Things I Will Miss – Pt. 1: My Bike

Picture mamachari_bike.jpg Recent dearth of posts had more to do with lack of time than lack of inspiration. Nonetheless, I figured I would end the Tokyo-based era of this blog with a special series dedicated to the many differences between the place I’m leaving and the place I’m moving to.

For one: angry people in Japan do not burn cars or people.

Oops, I did it again.

Alright, let me backtrack on that and establish the outline of that new series…

Of course, it would be all too easy to spend the next four-something-weeks ranting about all the crappy aspects of Japanese life I am happy to leave behind. Then switch over to my numerous objects of dislikes with the Parisians and Parisian life.

But I won’t.

Instead, we are gonna focus on the positive: things I will be dearly missing once departed and until a possible return in some distant future. Some you may identify with if you live in Japan, others probably more personal or mundane but still relevant to what makes life in a foreign country enjoyable. All presented in no particular order, time and mood permitting.

For our first installment, let me tell you about:

My Bike

Absolute ignoramus of Japanese culture that I was until the day I landed in Narita, I had always thought of those crazy bike-infested cities as being a staple of China and perhaps a few other South-East Asian countries. Japan sounded way too modern and busy riding magnetic levitation trains, to bother with such lo-tech means of transportation.

As it turns out, Japan loves bikes.

Of course, Japan also loves trains and subways, and for the most part: I do too (outside of peak hours).

To own a car in Tokyo, you not only have to be seriously wealthy and dedicated, you also have to be quite stupid: free street parking is practically unheard of, private monthly parking will set you back roughly the price of a second apartment (not counting daily parking, wherever you go) and apart from the many expensive toll-highways that circle major neighbourhoods, driving around Tokyo is as frustrating and pointless as any other metropolis. With the added bonus of a labyrinthine layout of streets that commonly narrows down to the point where a single pedestrian couldn’t walk arms outstretched. Trains are a far better choice for long distances, bicycles for short ones.

Bikes (the motorized kind, including scooters, as will always be implied when you use the word in Japan) are also a very cool way to go around easily without most of the downsides of cars: during my years here, Atsushi’s faithful scooter has taken us everywhere and back… But they are also not a great idea when most of your outings end up at 4 in the morning somewhere far from home with more alcohol than blood running through your veins…

On that matter, bicycles are somewhat safer for intoxicated riders, in Japan, where they traditionally share the sidewalk with pedestrians. Sure: not 100% safe (especially if you run over a little obachan at full speed), but in my many years of biking in various states of unravelling, I haven’t had a single accident involving anything more than screeching tires and/or a near-misses with sneaky street-lights (these things have a tendency to creep out of nowhere, I swear). In fact, my only cold sweats have occurred in broad daylight, usually a consequence of the disconcerting lack of agreement regarding which side of the sidewalk one should drive a bicycle on: apparently not necessarily the left side, as one would logically imply (cars do it, people do it), but instead, an arbitrary choice of your favorite side, that is to be somewhat communicated to incoming riders, all the while hoping it doesn’t conflict with their own secret preference.

Apart from that, riding a bike in Tokyo is pure enjoyment, all year long. If you are immune to ridicule, you can even accessorize and go for these handlebar mitts, popular among obachans, that will keep your hands warm and comfy while riding the fresh sunny winter air (gloves do alright too). Raining days? No problem: use an umbrella… Why did you think they are made of transparent plastic around here? So you can use them as a shield while bravely bicycling through the fiercest typhoons unharmed! For the more inapt riders who can’t hold an umbrella while cycling, just get one of these special handlebar hooks that will hold it for you (I believe you can buy them in the same Obachan’s bike accessories store, just next to aforementioned mitts).

Of course, biking has its ennemies too: playa hata who don’t want no wild bike near the stations. But it’s easy enough perusing bike parking (yea, gotta pay ¥100 a day… life: it is hard…) and staying out of troubles. The Law put aside, it is nice to realize that the chances of someone stealing your bike in Tokyo hover close to zero, even with no lock on it. Actually, the most basic lock is more than enough to discourage the odd drunk salaryman who might “borrow” your bike at major stations every once in a while. Compare that to NYC or Paris, where anything short of unmounting the tires, unscrewing handlebars and pedals, and carrying it with you while shopping, is akin to putting giftwrap around it. In some neighbourhoods, people will just break it, just for the hell of it, if it looks a bit too shiny…

The upside of this renewed interest for the sport, has been a considerable improvement of my bicycling skills over the past few years…

You might be wondering what’s to improve on such a simple device, thus revealing your complete ignorance of its true powers.

As a kid, we all have experimented with more or less acrobatic forms of biking. My own experiments were brought to an abrupt ending, somewhere around age 6, with the unfortunate combination of a steep declining hill, a broken rear brake and a very unsuccessful, albeit wholly unwilling, attempt at a bike-mounted triple somersault that got very low ratings for reception (even lower ratings from the physician who had to stitch up my fronthead afterward).

I had all but forgotten these great little tricks you can do with a bike and too much time on your hand. Three years and no new rendition of my old acrobatics later, I have become a pro at handless bike-riding, a skill not as useless as may seem at first: how else could one type a keitai-mail, hold an umbrella, light a cigarette, adjust the volume setting on the iPod, or all of the above, while simultaneously getting to one’s destination at the speed of wind?

Another useful skill I picked is the ability to take right angle turns on the narrowest pathways without slowing down a bit. If you’ve seen the last hundred feet to my house, you know what I’m talking about. This is actually nothing compared to the first place I ever had, in Koenji, where you had to walk a good 2 minutes through “streets” not wide enough for two people at once.

One of my more recent magical bike power, is ability to transport approximately any living or inanimate cargo of a total weight equal or slightly less than my own. Be it the new heater for the apartment, two months worth of groceries from Hanamasa or my roommate Inès after a night out. The latter is usually made all the more difficult by having to outrun the occasional neighbourhood cop, luckily also on a bike himself. Once did a Ginza-Shibuya with the girlfriend on the back: quickly got tired of stopping at every block to let the local po-po check my bike license while addressing the perfunctory 二人乗りダメ!: developed instant selective deafness and ended-up zooming past all remaining kobans without a single one bothering to give us the chase.

And for that alone, I am insanely proud of my geriatric mamachari… Sure it’s not about to take part in any x-games any time soon, sure Hako bust out laughing and calling me a grandma each time she sees it: but you try bringing back three bags of groceries or a passenger on your mountain bike…

I love my little bike, and I will dearly miss it when I have to leave next month…

And talking about: it’s for sale. if you live in Tokyo and want to join the happy bike riders club, just send a note my way.

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