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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.

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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://mobobe.com 13xforever

    asdf, I suppose :D

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    asdfasdf

  • http://mobobe.com 13xforever

    Ah, but most of the reader’s won’t get it, now that you’ve improved on content :D

  • http://mobobe.com 13xforever

    Also, small wording issue “with massive chains built specifically built”.

    Overall, it’s not all that different from where I live. Except for more developed infrastructure with parkings and everything.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Incidentally, “ride on roads unless you’re not supposed to” doesn’t apply to cars. Apparently, the road closed sign is implying “so find another road,” and not “so drive on the sidewalk.” They don’t like it when you do that.

  • Emi

    Action Squad Detective Force.

    So…bikes…we have cycle paths here. (I like to refer to them as psycho-paths.) In the UK we are not allowed to cycle on the footpath/sidewalk nor are we allowed to ride our bikes through populated areas such as town centers. I’ve seen plenty of foreign students fined for this, but not for running someone down for walking within the designated cycle lane. What annoys me is those who don’t adhere to traffic lights. Too many accidents are caused by cyclists believing that they can jump a red light because they aren’t in a car. I don’t know if primary school still have cycle tests, but I passed mine when I was 10. =) I had a badge and a certificate and everything…. well, not genuine licence. More like the ones we had when we took our first swimming test.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tanner.m.colvin Tanner M Colvin

    There was only one time when I got in trouble(or lack thereof) riding a bike, and that was when I was on the sidewalk. This middle-aged salaryman started flipping out at me for not “Obey Japanese law!” Right when he started giving me a lecture on how sidewalks are for walking, a bunch of people showed up riding their bikes on the sidewalk! Let’s say the guy got a pretty nasty verbal beatdown by those people. xD

    Strangely, I only found out about the iPod law today when I read this article. I listened to music all the time and I so did the people around me.

  • Mescale

    I don’t think I could ride on a pavement, I’d have to stop so frequently it wouldn’t be worth it.

  • DAVIDPD

    How common are fold up bikes in Japan? In China and Singapore most people who bike commuted to work used those because they were light and could be made small enough to not be in the way on buses and trains.

  • names are hard

    Oh wow I had no idea people outside Sweden where I live didn’t ride on the sidewalks. Seems terribly dangerous to me.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    Bikes should always be on the sidewalk in every country (unless there is a specific bike lane on the road). Bikes on streets are the most dangerous things in the world!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    They’re becoming more common, but the bike you’ll usually see in Japan is just a simple thing, usually gray, with a basket and a little rack on the back.

  • henry V

    srsly, this is one brainless “article”… its no different anywhere else, why do you so desperately try to make it look like sth VERY japanese? it seems you’re out of topics to talk about… i for one, shall unsubscribe to your blog, thank you for your previous, way better posts though

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    In my home city, there’s been a big push to actually encourage more people to bike on the street. There are painted bike lanes on the streets:

    http://i.imgur.com/KOHP9.jpg

    And there’s even a few bicycle traffic lights:

    http://i.imgur.com/04Opb.jpg

  • Alec

    in the Netherlands where I live you can NEVER ride on the sidewalks, you’ll get fined for sure. Even if there isn’t a cycling lane you should just use the road, usually this goes all right if you pay attention to traffic around you. The tourists thinking the cycling lanes are regular side walks are the most dangerous thing though :p

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.odwyer Bill O’Dwyer

    I crossed a pedestrian crossing on a bike whilst the light was red (it had only just turned) and a police man spotted me. He told me to stop, and I was a little bit drunk so I thought “what the hell!” and carried on going… The ensuing bike chase lasted nearly 30 minutes! Apparently I knew the back streets of that little bit of Tokyo better than the cop :P

  • Goldie

    I grew up in the northern Satsuma (Kagoshima) countryside. Some of the best times were spent riding down-hill on empty roads surrounded by farmland with two or three people per bike. Super scary (since we weren’t wearing helmets), but super fun! I am still surprised that none of us got hurt or died.

  • http://www.tadaimatte.com/ Ashley Haley

    Huh – never knew about the iPod bit!

  • NodaShusho

    Koichi’s Drunk Aruki Mamba…Bike style.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Henry The Fifth! You were always my favorite king.

    It was great having you! I don’t know what bicycling is like outside of USA/Canada/Japan. Where are you from, out of curiosity?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    lol, this is kind of amazing.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Thanks! Time to fire everyone responsible, dun dun dunnnnn.

    *fixed*

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    lol, if I was a middle-aged salaryman I’d maybe be grumpy about just about everything too, though.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I love country biking in Japan. So freeeeee

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Ashley, knowing is half the battle though!

    http://www.socwall.com/images/wallpapers/19713-1366×768.jpg

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I dunno, I like my bikes on the road… but, I do live in a very bike friendly city, where there’s lanes and nice people everywhere watching out for your existence.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AbigailCamarillo Cam Abi

    I died laughing when people moved on the escalator! Also the lady at the grocery store!

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    Yeah, I most certainly do not live in a bike friendly part of the world! Our roads are either relatively narrow and not at all designed for more than a car in each side of the street. And since most people around here hardly ever walk on the sidewalks, there is no real danger of a crowd of people colliding with a bike (or vice versa). I live in a VERY driving heavy area (northeast PA).

  • NineCoconuts

    Henry: If anything, the author of this article was quite restrained in his description of just how different the biking situation is in Japan. Of course, I suppose it could be wasted on those who don’t get around on a bicycle very much.

  • Insomnium

    It might not be just in the Netherlands, but Cyclists are real scumbags on the road. Every car-or-bigger-vehicle-driver hates them :p.

    “— Riding while listening to your iPod (or Walkman? har har har) can also get you a 50,000 yen fine.”

    I’m screwed :x. 50k Yen is 465 Euro’s… Daaaaamn. It can cost you 10-40 euros for not having any lights…. Think I’ll just walk in Japan :p.

  • NineCoconuts

    One thing about biking on the sidewalks near major Japanese streets (or in the ‘burbs of Chiba where I lived, anyway) is that there’s often barely room for one pedestrian to walk, let alone a pedestrian and a cyclist. Where the stores thin out and the pedestrians are few, you’ll be bicycling along on the sidewalk, seeing the sights, listening to cicadas or whatever, when suddenly you’ll find yourself in a grooved, slightly walled-in area that makes all kinds of interesting noises when you bike over it. Can’t say I recommend it. In areas where there’s lots of shopping, however, there’s certainly room…but it’s difficult to bike very fast, for fear of scaring the hell out of people.

    Biking on Japanese roads has its own challenges, though. I’d say one should be prepared to get the occasional friendly honk, especially at night. Some cars even slow to a crawl before passing cyclists, either to show concern for their safety or to passive-aggressively make them feel bad. Either way, I prefer wearing a helmet, but I’m curious as to what Japanese motorists must think when they see that. “Oh, look, it’s a surprisingly large, pasty, pre-adolescent Japanese boy! Bet he’s looking forward to ditching that helmet when he turns 13…”

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.rawley Jeremy Rawley

    Not wearing helmets? Are you guys nuts?

    Where I live (Read: Delaware, U.S.), we get a lot of Eastern European exchange students who ride their bikes up and down the main highway (I’m near a beach resort town), and they don’t wear helmets. Don’t they realize the road is harder than their heads?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Maybe they hit their head too many times and are mentally incapable of realizing this now.

  • Jeffrey

    Here in The Netherlands it is really strange to ride a bike with a helmet on. Nobody does it. Everyone knows how to ride a bicycle without falling :P, It is just like walking. You aren’t wearing a helmet while walking right? And even if you fall.. you must be very unlucky to fall on your head.

  • http://twitter.com/NateTheALT Nate Hill

    Pretty spot on article, I’ve been here for 4 years and have unknowingly broken most of the laws you listed. Rode my bike past a police officer with a beer in my hand once, not a word. What turns my head every time are the bikes with child seats on them. Do they have these in other places? http://www.newlaunches.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Yamaha-electric-bikes-2.jpg

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

    Great article Koichi. But I’d like to point out that you can take any bicycle on the train as long as it fits neatly in a bicycle bag (or if you get stuck without one, in some garbage bags, as I’ve done in the past.) This usually requires removing the wheels from your bike and strapping them to the frame so your bicycle will fit in a bag. Not something you’d do every day, or for short trips (in which the bicycle is faster anyway) but for weekend rides away from the city it is something we do often. Avoid doing it in peak times though.

    More information about taking your bicycle on the train in Japan can be found here : http://www.tokyobybike.com/2009/06/can-i-take-my-bike-on-train-in-tokyo.html

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Even more dangerous than tigers? That are made of guns? And the guns have snakes for triggers?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Henry V is from the fourteenth century, which had waaaay better Tofugu articles.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Just like walking? Either you’re riding your bikes far too slow, or people in the Netherlands have somehow found out how to walk at 24 km/h.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Haha, that’s the right topic for me!

    I have been riding a bicycle in Japan for 4 whole years every single day – until I changed jobs and needed a car instead.

    I can’t confirm everything that is written here, but mostly it’s all just as you say.

    Japanese people almost never use their bicycle’s bell .. which is why you never know when a bike is coming from behind.

    How does it work instead? They use their brakes shortly before bumping into you and the brakes make a squealing sound, so you’ll know ….

    Driving in Japan is crazy. I wrote about that in my own blog a while ago – though from the perspective of a car driver. It’s the same with bicycles, though! It can be quite scary! People often don’t move an inch on the pedestrian walk and it was always me who had to dodge other bikers.

    I was always afraid that the police would catch me with my umbrella – especially during rainy season, but they never ever did. I never knew that it was forbidden until my 2nd or 3rd year in Japan.
    Why? Because everybody in Japan does it, so of course I didn’t think it was forbidden!

    You’re also not supposed to ride your bicycle when you’re drunk, but I’m sure that many people don’t follow that rule.

    Also, I never rode my bike on the road!
    One of my co-workers recently got into an accident on his bike and I also remember that I was almost hit by a car a few times.

    Please keep in mind that Japanese people are crazy drivers! In their cars and on their bikes!!!
    So, be careful when riding a bicycle in Japan!! ;)

  • stefafra

    Oh, how much I wish that the bell would have the same magical effect on UK people too…having cycled a lot in Italy (in a flat and full of bicycle area) and the Netherlands I am used to people recognizing a gentle “ping” of the bell and getting out of the way, I slow down, ring a bit, and pass, better than zipping past people.
    Well, here in UK it does not work, I cycle on a “mixed path” across a university and playing fields, it’s full of dog walkers, runners, students (with headphones…). The only ones that react the right way to the bell are foreign students. The rest jumps about a bit or totally ignore me, not to mention the silly ones that just make “funny” remark on the bell…
    Weird.
    PS: the little old ladies on a bike in Japan this summer where kind of scary, riding on the pavement, or down super narrow alleys and covered with hats, scarf and visors (to keep the sun and the wrinkles away), some with a sun-umbrella too, I always wondered how much they could see…They do came CLOSE to you, but well, after a while we got used to them.

  • Goldie

    Yeah, we were nuts I guess, but also high school students who do stupid stuff like that. Now, I definitely do when I am riding my bike to/from school to teach since I want to set a good example for the kids, but don’t always otherwise.
    I think there are a lot of precautions that you can take besides wearing a helmet (following traffic laws for one) that also are helpful but not everyone does.

  • Goldie

    Anytime there is empty roads is bliss!

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    Well fine, you’ve got me there! (Also acceptable would be: badgers.)

  • shadowmonk

    the “granny” bikes are a lifesaver when making trips to the スーパー, I wouldn’t have traded that basket for anything.

  • shadowmonk

    I beg to differ on the bells, I was in Osaka for a semester and everyone used the bells. Especially the elderly.

    About being drunk on the bike, me and a friend still can’t remember if we biked up this crazy hill or walked up it because it was after 8 hours of drinking.

    And yes, they are super crazy, but isn’t that one reason why we love them?

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    That’s very interesting! No matter where I went, they never used the bells. I have to admit that I didn’t run into too many bikes in big cities like Osaka, so it might be different and necessary to use them there. :)

    Haha! Indeed.

  • OmbraXIV

    I lived my share bit of time in Japan, not in tokyo but close enough to get there with one of the google-plex metro lines.

    I must say that i really would have enjoyed my riding experiences more if:

    – all the sidewalks weren’t roller coaster-like due to growing plants roots, aging, very poor maintenance ecc.
    -those dam** blind-people-aiding tiles (i have nothing against blind people and i really appreciate the tiles presence on sidewalks..but i quite don’t get why you can find them on bike-paths..)
    -japanese people’s “kamikaze-mode” genes activating in proximity of bicycles and sidewalks.

    let me explain more this last point.

    I swear that 90% of the japanese i met, riding or walking, on sidewalks gave off a very unstable impression, due to the extremely slow cruising speed? due to their intrinsic incapacity of riding a bike? i don’t know, but what i know is that if you move to the left to avoid collision you’ll get the same effect as if you did the opposite, i.e. they aim at you! and they have a pretty good aim if i must say..

    The aiming accuracy increase exponentially if they are ipnotized by their charms dangling from the phone from which they’re trying to unglue their noses.

  • shadowmonk

    while you may say it’s no different anywhere else, for people like me who do not live in a city where bikes are a common means of transport this is a great article and honestly would have benefited me prior to my study abroad experience.

  • Peter

    We call the narrow channels/drains surrounding all petrol stations “gaijin traps”, because cyclists new to the country are often caught in them (and promptly introduced to the pavement).