Thursday, October 15, 2009

old essay about cycling in Japan

I just dug out an old essay I wrote in 1996. Most of my comments are still valid, so I re-post it here.

Yes, I am riding bicyle in Japan! And my bicycle is a real one, not one of the so-called 'mama-charis'. The meaning of mama is clear, 'chari' is colloquial for 'simple bicycle' (to translate politely). Typically they have a basket attached to the steering bar. Riding on a mama-chari is very dangerous, because you always have to avoid close contact between your knees and ears. Because they have no gears, you have to rest from time to time in order to take some fresh air after cycling with the lightning speed of a pedestrian. You can find the mama-charis everywere, you know which type of bicycle I mean.

But coming back to the topic, I am riding a real bicycle, one with 3x7 gears, 2 holders for luggage and other luxury equipment, e.g. lights, brakes and a bell.

Such a bicycle allows the owner even to exceed the speed of a pedestrian. Because of this fact I prefer to ride on the street rather than on the sidewalk, which is the normal 'street' for bicyclists in Japan. Some years ago a policeman stopped me and ordered me to ride on the sidewalk, which by it's deepmost meaning is a place to walk.

In contrast to the policeman, who was still very polite in his request, truckdrivers know a much more convincing method of getting rid of these bicyclists on the street. Having a truck besides you at the speed of 30 or 40 km/h that is approaching you more and more leaves you no other choice (exept if you want your family to get your life insurance as soon as possible). By the way, speaking of money. The taxi drivers association must have put some reward for my head. I have no other reason to explain all the attempted killings from taxi drivers. I stopped to count the events when a taxi is leaping out of a small side street into my way or when a taxi abruptly stops just after passing me by. You also have to be aware that they suddenly forgot that they are Japanese. How else can one explain the fact that they pretend not to understand when I complain to them after such an event. They seem to be as inoccent as babies.

Nevertheless, riding bicycle is very healthy, as everybody knows.
In Japan besides the physical training of certain muscles, the positive effect also concerns other areas. For example your reflexes will be trained when you have to avoid a crash with the above mentioned taxis. Furthermore your lungs will be strengthened due to the shouting you have to do (at least the taxi driver should hear you through the closed window of his car). Your coordination capability will increase tremendously when you 1. see the taxi, 2. estimate it's speed and direction, 3. decide weather you should brake or accelerate, 4. actually doing so, 5. look up your vocabulary for appropriate words to say, 6.starting to shout. All this has to be done in milliseconds and a year-long practice made me some expert. How about organizing a competition?

Amazingly, bicyclists in Japan develop a parapsychologic sense, like mind-reading, too. After being here in Japan for I while, I realized that I can foresee events in the near future. For example, 'this car will not see me and will drive right to the other side of the street in a second' or 'this taxi will make a sudden turn soon' and so on.

At the beginning I spoke of some luxury equipment on my bike. The same is true for cars in Japan. Many drivers haven't realized that their car is equipped with these tiny orange lights, commonly called winkers. And what is the nice accoustic device good for that can say: 'migi ni magarimasu' (I turn right) when the truckdriver does not activate the winker?

Japan also allows itself the luxury of painting absolutely useless white stripes on the street. You know these kind of stripes (ca. 3 m long, 50 cm wide, aligned parallel to the road direction spanning from one side of the street to the other). If you are a pedestrian and waiting that a car stops at these stripes to let you cross the street, you'll wait until.... But his is about pedestrians, a little bit off-topic.

At least you have one advantage: car drivers in Japan are frightened of you. Lately a Japanese told me his feelings when he was driving a car for the first time in Europe:'all these bicyclists on the street made me really frightened!!'

To be more serious, riding bicycle in Japan puts you in a grey zone. Even though it is nowhere stated that you are not allowed to ride on the street, nobody actually expects bicyclists on the street. In Japan bicyclists are regarded as 'fast pedestrians'. At larger intersections bicyclists should cross the street at the pedestrians crossing. But what to do if the marks on the street indicating such a crossing are faded beyond visibility?
Japanese bicyclists also promote the anarchic situation. More than once I have seen a bicyclist at night, during rain, without light, in dark clothes, with one hand holding an umbrella, entering a one way street from the wrong end and at the wrong side of the street.

If you try to dive into the jungle of Japanese traffic with your bike, just remember: - wear sufficient protective clothing (the list is endless, starting with gloves and helmet). - be aware that Japenese car drivers DO NOT SEE bicyclists. - be aware that, even they see you, they will underestimate your speed.

Domestic flights carrying a bicycle

In 1998, I had the chance to make a small tour in Tohoku. My plan was to go from Sendai to the Zao mountain area, which is soemthing like 50 km south-west of Sendai. Originally I planned to go from Sapporo to Tomakomai by bicycle and then board a ferry to Sendai port. But out of time constrains, I had to go by airplane. Okay, I thought, I buy a bag (also useful for transporting the bicycle in the train), and go by airplane (Japan Airlines) to Sendai. The Ono cycling shop in Sapporo has a variety of bags. Usually one has to dismantle the front and the rear wheel to fit the bicycle in the bag. This leaves the crank set prone to damage, even if you handle it carefully. ONE bag was that big, that only the front wheel has to be taken of. Then the frame with the rear wheel fits into the bag! Dismantling takes only a few seconds and after 3-4 minutes (after practice) the change from a cyclist to a airplane passenger can be made!

That morning I went by bicycle from my house to Sapporo Station. I did not have to pay extra for the bigger luggage in the train. I just made sure that I enter the last car of the train. Then my next worry was at the airport, but the lady at the check-in counter just asked me if this is a 'normal' bicycle or a racing bike and if it is possible to take it on the conveyer belt for luggages. I choose to define my Araya bike to be the latter and said it should be handled with care. So she handed the bag to another attendant and I saw him disappear through a door with my bike. The strange feeling that I would see my bike again did not disappear.

When I was waiting to board the plane I saw that my bag was loaded with great care onto a conveyer belt and into the plane. So it was not put into a container for transport! Great, I thought.

Then in Sendai my normal luggage came out of the plane in the normal procedure, but here again, the bicycle was brought by an attendant. As adviced by the person who sold me the bag I immediately opened it and checked the bike for damage, but there were none. Once you leave the baggage claim area, then claims (sorry for the pun) about damage are not valid anymore.

The same procedure took place when I went back to Sapporo, so I have to say that I am very positively surprized how careful bicycles are handeld on DOMESTIC flights. I ahve heard other stories for international flights, but I haven't tried that yet.

From Yoichi to Sapporo (via Akaigawa) (80 km)

For this tour I took the 'Cycling Train' from Sapporo to Yoichi. In Yoichi follow National Route 5 to the south. At the end of Yoichi take Hokkaido Route 36 to the left. Soon the street rises and after a few kms you are on top of a 340 m hill. The street then leads to the Akaigawa Country Club with the ugliest club house I have ever seen. A descend leads to Akaigawa, a town with no recognizable center, just a few vending machines. Soon you meet National Route 393 and continue along a small and nice valley. You climb steadily and at the end of the valley you can see the Kiroro ski area. Then the streets acends to 648 m and follows a small plateau with 3 peaktops. Soon after the last top, you have a magnificent view over Otaru and Tenjinyama. Hairpin curves lead down to Otaru and the follow Route 5 back to Sapporo.

Around Shakotan (140 km)

Start in Yoichi. Follow National Route 5 to the south. For the next 10 km the street follows the valley. Then there is a medium accend and a ca. 1 km long tunnel to a small pass (226 m). After the descend follow Route 276. After ca. 2 km turn right to Hokkaido Route 269 to Shakotan. Directly behind you is Yotei-zan. After 8 km you hit the sea shore and National Route 229. From here on the street follows the sea shore. After 40 km and many tunnels (there are more than 40 of them on the whole trip), you see a light house, a turn to the left after a short accend leads you there. After 15 more kms, Route 229 makes a turn to the right. You can continue along the sea shore aon Hokkaido Route 913. The route goes a little bit inlands and meets National Route 229 on a hilltop (150 m). After the descend you are in Bikuni, a famous place for fresh sushi. The street continues along the seashore and shortly before Yoichi is a small hill to climb.
This clockwise circumvention of Shakotan always has the seashore on your side of the street. The color of the water change from time to time and there are many beautiful rock formations along the coast. In the tunnels, I took my front light, pointing backwards, into my right hand. Thus car and truck drivers were very careful when overtaking.

Sapporo-Shikotsuko (60 km)

From Sapporo take National Route 453 to the south. After Makomanai you come to Ishiyama and will pass by the Geijitsu no mori Museum. Around here is last the chance for drink and food supply. After approx. 5 more kms the street will start to rise and you will pass by the Makomanai Country Club. Within the next 20 km there are 3-4 up-down sequences, which are fairly tiring. Just before the last descend to Shikotsuko you can turn right to Hokkaido Route 673 climb up to Okotanpeko. When you go straight instead you will descend to Shikotsuko and arrive at lake-level at a camp site.There is a road which circles the lake of about 4/5 of its lenght. From the camp site to Shikotsuko han, a very touristic place, is approx. 10 kms. There you leave the lake and the road will climb a small hill. After 3 kms you will meet National Route 276 which takes you back to the lake, but the view of the lake is limited on this side.

Sapporo-Otaru-Niki (55 km)

Take National Route 5 to Otaru. In Otaru you can take a road along the ferry port and the canal. Upon leaving Otaru, the Route 5 climbs a hill and then descends to sea level again. After passing through several short tunnels you come to Yoichi (20 km from Otaru). Here, the Route 5 makes a turn to the left and after 5 km you are in Niki, one of the largest fruits growing areas in Hokkaido.

Sapporo-Hamamasu-Tobetsu-Sapporo (200km; 2 days)

1. Sapporo-Hamamasu (80 km)

Take National Route 231 out of Sapporo. You will cross over the Ishikari River (narrow bridge, better to take the walkway) and go through Ishikari. From the hilltop after Ishikari you have a nice view of Sapporo behind you. Until Atsuta you will have a few up-downs and then follow the coastline. After a few tunnels you will leave the coastline. An ascend takes you to a 2km long tunnel and then is a descend to Hamamasu. On the whole way there are a few convenient stores.

2. Hamamasu-Tobetsu-Sapporo (120 km)

In Hamamsu turn right and follow National Route 451 to Hamamasu Onsen and Takikawa. Very few traffic. No food and drink supply for the next 40 km. Flat until Hamamasu Onsen (3km) and then steady and easy slope for the next 15 km. Then medium ascend and steep descend. After a total of 24 km turn right to Tobetsu and follow Hokkaido Route 22. Hilly up-down along the valley and medium up-slope before the Aoyama Dam. Descend and afterwards fairly flat. After 20 km on the Route 22 you will meet Hokkaido Route 11. After 3.5 km you have the possibility to turn left to Tsukigata and then in Tsukigata turn right and follow National Route 275 to Sapporo. When you don't turn to Tsukigata but continue towards Tobetsu you will pass a quarry and from there the traffic with trucks on a fairly dirty and dusty road will increase. After 22 more kms you can turn left and take a bypass to National Route 275 just before Tobetsu. If you continue to Tobetsu you will meet National Route 337 and turn left to National Route 275 towards Sapporo.