Saturday, 4 February 2012

Osaka on Two Wheels

While Japan is known throughout the world for its automotive dominance, the number of cars on their roads would simply pale into significance to the amount of bikes. As we have found out, bicycles are widely used throughout the city and country by people of all ages and social standing. I recently read that around 60% of the population actually own their own bike, so that’s around about 73,000,000 throughout Japan! They come in a variety of forms, but unlike the highly stylised locally produced cars, the bikes here generally appear quite old fashioned. They are built for function rather than looks, most are single geared and come with a basket and carry rack. With bike theft being the number one crime in Japan, each bike has its own key lock and for added security, is registered with the local police. Each day a myriad of cyclists can be seen commuting to work, school or to the local train station. Indeed, around most stations there are multi-storey parking stations dedicated for bikes, while just about every vacant space around town has been adapted into bike parking area.

Their presence certainly cannot be ignored as we walk around our local streets, with Jules and I both having a few close shaves from cyclists who have suddenly whizzed past at high speed. Technically they are supposed to use the road, unless otherwise indicated by a signpost, but this rule seems to be largely ignored, so there always remains a certain element of risk in just taking a stroll. It’s not that we don’t like bikes, but it can be a very dodgy experience when you combine their high speed, the narrow pathways and a distinct lack of warning as they approach from behind. Here they have a habit of suddenly creeping up on you, only to scare the living daylights out of you when they suddenly pass just inches away. We often wonder whether they feel that they are being somehow impolite by ringing the bell, or maybe it’s just the sheer bravado of many riders in thinking that they can successfully dodge around the unsuspecting pedestrians without them even knowing…who knows! In any case, we remain constantly on the alert, with one eye looking over our shoulders. We have even been quite wary about walking side by side in case we further narrow the gap that a rider can squeeze through and inadvertently increase the chance of an accident.

We’ve been told that bike related accidents are notoriously high, as clearly the bicycle rules here are particularly sketchy, with only one major rule that seems to exist … ‘Don’t have an accident’! If any laws do exist they won’t actually be enforced unless you have one. This includes what you might get up to while riding your bike. It is not uncommon to see someone riding the streets while carrying an open umbrella, listening to their iPod or talking on their mobile phone; possibly all at once! Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on carrying passengers, with toddlers often placed in the front basket or friends hanging on precariously while sitting on the back carry rack. Amazingly enough, we have also yet to see anyone wearing a helmet, even though apparently 40% of road fatalities are cyclists! This is not totally surprising, as there certainly seems to be a nonchalant attitude toward bike riding and the general rules of the road.

Friends often ask me if I’m ever going to get a bike and then look quizzically when I state that I am happy just to walk. Sure, you might get there quicker, but for the time being I’ll keep my feet on the ground and take my chances treading the footpaths of Osaka.

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