The Reluctant Gaijin in Japan: Bullets and Bicycles

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A cyclist navigates city traffic.

So here I am. Owing to a set of circumstances largely beyond my control, I find myself living and working in Japan. I could tell you the circumstances, give reasons or excuses, but telling you isn't going to help. Let's face it, life – and other four letter words – happen.

Part Seven: Bullets and Bicycles

Japan is a highly developed country, so getting from A to B, should be a cinch, right? Well, the theory is good, but in practice there are, naturally, some differences and these are not invariably for the better. Then there is the language barrier, which can make a mountain out of any molehill.

For the visitor or new resident, the main method of transportation is likely to be the train. Japan is world renown for its shinkansen, or bullet train, which is, indeed, impressive. Riding on the bullet train doesn't actually feel impressive, but when you then look at a map and see how far you've gone in such a short time, you realise just how fast the landscape has been zipping by. Besides, it looks cool.

A futuristic looking bullet train.

On other routes more ordinary trains will carry you around. The good news is that they are reliable – in Japan, if the train arrives just three minutes late, they don't celebrate, they apologise. Apparently. The bad news is that different companies own different bits of the lines, it is often difficult to get a ticket to your end destination and the names of the lines change with the company, even if the same train continues its run. This can be alarming as suddenly you are not on the train you thought you were on and even the Japanese can get off a train to change lines, only to discover they have just got off the train they needed and seen it disappear. Navigating the rabbit-warren stations can also be tricky.

Behaviour is a little different here, too. Despite the fact that Tokyo is more crowded than London, everyone waits in an orderly fashion, queuing at each platform mark for the doors, rather than strewn along the platform and ready to shove. They do move swiftly, though. During busy hours, some train companies have 'women only' carriages, to combat the groping habits of the otherwise reserved male Japanese. This problem is sufficiently prevalent to be fetishised in movies and also means that cameras don't have silent modes here, even on an otherwise silent mobile, to restrict the likelihood of intrusive pictures. However, generally people's use of mobiles and mp3 players is most considerate and it is rare to overhear the latest J-pop rubbish, even from a teen sporting a rebellious appearance.

Me, I'm a local, now, so I go wherever I can by bicycle. This was initially confusing as most people cycle on the pavements, and cycle lanes can be on the road, the pavement or switch from one to the other. I've got used to it now, although I really ought to stop crashing. The route through the park here has a raised kerb down the middle of the path that is difficult to see – my shoulder has now recovered, but my shirt didn’t. On the alternative route there are a lot of cyclists without lights, which may be okay in the town centre, but not such a good idea in the pitch-black parts of the Higashi-Odori. I have a light, but it has not been enough to stop a couple of near miss incidents. I tried to find a brighter bike light but learnt, through my translator, that 4000 yen (about £27) only bought me a light that enables people to see me; it doesn’t help ME see THEM. I am now considering if it's possible to attach a car headlight to my bike so that I can see drunken cyclists and people walking in the cycle lane before it's too late to take evasive action. Unfortunately, I can't afford the rest of the car.

I did, however, manage to rent one for a trip. The road network here is extensive and in good condition, but the speeds may frustrate British motorists. The biggest problem was my hire car, as I've only ever driven manual cars and almost all cars here are automatic. I didn't know what to do with my feet and my hands kept reaching for something I didn't need, but I started off away from major urban areas, so my accidental emergency stops didn't endanger others. As usual, Japan is more technologically advanced and about 20% of cars seem to have in-car TV – in the front. Maybe it's just me, but this sounds dangerous.

Finally, there are buses, which are simple, although sometimes roman-script free, so prepare; long distance ones have a double-sided footrest to confuse you. What's worse here is holiday traffic – Japanese workers have so few personal holidays (and are often reluctant to take even these) EVERYBODY travels on National Holidays and the whole country seems even more crowded than usual. As a gaijin I'm not obliged to travel to family events, so can avoid this. Oh, hang on, I have a serious Japanese girlfriend... damn.

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01.03.10 Front Page

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