Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cycling with fatalistic abandon

One of my favourite things about Japan also happens to be one of my least favourite things about Japan. Yes, it's a contradiction but so too is the double-edged nature of Japan's bicycle culture, which manages to be both inspiring and frustrating at the same time.

On the upside, cycling is a very mainstream form of transportation in Japan. Almost everyone rides a bike. You will see grandmothers with baskets full of groceries, mothers with kids in tow, salarymen in business suits, stylish women in skirts and stilettos, and teenagers in school uniforms. All of them on bikes.

The bikes themselves are cheap and simple. They are one-speed, no-nonsense steel workhorses that come equipped with fenders, a kickstand, a light and a steel-mesh basket. They are absolutely everywhere. As a result, there are strict rules governing what you can and can't do while riding a bike.

For example, it is against the law to ride a bike in Japan while listening to music, holding an umbrella or talking on a cell phone. It is also illegal to ride on the sidewalk or ride a bike after drinking alcohol. There is a ban on text messaging while riding. It is even against the law to ring your bell repeatedly.

But you'd be forgiven for not knowing any of these things are illegal based on the sheer number of people who do all of the above on a daily basis.

The only law people seem to obey is the one about not ringing their bells repeatedly. Not only do they not ring their bells repeatedly, they don't ring them at all. Instead, they silently ride up behind unsuspecting pedestrians and screech their rusty brakes at the last second to avoid mowing them down.

Almost everyone rides a bike. But almost everyone rides with fatalistic abandon.

No one wears a helmet. Everyone talks on their cell phone or holds an umbrella while steering with one hand (actually, riding a bike while holding an umbrella is not as difficult or dangerous as it sounds. Especially if you use one of those ubiquitous transparent umbrellas that allow you to see what's in front of you).

Even though it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk, everyone does. Some sidewalks have bike lanes but most people ignore them.

And while cars are forced to drive on the left side of the road, the same rule doesn't seem to apply to cyclists. Riding a bike in Japan means you're constantly swerving to avoid a head-on collision with other cyclists. And those other cyclists are usually only steering with one hand because they're either sending a text message or holding an umbrella.

Cyclists in Japan are also fond of riding out into intersections without looking, running red lights and riding the wrong way at night without lights.

But the thing that bugs me the most is riding on the sidewalk. This is a tough one, though. On the one hand, I completely understand and sympathize with cyclists who feel they have no option but to ride on the sidewalk. On the other hand, I think sidewalks should be strictly for pedestrians, and that bikes are just as valid a means of transportation as cars and should be given space on the road to accommodate them.

Unfortunately, most of the roads in Kyoto are way too dangerous for bikes. They are choked with cars traveling at high speeds and any cyclist daring to venture out onto them would be given no room or respect.

I've always felt perfectly comfortable riding on city streets in Canada, even on roads without designated bike lanes. But it's a different story out here.

I would never, ever ride on a busy road in Kyoto. It is simply far too dangerous. So I ride on the sidewalk with everyone else. But I ride slowly and carefully and keep an eye out for the old people who tend to careen all over the sidewalk without looking.

Unfortunately, I'm in the minority. Most cyclists zip past pedestrians at high speeds on crowded sidewalks. Whenever I walk on certain sidewalks, I feel like I'm taking my life in my hands.

Being a pedestrian in Japan is a stressful experience. You have to be constantly on alert otherwise you will be run down by reckless cyclists who are going way too fast and paying far too little attention.

There are times I want to scream, "Slow down!!!" or "Use some oil before I go deaf from your stupid brakes!!!" But this is Japan and publicly expressing your true feelings just isn't done.

Every time I see two cyclists about to collide, no one shakes their fist or mutters something about the other's stupidity. They just screech their brakes, change course and either bow their heads in silent apology or simply avert their eyes and pretend it never happened. Not one insult is exchanged.

Kyoto somehow manages to be both bicycle friendly and bicycle unfriendly at the same time.

Bikes are everywhere but there is no impetus to get them off the sidewalk and on the road. Everyone rides a bike but they do so with reckless abandon. There are laws but no one follows them.

And so I am caught between alternately loving and loathing Japan's bicycle culture. It is both inspiring and frustrating.

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