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.

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