How To Ride A Bicycle In Japan

While Japan isn’t quite like Portland, OR, where there needs to be double-decker bike etiquette, Japan has what I’d consider to be fairly unique rules when it comes to riding a bicycle. I’m not sure about how things are in Europe, but any American who decides to jump onto a bicycle in Japan for the first time is going to be in for quite a surprise. Things are done differently, there. So, grab your PBR Asahi Super Dry, put on those training wheels, and get ready for a leisurely bicycle ride of learning! Ding ding!

1. Ride On The Sidewalks

Photo by iMorpheus

… that is, unless you’re not supposed to. Same with roads. You should ride on them unless you’re not supposed to. What?

It’s time to learn rule one of riding a bicycle in Japan: “There are going to be many laws around bicycles in Japan, but they’re hardly ever enforced, so you know, do whatever, and follow a bit of common sense if you can.” You’ll see this idea coming up again and again throughout this post. The fact of the matter is, Japanese bicycle laws are fast and loose. If you use common sense and are careful, you should be okay. If you don’t, well, you may end up in prison with all the other poor bicyclists.

Anyways, riding on the sidewalk… The official rule is that children under 12 can ride on the sidewalks. Also, in the event that it’s “too dangerous” to ride on the road, anyone can ride on the sidewalk. Who follows this rule? Well, almost nobody. According to a government survey, 40 percent of the public is not aware that bicycles are meant to be ridden on roadways.1

So, 40% of people don’t know that law exists. The other 60%? They pretty much don’t follow this rule. Most people ride their bicycles on the sidewalk and the police turn a blind eye. In fact, in the big city, I’d say riding on the sidewalk makes a lot more sense in Japan. From experience, I would say that most cars aren’t looking for bikes, and when cars aren’t looking for bikes… well… bad things happen to people who aren’t enclosed in a giant cube of metal.

2. Locking Your Bike

Photo by iMorpheus

If you’re used to living someplace that’s full of thieves (anywhere but Japan, basically), you’re probably used to locking up your bikes with massive chains built specifically to hold rancors in place. While crime in Japan is on the rise, many people still don’t lock their bikes up. For the most part this is just fine. Most people, however, lock their bikes using these little locks that are built into the wheel. All they do is make it so someone can’t roll the rear tire. It doesn’t prevent anyone from picking up a bike and walking away if they wanted (though like I said, rarely happens).

Usually no matter where you go there’s going to be someplace for your bike. If it’s super rural, just put it off to the side where it’s not in the way. If you’re in the city, you’ll find dedicated bicycle parking almost everywhere. Most likely, though, you’ll be riding your bike to a train station where you’ll park it either in the free parking outside or the paid (but very cheap) bike parking under cover. I paid something like $20 a month when I used this kind of bicycle parking, though maybe it’s risen in price since then. All I did was use my little ring lock and my bike was never stolen. EZPZ.

Because bicycles are so common in Japan, there is a ton of parking. That being said, you won’t always find an open space! That’s when you should be really careful not to knock down a whole row of bicycles. You know once you do the gang of yakuza thugs eating in the ramen shop next door will run out with shocked faces wondering why you’d do that to their bicycles. おい!

3. Ding Ding Ding!

There’s two sides to this story. First, if you’re on a bicycle, use your bell to let people know you’re coming. Just be sure to slow down and don’t run anyone over if they don’t move. A quick ding-a-ling will get people to move out of the way almost automatically. People in Japan are entirely used to bikes riding through on the sidewalk, and because they don’t want to get run over they’ll move (even when you’re not on a bike).

Second, if you’re not on a bicycle and you hear a ding-ding-ding, you should get out of the way by moving to the side. As a general rule, moving to the left tends to be good. If you’re pretty far to the right already, though, and there’s no room to move left, the right is a valid option. Basically, just do your best to get out of the way, a bicycle is coming through! With a few people every year dying and a good number more getting injured from bicycle-pedestrian accidents, you don’t want to add to that count.

4. Stay Off The Train

Photo by GanMed64

Don’t bring your bike on the train. That’s why there’s so much parking at train stations, after all. There is an exception to this rule, though: if you have a folding bike and it has a bag, you can bring it on the train. This basically turns it into luggage, which you can bring onto the train (unless it’s rush hour, then no big bags period).

Basically, don’t bring your bike on the train. It’s a no-no, and people will very politely ignore you while hating you a lot.

5. No Helmet Law

Photo by thedalogs

Well, okay, there’s a helmet law for children under 13, but you don’t see many children riding around with helmets on regardless. This is one of those “we’ll turn a blind eye” sorts of things I was talking about earlier. With adults, you’ll almost never see someone wearing a helmet. Firstly, it’s not a law. Second, nobody does it so why should I? Well, I could tell you why… but you probably know too.

So, if you’re riding a bicycle in Japan most likely you’ll do it without a helmet on. No wonder most people ride on the sidewalk! Stay safe!

6. Getting Your Bike Stolen

If you do get your bike stolen, you’ll want to make sure that it’s registered with the police. It doesn’t cost much to do this, and if you buy a bicycle new the place you bought it at can most likely do this for you. If you buy a bike used you should re-register it with the police.

This way, if your bike does get stolen (it probably won’t) it will be easy to report to the police. Then, if they find it again you’ll be notified. Just a good little tidbit of knowledge to have if you’re buying a bike in Japan.

7. Breaking Bicycle Law

Photo by mith17

Beyond no-helmets, sidewalks, and so on, there are many bicycle laws in Japan that don’t really get enforced too much. Even when they do, it’s usually just a verbal warning because hey, there’s probably better things to do, and maybe it’s raining or something. Most of these laws are in place for when you do mess up and get into an accident, though. If you’re safe and you don’t crash into anyone or anything, I doubt any of these will be a problem. That being said, these laws are put in place to help prevent you from getting into an accident, so maybe it’s best just to heed them?

  • If you give a ride to someone else on your bike, that can be a 20,000 yen fine.
  • You can get up to 3 months in prison or a 50,000 yen fine for using an umbrella or cell phone while riding (you see both of these all the time, especially umbrellas when it’s raining).
  • You cannot ride your bike on pedestrian crosswalks, even if it’s to get from one bike path to another bike path.
  • You should walk your bike if you’re going through a pedestrian crosswalk.
  • Riding a bicycle under the influence (of alcohol) can get you five years in prison plus a 1 million yen fine. That being said, you see tipsy bicyclists quite often. Once again, police turn a blind eye to this for the most part.
  • Riding at night without a headlamp can get you a 50,000 yen fine.
  • Riding while listening to your iPod (or Walkman? har har har) can also get you a 50,000 yen fine.
  • When you do get into an accident, usually the fault is automatically placed on the bigger vehicle. So, if a car hits a bike, sorry car, but you’re screwed!

But, maybe it’s good to follow these laws? In 2010, 658 people died in Japan due to accidents involving bicycles. This is similar to America’s bicycle fatality rate of 618 in 2010, though I have a feeling more people regularly ride bikes in Japan than in America, even with the population difference. Still, these laws are put in place to help everyone stay safe, though if nobody follows them then nothing will change. That being said, I think it will take a lot of bare heads running into things for something like this to change (or maybe some famous person having a bad bike accident).

Have you ridden a bicycle in Japan? How was your experience? I love riding on the sidewalk, personally (can’t trust them car people), but I know that when I’m walking around I don’t like them. It’s certainly a very different bicycle culture, though. What do you think?

For some interesting statistics on Japan and its bicycles, check out this Facts and Details page.

[hr]

1 Facts And Details: BICYCLES, PEDESTRIANS AND MOTORCYCLES IN JAPAN: LAWS, ACCIDENTS, KIDS AND ELECTRIC BIKES

Of Bicycle Laws in Japan and other Mythical Beasts

Japanese Cycling Etiquette

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    *sigh* those were the days, back when Hashi the 3rd was editing this blog. He wouldn’t have let things get in such disarray. I wouldn’t have had a head by now!

  • hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com

    It took you thirty minutes to shake a flat-foot on a crappy police bicycle? How drunk were you?

  • Vivian Morelli

    Great article Koichi!! When I first got to Japan and lived in Shikoku, my bike was stolen at the station. I went to the police station, could not speak Japanese at all back then so I just drew a picture of my bike, complete with colours. Haha! They never found it, but the policeman assured me that in Japan, people “don’t steal bikes, only ‘borrow’ them”…. Yah right.

    http://vivianlostinseoul.blogspot.jp/

  • mosf0

    Love riding in Japan, I live in Sydney AUS, where I ride to work most days and go for big rides on the weekend. I have a close call at least once a week, have been hit twice this year and get abused frequently and I do obey all the laws here. In Japan the roads are AMAZING, people are so careful, traffic is super easy to ride in and oh did I mention the amazing smooth roads?

    we brought some mamachari in osaka and left them on the side of the road for two weeks, upon our return…..still there! Riding there is really the best =)

  • ruz

    Elite marathon runners going at about 20km/h average don’t wear helmets. I guess they’re elites and know how to fall the right way, if they ever fall.

  • ジョサイア

    You should have linked to the video of the girl that was arrested for texting and riding a bike at the same time :D

  • stefafra

    Cars are dangerous, bikes are not…

  • piderman

    Don’t Japanese trains have specific bicycle sections? Or is this more about streetcars/trams?

  • Ruben

    Europe calling ;)

    It’s quite funny how Americans and some others see Europe as a complete perfect union. Europe is a union to some degree, but the members remain different countries. Trafic is a topic that can vary a lot between the countries, so you can’t really say that riding a bicycle is 100 % safe or unsafe it depends where in Europe you’re riding.

    I can speak for Belgium: the rules seem to be quite similar to the bicycle rules in Japan. Yes we do have punishments for riding on pedestrian crosswalks and so on… it’ll cost you € 50 or more (but no prison).
    Unfortunately you’re more likely to find out your bicycle has been stolen compared to Japan.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    oh man, I think remember that…. good times.

    Best I’ve seen (no video though, sadly) is a dude who was texting on his phone, using an umbrella, and smoking a cigarette all at once… Seemed dangerous. I wonder if he’s still alive… :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    OMG IKR!!!?? The roads are so smooth. It’s kind of nuts.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    ha ha haha – indeed!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah, where I lived was bell city too. DING DINGDING

  • Chester

    Not 100%.

    Here in the smaller cities on Shikoku, signs on the sidewalk tell you when and where you can ride your bicycle – and guess what: 90% of the sidewalks have signs that say “bicycles allowed.”

    As a matter of fact, the cops will very rarely stop you and tell you to get off the fucking road because there is a sidewalk, there is a sign that SAYS to ride your bike on the sidewalk, and what the fuck are you doing with your bike on the goddamn road?

    In fact, the exact opposite of what you said is true: bikes are meant to be ridden on the SIDEWALK, but very often people ride their bikes on the ROAD, up to and including the prefectural highways that go between towns.

    As a matter of fact, there is a long highway that runs along the coast of Kochi Prefecture. It goes from Kochi City all the way to Tokushima City, about a five hour drive (at 30mph, yes, that is the speed limit the whole way). Along this highway, the major thoroughfare between cities and towns (not the high-speed, suspended freeway in the mountains, mind you), there is a sidewalk. Almost the entire highway, all five hours of it, has a sidewalk, and this sidewalk is labeled “Bikes allowed.” The whole highway.

    NO ONE ever rides on the sidewalk. People will just pop off on their little fixed-gear bike on the god damned HIGHWAY, where people go 80kph (because fuck the speed limit).

    In fact, while it would be perfectly safe, legal and, well, smart to ride your bike on the sidewalk, many Japanese people in the countryside FLAT OUT REFUSE to ride on the sidewalk and prefer to be suicidal and ride their bicycles ON A HIGHWAY. WITH CARS. AND NO SHOULDER. When I say “on the highway,” i mean literally on the highway – not on the shoulder off the side of the highway, I mean actually in the lane. With traffic. On a highway.

    Motherfucking Japan. Seriously, “How to ride a bicycle in Japan?” Do it the same way you drive a car: recklessly, without any regard for the people around you, and as dangerously as humanly possible. Japanese people are completely incapable of moving through space in a safe, polite fashion. Whatever anyone says to you about Japanese manners and politeness? Remember this: when Japanese people move through space, they deliberately choose the most dangerous path possible, they cut people off, get in each other’s way and use up as much space on the road as possible – drive on the center line, cross into oncoming traffic, walk two or three or four abreast on a busy sidewalk, and their favorite: speed as fast as possible through any narrow obstruction. Not to mention that, unless they are speeding between pedestrians, Japanese people rarely ride bikes in a straight line, preferring to wobble back and forth as they go.

    Seriously. Any article about biking (or driving) in Japan absolutely MUST mention the absolute reckless disregard for human life (their own and the others around them) that Japanese people have. Polite and well-mannered society? Not on their bikes they’re not.

  • Chester

    Driving on the sidewalk is EXTREMELY common where I live (Shikoku).

  • ジョサイア

    You should start making videos again I loved to watch those :D

    If hes not dead Godzilla will get him…poor guy… :(

    My sister can eat text do makeup and ride someones tail bumper at the same time :/

  • http://twitter.com/tokyobybike Byron Kidd

    Trains in Japanese cities make no provision for bicycles. You best bet is to ride the first or last carriages which have more space where you can put your bagged bicycles. Some trains in the countryside let you “roll on, roll off” but only for short periods during tourism campaigns over summer for example.

  • http://twitter.com/tokyobybike Byron Kidd

    The poorly enforced cycling laws here are both a blessing and a curse. I love the freedom they give me to ride when, where and how I choose, but when they’re abused beyond sensible limits by the selfish, inattentive or inexperienced cyclists I wish the police would knock some sense into them!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    After hearing about how reckless the Japanese are when moving through space, I’ve lost all respect for JAXA.

  • anonymous

    I’ve seen too many people ride their bikes in Japan like they own the road. They fail to think that cars don’t always see them and blow through intersections without looking. I’m surprised the injury or death rate isn’t higher.

    I love the bicycle bell video! I tend to walk a lot faster than the average person around here and I think I’ll try ringing a bell inside and around the train stations.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    dude, but then they’d have to run and do their job or something… too much, too much…

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > According to a government survey, 40 percent of the public
    > is not aware that bicycles are meant to be ridden on roadways…
    > The other 60%? They pretty much don’t follow this rule.

    That sounds a lot like the Midwestern US to me, except the percentage is probably a little higher here. We do have a small number of extreme bicycle enthusiasts who ride on the road, but everybody else thinks they’re crazy. Similarly, I think some states have bicycle helmet laws on the books, but the only people who ever *actually* wear a bicycle helmet (apart from the occasional elementary-aged child with overprotective parents) are the sort of enthusiasts who also participate in formal, registration-fee-bearing bicycle races. It’s not exactly mainstream.

    Also, most people don’t lock their bikes here, but maybe that’s just because I live in a small town. (We have crime, but the perpetrators usually get caught sooner rather than later. In the case of bicycle theft, if you actually _ride_ the bike you just stole, in public, somebody’s probably going to recognize it.)

    Now, riding the bike to a train station, that’s something that doesn’t happen here. Ever. (The nearest passenger train is in Cleveland — about two hours away by car. I know a guy who rides his bike that far — he does this thing called GOBA — but the whole point of that is to make the whole trip by bike, so obviously no trains are involved.)

    Also, the thing where you ring a little buzzer and people on the sidewalk automatically move out of the way without even LOOKING? Yeah, that one doesn’t happen in America either.

    Oh, and I have NEVER seen an American use an umbrella while on a bike, but that’s probably not so much related to the bike as to the fact that America is not completely obsessed with umbrellas.

  • http://twitter.com/tokyobybike Byron Kidd

    You’re right. They’re too busy giving directions and standing outside their koban leaning on their big sticks to worry about enforcing the law. (Should put a broom head on those sticks so the police can make themselves useful!)

  • Jonathan Harston

    Gerroff the bloody pavement! (waves fist)

  • Horst

    The Dutch are, on average, the tallest people on Earth so I guess they walk faster because they have really long legs.

  • Jesper

    That’s actually not a terribly logical argument. The biggest danger might not be from falling off the bike, but from being hit by a car. I’m particularly uneasy when riding on twisty roads in rural areas, ’cause you never know when a speeding car comes up around the corner behind you and knocks your scull through their windscreen. That’s when helmets really show their value.

    Thought I’d compare the article with Danish and Norwegian laws. I can mention that a bunch of reflectors are required, and lights are required at night. Bike theft is common, so use good locks. Helmets are not required, but are encouraged (they are required in many, perhaps all, organized bike races though). Probably around 30% of Danes use them, and perhaps 10% of Norwegians. In Denmark riding on the side walk is not allowed; you must use the bike path (most major cities are full of those) or the street. In Norway you are allowed to use the sidewalk, and you are even encouraged to do so if the traffic on the street is heavy, but pedestrians must be passed carefully as they have priority. Also in Norway bike riders may use pedestrian crossings, but cars do not have to yield to bike riders on such crossings (though many do which can be confusing). So when traffic is heavy it is best to get off your bike and walk it across. In Denmark a left turn, at least at a light controlled intersection, must be done in two straight lines touching the corners, similar to how you would run in baseball. In Norway a left turn on the road is done exactly as if you were riding a car.

  • DED

    LOL I first visited Tokyo some weeks ago, and I’m laughing reading this. I had no idea of the law, but now I realize I didn’t see a single rider not breaking at least one of the rules. That was so crazy, specially for me, since where I live you may see one or two bikes a year if you’re lucky…

    Umbrellas? Yeah! Mobile phones? Of course! Pedestrian crosses? Full speed! Passengers? Much better with company! “No bycicle parking”? Just hide the sign with hundreds of bikes! A policeman watching from the police station? Bah! And a big ETC. In a pair of days, either you develop a new sense and are able to dodge dozens of full speed bikes at the same time, or just die. I loved it LOL

  • walker-san

    my limited experience of riding in kyoto and osaka taught me what i believe to be the essence of japanese bicycle etiquette, and that is, “anything goes, just be careful, and don’t be a jerk.”

    i hate riding here in sydney, australia. cyclists are hated on the road, and hated on the footpath. whereas in japan, everyone rides at some point, so even the drivers are aware and courteous (that i noticed). scenario: stupid gaijin has jumped the wrong green light at a tangled intersection, and found an oncoming front of traffic in his way. nobody honks, flips or accelerates, but instead everyone slows and politely waves me through to safety. gobsmacked, was i, and once again grateful for the awesomeness of japan. i discovered that it’s possible to bow while riding (which, hopefully, doesn’t attract a fine).

  • Ed

    I made the mistake of cycling through an Osaka shotengai. It didn’t go well.

  • HorrorChan

    Number 4 reminded me of a psych class video from the 70’s or 60’s we had to watch. It wasn’t about trains but the guy who was giving the lecture talked about how he stomped the crap out of some student’s bike with boots for repeatedly bringing it in his classroom. (o_o;)

    We’re not allowed to do number 1 where I live. Kinda sucks sometimes when you’re riding on the road and people are parked on the right side next to their houses and there’s traffic on the left. Scares the crap out of me.

  • Rachael

    Oh god, think I literally broke all of these when I was in Japan! Who knew! #gaijinsmash

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001887233580 Nicole Jones

    I think the japanese should invest in getting license plates for the bikes.

  • EskimoJo

    I’m currently eating a satsuma… There! I have enriched the lives of all readers by sharing this highly related fact. Good show, EskimoJo!

  • EskimoJo

    That’s true! And people walking are certainly not in danger of being hit by cars.

  • EskimoJo

    I have seen here (well, in Nottingham, not in London, but still in a large city) people with bikes with GROUND LEVEL TRAILERS hooked onto the back that the child rides in. I want to tear out my eyes everytime I see them, just so I will never have to witness or read about the tragedy I always imagine happening. *shudders*

    Oh! Found a pic!

  • Hellsvien

    Thanks for this. It was interesting to read.

  • Jaska

    Riding a bike is very miserable in Japan. I have never seen any other country where other riders would be so selfish as Japanese. They don’t repect any law and put other rider at risk all the time. Japanese ride on the wrong side of the road, two side by side, playing with cell phone, holding an umberella and not watching ahead. Seven years and over 30 000 km on bike in Japan have just made me hate Japanese. It is time to go home into a place where bicycle rider follow the law and do not put other people on harms way.

    Good by Japan. I will never come back. You can keep doing this stupid stuff all by ourself.

  • http://twitter.com/emination Emin Köklü

    Wow, impressive that Google Images is finding so many images when searching for “gaijin trap”. haha

  • deg

    planning a trip to japan this year. thought to bring my own bike but probably it is a lot easier to buy a simple bike local. interesting phenomenon,…. biking at the pedestrian area. i was thinking to bike from tokyo to the west coast. or just as far as the bike goes :-)

  • エジプト人

    I am in Japan now and I see these things all the time, but I don’t really know how to ride. If I did, I’d use nothing but a bike :)

  • Valentin

    OMG I’m such a dumbass! I got my bike a week ago, and since then I’ve been riding it on the sidewalk. Now when I think about it, people in my country ride their bikes on the road. Even I did when I was a kid and got my first (and last) bike. Now why did I assume, that I’m supposed to ride my bike on the sidewalk? Maybe because 90% of the people on bikes that I see here are doing it. Good thing I decided to research Japanese traffic laws.

  • Stuart M.

    I live and bike in Japan. Up here in Hokkaido, the distances are bigger and bicycle riding is only for school children, housewives and grandpas. The school children while riding make every effort to text, read their cell phones, listen to IPods and totally abuse their bicycle by never inflating their tires and standing on their pedals instead of changing gears. The grandpas all ride against traffic in the road. I guess it’s kamikaze behavior left over from the war. The housewives? Well, they stay on the sidewalk and generally behave themselves. Riding in the road isn’t much fun when there is a sunken sewer grate every 20 meters or so and you have to swerve out into traffic to avoid them. In general, Japanese loathe bicycle riding and everyone can’t wait to get a car so they can let it idle at the convenience store while they go in to buy an ice cream bar. Am I being cynical? I’ve lived here for ten years. I should know.