Sorry for the lack of new material this month. I’ve been away, enjoying life in Japan rather than burning the midnight oil in my quest for world bicycle domination. Situation permitting Kyoko and I spend about a month in Japan each year to visit family and friends, see new places and do a little business. This time is P’s first trip to one of his two lands of nationality. I really enjoy my time in Japan, probably because even though it’s all quite familiar now, I still don’t understand much of it. Of course that’s largely a function of my poor grasp of the Japanese language; I follow a fair bit but speak barely enough for greetings and simple needs. But even if I were fluent in Japanese it’s unlikely I’d be able to understand this strange culture. Actually it seems the natives themselves often don’t have much insight into what makes things tick here. Below are a few examples. Have a look also through my Flickr photostream where I’ve posted hundreds of Japan photos already.
Obsession with cleanliness:
Japan is very, very clean and that’s obviously a good thing. Sometimes it seems a bit over the top though such as when I see men polishing the fire hydrants or shop salespeople on their hands and knees scrubbing the last scuff mark off the brilliantly shining tile floor. A couple times I’ve spotted teams of schoolchildren on class cleaning trips, all wearing matching, brightly colored hats as they collect what little trash there is to be found on the sidewalks.
But actually I was thinking more of the personal hygiene part of cleanliness; Currently many people are wearing face masks in all public places, apparently out of fear for the Mexican flu (called “new type of flu” here) from which 50 people have died. Kyoko and I estimate that 30% of of people are wearing face masks on the street, in public transport and in shops. Stores, malls, restaurants and all public restrooms have hand sanitizing stations with special antibacterial spray. In the drugstores entire displays are devoted to products for anti-flu sanitizing.
One sanitary thing I’ll admit to loving is the toilets. Few toilets are not equipped with at least a heated seat and a “wash-let” comprising a high pressure nozzle electronically aimed at either your back- or front- bottom. These are operated by a little control panel on your right side (when sitting). Beats the heck out of toilet paper! But wait, there’s more: The latest models enable you to never touch the toilet with your hands. Even raising and lowering the cover and seat, and flushing are accomplished electronically via the control panel. Of course everything can be adjusted: pressure and temperature of the water, heat of the seat etc etc.
Why are there so many super fast cars on the highly speed restricted roads of Japan? Mitsubishi Lancer Evo’s, Nissan Skyline GTR’s, Subaru WRX’s and outrageously modified mini-autos I can’t even identify are everywhere. Every car nut knows what these are but for the unfamiliar I’m talking about some of the world’s most sophisticated speed machines, capable of reaching highway speed limits in a few seconds and capable of top speeds more than three times the 80km/hr national highway speed limit.
At first I figured I’d find these guys racing around in the mountainous roads each weekend, “Fast and the Furious” style, but now I’ve spent a lot of time in rural areas all over Japan and have yet to see a single car or motorcycle exceeding the (low) speed limits. Besides the sports cars practically all of the cars in Japan are quite new and in great condition. Aside from some classic models (old Austin Minis are currently hyper popular) there are few older cars to be seen. The only thing clear to me about all this is that the Japanese generally love their cars and attach a fair amount of status to them. In this sense (and quite a few others) Japan reminds me of the USA.
Normally such a strong car culture would be an indicator of a highly privatized, conservative economy and politics, and investment in public transport is the mark of a “social” economy. So how do we reconcile the japanese love of private cars with their fantastic public transport system here? Trains and metros are so perfect here that they’re fun. The metro systems are not only extraordinarily extensive, they’re also perfectly clean and nearly always equipped with good working elevators and escalators. Only the oldest stations aren’t so equipped. Getting around with a child in a stroller and often our baggage has been no problem at all.
While the metros are efficient, Japan has the only train system in the world that makes the Dutch trains look lame. The Dutch trains might not be pretty or terribly clean but they go practically everywhere and almost always right into the center of the city where you need to be. Swiss and German trains are prettier but they don’t always go where you need to be. Japanese trains, though, are in another class. They seem to run perfectly on schedule. There are always staff available to provide information. Teams of women dressed in pink uniforms roam through the trains cleaning. Like all staff they bow upon exiting each car.
Like elsewhere Japan has different types of trains, from quaint, historic trains that slowly wind their way through the mountains to the 300km/h Shin-kan-sen “bullet” trains. We’ve had some amazing riders on single car diesel trains that ride through areas inaccessible by any other means. Other countries also have fast trains but the Shin-kan-sen is different in a number of ways, most notably that it actually goes really fast all the time, including through the cities. As a result they cover the large distances between cities remarkably quickly.
Yeah, you’ve seen all these images of ancient shinto shrines, tranquil rock gardens and wooden row houses with perfectly ordered tatami rooms just like in the movies. Those do exist and I’ve been to many beautiful spots in Japan; they’re mostly in rural areas and a few historic spots in cities.
However the developed areas are largely quite ugly on many levels; The architecture (apartment buildings for example) is generally quite depressingly modern, uninspired and grey, not particularly east or west… just ugly. The sky is usually littered with amazing collections of cables to serve the equally amazing high-tech infrastructure.
Bridges and other civil structures are purely functional, much like in the US. There’s little green or park space in the cities though Tokyo is a notable exception in its greenness. Unlike in European cities where the residents are often quite conscious of preserving historical elements, history is relatively difficult to find in Japanese cities. There is a beautiful castle in most cities (usually surrounded by a park), shrines tucked away behind shopping malls and a couple old ramshackle houses in the shadows of concrete apartment blocks and that’s about it. There are some partial explanations for this: A. Japan is an earthquake zone so buildings must be seen as fairly temporary. B. Older buildings were almost all wood (see A) which just doesn’t last forever.
In all fairness Japanese cities are great at night if you enjoy the hyper-urban-neon Blade Runner experience. In the dark you only see the incredible conglomerations of bright displays, wacky sci-fi buildings and masses of people.
Bike infrastructure (or the lack thereof):
Compared to most of the industrialized world there are a lot of cyclists in Japan. Of course that’s not saying much with bike modal share hovering around zero in most of the world. Given the densely populated cities, car traffic, high costs of car ownership and generally fit population transportation it should be a no-brainer to get the Japanese cycling en masse. But it’s not: There is almost NO cycling infrastructure in Japan aside from parking facilities.
Cyclists are treated as pedestrians and most cyclists ride, or rather paddle along feet on the ground, on the sidewalks. Cyclists dodge pedestrians, baby carriages, vendors and loading trucks much of the time. Even when areas are designated for pedestrian and cyclist there is little lane diligence. Each cross street means carefully checking for cars turning into the street, dropping down from the sidewalk, crossing and going back up to the sidewalk. In the quiet neighborhoods (where there are no sidewalks anyway) everybody rides in the street, and this is where you see the most cyclists.
As a result cycling just isn’t pleasant or convenient in much of Japan. The car roads are narrow, heavily trafficked and often have no margin (where cyclists often ride in other countries). At the same time cycling on the sidewalk just sucks; It’s frustratingly slow and minor accidents and incidents are common. I regularly see near collisions (and probably real collisions) between sidewalk cyclists and both other sidewalk users and cars at the street crossings. As a result there are basically two types of cyclists in Japan: Sidewalk riders and road warriors.
The sidewalk riders are mostly kids, women and older men. They seem to have resigned themselves to not getting very far very fast. I’m guessing most don’t leave the neighborhood. These folks ride either standard issue Japanese city bikes with the seat at its lowest position, “mama-chari” child carrier bikes with the seat at its lowest position, or cheap, Chinese made department store bikes with the seat at the lowest position.
The road warriors look just like the “cyclists” in most of the non-cycling, industrial world: Young men outfitted for battle with helmets, glasses, special clothes, courier bags and other gear. They ride road racing bikes, mountain bikes or fixies and are mostly seen in Tokyo. I’ve seen few road warrior cyclists in other cities. The only difference between the enthusiast “commuter” cyclists in Japan and elsewhere is the locks. Here in Japan only the most minimalist lock is necessary: a tiny chain, aluminium U-lock or string thick cable seems to be sufficient. Locking your bike to a fixed object is clearly optional. Of course Japanese cyclists complain about bike theft but I hardly ever see a decently locked bike. Oh, and worth noting is the latest rage for decorating locks with covers.
Perhaps because of this strange dichotomy in cyclists and the generally nonexistent infrastructure the cycling behavior is highly random. When on the street an alarming number of cyclists ride against the auto traffic “bike salmoning” as Bike Snob coined the term. Sidewalk cyclists ride left right or in the middle wherever there’s an open space and cross streets either in the pedestrian or bike area as convenient. Of course pedestrians do exactly the same.
I also get the feeling that the terrible infrastructure is limiting the popularity of cycling tremendously. It’s clear that people want to cycle for transportation but that the government, apparently heavily lobbied by the powerful auto industry, refuses to accommodate cyclists. As a result you have 10 lanes of car traffic, car parking facilities talking valuable space in the cities… and cyclists bumping into pedestrians on the sidewalks. It’s totally absurd yet those I’ve spoken to see no light at the end of the tunnel.
In my three month-long trips to Japan I’ve been to a variety of cities (and rural areas too): Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, Kumamoto, Hakata, Kagoshima, Nagano and Yakushima. Only in Osaka and Kyoto are there really large numbers of cyclists. Osaka is a fairly flat large city with a young population and the home of much of the Japanese bike industry: Shimano, SunTour and Araya are amongst the well-known firms in Osaka. Nishiki is in nearby Kobe. Kyoto isn’t as flat but it’s a university town with tens of thousands of students and young families, and it’s one of the few cities that has maintained many older buildings and neighborhoods. As a result there are many smaller streets to cycle on.
Not only are there many cyclists in both Osaka and Kyoto, it’s clear that the cyclists are riding with a greater sense of pride and having fun. Elsewhere in Japan cyclists mostly seem to be doing so for lack of better options. They’re not having fun cycling. In Osaka and Kyoto it’s better; I frequently see cyclists with passengers (though it’s illegal here), holding umbrellas (also illegal) and carrying large loads (illegal to ride with one hand… I’m not making this up!), groups cycling to the bars at night etc etc. Given decent roads to ride I’m sure these places would absolutely explode with cyclists.
When I return to Holland I post more about our Japan experiences.