning of squarely facing and pushing through difficult situations. You need to get groceries but there’s half a foot of snow on the ground instead of sitting around complaining while you eat the last bowl of ramen in the house, just go out and get your groceries. It might be fun and you might see something really beautiful like a shrine covered in snow or a child experiencing her first snow.
Even though Japan is famous for embracing the latest high tech gadgets, there are some things which still exist in Japan that have almost entirely disappeared in the US. This is the first installment in a series of posts about things that have survived in Japan long after they disappeared from the US.
Pay phones and phone booths– This is a picture that I took of a payphone on the train platform at Meidiamae station in Tokyo. Superman would have to search long and hard for a dressing room, since there are not a lot of pay phones in Tokyo but I have seen about seven or eight since I arrived. I even saw someone using one despite the fact that almost everyone appears to have a cell phone. The pay phones are bright green, very sturdy and appear to be designed primarily for emergencies, which is probably a good thing since between the earthquakes and typhoons emergencies are pretty common.
Gas station attendants. While nearly all US gas stations went self-serve during the last century, stopping in a gas station a few weeks ago took me back to my childhood in the 1970s. When we pulled into the local gas station three attendants in snappy (yes, that IS the only word for it) red uniforms descended on our car and began cleaning it, filling it with gas and even passed out hot towels so we could clean the car’s interior. One of the senior attendants even stood at the exit to the gas station to let us know when it was safe to pull out into traffic.
Record stores-Although Tower Records, one of my favorite youthful hangouts, disappeared from the US a long time ago, there is still a Tower Records in the Hachioji section of Tokyo where I live. In fact Japan still has a lot of record stores. I have yet to find anything rivaling Chicago’s Virgin Megastore which graced the Magnificent Mile in the early 2000s but Japan still has a number of small to mid-sized record stores. Amazon and its Japanese competitor, Rakuten, have made some inroads into the CD and DVD markets but Japan does not have a lot of streaming services like Pandora or Spotify. Also Japanese CDs have really extensive liner notes which makes Itunes downloads less popular.
Fax Machines-Yes, they still exist in Japan and they still suck as much as you remember them(if you are old enough to remember them.)
Video Rental Stores-Imagine a world in which Netflix never existed. Tokyo is full of cheap DVD rental stores (by cheap I mean 100 yen or about $1.00 per rental) which also offer Blue Ray and CD rentals so you can check out the latest AKB48 release along with your rental of The Wolverine. The big difference between these stores and places like Blockbuster is their incredibly efficient use of space which allows them to cram thousands of DVDs and CDs into a space which is about the size of someone’s living room. However, I think they may be on their way out since I recently saw that our local store,Tsutaya, was going to offer a rent-by-mail service which is almost identical to Netflix.
My first impression of Japan as I approached Narita airport was its similarity to my native state of Northern California (that’s the part of California which is more like Portlandia and less like every show you have ever seen on TV about California) It has the same hilly terrain, the same precise, rectangular rice fields interrupted by orchards; however, as we touched down on the runway I was reminded that I was indeed in a foreign country as we blew past a long line of Japanese characters punctuated with a large Japanese flag which had been presumably been cut into the grass beside the runway to welcome us to Japan.
Once I arrived in the airport I was struck by how quiet it was. Here I was in one of the busiest airports in the largest city in the world and it was almost silent. This was good because I decided to deal with jet lag by not sleeping on the flight to Japan so I had been awake for 27 straight hours by the time I arrived and my entire nervous system was feeling a bit shaky. (As unpleasant as this sounds I have to admit that it is an effective strategy for dealing with a nine hour time difference. )There were people everywhere but they managed to get things done without the yelling and screaming that is so popular in American airports. It was like watching an airport in the US with the sound on mute. In twenty minutes I was fingerprinted, photographed and entered into the Japanese immigration system, I picked up my luggage and declared that I had nothing to declare but then came my first real test. I had to exchange my dollars for Yen. Dealing with people in a language that you can barely speak or understand after going an entire day without sleep is a surreal experience. It reminded me of how much of human interaction is playacting. I pretended to understand what people were saying, they pretended that I understood what they were saying and a few “domo arigatoes” later I walked away with an envelope fill of Yen.
The drive home from Narita was another eye opener. Narita, like many airports, is actually pretty far from the city that it serves. So my initial views of Tokyo looked like any other large city anywhere in the US. If it were not for the Japanese writing and the fact that many buildings looked like they had been assembled out of a huge set or grey and black legos, I could have been in downtown Milwaukee or Minneapolis. However as we moved into the city I began seeing some familiar landmarks like Tokyo Disneyland, the Tokyo Tower, the Rainbow Bridge and the Diamond and Flower Ferris Wheel which are the things which most foreigners associate with Japan. It was the beginning or rush hour so I could see groups of people walking out of their offices onto the trains for the trip home.
I hate to repeat clichés but my first impressions of Japan are full of them. During my first hours in the country I was impressed by the vastness and cleanliness of Tokyo and the friendliness of the people here. In the next few blog entries I will be getting a bit more specific about some of the unique aspects of life in Japan which you probably will not experience as a tourist