Cycling rules and customs in Japan seem pretty well-documented already, but here’s my take, comparing them to Australia as always. My family has all degrees of enthusiasm when it comes to cycling, from one of us who refuses to ride a bike (except when she went to South America and allegedly nearly died and/or caused someone else to die) to one who has about 6 bikes including one for road racing and one for velodrome racing. Which I’m sure has a proper name. Not as in a Proper Name in the grammatical sense, but an actual term that should be used to refer to it.
In some ways, cycling in Japan is more like driving than it is in Australia – and in some ways, much less.
In both Australia and Japan, a lot of people cycle. In Australia there are commuting-to-work cyclists, sports cyclists, who may just cycle as a hobby or may do amateur racing or work towards cycling professionally, and family cyclists. These aren’t official groups, I just made them up, but that’s who you see on bicycles. Family and sports cyclists ride for pleasure. Sports and commuter cyclists ride to get to places. Commuters might ride in their work clothes, but sports cyclists are too serious about their cycling and will be too sweaty and dirty, so they’ll bring a change of clothes if they ride to work, unless they live really close. Sports cyclists ride up hills for fun on the weekend and wear lycra, you know, the swimwear-material riding costumes like they use in the Tour de France. And they often have special cycling shoes that are fitted to special pedals. The little divots that the shoes have to fit to the bits on the pedals are called cleats. I think. The shoes might also be called cleats. Or the pedals might. I dunno.
Cyclists who are solely commuters wouldn’t ride up mountains for fun. Australian commuters use backpacks, side bags or panniers to carry their stuff to work.
Cyclists on their way to work in Melbourne.
Sports (and sometimes commuter and family too) cyclists have nice bikes, by which I mean, often, mountain bikes or road bikes. Mountain bikes and road bikes generally have the handlebars quite low and forward relative to the seat, so you’re in a somewhat streamlined position to ride. Some commuters have hybrids, which sit you in a more upright position – less aerodynamic but more comfortable, which is especially valuable if you’re not too into cycling as a sport. Do hybrids have baskets? Not that many Australian cyclists have baskets on their bikes, but some do. Some commuters also get motors to assist them on their bikes. A sports cyclist wouldn’t do that, not in Japan or Australia.
In Japan, almost everyone rides, from little kids to really quite elderly people. Depending on where you live, it’s faster than driving. In Hiroshima city it’s the fastest way to get around. Most people ride to get to places, like, the cinema, supermarket, work, school, the station. So most people ride what is known as a ‘mamachari,’ a ‘mama chariot’ or ‘mum bike’ with a basket on the front or back. They’re similar to hybrids in their upright stance. They have low seats relative to the handlebars, which took me a while to get used to. The way I learned to ride, your leg gets nearly straight when the pedal is at the bottom of its rotation. But the way people ride in Japan, it’s really bent all the time because of the low seat (I found mine too low after I’d extended it all the way up). I think people in Japan like to be able to put at least one foot, preferably two, flat on the ground at any time when they’re cycling. I mentioned this one time to a Japanese friend, that I found it strange, and she said something like ‘Do you mean you would ride so high that you can’t properly put your feet on the ground? Isn’t that scary?’
‘What IS this bike?’ – Australians renting mama-charis in Kyoto
Japanese bikes also usually have a stand, and a lock that’s part of the bike, and they’re really leg-powered utility vehicles that can go anywhere (except on stairs). If you have a young kid, you can get a kid’s seat on the front or back, or both, probably hence the name ‘mama-chari.’ Motor-assisted bicycles are also not that uncommon in Japan.
Road riders, sports cyclists, seem to be on the rise in Japan. You can see them with their lycra, road bikes and helmets, riding on the roads. Not every day, but sometimes.
Sports cyclists in Kagawa, Japan
In Japan when you buy a bike you have to register it and yourself as its owner. Bike shops do it, though according to Surviving in Japan, it’s supposed to be the prefectural police office. I’m not aware of such a practice existing in Australia.
I bought a new bike once in Japan, and registered it at the shop where I bought it. Wasn’t too hard. But then I was going to move halfway across the country and it was too much bother to try to take the bike with me, so I decided to sell it to a friend. We tried to do the proper thing and transfer the registration, which turned out to be nearly impossible. It seemed so time-consuming and frustrating that we just didn’t bother. But if you’re prepared and have enough time, it can be done. My friend who’s just sold me a bike said he de-registered it at the big police station in town, so I guess I have to re-register it there.
In Australia, you legally must wear a helmet when cycling, no matter who or how old you are. Not sure what the law is on private property. Custom is also that everyone has a helmet, and most people wear them properly. There are people who hang their helmets from the handlebars, or just put them on their heads and don’t do them up, but they are not the norm. The majority of cyclists of any kind in Australia wear helmets and are in favour of everyone doing so, and in such a way that they’ll be effective.
In Japan, generally only children wear helmets, up until the age of 15. Sports cyclists have them too, as they ride on the road with their cleats and stuff. Most commuter cyclists don’t have helmets. The attitude is something like, ‘Why would you?’
Where you ride
In Australia, you can ride on designated bike paths, and in other places you have to ride on the road. Children under the age of 12 can ride on the footpath (sidewalk, if you insist, Americans) and so can adults riding with them. Otherwise, if it’s not a shared path, you don’t ride on the footpath. On many roads there are bike lanes, which are fantastic except that they’re often next to lanes that cars use for parking, which puts cyclists at risk of being doored by inattentive getters-out-of-cars. Where there’s no bike lane, bicycles ride on the left of cars (as you know, in Australia cars drive on the left of the road, with the driver in the right-hand side of the car). Cars overtaking bikes are supposed to allow a berth of at least a metre, which means sometimes they have to wait a while for space to open up in the right lane. This frustrates some drivers, who like to cut cyclists off or abuse them at traffic lights and say things like ‘get off our roads.’ Driver-cyclist politics have been an issue for quite a while in Australia.
There are a number of shared paths for bikes and pedestrians, which are marked as such and which have their own usage rules. I’m not talking about footpath next to the road here, but walking/cycling paths through parks, next to rivers etc. In Melbourne there are a number of well-used and quite well-known bike paths, such as the Main Yarra Trail, where you can ride for 20-ish kilometres without having to ride on a road apart from the occasional crossing.
The Main Yarra Trail, in Melbourne. Image: Acta
In Japan, the law says something similar to Australia in that you’re actually not allowed to ride on footpaths except where there is signage that you can. Such signage is so often there that it’s usually assumed that it’s OK, and almost everyone rides on the footpath unless there is a very good reason not to (e.g. no footpath, or too many people on it). There aren’t many paths intended just for cycling (and/or walking) in Japan. Maybe Australia’s got the luxury of having plenty of space for them.
In Australia, the main place where bike parking is an issue is at stations where there needs to be an assigned secure spot for people to leave their bikes all day. In other places, in the city there are bike racks on the footpath (free) or you can lock your bike to signposts or wherever.
Free street parking for bikes – and cars, at that – in Melbourne
In Japan, bike parking can be quite an issue. Workplaces, apartments and shops have designated parking areas that you can use if you’re a customer/client, or if you’ve got a permit. But for areas with no real space available, like in shopping areas where shops front onto the street itself, you have to make a choice. There are bike parking garage areas in stations and central city areas. Legal bicycle parking is usually paid. There’s no legal free parking (much like car parking). Unlike car parking, though, usually it’s only 100 or 200 yen ($1-2) a day.
Lots of people don’t want to go to the trouble of either finding a legitimate parking spot or paying the fee, so they park in other convenient places. In popular illegal parking places, the city council or someone comes and impounds it. They leave little stickers on the ground on the place where the offending bike was taken from. It costs money (something around 2000 yen) and often a fairly long trip to get it out.
‘Naughty bike woz here’
I believe they have to put warning papers on the bikes first, as in, ‘This bicycle is illegally parked and if you don’t move it we’re taking it.’ I’ve received such notices on my bike once or twice, but I’ve heard tell of people parking, going shopping, and when they come out their bike is gone. A friend who sold me his bike recently said he’d only had it taken twice, and the second time he got there as they were loading it onto the truck. I’m not sure how hard he begged them, but they did the equivalent of ‘Sorry, mate’ and carried it off all the same.
Parking for the brave/stupid. Around the corner there is paid parking – maybe it was full when some of these were parked? and underground there’s an entire garage, also paid. To be honest, I was one of the ones who’d parked here, because I was only popping into a shop for 5 minutes. I took this photo after picking up my bike.
One of the rules of using cycling trails and shared walking/cycling paths in Australia is that you have to ring your bell to let people know you’re there (and going to pass them). It lets them know so they can make sure there’s space for you to pass, and also so they won’t either suddenly move and you crash into them, or get a huge fright if a cyclist whooshes past them. The custom I was familiar with when I used to do a bit of cycling in Australia was that you’d ring when you were close enough for most people to be able to hear it, and then when you got closer, you’d call out ‘Passing on your right’ or ‘2 bikes passing’ or something so they’d know what’s going on.
In Japan, the law says you must have a bell on your bike *if riding at night* (as well as a light). Custom says not to use your bell, because it’s rude and seen as aggressive, as in, ‘Get out of my way.’ For your average cyclist, your bike may be getting a bit old and somehow making enough noise that sooner or later most pedestrians will hear it rattling away behind them and make space for you to pass. But if it doesn’t make any noise, or if pedestrians ignore it, then you either ride slowly and wait until there’s a place where you can overtake, or you ride off onto the road to overtake. At least that’s what I do. Sometimes cyclists say ‘excuse me’ in such a situation to let people know they’re there and want to get past.
According to Koichi of Tofugu, some people are less concerned with social niceties and just ring their bell apparently, but in my experience it’s rare. A user on a Tokyo Cycle forum says you’re only really supposed to use them in an emergency and makes the good point that cars are also not supposed to honk their horns at pedestrians – but cars do honk at bikes. I’ve had that a couple of times and nearly fallen off my bike in surprise.
It’s illegal to do lots of things on bikes in Japan, and most of the things that don’t directly and immediately harm other people are very common in Japan, such as:
- Riding while holding an umbrella (or putting an umbrella on a stand on your bike). When I first heard this rule, I thought, what? Who uses umbrellas while cycling? The answer is, most people living in Japan. I never saw it in Australia. People either wear raincoats or just get wet.
- Dinking people (letting them ride on the front or back of your bike, excepting the use of child seats for children) – high school kids are the usual culprits. This is also illegal in (parts of?) Australia.
- Using a phone while riding your bike – also illegal in Melbourne, not sure about other parts of Australia.
- Using headphones/earphones while riding
- Drinking and riding – you can go to prison for this, as well as being fined. This is illegal in parts of Australia too, as is drinking alcohol while riding.
- In both Australia and Japan you have to have a light to ride at night. In Australia you have to have a bell all the time. In Japan you only have to have a bell to ride at night? This is unconfirmed, but I’ve got one. In case of emergency.
You can get liability insurance as a cyclist in Japan, which can cover you in the event of your colliding with a pedestrian and injuring them, and paying their medical bills. Insurance is less than 10,000 yen a year (less than $100) but I don’t know many people who bother. A 2015 Japan Times article wrote about liability insurance becoming compulsory in Hyogo after a couple of cyclists had to pay huge amounts of money after cycling/pedestrian collisions where they the pedestrian was killed or made bedridden.
*Foreigner paranoia alert*
A company I used to work for strongly recommended this and they also said that if we hit a kid, we had to call the police and report the incident. This was because even if the kid seemed fine, said ‘I’m fine’ and went home, if they later turned out to have a bruise somewhere or some minor injury and their parents noticed and said ‘What happened’ they would explain, ‘Oh, this foreigner ran into me the other day’ and the parent might investigate, and people would ask around and figure out that it was the foreigner working over at Eastern Elementary School, and then the police would turn up at school to ask you about it and tell you that you should have told the police. The school would be embarrassed, all the kids and teachers would gossip about it (kids with kids, teachers with teachers), it would make you and the company look bad, and you might lose your job or at least get very uncomfortable. Everyone would be better off if you’d just reported it in the first place.
If you’re interested, here are some cycling rules and fines across Australia.