My favourite way to explore and learn about a new town that I just moved into is by cycling. A bicycle is always the first big thing I purchase. Then whenever I have free time, I simply step out my front door, choose a direction that I haven’t travelled down yet, and go discover.
Each country has its own set of cycling laws, and it is important to keep them in mind to avoid getting pulled over and given a fine or prison time. If you don’t know the laws well, you might be breaking them without realizing it. Cyclists are expected and required to follow the same traffic laws as drivers, with a few exceptions. Some of the rules are obvious and some of the rules would leave you puzzled, especially ones that almost everyone in Japan seems to break on a daily basis.
Here is an example of an obvious rule: biking under the influence of alcohol. It puts you and everyone else around you in danger, and it is strictly prohibited. Getting caught breaking this law could potentially penalize you with a maximum five years in prison and ¥1,000,000 fine. Another example would be riding a bicycle with broken brakes. Although very rare and I have never witnessed it myself, I have heard that police do conduct bike-checks on the road.
Some other laws are not nearly as obvious, mainly because the entire society breaks these rules everyday. Did you know that you are NOT allowed to bike on the sidewalks? Indeed, bicycles are supposed to travel on the road along with all the cars speeding by you, unless there is an actual sign on the sidewalk that states otherwise. Those few people who do follow this rule tend to ride in the space between the little white line and the sidewalk. It might actually seem more dangerous to bike on the road, and cars often sway onto the opposing lane (given it is safe) to avoid and maintain distance with the cyclists on the road. In reality, 99% of the cyclists I see choose to stay on the sidewalk instead.
Another law that many people don’t notice or choose to ignore is having a front lamp and turning it on during night time. Many bicycles in Japan come standard with a built-in front lamp that lights up without needing batteries. If not, LED clamp-on lights are widely available on the market. The laws require bicycles to have a bell and a rear-reflector as well, but it appears that the front lamp is the only one out of the set that is enforced. Some cyclists ignore turning on the front lamp and thinking “the street is bright enough for me to see”. However, what they don’t realize is that the lamp is also intended for the other road-users to notice that someone is riding down this way. Having the light off at night can be quite dangerous.
On a rainy day, many cyclists would ride with an umbrella in hand. An umbrella is a strong and useful equipment to fight against the rain and wind as you ride down the road. In fact, most riders who do this would choose a transparent umbrella so they can still have vision on what is ahead of them. However, no matter how much you have mastered angling your umbrella perfectly to streamline through a storm, it is still against the law regardless of your umbrella-lancing skills.
If you have been in Japan and paid attention to the people on bicycle, you have probably noticed that many of them break some of the laws mentioned above, perhaps even multiple laws simultaneously. When there are more people breaking a law that is also rarely enforced, it makes us wonder about the necessity of it. As a foreigner living in another country though, I am not here to question the law.
Therefore, when I am on my bike, I follow 3 simple principles (that can also apply to a lot of other things besides biking):
1. Safety first (yours and others).
2. Do what others do.
3. Use common sense.
Japan is quite a biker-friendly country. Like I said in the beginning, riding a bicycle is a great way to explore around Japan and it definitely is my favourite way of transport to get around town. I hope you will enjoy your time on the road too while staying safe.
By the way, cycling with someone sitting on the back is also illegal, unless the person is a child under the age of six. You know those typical romantic manga/drama scenes where a girl sits at the back holding onto the biker tightly? Yeah… that’s actually illegal. Sorry for ruining the mood.
Guest post by Jackson Lee.