Getting Paid to Ride Without Turning Pro

I received a pleasant surprise when I opened my pay envelope last month, for no apparent reason there was an additional 10,000 yen. That's cool, I rarely question accounting errors especially when they are in my favor, but I eventually gave in and had to ask why it was there.

It is tradition in Japan for you employer to pay your commuting fees, this is the door to door cost of your trip to work and back using public transport. Until now whenever I needed a new commuter pass, I mentioned it to the helpful lady responsible for such things, she would give me the required amount of cash, I'd purchase the commuter pass and return the receipt to her. From there I assume the receipt went into accounting land for some further action.

That all comes with quite an administrative overhead. So, from this financial year the annual cost of our commuting fee is broken down into 12 equal amounts which so happens to correspond to the number of months in the calendar year (its like they planned it) and that amount is now paid into our accounts along with our salary.

This represents a nice little increase in pocket money as the commuting fee is paid based on the mistaken belief that I'm catching two trains to work in the morning and two back each night .. which we all know is wrong .. I'm out there on the roads dicing with death.

Of our roughly 30 employees 5 commute to work by bicycle at least twice a week. Its a well known fact as we park our bikes in the stairwell, hang our sweaty gear on the balcony to dry, take 'bird baths' in the restroom, and generally mess up the carefully designed office environment with our eye burning lycra clothing and obscene amounts of reflective tape.

Despite the fact that not everyone is commuting in the traditionally accepted manner, all employees are entitled to receive the commuter fee as a condition of their employment .. only some of us are spending it on new wheels, lights, pedals and shoes.

I'm effectively being paid to ride to work. How great is that?



Mysterious Nomadic Bicycle

A few years ago a friend I cycled with almost every weekend (lets call him Ralph, because thats his name) was returning home after a late night out. Ralph arrived in Ikebukuro to find that his connecting train had already finished running for the night, as the majority of passenger trains are prone to do sometime after midnight.

Faced with the prospect of an expensive taxi ride or a long walk home Ralph had an alternative solution to the predicament he found himself in. There are always a lot of bicycles around any station, of these many have simply been abandoned by their owners. In fact, on a regular basis all the bikes are tagged then a week or so later the ones with remaining tags are considered abandoned and are "disposed of" by the local council.

So, in his wisdom Ralph decided he would "borrow" the most abandoned looking one for his journey home.

Now Ralph loves bicycles. He loves looking at them, buying them, riding them, racing them, and maintaining them. Be it a $7,000 road bike, or a $90 shopping bike, he treats all bikes with the same respect.

That cool September evening he formulated a plan that would provide wins for all involved. He would "borrow" the most run down, forlorn looking bicycle he could find. Then, as he was returning to Ikebukuro in the following day, he would spend some time fixing it up and return it to the same location in much better condition that it was in when it was "borrowed".

So with ease Ralph picked the lock of the saddest, most in need of maintenance shopping bike he could find and proceeded to make his way home. Luckily none of the local police paid him any attention in his possibly alcohol influenced state, and he arrived home without incident. After parking the bike downstairs in the space provided, secured with the same ineffective lock he had picked earlier, he rode the elevator up to his apartment contemplating the joy the owner would experience at discovering the bicycle elves had visited in their absence

Awaking the following morning Ralph recalled the events of the night before, and after a shower and some breakfast, he gathered his tools and proceeded down stairs to get started on the bike so he could return it to its rightful owner.

It was then that his flawless plan came undone. The bike was gone, nowhere to be found. Between the hours of 2am and 10am Ralphs stolen bicycle had been stolen! Is nothing sacred?!

Since this event took place we like to think that this bicycle is wandering the country like David Carradine, selflessly assisting hapless travelers reach their destination before mysteriously disappearing into the night seeking others in need of its service.



Things That Will Kill You

Lets face it the road isn't the safest place for a cyclist, but I'd rather take my chances there than on the sidewalk. There are a lot of things out there that will kill you and today I'd like inform you of the one I encounter almost daily and one that with out fail rattles me every time ... I'm talking about the left hand drive vehicle.

As you'd expect, given the local custom of driving in the left hand lane, the vast majority of vehicles on Japanese roads are right hand drive. Despite local driving tradition, it is perfectly legal to drive a left hand drive vehicle on Japanese roads, provided of course you stay in the left hand lane, and therein lies the danger to cyclists.

Being the driver of a right hand vehicle on occasion, I'm acutely aware of my position in relation to the oncoming traffic as its on my right hand side, closest to me. As a result I position the car close, but not too close, to the center line of the road. I do this because I'm am less aware of the position of the left hand side of my car, and don't want to accidentally hit a parked car, opening door, or heaven forbid a fellow cyclist. When I overtake a cyclist I tend to overcompensate and give them plenty of room, again because I'm less aware of the position of the left side of my car than the right. Best to err on the side of caution.

You might imagine that because the driver of a left hand drive vehicle is sitting on the sidewalk side of their car that they would be more aware of cyclists and thus give us all a little more space when overtaking, but the exact opposite is true. I believe that there are two possible reasons for this. My first theory is that because they are less aware of how close the right hand side of their car is to the center line, and thus oncoming traffic, that they overcompensate by driving closer to the sidewalk more attentive to oncoming traffic than cyclists with whom they share a lane. My second theory is that because they're on the cyclist side of the vehicle that they're well aware of our relative positions and don't need to overcompensate as much as the driver of a right hand drive vehicle and thus overtake more closely.

Of the two I'm hoping that my second theory is the accurate one, but whichever it is, it still boils down to the fact that drivers of left hand vehicles will regularly overtake you way too close for comfort.

Having said this, in general space tolerances in Japan are a lot finer than in other countries. Cars parked within a centimeter of a wall, drivers folding in their side mirrors to allow an oncoming car to pass by, sidewalk cyclists passing within a whisker of pedestrians, being pressed bodily against someone on a train, its common place, and the fact that these fine tolerances translate to the roads keeps us cyclists on our toes.


Common Myth #23 - Tokyo is too big to get around by bicycle

Despite housing a population equivalent to that of China*, Tokyo is nowhere as large as you may imagine

The subway is evil and will quickly deceive you into thinking Tokyo is enormous. I used to ride through the dark, maze of subway tunnels oblivious to direction, distance and time to emerge in an exciting new part of the city like magic, much akin to stepping through Doraemon's magic door. I've always had a love of maps and a keen sense of direction but when I emerged from the subway I would have not an inkling of where I was in relation to my starting point. All I knew for certain was I was right where I wanted to be and that was fine by me.

While traveling underground with no point of reference with the sensation of moving really really fast you're easily deceived into thinking that the distance between stations is vast. While the truth is that in all cases within Tokyo at least the distance between two stations is easily walked.

To put it all in perspective, Tokyo measures a mere 25km from North to South and a slightly more generous 90km from East to West. It is bordered by the Arakawa River on the North, and the Tamagawa River on the South, both of which offer great cycling escapes, which I must remember to write about in the future. East of the city is Tokyo Bay, and to the West are scenic, relatively unpopulated mountains. The mountains are home to some spectacular cycling routes, but avoid cycling on the bay lest you sink.

Now lets try a mental exercise :

Armed with these dimensions, try to imagine an empty Tokyo sized space. Next, recall everything you know about what actually exists in Tokyo, Shinjuku, Tokyo Dome, convenience stores, manga cafe's, giant radioactive lizards, Mayor Ishihara, everything. Now, force all that imagined stuff into your imagined space, sprinkle it with roughly 12 million people, wipe off any overspill and wonder at your creation! Thats a small space with a whole lot of stuff in it, therefore its only logical that the distances between all the interesting points can't be all that great.

Its not until you get off the train and try walking or cycling around for a bit that you come to realize just how close everything is. For example you can take the train between Shibuya and Ebisu which will cost Y130, involve climbing numerous staircases, some waiting on the platform, and a few minutes of travel time, or you can walk it easily in under 15 minutes

Most residents, foreign and native alike, would never entertain the idea of walking the distance between two stations when there is a perfectly good train provided to do the job for them. As a result they have a skewed idea of the true distance between places, and are living under the misconception that Tokyo is huge.

Tokyo is smaller than you think, once you discover that for yourself you'll want to cycle everywhere.

*you may wish to check my numbers on that.