The Zen Art of Cycling

Jun 15,2011

It seems that someone once asked in a comment whether I could touch on my personal history in Japan, so I thought I could do it bit by bit in the coming essays by way of various particular representations of my life--such as, this time, that infamous two-wheeled contraption that is my sole means of transportation. Riding a bicycle in Japan is a unique experience, but I suppose that can be said for everywhere.

Before I came to Japan, I used my bicycle for transportation in the city of Berkeley, California, where everyone was expected to wear helmets and come down on people (myself included) who thought they were too cool to do so. (In Japan, people will laugh if they see an adult wearing a bicycle helmet, because they're generally worn only by primary school students.) Well, in Berkeley the helmets were actually a good idea because of how dangerous the drivers were. I always thought 'Bicycling in Berkeley' would be a good idea for a video game. People park in the bicycle lanes (including service trucks making deliveries), and sometimes open their doors when bicycles try to squeak around them without swerving into traffic, resulting in the cyclist being knocked off and thrown into said traffic. I always got some ironic laughter at the people who claimed 'Berkeley is bike friendly'--the truth is, Berkeley is only bike-<I>tolerant</I>, and not always at that.

That combined with the perniciousnes of theft--sometimes for profit, sometimes for street-gang initiation purposes--made cycling there a real challenge. The lifespan of a bicycle in Berkeley was only a few months before the entire thing was stolen, piece by piece, in spite of the owner's best efforts to lock, chain and strap every part of it every time it's left alone for a few minutes.

Cycling in Japan is also a pain in the crocus, but for an entirely different set of reasons. Theft is rare (as a matter of fact, I have only had two bicycles stolen in the eight years I've lived in Japan) and I've never once been knocked into traffic by an opening door (though I have been hit twice, but that's still less than I got in Berkeley, and I was only there for a few years).

My first bicycle was given to me in the countryside of Nagano Prefecture, wherein I resided in a mountainous village of one thousand souls, or people anyway, and only one road. The problem with the road was that it didn't go anywhere, and any attempt at exploring would be the talk of the village as soon as a few passing motorists caught a glimpse of me.

The next year in my progressive westward journey through Honshu was in Shizuoka, where I found more roads and less gossip, but was shocked at how shocked people were by the fact that I made journeys of any distance by bicycle. It seemed the standard there that any journey that would take more than two minutes on foot should be made by car if at all possible, and riding a bicycle for more than twenty minutes was unthinkable. I reguarly made journeys of forty minutes or more between the city centre and the suburb where I lived, so I was a sort of anomaly.

Here in Tottori, my various work appointments require that I frequently make trips of an hour between outlying regions. This can be a bit nasty in the heat of summer, the cold of winter, and the occasional rain of other times, but the real drama is because of the lack of bicycle lanes and the unpredictable alternating paranoia and obliviousness of the motorists. In short, Tottori is dominated by two types of motorist--those who ignore traffic lights or treat them merely as suggestions, and don't believe in crosswalks at all; and those who treat everyone else, especially pedestrians and cyclists, as suicidal and will not go anywhere near them unless absolutely necessary. Sane drivers who congenially accept and share the universe with pedestrians and cyclists do exist, but they remain in the minority.

To begin with, the shoulders of most roads are narrow; they are not so narrow, however, as to obstruct simultaneous passage of car and bicycle if both parties are rational and observant. I cannot count how many times each day I stay far into the shoulder, crammed against the side of the buildings, providing enough space for a car and a half to pass, and yet the car next to me will linger at my speed, refusing to pass--until the narrowest point of the road, where I am forced to come to a complete stop. The expression for this sort of circumstance in the English-bloc countries is 'adding insult to injury'. (Some drivers will not pass a moving bicycle even if it is well onto the sidewalk, if there happens to be one.)

On some level, I can understand this sort of trepidation. There are certain cyclists on the road who swerve around drunkenly (whether they're actually drunk or not, I do not know), completely unaware of everything else in existence. They ingore red lights (much as the drivers often do), and head into oncoming traffic with nary a care, and unexpectedly swerve out of the shoulder and into the road without a thought that a car might be coming. I like to hope, though, that these are not representative of most cyclists in Tottori. They might be. Sometimes I want to wear a banner on my back that says 'I'm not senile or crazy--I promise!'

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