A small black circle of chewing gum pressed into the carpet in the Heathrow disembarkation tunnel heralded our arrival back in the UK from Japan. It marked a stark contrast.Â Japan must be one of the cleanest countries Iâ€™ve ever visited.
From the outside Japan appears to be an ideal society. It is orderly, well-maintained and efficient, the people are extremely polite and helpful, and that of course is before you admire their powerful economy, delicious cuisine, delightful gardens and so on. Although I’m sure they must have their problems.
Then of course there are the bicycles. They are everywhere. The bike, from an outsider’s point of view at least, doesn’t just seem to be a popular mode of transport in Japan – it is well-integrated into society and free from many of the hassles and hazards that face cyclists in the West.
The first thing you notice about cycling in Japan is that they do it on pavement. Yes, rather than taking their chances on the road, cyclists weave their way through the pedestrian traffic on seats set very low.Â Bikes seem to be in the category ‘machine-assisted pedestrian’, rather than ‘semi-motor vehicle’.Â Some towns even have separate bike lanes at the zebra crossings.
Riding down the pavement means that cyclists have to go at a sensible pace, at least when there are lots of people about. Neither Autumn nor I saw any bike-rage, although perhaps we were just lucky. Cyclists appeared to be considerate and pedestrians tolerant; overall people did seem to be very well behaved.
There also seem to be good facilities for cyclists. Rather than bike stands dotted around the streets, it is common to see cycle parks. These might be in the corner of a car park, filling up the basement of a building, or as in one place we saw, a ramp up into aÂ multi-story bike park. Unfortunately, we only found out about the most incredible bike storage option after returning to the UK. It’s a sort of storage bunker where cyclists post their bikes into a small opening and they are whisked down into a subterranean mega-rack, see the video here:
Most bikes just seem to be parked in the street, either on their own or in big groups. The lack of cycle stands suggests that cyclists donâ€™t have to lock their bikes to an immovable object because people are less likely to pick them up and chuck them into the back of a white van. The average Japanese bike lock is a flimsy â€˜ring lockâ€™ job that British thieves would slice through with nothing so much as a pair of nail clippers. Apparently thefts are reduced as all cycles must be registered with the police.
The Japanese bike is a little different from the bikes you see haring around London. The â€˜sit up and begâ€™ style is most popular (there are far fewer racers, hybrids, mountain bikes or fixies than here) although itâ€™s really the add-ons that make them unique.Â Many bikes have boxes, baskets and compartments on the front and back, and some even feature a child seat on the front with a useful Perspex visor to keep the rain out. There are also umbrella holders which clip on to your handlebars.
It is pleasant idea to imagine that the Brits could follow in the civilised footsteps of the Japanese, but would it work? Riding to work on the pavement sounds like a very slow and tiresome business to me. Further, we are probably just too barbarous and rude: after landing in Istanbul from Kansai International Airport, virtually every passenger on our plane (most of whom were Japanese) offered to let us get into the aisle as we struggled to get our luggage out of the overhead lockers, while in London we had to wait for almost the entire plane of returning Brits to disembark before anyone let us join the stream of people filing past. That was before we even reached the chewing gum, let alone the Old Kent Road.