Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Bicycle in Japan

One of the first things that foreigners arriving in Japan are often surprised
by are the vast number of bicycles that can be seen careening through the city
streets and sidewalks. Almost everyone, from grandmothers to well dressed
businessmen on their way to the office use a “jitensha” ( bicycle) as a form
of mainstream transportation. Whether employed for picking up the children
from preschool, pedaling to the nearest train station, or commuting to work or
university, the bicycle has become an integral part of Japanese society. Even
the police, who can often be seen making nightly rounds on bicycles, prefer
them in regard to navigating the narrow network of streets that comprise most
Japanese cities and towns. The two wheelers are indeed everywhere, and to such
an extent that huge parking areas near most shopping centers and railway
stations are dedicated solely to accommodating bicycles.  

Despite their convenience and appeal as a cheap form of transportation,
they are also a major annoyance and possible physical threat to those riders
and pedestrians who fail to learn the rules of the road. Those rules being: that
there are no rules of the road. In theory bicycles by law are to be ridden
only on city streets and not sidewalks, except when signs indicate otherwise.
In reality however this regulation is entirely ignored by everyone. More times
than I care to remember I've found myself jumping out of the way of some over
zealous cyclist who decided the path of least resistance would be to run
directly over me. Or felt the sudden swoosh of air touch my arm as a crazed
biker appearing out of nowhere like some invisible phantom in the night sped
manically by from behind as I leisurely sauntered home.  

In spite of these pitfalls the bicycle in Japan for better or worse is here
to stay, and as the saying goes, “if you can't beat em join em”. For those of
you who are considering purchasing one upon arriving you'll be pleased to know
they're quite inexpensive, the average cost running around 10,000 yen , and
used bicycles are available for even less. The most common bicycles for
everyday use are typically one speed models with steel frames which include a
kickstand, generator lights, fenders, caliper front brake and disk rear brake,
and a steel mesh basket which is attached to the handle bars for carrying
groceries and other items.

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