Top Gear Dad’s Opinions on Cycling

And how they’re killing us.

Everyone knows Top Gear Dad. He lives among us. You can’t identify Top Gear Dad by skin colour or religion. He could be 70 or 27 or anywhere in between. Top Gear Dad could be rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin. He could be a builder, a baker, an I.T. consultant or a regional marketing and sales executive. Top Gear Dad is almost always a man but not always a dad. In fact, often the most serious Top Gear Dad is your dad’s single friend who spends the money he’s saving by not having kids on his car and on Panini football sticker albums. Top Gear Dad not only drives a car (or two) but considers himself a ‘motorist’. Most of all, the real unifying characteristic of Top Gear Dad is that he has some strong views on cyclists.

If after all that you feel that you don’t know any Top Gear Dads and you’re wearing jeans paired with a collar shirt right now, then this post is for you.

Note: For my international readers, Top Gear is/was a British TV show about cars. This post will focus on the laws and attitudes related to cycling in the UK, but will also be relevant in other English speaking western countries. In the phrase ‘Top Gear Dad’, I’m referring to Jeremy Clarkson era Top Gear, before he was fired having punched and verbally abused a producer for not bringing him a steak which, if I may say so, is a classic Top Gear Dad thing to do

1. Cyclists need licenses and bicycles should be registered

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This is a good one to start with because I hear it a lot and also, on the face of it, the idea seems to have some credibility. I think the first thing to note is that the role of transport authorities is to work towards a system that is safe, easy to use and good value for money and not to play a game of tit for tat where prizes and punishments are awarded based on who complains loudest. There is a cost to benefit equation for licensing any type of vehicle where the personal inconvenience for operators, the allocation of government resources for testing and administration and the monetary expense for all parties must be weighed against safety and accountability.

At some point in the past the UK government decided that to operate a motor vehicle, you would have to pass a standardized test. For over a hundred years, transport authorities have had the opportunity to impose similar restrictions on bicycles but they haven’t. There have been many changes made to the testing and licensing process for drivers over time but at no point were bicycles included. Why? Successive authorities have decided that there is a significant difference between driving a large metal box weighing 2 tonnes, capable of speeds well over 100 mph and riding a self-propelled compact vehicle weighing less than 20 kg (1% of a car’s weight) capable of 25 mph with good legs on a flat road. In fact, there are multiple categories of drivers’ license and some are harder to obtain than others. You can ride a 50cc moped at 16 with minimal training but you’ll have to take a far more comprehensive test to drive a heavy vehicle like a bus or a lorry.

For cycling, the slim benefits of licensing cyclists would be hugely outweighed by the costs, not only financial but to public health, the environment and to public safety. Let’s remember that a driver with a license is still far more likely to cause an accident involving serious injury or death on the road than a cyclist without one, and the more barriers we put up to put people off cycling, the more likely it is they will drive instead, reducing road safety in the process.

Incidentally, I now live in one of the few countries in the world in which bikes are routinely registered under the rider’s details with the local authority. It may have some advantages if your bike is lost or stolen, but it doesn’t help much with accountability in accidents. Try reading a registration number printed on a sticker the size of two postage stamps as the rider flees the scene.

2. Bikes are for kids

kids-bike.jpgYou may think that this opinion seems to be directly contradicting number 1 and you’d be right, but that’s okay. Top Gear Dad has built his life around not having his assumptions challenged, so contradictions are to be expected. Back when I was working in a bike shop I often met dads who were determined to get their kids cycling as early as possible, but who would never consider cycling themselves as an adult, least of all for transportation. I find it interesting that a bike can be simultaneously seen by a single person as a toy in the hands of a child but as a dangerous vehicle requiring strict licensing and registration in the hands of an adult.

Bicycles arose in the late 1800’s as a means of transport. The bike industry only turned to producing children’s bikes to plug the shortfall when automobiles started to become popular in the 1950’s (you can read more about it here). That’s over 50 years in which the idea of a children’s bike was just a frivolous novelty reserved only for the eccentric upper classes while adult bicycles dominated the roads across all levels of society.

I think the real tragedy is that after seeing the success of kids’ bikes, the industry responded by making adult bikes into toys too. The boom of the cheap mountain bike to be ridden once or twice at Center Parks and then forgotten about came at the expense of sensible bikes for transportation. Only now is the industry finally starting to rediscover the potential for bikes in the transportation sector with an uptick in production of e-bikes and commuter hybrids. Even so, many people in the UK and in other western countries are still reluctant to buy a bike with a basket, and Top Gear Dad is at least partially responsible for this.

3. Bicycle helmets should be compulsory by law

mail cyclistThis one isn’t only coming from the Top Gear Dads but also from some outspoken members of the cycling community. To make it clear, I don’t have a problem with people choosing to wear helmets while riding a bike. I wear a helmet if I’m in a road race or if I’m doing some kind of bike related sport like bike polo and I respect people who choose to wear a helmet for ordinary road cycling. What’s dangerous is the idea that bike helmets must be worn by everyone on a bike and that there should be fines and penalties to enforce this.

The safety benefits of helmets for individuals are debated, but even if we take it that there is a minimal safety advantage to wearing a helmet, this benefit does not seem to translate to the population as a whole when helmet laws are implemented. In fact, in places where this has happened, cyclists are more at risk of injury than they are in places that have no such laws, or than they were in those same places before the laws were implemented. This is because mandatory helmet laws consistently and reliably reduce the number of cyclists on the road and reducing the number of cyclists on the road consistently and reliably reduces the safety of remaining cyclists. What’s more, some research suggests that wearing a helmet can increase risk taking activity and also that drivers tend to pass helmet wearing cyclists more closely than cyclists without helmets. Read this from Cycling UK for more info on the issue.

Even though helmet laws haven’t been enacted in the UK, the kind of attitudes that lead Top Gear Dads and others to shame cyclists who don’t wear helmets and blame them for any accident that they might be involved in regardless of established culpability has the effect of scaring the shit out of people who might otherwise want to take up cycling. Focusing on helmets makes cycling of any kind seem like a dangerous adventure sport that will only appeal to risk takers when in fact, according to the statistics, the fatality rate per km traveled by bike is slightly lower than for walking. Surprisingly, not many Top Gear Dads are seen wearing helmets while walking around on the streets, where they would be arguably as effective.

4. Cyclists should ride at the side of the road

riding posThere are two reasons that you might think that cyclists should ride as far to the side of the road as possible (on the left in the UK). The first is that you think being ‘out of the way’ is safer. The second is that you think roads are for cars and that cyclists should avoid impeding them in any way and at any cost. Top Gear Dad falls into the second category but both assumptions are equally mistaken.

Bikeability (Cycling Proficiency) in the UK teaches the primary and secondary riding positions. In the primary position the cyclist ‘takes the lane’, riding in the centre of the lane to deter passing. This should be adopted for several reasons, including if the road is too narrow for cars to pass safely, or if it would make the cyclist more visible. Even on a road with good visibility and plenty of passing room, cyclists are encouraged to ride no less than half a metre from the curb (secondary position) or more if the edge of the road has a poor surface. This gives them some room to maneuver in a dangerous situation. The main point here is that as a driver, you don’t have a right to overtake a cyclist unless it’s safe to do so and cyclists have no obligation to make room for you to pass if it will in any way reduce their safety. The roads are for everyone.

5. Cyclists should pay ‘road tax’

tax discI’ve saved the best until last because this one is just ridiculous. In the UK there is no such thing as ‘road tax’. That tax you pay on your car each year is Vehicle Excise Duty. It’s an emissions based tax, so the lower your vehicle’s emissions, the less you’ll have to pay. Most electric cars don’t pay VED in the UK, so why would cyclists have to pay it? (read more about cycling emissions here) ‘But cyclists are using the roads’ says Top Gear Dad, ‘so why aren’t they paying for it?’ Well, they are. The majority of funding for road building is taken from general taxation, so if a cyclist is working, they’re paying for the roads just like everyone else. Despite this, the cost of building and maintaining good quality cycle paths is a tiny fraction of the cost of building and maintaining roads for use by motor traffic, so who’s getting the better end of the deal?

However you look at it, the financial benefits of encouraging cycling are enormous. According to research commissioned by the Cabinet Office:

‘The average economic benefit-to-cost ratio of investing in cycling & walking schemes is 13:1’

‘If cycle use increases from less than 2% of all journeys (current levels) to 10% by 2025 and 25% by 2050, the cumulative benefits would be worth £248bn between 2015 and 2050 for England – yielding annual benefits in 2050 worth £42bn in today’s money.’

This takes into account things like the benefits to health services, reduced spending on road infrastructure, reduction of detrimental environmental effects on agriculture and many more. So if you cycle, don’t let anyone tell you that building new cycling infrastructure is just too expensive, and if you don’t, please stop complaining that cyclists don’t pay road tax because they’re putting money in your pocket.

eggI started writing this post because I realized that for the last 3 years, living in Japan, I haven’t had to deal with Top Gear Dads on the road. It’s not that Japanese men don’t subscribe to the same kind of blinkered, macho persona that characterizes a Top Gear Dad; it’s just that they don’t tend to aim their frustrations towards cyclists. Anyone could be riding a bike in Japan. To a Japanese driver, a cyclist could be their mother or colleague, their child or their partner. There are bad drivers and bad cyclists and there are accidents on the road, but there is no particular animosity between the two groups and that allows cyclists to feel safe.

Top Gear Dad is both arrogantly cocksure, laughing in the face of ‘political correctness’ and also shatteringly fragile, sensitive to the tiniest of perceived injustices. He’s insecure, and he’s passing that insecurity down to the next generation along with the toxic masculinity he uses to cover it up. He sees the roads as a battle ground where the relationship between cyclist and motorist is deeply tribal, and like a battle ground, this tribalism costs lives. Thousands of cyclists are killed or seriously injured in road accidents every year in the UK and the attitude of motorists is key to making the roads a safe place. What’s more, that attitude is preventing others from cycling. In a world where sedentary lifestyles are killing as many people as smoking, and where our reliance on fossil fuels is trashing the planet, that’s a real tragedy.

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A Guide to Getting a Bike in Japan

‘Japan is a country of many bicycles and few cyclists’

If this isn’t a quote already then it should be. The most common bicycle in Japan is the mamachari: A type of short-distance utility bike for shopping, riding to and from the station, ferrying kids around etc. These bikes are great in their own context (see this post), but not great at other things that you might want a bicycle to do. Getting a mamachari in Japan can be easier than getting a haircut, and sometimes cheaper, but if you want a ‘sport bike’, then you might have to try a bit harder and read the rest of this guide.

What is a ‘Sport Bike’?

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I’m using the term ‘sport bike’ as shorthand for any bike designed for a specific discipline or purpose in cycling where good performance might be desirable. In the home centers of Japan it’s possible to find a whole host of ‘stylish’ (debatable) alternatives to the mamachari that aren’t really built for higher performance than a shopping bike but are often less functional. These bikes are sometimes harder to distinguish from my loose definition of ‘sport bike’, so watch out.

Anyhow, this post isn’t called ‘Choose the Right Bike for You!’ There’s plenty of information out there in the wide blue yonder of the web to help you do that. My point is that if your needs are simple, short distance and transportational then this post won’t help you much, just buy a mamachari and enjoy.

I decided to break this guide into two seperate posts. The first weighs the benefits of bringing a bike to Japan vs. buying one when you get here. It also gives some tips on transporting your bike as painlessly as possible and on where and what to look for when buying a new bike in Japan. The second post is a detailed look at the different ways to get a used bike in Japan, including some sources that you might not expect. I’ve managed to build up a fair amount of experience in used bike hunting since getting here and seeing as information about the subject seems to be pretty thin online, I’ve decided to share.

Should I Bring my Bike to Japan? – Transportation or Consumption

Buying a Used Bike in Japan – The Third Way

Remember, it may not always be easy, but cycling in Japan is most definitely worth it.

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Should I Bring my Bike to Japan?

Transportation or Consumption?

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Choosing weather or not to bring your bike with you is generally a matter of weighing up inconveniences. Everyone’s situation is different but here are some questions to consider:

Do you need a new bike anyway?

If you don’t have a bike that suits your purposes right now and you’ve been thinking about getting a new one anyway then in most cases you’re better off waiting until you get to Japan. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule that I’ll explore throughout this post, so keep reading.

Are you tall?

Being over 6 foot can sometimes make it harder to find a bike in Japan, particularly used ones. This was a big problem for me.

How hard/expensive will it be to get my bike to and from the airport in Japan?

If you’re going to be living in the same city that you fly into and you’re not bringing much other luggage then the inconvenience might be pretty minimal, but if you’re going to the countryside and you’re also bringing the kitchen sink then the expense and hassle might not be worth it. Research prices from package delivery companies like Yamato Transport (kuroneko) beforehand. Most companies have counters at Japanese airports for sending on extra luggage.

Is your discipline of cycling popular in Japan?

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Road cycling is very popular in Japan but mountain biking is less popular than in many English speaking western countries. There’s a big track cycling tradition, particularly for steel-frame track bikes, but BMX in Japan is not as developed as in the US. What I’m saying is, if you’re into a popular discipline, you’ll find it much easier to find what you want in Japan either new or used. The more niche your discipline, the harder it’ll be to find the bike that you want.

1st Way – Bringing a bike from your home country

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Bringing your current bike is a good idea if A: You have the bike you want already and B: You or someone you know will be travelling to Japan soon.

It’s often easier than you might expect to bring a bike on a plane. First, make sure you pack the bike properly. Go to a bike shop and ask for one of the big cardboard boxes that new bikes come in. Only a real arsehole shop assistant will refuse to give you one for free. Sometimes they might ask you to come back later if they just got rid of a load. Get some bubble wrap and packing materials and follow a youtube tutorial on how to pack a bike for transit. You’ll have to take a few bits off the frame (pedals, front wheel, handlebars, seatpost) but in most cases this won’t require more than the basic skill of turning a spanner in the right direction (hint: one of the pedals unscrews in the wrong direction. Look it up).

Many long-haul airlines travelling to Japan will allow 2 items in your luggage allowance and some will accept bikes as checked baggage with no extra charge. Otherwise you’ll have to pay a fee, which can vary by airline but will almost always be cheaper than shipping the bike by post.

2nd Way – Buying new in Japan

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Buying a new bike in Japan is a good idea if you don’t have the bike you want right now and you’re not into a really niche discipline.

If your needs are very specific then check to see what’s available before you travel and be prepared to do research on brands that are different from the ones most commonly available in your home country. Some Japanese or other Asian brands might well be cheaper in Japan and of comparable quality to what you’re used to.

If you’re not confident in choosing a bike then remember the potential language barrier you’ll face when talking to shop assistants and factor that in. Location, of course, also affects the likelihood of you finding an appropriate bike shop for your needs. There are hundreds of dedicated specialist bike shops in Tokyo, some of which have English speaking staff, but the further from big cities you are the less likely you are to find a good shop nearby without travelling. I ride a road bike and if I need new parts quickly I tend to go to Y’s Road, a well-known chain of bike shops specializing in road cycling. Beware, however, they only do maintenance work on bikes they have sold. Many, though not all, bike shops have a similar policy.

If you’re prepared and equipped to do the final assembly of your bike yourself, then you can probably find what you want online. Many online retailers operate in Japan (Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle etc.) but don’t always offer a full range of stock. Foreign companies sometimes ship from overseas, which means you may have to pay duty on them when they arrive (which also slows them down). For domestic products, check out Rakuten and Amazon Japan

Others may disagree but I generally advise people to avoid big department stores like Yodobashi Camera or Don Qijote for buying sports bikes. They tend to stock a lot of off-brand bikes with questionable components and poor sizing options. I haven’t tested the mechanics at these centers but I’d be willing to bet that they generally don’t have the experience or knowledge of most dedicated bike shops. Large department stores have a nasty habit of shuttling their salespeople between departments when their expertise lies elsewhere.

3rd Way

Of course there is a third way: Buying a used bike in Japan. This is what I did, but this post is long enough already and buying used needs a whole post to itself.

Hindsight

I should’ve thought more carefully about bringing my bike when I moved to Japan. I’m into touring and I naively assumed that because I was moving to a country with many cyclists and with a great reputation for producing cycle components (Shimano, Sugino etc.), that I could easily pick up a decent used touring bike within a month or so of arriving.

Japan has a great touring tradition but the market is split between very traditional rando-style steel frame touring bikes and alloy ergo hybrids. Neither of which is what I look for. In reality there were several obstacles I hadn’t considered that would later make me wish that I’d brought a bike with me. I got a good bike in the end, but I definitely went the hard way.

Buying a Used Bike in Japan

The Third Way

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Getting a good deal on a used bike can be difficult no matter where you live, but there are a few extra obstacles in Japan that can make the process that little bit harder. Before I get into it though, I think I should warn you that getting a good bike that you’re happy with will likely take time, patience and some head scratching. If that doesn’t sound like you, then I’d suggest you reconsider the first two options in my previous post.

Some potential difficulties

Language barrier

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Buying a used bike often requires a little more negotiation than buying a new one. You may have simple questions that you want to ask about a bike that become very difficult if you have to ask them in Japanese. This shouldn’t stop you though, there are lots of resources to help you, particularly if you make use of technology. You can also try sourcing your bike from other English speakers, which I’ll get into later.

Limited second-hand market

You would think that in a country with so many bicycles, there would also be a thriving trade in second-hand bikes. Unfortunately, while used bikes are available, the second-hand market isn’t as robust in Japan as you might expect. Japan has a complicated relationship with re-using things. The cultural principle of “Mottainai” (not wasting things) comes up against a national obsession with hygene, overpackaging and consumerism. What this means in practice is that many Japanese people won’t consider going to a recycle shop to buy a bicycle, prefering to buy new, but there is a good chance that they’ll ride that bicycle until it falls apart from wear. If you know where to look, though, there are some good deals to be had.

Bike Registration

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All bicycles in Japan should be registered to their owners. This is a relatively simple process if you buy a bike from a shop, as they’ll do this for you. It can be more difficult if you buy directly from another person or if you buy online. There are procedures for transfering registration from one person to another but they are often complicated, outdated or unpracticable. In practice, however, many bike shops seem to know that the registration process is flawed and will often register your bike for a small fee with minimal proof that you bought it legally. I’ve tried this approach with two seperate bikes in two seperate bike shops and it worked both times without a hitch. Try to keep as much paperwork or records of sale as you can to show the shop.

Taking these difficulties into account, here’s some advice on three different ways to get a used bike in Japan:

Shops

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There are some big benefits to buying from a shop. Most importantly you know that the bike has been checked over by a professional and you get to see and potentially try out a bike before you buy it. Bring something you can leave with the owner if they seem reluctant to let you try a bike. I’ve found a residency card (zaryu/gaijin card) is usually the best bet. It’s only really valuable to you but gives the owner your details if you were to try to make away with the bike. Another benefit to buying from a shop is that they are guaranteed to register your bike for you. They may also give you a discount on any work that needs doing to the bike down the line. Unfortunately these benefits do come at a price. Second-hand shops will be more expensive than the other methods listed in this post. It’s still much cheaper than buying a new bike, though.

Second-hand shops in Japan are known as recycle shops. Most of them sell a mixture of electrical goods, clothes, furniture, nic-nacs and white goods. Some general purpose recycle shops do sell bikes, but mostly mamacharis. They also often suffer from the same issues as department stores in that the staff are generally not trained mechanics. There are also, however, a number of second-hand bike shops often run by owner operators with years of mechanical experience. Some sell only used bikes while some sell a mixture of new and used. Most of these shops are very local operations, and their stock varies a lot. The exception is Cycly, a chain of used bike stores with locations throughout Japan. The great thing about Cycly is that they list which bikes they have in which stores. Each bike has a picture and short description on their webpage. The information is in Japanese, but you can always apply google translate to the pages.

Don’t forget about those local, privately owned bike shops though. One of my favorite used bike shops in Tokyo is a place called Team C.C.Y. in Kita Ward, near where I work. The owner is very experienced and has a great, varied stock of used bikes from functional hybrids to classic steel-frame track bikes. I almost found my bike there but unfortunately most of his bikes were too small for me. It can be hard finding these shops in your local area. My most successful method so far has been to make a local search for ‘bicycle store’ in English or ‘自転車屋’ in Japanese on google maps (other mapping applications are available). This will bring up a variety of bike shops. I then search through the pictures for each shop to see if they have any used stock. Alternatively, just take a walk around your local neighborhood. Some of these bike shops aren’t on any mapping sites. Instead they trade on word of mouth and repeat custom built up over many years. If you’re lucky enough to have colleagues or friends who live in your local area, ask them if they have any recommendations.

Silver Jinzai

Silver Jinzai centers provide human resources services to older (otherwise retired) individuals. There are centers all over Japan that find various paid placements for elderly workers. It’s a government run scheme that lies somewhere between a regular job agency and a social welfare institution.

Luckily for bike hunters, one of the public services that some of the centers run is to sell-on reconditioned bicycles. The bikes are those that have been ‘abandoned’ at stations or in other public places. After a period of time without being claimed these bikes are turned over to the centers to either be fixed up or broken up for parts. Often they are bikes that were parked outside of designated areas and were seized by the local authority. The fines for recovering these bikes can be quite high (¥1000-¥6000) and so many people choose not to pay and simply get another bike instead.

The centers sell these bikes at a hefty discount when compared to used bike shops and recycle shops. Generally the prices are set at various tiers depending on which basic components the bike has. For example, these prices are taken from the well-known Suginami Green Cycle scheme:

¥6,700: General bicycle (basic mamachari)

¥7,700: With a dynamo light

¥8,200: With additional gears

¥9,300: Dynamo light and gears

¥10,300 ~¥13,400: Cross (hybrid) bike etc.

Other centers have similar tiers but prices can vary. As you might expect, most of the bikes tend to be low value shopping bikes. After all, if your expensive road bike were seized by the local authority you probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay a few thousand yen to get it back. Sometimes, however, the centers will turn up surprisingly nice bikes from mid-range hybrids to older single discipline bikes that may have been abandoned due to mechanical faults or missing parts. If you want a real high-performance bike then the Silver Jinzai center is probably not the place to go but if your aspirations are more recreational than sporting then you may well get lucky with a bit of patience.

As with shops, you get to see (and usually straddle) the bikes before buying. They’ll also register the bike at the center, usually free of charge. Don’t expect a test ride though, it’s a fast process and there’s often competition. Some centers settle multiple claims on the same bike by janken (rock paper scissors).

The centers often only open for a few days every month or sometimes one day a week. The system is designed to sell off as many bikes as possible in a short time so go as early on as you can. I tried to visit Suginami Green Cycle when I first arrived in Japan near the end of the second day of sales for that month. They had just begun turning people away because all of the bikes had been sold.

NOTE: I realized in researching this section that there is very little good information in English available on the internet about Silver Jinzai bicycles. Searching in Japanese revealed dozens of centers that offer the service but only a couple in Tokyo have been written about in English. I’ve decided to write a guide to Silver Jinzai in the near future which I’ll post separately, so watch this space for a link.

For now, I’ll just include this link, which details in Japanese which centers in each part of the country have bicycle related services (note that some of these centers do not sell reconditioned bicycles, but instead offer bicycle repair services)

Online

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Ah, the internet, the wild west of used bike trading. If you’ve ever bought a used bike online before then you’ll likely already know about the potential pitfalls. It can be difficult enough resolving disputes over online auctions in your native language, and it certainly won’t be any easier for you in Japan unless your Japanese language skills are really on point. In general, there are two roads to go down for foreigners looking for bikes online in Japan.

The fist way is to source your bike from the English speaking community. This may sound like limiting your pool a little too much but if you live in a major city like Tokyo there are going to be plenty of foreigners around. Besides, other than sidestepping the language barrier, there are several other advantages to finding a bike this way. Firstly, many foreigners in Japan stay for a limited time only. An English teacher like me will often stay for 2 to 5 years or so before selling up and moving on. That also means that they’ll have a whole load of stuff that they’ve accumulated in Japan and need to get rid of quickly, a great recipe for a bargain. If the owner is selling because they’re moving away, that’s also a good omen for the condition of the bike, making it less likely that they’re unloading it because of a mechanical issue or excessive wear. Secondly, in my experience, foreigners are more likely to be riding sports bikes in Japan than the Japanese, so you likely won’t have as many mamacharis to sift through to find what you want. If you’re taller than the Japanese average then you might also have more luck searching English listings.

Check out Sayounara Sale, Tokyo Craigslist and Gaijinpot Classifieds. I also personally recommend looking at the classifieds on the Tokyo Cycling Club forum. Members don’t post whole bikes in the classifieds quite as regularly as on the other sites I’ve listed but the quality tends to be high and for reasonable prices.

So all that leaves are the Japanese online auction sites. Ebay never got much of a foothold in Japan. Instead, Yahoo Auctions is the site to go to. Despite the many benefits of using other methods to get yourself a used bike, online auctions still offer the greatest choice, if not the easiest buying experience.

Hindsight

After exhausting other options I bought my road bike from Yahoo Auctions. The whole process was in Japanese and at the time my Japanese language skills were effectively zero. I managed to get a great bike through a combination of google translate, careful scrutiny of pictures, research and blind luck. It’s possible to look for listings of bikes in your local area that are available for collection, which may eliminate some of the chance element associated with online shopping. I had my bike sent to me by courier, and was able to pay the courier in cash not only for delivery but also for the bike itself. It’s a classic steel frame bike with a horizontal crossbar which made me confident that the sizing was correct for me. The listing itself was detailed, including a list of most major components and an appraisal of damages and wear.

Generally I wouldn’t advise buying blind in the way I did unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and have all the information you need. Even then I was very relieved when my bike turned up as described in good working order. The seller even threw in a cheap foldable maintenance stand for free!

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Are Cyclists Destroying the Planet?

Or how to be an eco-hypocrite

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The bicycle is the chariot of the eco-warrior. A two wheeled, lightweight, zero-emission middle finger to the gas guzzling elite. For those of you who don’t ride, let me tell you, the feeling of moral superiority we cyclists feel as we effortlessly pass a grumbling traffic jam of SUVs and articulated lorries is on a level of pleasure far higher and purer than that of tantric orgasm. Surely it’s impossible for such a champion of egalitarian free movement to leave even the faintest of carbon footprints. It seems far more likely that trees and shrubs spontaneously burst from the ground in the wake of a bicycle’s rear tyre (perhaps cast off from a pouch of nuts and seeds being guzzled by the rider).

Nevertheless, based on extensive personal experience, I’ve gathered here some excellent advice on how to be a cycling eco-hypocrite. Most of the measurements for eco-hypocrisy in this post will be made in terms of carbon-footprint, which doesn’t tell the full story. Rest assured, however, that all of the practices described here have other significant negative effects on the environment that haven’t been mentioned.

1. Buy New

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I first decided to write this post when I received a notice in the post from the Japanese Customs Bureau. A while ago I had some problems with one of my bikes and I decided there were several things that needed replacement, like the wheels, and then figured that the drivetrain was getting worn too, and you might as well do both at the same time, and if you’re replacing the drivetrain and the wheels then you might as well also update the shifting system too, and of course there are a few tools which you’ll need to get.

In the end I ordered quite a lot of stuff from the Japanese website of an online retailer of cycling equipment that I’ve used before in the UK. The prices seemed more-or-less the same as the market-rate in Japan, and I trusted the site. Unfortunately it seems they were all shipped from the UK, hence the customs notice. Most of the parts were made by Shimano, a Japanese brand, probably in one of their factories in Malaysia or China, meaning they have travelled at least 20,000km to be here. Since I may now have to pay unexpected duty on them, I could choose to cancel the order, effectively sending them back to the UK and adding another 10,000km to their ongoing journey.

This article estimates that you only have to cycle about 645km on an average new bike to equalize it’s initial carbon cost with driving the same distance, but I suspect I’ll have to ride significantly further on my new parts to pay off their hefty carbon travel bill.

A cyclist who values the planet would have replaced only the parts that were strictly necessary and sourced them second-hand from within the country… Whooops!

2. Fuel Your Ride with Asparagus

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When people describe bicycles as a zero-emission form of transport, they’re only telling a half-truth. Bicycles are zero-emission to the same extent that a motorboat is zero-emission if it has an outboard motor that you don’t consider part of the boat.

A bicycle has an engine that will stop working if it doesn’t receive any fuel. Not only do our bodies constantly emit carbon-dioxide, they also emit more CO2 when we’re exercising, for example by powering a bicycle. More than this, the fuel we use (i.e. food) carries a significant carbon cost before we even consume it. This cost depends greatly on what sort of food it is: The calorific content, how it’s produced, how far it travels before reaching us and by what mode of transport.

If you get your energy from air-freighted asparagus (it’s always air-freighted unless it’s currently in season in your country because of a short shelf-life) then cycling a mile will produce a carbon cost the same as driving a mile in a car that does 39 litres per 100km (6 miles to the gallon). Meat also carries a high carbon cost, due largely to the amount of water and grazing materials it requires.

An eco-friendly cyclist will be eating a lot of bananas, which have a great calorie-to-carbon ratio as they are sun-ripened and can be transported carbon-efficiently by boat. The eco-cyclist will also likely be vegan and eat fruit and vegetables only when they are in season. For more details on this, read this article, which is where I got my data from:

3. Ride for Fun

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Following on from the last point, we’re assuming that a car journey is directly comparable to a journey by bike, but that only really applies if you’re travelling for a purpose, say, commuting to work. While some people drive cars for fun (remember the steak eating, banana hating elite), most people do it because they have to. Not so with cycling. The world is full of people riding around, expending energy, farting methane and consuming valuable resources simply for the giddying thrill of feeling the wind in their hair.

The problem only gets worse when you start cycling for sport. The useful life of high-end racing and mountain bikes is much, much shorter than that of a beaten-up old shopping bike. To use just one example, a carbon framed bike under frequent use will develop stress fractures over the course of just a few years as the result of ordinary riding, even without a major event like a crash or a bad bump to speed up the process. Steel framed bikes, on the other hand, can last as long as their riders, even with some pretty heavy wear and tear, but anyone involved in any kind of serious road racing is using a carbon frame.

There are other considerations too. I recently signed up for a hill-climb race in a neighboring prefecture. It’s about 125km from where I live and I’ll want to save my legs for the race, so I’ll be getting the train there and probably back as well. A real eco-cyclist would stay at home and try to move as little as possible.

4. Own More than One Bike

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I’m really blazing a trail with this one. Not only do I have two bikes in Japan (one for business, one for pleasure), I also have two more in the UK doing nothing more than sitting in a shed. They were all bought secondhand, which somewhat ameliorates the shame of such a bourgeois display of excess, but nevertheless they are certainly not repaying any of their considerable carbon manufacturing cost by gathering dust. I did try to convince a friend in London to take one of them and “for god’s sake, ride it while I’m gone”, but he was too worried it would break or be stolen; despite my insistence that that was okay (I would have been furious).

Ideally we would all share bikes, one to a family, as in the days of yore, or perhaps as part of a well-run bike-share scheme, but I’ve just never managed to really love a Boris-bike the same way as I do a bike of my own.

5. Live in Japan

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Air travel is a nightmare for the environment. If I travel to and from the UK just once a year (which I do) then I’m responsible for creating at least 1.61 metric tons of CO2 per-annum. That’s the equivalent of driving 12,000km in a small car, or 46km a day, 5 days a week, and that doesn’t even include the other negative ‘multiplier effects’ of air travel besides direct CO2 output (I used this handy calcualator).

An eco-cyclist would have travelled to Japan on an old steel shopping bike powered by bananas.

Conclusion

This post is reductive and facetious in places. I’d like to note at the end that cycling is still a far more eco-friendly alternative in most situations to other forms of transport. I haven’t talked about the health benefits of regular cycling that take the strain off of health services or the positive social impact that fewer cars on the road can bring.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that while riding a bike may be used as a talisman of eco-awareness, being a cyclist doesn’t mean you’re saving the world. It’s easy sometimes to embrace the symbols of change without really contributing to that change in a meaningful way. Based on the list above I have a long way to go before I can say I didn’t just stand by and watch the world burn.

Photo credits for this post go to Denica Shute for taking the picture of me smiling like a moron (check out her blog here), my dad for snapping the inside of our bike shed in the UK and a man I bumped into along the Arakawa for the photo of me throwing a peace sign.

Keirin

Don’t google ‘Tokyo’s best kept secret’ because, let me tell you: If you’ve ever been to Golden Gai on a Friday night you’ll know straight away it’s not a secret to anyone. ¥2000 seating charges are a dead giveaway. The best kept secret is never a cool, quirky place that the locals want to keep to themselves. Usually it’s something that the locals would really prefer didn’t exist at all.

If you’ve followed the Olympics in recent years you may have heard of keirin before. It’s that cycling event where a funny looking electric motorbike paces the track cyclists for a few laps before peeling off to let them race. The word‘keirin’ (競輪/ケイリン) means ‘racing wheels’ in Japanese and while keirin at the Olympics is fairly new, it’s been around in Japan since 1948. The original Japanese version is a little different though.

Keirin old 2On the surface there are only minor differences. The riders are paced by another bicycle instead of an electric motorbike and instead of team jerseys; they all wear bright block colours with big black numbers clearly visible to the stands. The events take place outside on tarmac velodromes instead of the indoor wooden ones they use for pro track cycling. Essentially, though, the format is the same. The real difference is in who’s watching and why.

 

Keirin split

One of the things that the world loves about Japanese sports fans is how polite and conscientious they are. Supporters of Japan’s national football team are known to leave stadiums cleaner than they found them. I’ve been to both football matches and baseball games in Japan and the atmosphere is fantastic. Everyone has fun, the energy is high but never aggressive and at the end of the game, both sets of fans exit through the same gates. They talk, slap each other’s backs, celebrate, commiserate and get the train home. I’d recommend it to anyone.

But… you won’t find those sports fans at the keirin track. To be honest, you probably won’t find any sports fans there at all. That’s because keirin is all about gambling.

The reputation of gamblers in Japan is about as bad as it gets. This is a country where men will hang around by the magazine stands in convenience stores openly reading pornography, and yet the neon-glowing glass fronts of pachinko parlors are always frosted over to protect the identities of the wretched souls inside (pachinko is like a cross between pinball and slot machines).

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Gambling is actually illegal in Japan except for four special sports (pachinko gets away with it using a legal loophole). Those sports are Horse Racing, Motorcycle Racing, Power Boat Racing and, you guessed it, Track Cycling. These exceptions were introduced after World War II as a controversial way to generate revenue for reconstruction work. They’ve continued ever since as a stain on Japanese culture that makes too much money to be shut down but that upstanding citizens prefer to ignore. This may sound like an exaggeration but the next time you visit Tokyo, try asking at the front desk of your hotel where the nearest keirin track is and prepare to be met with a look of embarrassment and terror on the face of the desk clerk. Based on conversations I’ve had with Japanese friends and colleagues, keirin has a similar reputation to dog racing in the UK, only that the negative social stigma is more extreme.

When you go to the keirin track, don’t expect to see dedicated cycling fans, instead expect the company of old men chain-smoking and clutching betting slips. A lot of the punters don’t even go outside to the track for the races, preferring to watch the monitors near the betting stations. The races are also livestreamed online, so for less important races the stands can be almost empty with gamblers preferring to lose money in the comfort of their own homes.

How to Make Keirin a Great Day Out

You might think keirin is starting to sound a little bleak and you’re wondering why anyone would want to see it. In many ways, I can’t disagree, but with the right attitude you can actually have a great day out at the track. Here’s how:

1. Find an Event

Velodrome map

There are no velodromes in central Tokyo, but there are eight in the wider Tokyo area and neighboring prefectures that are pretty accessible. Only some of the velodromes have spotlights for evening and nighttime events. My advice would be to figure out which tracks are the easiest and cheapest for you to get to and then look up what events are happening there soon. There are different grades of events from FII to GP, so the higher grade events will usually be a bit busier, with more trackside businesses open and sometimes entertainment in the intervals between races. The event listing should also say if there are women’s races, somewhat patronisingly referred to as ‘Girls Keirin’ (カールズケイリン). Below are some links to general information about keirin (in English) and the event schedules (In Japanese).

keirin.jp/pc/static/beginner/en/abcs/index.html

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2. Call Up Some Friends

There isn’t much of a community atmosphere at the track, and there are fairly long gaps between races. It’s best to bring someone along to have a lazy chat with when there are no riders on the asphalt.

3. Get a Six Pack

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I’ve found it hard to find any official rules on bringing alcohol into the stadium for keirin. What I can say for sure is that they don’t generally check bags on the way in and you can freely buy alcohol in cans from vending machines inside. I’d recommend grabbing a few beers or your favourite one-cup sake in the combini beforehand. Just remember to throw your cans away responsibly or take them with you.

4. Pay Pocket-Change to Get In

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It really does cost almost nothing. The Keiokaku velodrome costs only ¥50 to get in. The highest basic entrance fee I’ve seen is ¥300. You can pay extra for box seats or special betting rooms but the trackside experience is more fun anyway. The reason it costs so little? Gambling! They easily make the running costs back from betting profits, so the low entry fees are to encourage as many people through the gates as possible.

5. Get Some Cheap Food

The food at the tracks tends to be very inexpensive and sometimes of a surprisingly high quality. I recently bought a curry rice set that included miso soup and salad for just ¥500. There’s plenty of time between races for a sit down meal, so you don’t have to eat out of polystyrene containers if you don’t want to.

6. Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy

Putting gambling aside, the races themselves are really fun to watch. There’s more jostling in Japanese keirin than in normal track racing and most of the riders wear padding to compensate. About a quarter of races involve some kind of crash. If you’re into strategy, cycling is far more tactical than other gambling sports like dog racing. The riders usually draft in loose teams according to various factors including region, training location and seniority. There are significant differences between riders’ styles and current form. You don’t need to know these things to enjoy a day at the track, but for cycling enthusiasts, keirin has a lot to offer as a spectator sport.

7. Lose Some Money (optional)

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You can have a great time at the keirin track spending no more than the entrance fee, but for those who have aspirations of one day living alone in a single room apartment strewn with failed betting slips and lottery tickets, you can bet as little as ¥100 on each slip to get started. There are several different types of bet you can make and they’re explained here:

http://keirin.jp/pc/static/beginner/en/betting/index.html

It might be your last chance to see keirin in its current form. I have a suspicion that before long, the sport is going to change completely. Track cycling has seen a surge in popularity over the last few years and when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics hit, tourists will swarm into the city, and all those avid cycling fans will want to visit the cradle of keirin. Tokyo has hosted the Olympics before and has a history of bulldozing even the most historic sites to make way for infrastructure or to ‘clean up’ undesirable locations. Keirin may well be Tokyo’s best kept secret, and they’ll want to keep it that way.

One Coin Meals for Hungry Travellers

You know what really sucks?

…yes, gels!

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The moment you have to stop describing something as food, and start describing it as an ‘energy delivery system’ is also the moment you should take a breath and consider if you’re ever going to have a professional sporting career. If the answer is no, then keep reading.

When I’m cycling in Kanto and it gets to around 11:30am, I stop looking at the scenery and start looking for food.

Like most people, I don’t really like acronyms, but also like most people, if I think of an acronym I find it hard not to share it. Let me introduce you to the three Fs: Fast, Filling and Fucking tasty (‘Flavoursome’ if you must censor everything). Imagine a dream world in which you can buy a delicious meal like that for just one coin.

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¥500 is the highest value coin available in Japan. It’s worth about £3.50 or $4.60. In this list I’m going to give you my top 5 meals for under ¥500, including tax. As examples, I’ve chosen from restaurant chains with recognizable signage and good coverage at least in the Kanto region and in most cases throughout Japan.

Gyudon, Yoshinoya

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Standard gyudon and kimchi, ¥480

Gyudon (牛丼) means ‘beef bowl’, and gyudon chains are some of the most visible and best known places for cheap food in Japan. You get a bowl of rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onions, flavoured with dashi (soup stock), soy sauce and mirin (rice vinegar). It’s so cheap that I could also afford a side of kimchi (Korean spicy fermented cabbage) for under ¥500. If the kimchi doesn’t appeal, you can get a salad instead for the same price. Other well-known gyudon chains include Matsuya and Sukiya.

Ramen, Korakuen

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Miso ramen, ¥421

You can usually find ramen shops even in Japan’s smallest villages. I’ve chosen Korakuen because it’s a popular chain with plenty of restaurants, but truth be told almost any ramen shop should guarantee you a tasty meal at an affordable price. Just look for ‘ラーメン’ or ‘らーめん’ and you can’t go too far wrong. Ramen consists of wheat noodles in some kind of broth with various toppings. Popular broths include soy, miso, pork bone and salt. In the photo you can see a bowl of miso ramen topped with sliced pork, nori (seaweed), negi (Japanese leeks) and narukomaki (the little pink and white disc, tastes like a crab stick). Also check out Ichiran.

Tempura, Tenya

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Standard tendon, ¥500

The only sad thing about Tenya is that there isn’t one closer to my flat. The picture shows tendon (天丼) meaning ‘tempura bowl’. Of all the ¥500 meals on this list, I think this is my favourite. Some tempura restaurants can be quite expensive but Tenya is a notable exception. The picture shows their basic tendon, a bowl of rice topped with a selection of fish and vegetables in tempura batter. All tendon come with a bowl of miso soup and unlimited mugicha (brown rice tea), cold in summer and hot in winter. They also do a great vegetable tendon which I think is vegetarian, although they probably use the same oil to fry both fish and vegetables.

Pasta, Saizeriya

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Spaghetti Amatriciana with a soft boiled egg (buried under the parmesan), ¥468

Italian food is really popular in Japan, so much so that there are a whole host of Japanized Italian dishes available that the Italians have never heard of (Check out ‘doria’ as an example). Tokyo has some really swanky Italian restaurants, but if you want the bottom rung in terms of price, you have to go to Saizeriya. There are quite a few types of pasta to choose from, as well as pizza and other dishes for under ¥500. Also look at Jolly Pasta and Gusto.

Curry Rice, CoCo Ichibanya

IMG_0161Pork curry rice, ¥463

If you’re expecting anything like an Indian curry then prepare to be confused. Like the UK, Japan has taken curry and molded it into a dish that satisfies the tastes of its people. Unlike in the UK, you’re unlikely to find Japanese style curry alongside more traditional curries in an Indian restaurant. The two styles have made an almost clean split, so much so that curry rice (カレーライス) is (rightly or wrongly) considered a Japanese dish. I’ve chosen CoCo Ichibanya for this one. They have an almost dizzying number of variations you can choose from for a dish which is essentially always a thick brown soup with rice, and they also offer free fukujinzuke (sweet pickles). Don’t confuse it with CoCo’s, a fairly expensive family restaurant. The sign for CoCo Ichibanya will usually say ‘Curry House’ in English, so it’s not too hard telling them apart. Also try GoGo Curry (it has a gorilla on the sign) and C&C. Gyudon places also usually sell curry rice too, and often their prices are even cheaper. Japan also has a lot of independent Indian and Nepalese restaurants with reasonably priced and delicious lunch sets (with enormous nan).

There you have it. Five cheap meals to fill your guts. I can say for sure that I’m a fatter cyclist than ever since I moved to Japan, but that’s not the end of it. Here are a few more things that nearly made the list:

Soba or Udon Noodles: There are a lot of places where you can buy cheap soba or udon noodles in Japan, often with tempura, but I found it hard to think of a well-known chain restaurant that fits the bill.

Katsudon (pork cutlet bowl): It’s difficult to find katsudon for under ¥500, even Katsuya, a well-known cheap Tonkatsu chain, will charge you just over.

Sushi: Even at the cheapest roller sushi places, you can’t get enough sushi for under ¥500, but you can get pretty close.

Burgers: I left out all of the fast food burger places like Mos Burger, McDonalds, Freshness Burger etc. because burgers are pretty expensive in Japan and there are some far more interesting options out there.

So if I’ve learned anything from making this list, it’s that if you want a cheap meal in Japan, it almost certainly comes in a bowl.

Safe journey hungry traveller