Thursday, June 16, 2011

Myoden and Bicycles

As Japan is often viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the most tech savvy country on Earth, it’s great to see the low tech stuff keeping the whole place ticking over. There’s one piece of technology among all the neon, phones, cameras, bullet trains and other mindless gadgets that Japan could not live without. The bicycle.

I’ve never been to a country that embraces the bicycle quite like this one. Even the bike friendly flat-as-a-fart Holland and Denmark could take lessons in bicycles from the Japanese. And the Chinese may have more of the two-wheeled clangers in sheer numbers but you’ll never see a rich housewife or a businessman popping down to the shops on one in Beijing - too much image to keep up and face to save. Everybody in Japan has a bicycle. The prime minister’s probably got one (and not just to try and pass himself off as some kind of eco-friendly tree warrior). The Crown Prince probably passes the occasional morning tootling around the palace on one. I bet the CEO of Honda’s got several. Armies of kids peddle home on them. Old people dither around on them. Drunk men fall off them. Homeless people scavenge for them. The police fight crime on them. The postman delivers the mail on one. Shit, i’ve got two of the things and i’m a foreigner. Maybe it’s contagious.

A strange thing that i noticed as well is that you never see a kid learning to ride a bike. They just can. I’ve never seen a children’s bike with stabilisers strapped to the sides and dumb kid plonked on it trying not to fall off, which is how i spent a surprisingly large amount of my childhood. No, it just seems accepted here that there are certain stages to growing up. Crawl, walk, ride. It’s seen as some kind of natural progression, as if all Japanese have an inbuilt balance gene that allows them to get on a bicycle at the age of three and be on one the things everyday for the rest of their lives.

The geography of the country lends itself this huge bicycle ownership quite well. The landscape has, to my simple foreign eyes, three states – mountain, farm and city. If it’s not a wild natural mountain it’ll be manufactured flat green or flat grey. The commute to work or the station isn’t ever interrupted by a hill. Japanese towns and cities don’t do hills. They barely even do inclines. Steep road is an oxymoron. So, everybody’s got two wheels beneath them.

Well, almost everybody. You haven’t got your bicycle beneath you if it’s been nicked. There’s a surprisingly large amount of bicycle theft here and almost everybody i’ve asked has had a bicycle stolen at some point but i’m pretty sure it isn’t out of spite or for any economic gain. Almost all the bicycles are single gear old knackered lady style bikes anyway. Most bike theft is probably just because the thief is late for work or is a bit pissed and has missed the last train home.

The other side effect of the millions of bikes is trying to find somewhere park them. Basically there are too many bicycles and not enough space. The city authorities collect up illegally parked ones from time to time and force people to pay thousand of yen to get it back. Also, there’re always two old men in uniform (the Bicycle Police, The Bike Fuzz, The Peddling Rozzers) outside a station or a supermarket marshalling the pavement as if an inappropriately parked bicycle will lead to the end of law and order, social welfare and civilisation itself. The poor bastards stand around in all weather watching people with proper jobs go places and do stuff and have fun whilst making sure the two wheeled vehicles of the country are not improperly parked. A thankless job, really.

So, there you go. In a country where the train is king and the cars are sold all over the world, where the seas provide the sushi and the gadgets the entertainment, it’s the humble old bicycle that is the glue that keeps the place together. Until it gets nicked. Or it rains. Or you’ve got lots of shopping. Or you’ve got two kids. Or it snows. Or you live next to a train station. Or you’ve just bought an ironing board. Or, yeah, whatever. Japan. Bicycles. Popular. Thanks.

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