Bicycle Commuting In …. Japan!

Credit: Jason Collins
Credit: Jason Collins
No, I didn’t move. I started thinking about how commuting is perceived of in different places, and how there are some offices where it’s fine to come in a little sweaty, and others would fire you for walking in with shorts on. I work for a Very Large Bank (often called Goliath National Bank, which is only funny if you watch How I Met Your Mother), and while in my current building, it’s okay to come in and leave with capris and a tank-top on, I have to change into slacks and a blouse ASAP once I’m at the office. Jeans? Only on Fridays. If I worked at the downtown building, I’d have to come up with some way of begin less stinky when I got to work or find a place to change. I’m working on the former, with the addition of new bike gear that should be here in a week or so.

But what about Japan? If you’re not the crazy gaijin (hi, Dad!), you’re expected to fit in and wear the suit and tie at most corporate offices. And yet you’re also expected to bike to work, or take public transportation, and Japan gets very hot, folks. So how do they do it, and how can I take lessons learned from Japan’s commuter cyclists and apply them to my life?

We’re Car Free!

Actually, my dad (who does live in Japan with his wife), has a car, but more often they use their bicycles. They live about as far from the nearest train station as I do (2.2 odd miles), and as my father has no driver’s license in Japan, he bikes there and takes two trains to downtown Tokyo every day he goes into the office. While they only had two bikes and four of us (Dad, Koko, Boone and me), we ended up driving a little more than normal, we also walked a great deal, or my father would bike and we’d be driven. Don’t ask me how many times I got into the driver’s side, aiming for the passenger side. I will admit that it took me the entire trip to stop having a freak out every time we took a turn and went to the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and that my first time in a car back in the States I had the same problem.

Credit: Jason Collins
Credit: Jason Collins
But everywhere we went in Japan, people biked. Kids on their way to schools often biked, or took the train, or both. Adults biked and took the train. While I was, for the most part, in pretty rural Japan (where the use of cars is similar to rural America, oddly enough), I saw hundreds of bicycles at every train station. No one brought their bike onto the train, however, though I have been told by another Dahon enthusiast that he brings his on the train every day and since it’s in a bag, no one complains. He’s also an American, and the whole ‘Oh, silly American’ vibe may let him get away with things more than the locals. Then again, the Japanese were very excited to talk to me when they figured out I was trying to live Japanese while I was there (the only ‘American’ food I had in 14 days was a Kit Kat bar and some Starbucks coffee, which I didn’t like as much as the other stuff), and they rarely gave me a look to make me feel like I was the slow child.

From my Trip to Japan in 2008
Japan is very pro-active about biking, with companies going so far as to offer special benefits to cyclists. Of course, their traffic is insane, and makes LA look lazy, so there are more benefits than just health for Japan. I did some checking and apparently in Japan it’s legal and encouraged to ride your bicycle, at a sedate pace, on the sidewalk. Of course, being Japan, things are expensive, and it costs around 23,000 yen (aka $230 US) a month for access to Chiyoda-ku’s “Runners Station Plus Bike” which has a locker, showers, and a place to lock their bikes up.

Bike theft is, of course, a concern. Cheap bikes in Japan cost between $50 and $200, though I’m under the impression that cheaper is better. In his blog, Ray Kinnane points out that most bikes are older models, which he feels is strange, given how high-tech Japan is purported to be, but I feel fits in perfectly with the dichotomy that Japan actually is. A perpetual marriage of old and new, reflecting the in/yo of their culture. That’s yin/yang, for those more familiar with Chinese. If I recall correctly, even in the quiet suburb where my father lives, he locked his bike up. Japan feels safer than the US, and frankly it does have the lowest crime rate of any major city, but it’s a city and people are going to break the law. Bruce Wallace relates a true tale of bike theft in Japan, which highlights some of the major differences in mentality between Japan and the US. The lesson learned, of course, is that theft will happen, in Tokyo, on Shikoku, or anywhere else in Japan, so you should lock your bike up.

The most interesting part of the story, to me, is that bikes are registered with the police, which means they actually get returned if recovered. Boy, wouldn’t that be nice in New York!? Of course, Copenhagenize’s post about bicycle parking in Japan makes you wonder how annoying it is to everyone else when you improperly chain up your bike. Apparently at Fukushima station, someone’s job is to neaten up the bike parking. As a reminder, 100Yen is about a $1 US, so that ‘pay for parking’ is pretty cheap. Less than a latte, even a Dunkin’ Donuts one!

Assuming most city office workers live in the ‘suburbs’ of Japan and have to bike to their train station to get to Tokyo, and that’s really a safe assumption, one can easily assume they cool off the sweat on the train ride in, and then have a quick jaunt to the office from the train station. Heck, they can probably stay underground a lot of the walk to the office! So for a lot of commuters, the ‘ick’ factor of commuting is mitigated by the AC on the trains and at stations. Then again, Japan is pretty hot in the summer anyway, and I can’t imagine that people don’t sweat a lot just walking around, so the ick factor may be a non-ick factor.

Credit: Kedar
Credit: Kedar
I suspect I suffer from the old American problem of worrying too much about how I smell. I shower before I go to bed, I put on deoderant before I leave the house. I get to work, change shirts (or shirts AND pants if it’s 80+ degrees out), cool off with a damp hand towel (which then gets shoved into a ziplock baggie), and head to the grind. If I’ve been extra smelly, I shoot some febreeze under my desk to where I hide my bike and clothes. No one’s complained yet, and I made sure to ask my good friends to tell me. But attire seems to be purely an American issue. The wonderful guys at Cycle Chic point out that all this yarn about how you have to wear fashionable ‘bicycle’ gear is downright silly. Now, I think some of these guys need to try biking in the US in summer, as the high in a Copenhagen August is in the 70s (Chicago? 85s and yes, it matters). Actually, the temperature in Copenhagen is generally nicer than Chicago: cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter … anyone want to hire me? Still, their ideal doesn’t work when you have a couple weeks of 88 to 90 degree heat, so there is a need to invest in some chic bicycle attire in Chicago.

Now Japan, or rather Tokyo, climate is hotter and wetter than either Chicago or Copenhagen, which isn’t a huge shock for a subtropical climate. Still, most Japanese seem to come in two flavors: Lycra or work clothes. I guess they must wear some lightweight clothes in general to survive summer, so those probably transfer pretty well to biking. I pinged a bike messenger who lived in Japan for a couple years, and he said that the kids wear stuff from Uniqlo, but they only have one store in the US (and I don’t think GNB would be that happy about me being that hip).

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