自転車 jitensha—bicycle

Cycling is a very popular way of getting around in Japan. For short journeys, many people find it easier and more practical to travel by bicycle than to take the car. It’s not restricted to any age group; old people, housewives, children, young adults, families all travel by bike.

The local shopping mall has a big bicycle park in front, where you would expect to find a car park. The picture shows just a small part of it – it extends for about 150 metres, with thousands and thousands of bikes.

Nearly all the bikes you see are of a similar, very practical, basic design. They have a single gear, a basket on the front, and sometimes also on the rear (for carrying shopping and small dogs).

They usually have a drum brake in the rear wheel hub, and come fitted with a built-in wheel-lock, a stand, a dynamo-driven front lamp and a bell. Typically they cost less than €100. It is really rare to see other types of bicycle, such as the hybrid road/mountain bike that is a popular commuting choice in Ireland, or a racing bike.

Having no selectable gears, they don’t go very fast, but whizzing along at around 20 km/h (12 mph) they are very competitive with cars in the suburban environment.

Of course, with so many bikes around, you can’t just park anywhere; the place would be completely cluttered. There are indoor bike parks near the stations, that cost around ¥100 for all-day parking.

Here are some pictures of the underground bicycle park at Nakamozu station:

Yuko’s bike is parked on the upper level.

She reaches up and pulls back the slide,

then lowers it to the ground.

Leaving the bicycle park, there is a narrow conveyor belt running alongside the stairs, to assist with rolling the bike up the ramp.

Unfortunately, neither of us realised until we had reached the top that the conveyor belt only helps if you use the brakes! We felt pretty stupid.

In Japan cyclists share the footpath with pedestrians. This sounds like a recipe for accidents, especially because cyclists travel in both directions on the same footpath. However it seems to work very well and I haven’t seen any collisions.

It’s very common to see a parent cycling with one or two small children on the bike. The school run is normally done by bicycle, until the child is old enough to cycle to school alone, which happens at a very young age. Having children doesn’t mean you have to buy a people-carrier or an SUV!

When it’s raining (and, for some women cyclists, when it is sunny) it is common to see people holding an umbrella while cycling. In fact a lot of bikes have a clip on the handlebar for holding an umbrella or parasol.

One thing I didn’t get a picture of, is the large number of young people who cycle while using their smartphones. I am both impressed and appalled by this. If I tried to cycle while focusing on a 4-inch screen, I wouldn’t get 50 metres before crashing into a lamppost or another cyclist, or just falling off. But they seem to be able to cycle at full speed while reading and typing messages.

There is also a bit of a unicycle craze among young girls. I first noticed it two years ago, and now two of the little girls in our street have unicycles.  Here’s one I saw in the park:

Also in the park I came across these bikes, belonging to a group of “silver workers”. Lots of retired people take on part-time jobs such as security, car park attendant or park maintenance. I don’t know to what extent it’s out of choice or necessity.

Sakai city – this city – is the home of the bicycle in Japan. It is here that bicycles were first introduced from Europe 140 years ago, at the end of the Edo period. To this day, 40% of all the bicycles in Japan are made here. Local company Shimano produces an amazing 50% of all the bicycle components in the world. There is even a bicycle museum, which sounds interesting but we have not yet visited.

In homage to the importance of Sakai as a centre of bicycle production, the annual Tour of Japan cycling competition, held in May each year, starts with a short stage in Sakai city.

Note on the word of the day:

自転車 jitensha is written with characters meaning “self” “revolve” “wheeled vehicle”, which is a reasonable description of a bicycle. A very common slang word is チャリンコ charinko or just chari. A typical functional bike with a basket on the front is sometimes called mama-chari. When I heard this word, I assumed it was borrowed from English “chariot”, and that the word meant “mama chariot”, which is a kind of nice image. Sadly, it’s not. The real etymology is uncertain, but some sources say the name comes from the sound of the bell “charin, charin”, while others say it is borrowed from Korean.

Edited to add (2nd Sept 2012): A knowledgeable friend points out that

“nko” adds the meaning of littleness/cuteness to certain nouns/adjectives/adverbs such as yukkurinko (slowly) and bacchirinko (perfect) that are normally used by gals…


5 thoughts on “自転車 jitensha—bicycle

  1. Follow-up:
    One thing I didn’t think to mention in this post is that almost nobody here wears helmets when cycling. The exception is schoolchildren on their way to and from school, who wear simple white hemispherical helmets, quite unlike the streamlined and vented helmets I am used to seeing back home.

  2. I appreciate the Japanese lessons you add to your posting, though I thought for the word charinko at least it is gender-neutral. My favorite part about riding bikes in Japan is that you can leave your bike anywhere because it’s “illegal” to park it anywhere… try placing it in front of the kouban, give ’em something to do.

    Also, for your post about “kurinikku,” profligate borrower, well I think many languages are guilty of this. China has jumped on the bandwagon in the past ten years-ish with taking some English words (tank, engine, microphone, hacker, blog, et al) all sound very similar. English has done it too. I’m not arguing with you, but do you think Japan’s adoption of these words has made your studying much easier, or is it because you didn’t know that they used the word in the first place it is no different?

    1. You are right of course, in reality most of the time you can park your bike wherever convenient and go into a shop or whatever. It’s only around train stations and so on that things are stricter.

      There’s no doubt that the loan words from English are a nice little bonus when learning Japanese. But you have to be careful sometimes because they don’t always mean exactly the same as they do in English!

  3. I’ve never been to Japan, but the use of bicycles seems to be very similar to The Netherlands, where I lived for a few years, except that in NL one doesn’t cycle on the pavement but on the dedicated cycle paths. I think it’s great – good exercise, more environmentally-friendly, less air pollution to breathe in, etc. And since it’s so organised for bicycles, it’s easy to choose to cycle, whereas in many other countries, whilst I would love to cycle, there aren’t any cycle paths and limited bicycle parking, so it’s much more of an effort (and a lot less safe!).

    1. I agree with you 100% Mel. If cycling is made easier and catered for in a serious way, it is a great way to get around. I really enjoy whizzing along on my little chariot.

      I was thinking about it some more, and I think an important point is that here in Japan (or in the Netherlands), cycling is “normal”, whereas in some countries it seems to be considered somehow undignified for an adult, especially an adult woman, to carry shopping or a child on a bicycle.

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