Mount Fuji

Don't let bad bicycle days run you down 


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Aug. 20, 2000, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

Bad Bicycle Days. Everyone has them. From the old fish peddler on the decrepit bicycle carrying a crate of fish on the back to the young Japanese princess on her trendy new collapsible bicycle, some days it seems they're all out to run you down.

Since the sidewalk is the unofficial bicycle lane in Japan, you'd think there would be more courtesies. Even a few bicycle rules would be helpful. After all, other vehicles have rules. When you drive a car in Japan, you drive on the left side. When you drive a boat, you bear right. But if you ride a bicycle, you ride straight down the middle.

When two bicycles are headed toward each other, the solution should be simple — both should bear left to avoid each other. Instead, the decision to bear left or right is put off until the very last moment before a head-on collision.

It's not the actual collisions that are so dangerous, it's the possible ones. If, at the last minute, you have to bear right, you may mow down the entire family walking to your right. If you have to bear left, you may be forced to head into that pack of junior high school girls — equally chilling thoughts.

But there is another strategy. After years of observing bicycle behavior, I've noticed that most oncoming, collision-producing bicyclists fall into one of a few categories. If you can recognize these types beforehand, you can predict their behavior and save yourself a few collisions per year.

The Bailer

The bailer is the easiest type to avoid. Bailers are always women; men don't bail. These matronly women, usually wearing a house apron and a sun bonnet securely tied under the chin, have hand protectors on their handle bars and most definitely a skirt guard over the back wheel.

When an oncoming bailer approaches, even from afar you can almost hear her warning sirens go off. As soon as she sees you in her lane she senses imminent danger and jumps off her bicycle to let you pass. And she'll do it with that, intuitive old lady hop, by kicking both feet off the pedals at the same time and landing neatly on both feet beside her bicycle. She usually bows to you, acknowledging her intrusion into the bicycle lane. Then, with equal fashion, she'll get back on her bicycle by placing her dainty left foot on the outside peddle, coast until the bicycle is stable then, in a very ladylike fashion, swing her right leg over to the other side. She'll continue riding until the next oncoming bicycler comes, in which case she'll bail again.

Although confusing at first, the bailer is the easiest to avoid because you can be sure that she'll avoid you first.

The Charlie Brown

The Charlie Browns are the wishy-washy people who as soon as they see you coming start weaving left and right, confusing you into swerving in the same manner. They'll bear left for a second, then bear right for a second, then left again, then right again, and continue back and forth until they finally decide on one direction at the last moment. When you see this type coming, don't look at them and try to do the opposite. Just pick a course, left or right, and stick with it. Thus, you will have made the decision for them and you will pass with ease.

The Bell-Ringer

This person is best avoided by escaping down a side street. The bell-ringer is the person who is either late for work or late for the train and is headed full-speed, ready to knock everything and anything out of his way like a bowling ball headed down the alley for a strike. When you hear the repeated cha-ching, cha-ching bell-ringing, you'll know to get out of his way as soon as possible.

The Magnet

The magnet is the hardest type to avoid. This is the oncoming bicycler who seems to have a magnet placed somewhere in his body that pulls him toward your bicycle, even though he doesn't even see you yet. Completely oblivious, his bicycle heads straight toward you with amazing precision. You make a precautionary move to the right, his bicycle moves that direction too. You move to the left, he moves too. He'll never see you until he runs into you. There is only one way to avoid the Magnet — bail!

Editor's note: Amy Chavez is author of Japan, Funny Side Up [Kindle], Guidebook to Japan — What the Other Guidebooks Won't Tell You, and upcoming Amy's Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do It Right and Be Polite!. She is also co-author of Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage — 900 Miles to Enlightenment. My thanks to Amy for contributing the above article, which first appeared in her regular Japan Times column "Japan Lite."