Riding a bike in Japan is a pretty nice way to see the country. It can be faster and more convenient than public transportation. You can also get off the beaten path and go kick it with the locals.
Like many other things Japan, you may run into some situations while riding a bicycle that you wouldn't in your home country.
The traffic is different, the streets are smaller, and everyone just loves to back into parking spots. A quick survey of other riders in Japan can also reveal some pretty bad and unsafe habits.
When it comes to ALTs and biking in Japan, it's important to keep in mind the fact that some ALTs may not know how to ride a bike (and have suddenly become required to do so) or haven't had to ride a bike in a long, long time. Some of that saddle-rust can be hard to shake off!
While some bad situations are two wheels may be unavoidable, there are definitely steps you can take to lower your chances of getting dropped and increase your chances of survival.
With that in mind, here is my list of 14 do's and don'ts for bicycle safety in Japan.
This list has been compiled through some quick research and includes some of what I've learned from my experience riding motorcycles in the US and cycling thousands of miles in all types of conditions, both in Japan and Southern California.
DO start with a safe bike
You won't get too far if your bike is busted. A safe ride starts with a safe bike. Here are some things to look out for:
DON'T keep your seat too low
The position of your seat could be the difference between a comfortable ride and putting a lot of strain on your knees.
Here are some tips to remember:
You want the seat as high as possible while still being able to touch your feet to touch the ground.
It will take some getting used to, but you can get A LOT more speed with a higher seat.
Having your seat higher also means that you'll sit higher.
DO Make sure the chain is in good condition
Your bike chain is what literally drives your motion on the bike thus making it one of the most important parts on it.
Here are some signs you're in good shape:
Here are some signs you may be in danger:
The chain seems like it's getting stuck on something
The chain is really LOUD
The chain looks too loose
The bike feels harder to ride than before
I've had chains slip off before and it wasn't a big deal. There have been times when it was.
I had a chain slip off while riding a beach cruiser and then the pedal backward to brake function didn't work.
Once I had a bike chain slip off in the US while I was doing 35 miles per hour down a hill on my ten-speed and it locked up the wheel.
Fortunately, I was able to use my ninja-like skills to jump off of the bike, pick it up, and run out of traffic without incident (in my mind I had already picked out a good place to crash the bike and tuck & roll).
To summarize, be careful with your bike chain! If you take care of your bike chain, it'll take care of you.
Check out the bike shop for some grease/oil or get them to clean/grease it for you. There are different types of products you can use depending on how much you ride and whether or not your ride in the rain.
DON'T ride against the flow of traffic
Bikes in Japan are considered light vehicles and are in the same family as small scooters.
If you ride against traffic, cars don't expect to see a fast-moving vehicle coming from the opposite direction of traffic.
Remember that the flow of traffic in Japan is the opposite of the US. In Japan, you want to ride on the left side of the street and pass on the right.
DO ride slowly on the sidewalk
When I think about most of the times when I've had something bad happen to me on my bike, it's because I was riding on the sidewalk.
Did you know that riding on the sidewalk is actually illegal in Japan?
According to Japanese law, only young children and those over 70 years of age are supposed to ride on the sidewalk. Although most cyclists in Japan don't follow this rule and it's rarely enforced, there are good reasons for it!
Sidewalks are designed for pedestrians who move at a low rate of speed (unless you're going for a run)
There can also be obstructions and debris on the sidewalks that can cause damage to your bike.
I've had a tire blowout as a result of running over a thin piece of metal in the US. I've also gotten a flat tire from running over a construction signed that got knocked over from the windy weather on the sidewalk in Chiba.
Cars and pedestrians don't expect you to be barreling down the sidewalk at a high rate of speed. Many cars will pull out past the sidewalk, all the way out to the street to turn and can block your path of travel.
On the sidewalk, it's your job not to hit others. In the street, it's other people's job not to hit you!
You'll be safer biking in the street because there shouldn't be any pedestrians. Also, the cars that would normally not think twice about blocking the sidewalk probably won't pull right out in front of you because they don't want to get destroyed by another car!
Riding in the street may seem unsafe at first, but trust me, it's a lot safer than trying to deal with all of the potential obstacles you face on the sidewalk (especially in Japan).
Just stay as far to the left as you can and maintain a comfortable, constant speed. I usually try to ride on the white line and avoid the area closest to the curb (a lot of debris can end up there).
DON'T ride distracted
I can't count the number of times I've seen cyclists in Japan riding while having a conversation, looking in a direction that they're not traveling in for an extended period of time, or using their phones while riding.
A lot of the behaviors you see others doing have the potential to lead to a serious accident!
Don't get distracted! When cycling, treat it just as though you were driving a car. Keep your eyes on the road. Continually scan the ground in your path of travel for potential hazards.
DO ride sober
Riding drunk can be a serious issue in Japan. If you drink and drive a car, you are a hazard to others. If you drink a ride a bike, you are primarily a hazard to yourself!
Although it's rare, if you are caught by police you face the possibility of being arrested, losing your job, serving jail time, paying a fine, and/or being deported (and you can't teach English in Japan if you're not here!).
If you rode to a party and got drunk, either come back for your bike the next day or walk it home (it'll give you something to lean on).
You'll thank yourself when you get home safely, out of jail, and without scars!
DON'T ride with no hands in busy areas
Riding without any hands can be fun and challenging, but doing so means you're taking some unnecessary risks! If you're on a small rode in the middle of nowhere and you can see that nobody else is around, go for it! If you're in the middle of a busy downtown area, think twice!
If you have to stop suddenly, you've just increased the time it'll take you to react!
If you don't have your hands on the handlebars, you have to get your hands to the brakes before you can apply them. If your hands are already on the handlebars, then you can brake much faster.
DO signal your turns
You'll be a lot safer (and other drivers will love you) if use hand signals to indicate when, where, and in what direction you're going to turn. Imagine what a car would be like that never used turn signals (those of us from Southern California probably already know)!
This becomes even more important when leading a group of cyclists. They'll know what you're going to do and can adjust accordingly.
This also helps protect you in the case of an accident. If a car hits you and the drive says, "I didn't know you were going to turn left," you can reply, "How did you not know? I signaled I was turning left!"
DON'T ride side by side in groups
This is something else you can see a lot in Japan. It's not an uncommon sight to see a group of junior high school or high school students rolling down the street three or four wide blocking the entire road!
Riding like this is this a nuisance for others who want to get around you, it can also be dangerous because you don't have anywhere to go if you need to avoid something!
When riding as a group, it's best to ride in a staggered formation. Choose one person who will be the leader and ride at the front of the group. The leader should know where the group is going. It can also help to give a brief explanation of how you're going to your destination, what turns you'll be making, and any other potential hazards along the way.
The next most experienced person should ride behind the group to make sure that everyone in the group makes it. This person should also know how to get to the destination in case they have to stop for an emergency.
If you are a part of the group that's being led, don't ride in front of the leader. If you are in the rear position, don't leave anyone behind.
When turning in a group, it's best to go single file. When going straight, group members should ride in a staggered formation:
〇 〇 〇 (Rear position)
←Direction of travel (Leader) 〇 〇 〇 〇
〇 = group members
Remember that leading a group requires you to think about all of the members of your group. By yourself, you could probably squeeze through a yellow light and be safe. If you have a large group, you've just committed them to a dangerous action.
DO obey the traffic laws
Believe me, I know the temptation of riding through the red light when there are no cars around (especially when the light can be two minutes long), but it's better if you don't.
This is especially important if you're on your way to or from work!
Whether it's going the wrong way down a one-way street, blowing a red light, or cruising through a stop sign, it can lead to big trouble.
As ALTs, most of us tend to stick out compared to Japanese riders. There is always the potential that someone around town will see you break a rule and inform your Board of Education or school about what you did (prepare to be shamed).
While chances are you won't have an accident if you break a law, if you do have one it's more likely to become your fault because you weren't following the law!
When it comes to staying safe, following the rules puts everything in your favor. The more rules you break and more dangerous you ride, the more ammo you give others to seek damages from you!
If you ride with traffic, in the street, and obey the traffic signals, you'll be (legally) untouchable!
DON'T ride directly next to cars or in their blind spots
Riding right next to a car can be pretty dangerous. Like riding next to a bike, it cuts off one of your escape paths.
If the car suddenly decides to turn in your direction, you could get hit!
Since cars don't expect other cars to be between them and the sidewalk on a one lane road, they won't expect you to be there either. If you're riding in the street and there is a lot of traffic, try to stick to the spaces between cars. If someone is driving right next to you, adjust your speed so you can find a safe space to ride.
DO ride defensively
Riding defensively means that you are alert, look for potential hazards, and deal with them before they affect you.
In other words, you are actively taking measures to find problems and mitigate your chances of having an accident.
Some ways to ride defensively are to assume that other drivers haven't seen you and to assume that others may take the right of way (even though you should have it). If you think someone is going to hit you, and you can avoid it without causing problems for others, go ahead and move out of the way or stop!
DON'T ride too fast in the rain
There are times when you may have to ride your bike in the rain. Some of what applies to driving in the rain also applies to riding your bike in the rain like being extra careful and reducing your speed. However, there are a few extra things to look out for.
Be cautious when turning on paint and metal when it rains.
Metallic and painted surfaces can become very slippery and may result in you skidding over them and into something you didn't intend to. If you have to turn over these surface, take it slow and try not to lean the bike so much.
Cars have reduced visibility so there's even less chance that they'll see you. Make sure your light is on!
Be sure to give yourself plenty of extra room to slow down or stop.
The next one is something you'll see a lot but can actually be quite dangerous. If it rains, don't ride with an umbrella!
Pick up a nice rain suit or bike poncho. You'll be able to see better and will have both hands free.
It can also help to wear protective eyewear or glasses if rain is getting in your eyes. If it's very gold try to get some waterproof shoes/rain boots or some waterproof gloves to get your hands warm.
Bicycling in Japan - Know the Laws - http://japaninfoswap.com/bicycle-japan-know-the-laws/
Traffic Safety Guidelines for Pedestrians and Cyclists - http://japaninfoswap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/traffic_safety_english.pdf
Bike Safety - https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/bike-safety.html
NHTSA Bike Safety - https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/bicycle-safety
11 Tips For Biking in the Rain - https://www.rei.com/blog/cycle/11-tips-for-biking-in-the-rain