Problems taking my bicycle to Japan?
July 29, 2005 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Jitensha-Filter: I fantasize about moving to Japan to teach English, when I retire from my computer career. To achieve this end, I've earned my TESL certificate, but so far, I'm just a repeat tourist with lots of Nihon travel experience -- but always on foot. Part of the fantasy involves riding a bicycle over there -- and not one of their clunky no-speeds, but my bicycle. What's involved when a gaijin brings in his bicycle? I'm guessing it's not as easy as retrieving it from checked luggage at Narita, and riding away -- knowing the Japanese, there's regulations to be satisified, in an approved manner.

And would there be special 'rules of the road' cyclists must follow? Maybe irritating low speed limits, like with automobile traffic on their highways? From what I've heard, certain Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have odd notions about bicycles -- some don't trust the brakes, strange as this may sound, and are more comfortable riding so slowly that they can stop with their feet (I knew an exchange student from the Chinese mainland who rode like this.) The Japanese SAQ claims their bikes (or at least those of children) always have low seats for 'safety' (ie, in order to stop this way, like the student I knew). Anybody have relevant experiences to share? Arigato gozaimasu.
posted by Rash to Travel & Transportation around Japan (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I am a seasoned ex-proffesional bike mechanic.

I was in Japan for a month two years ago. I bought a unique-to-Japan commuter bicycle in Hiroshima, and brought it back to the States. It was an absolutely wonderful bike until it was stolen a month ago. The theif thought it unique, as nobody imports them. The only bike like it that was ever available in America is the Folding Twenty. Also the Swift.

I wouldn't bring your bike to Japan. Buy one there. 25000 Yen for a very nice Three Speed commuter with full fenders and drum brakes.

Japanese commuting bikes have really short seatposts. The bike geometry is also usually made for maximum standover height. It makes it easy to put a foot down while seated, and makes it absolutely impossible to pedal efficiently.

The longest seatposts commercially available are ~40cm. I'd buy one in a diameter of 25.4mm (1 inch) before you go, and take it with you. That'll fix it for all but the tallest people (6ft+) on the smallest monkey bikes. You might also bring a seat that you're comfortable with already.

As for rules of the road, just don't ride aggressively. You don't have to. Follow traffic, stop at lights, don't weave through traffic too much, don't ride on the sidewalk. You can get ticketed by a white-gloved cop when bicycling. I have a picture of a kid being ticketed somewhere...
posted by blasdelf at 11:30 PM on July 29, 2005

I lived in Osaka for three years, and saw very few "Western" style bikes, they were all of the kind Mr. blasdelf describes- think granny bikes.

Although you could take your bike, I agree that you should buy a Japanese style bike over there. They are designed with everyday transportation in mind:

1. Big baskets for carrying your sacks of groceries.
2. Big fenders, as you will be riding in the rain.
3. Low centre of gravity, therefore easy to ride home drunk

You don't need a mountain bike or street bike, as you will be going slow, riding on the sidewalks, and taking short trips from your apaato to the train station - (and vicey-versey).
posted by Dag Maggot at 11:52 PM on July 29, 2005

A kid getting ticketed for a traffic infraction on his bicycle.
Here's someone getting a ticket/stern lecture for a traffic infraction on a bike, from a bike cop.

This is how bikes are locked in Japan. At the wheel.
This is how bikes are locked in Japan. At the wheel. People park their bikes in massive racks outside train stations, but the bikes aren't locked to the rack, but to themselves, if at all.

Another Common Bike in Japan. I bought one like this.
This is the kind of bike I bought in Japan. It was very nice. Notice where the kickstand is, at the back wheel. It doesn't get in the way, and actually supports the bike. What a concept. 20" Wheels, like a BMX.

Common Bike In Japan
A 26"-Wheeled version of the above. Even more common.

The design, generally only found in Japan, originates in the Bridgestone Blouson. My father bought a Blouson off of eBay several years ago at my suggestion.
posted by blasdelf at 11:57 PM on July 29, 2005

blasdelf: Is there a lot of bike theft in Japan? Seems like it would be trivial to drive around in a van and just take those lightweight, not-locked-to-anything bikes. Or is it just that theft is less common in Japan?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:11 AM on July 30, 2005

A friend of mine just came back from Osaka, and he said that outside the train station there was literally a pile of unlocked bicycles as tall as a person, all unlocked.

The attitude he said they had was, "Why would you steal another person's bike? Someone would just steal yours, then."
posted by Jairus at 2:20 AM on July 30, 2005

Best answer: you can check a bicycle, ofen free, on international flights, the airline websites have info. Once you get here, just ride, baby, ain't no thing. I've traveled a few times in Japan by bicycle, staying in minshuku or business hotels as I found them, no reservations, no hassles. People out in the countryside are not backward and wary of sweaty strangers; in my experience they were friendly and welcoming beyond my imagination. I had such very good times riding around lake Biwa and along the Japan Sea coast. Get a cable lock so you can lock it up in the city. I've had one hybrid bike (called a "crossbike" in Japan) stolen and returned about 10 days later, probably someone just needed it to ride to the station. Another big-frame MTB was stolen 3 weeks after I bought it and never returned, but luckily the Trek importer guy who was legendary in my area (He's gone now, God bless you Mike Smith, wherever you are) always had some big frames that he added to his orders and sold cheaply to local gaijin at rock bottom prices. The bible, "Cycling Japan", with numerous routes and tips, don't know if you can find it now. A bike bag called a "rinkou bukuro" can be used to ride the train with a bike. Specialty sports and cycling shops carry these. Also, better make sure your bike is registered to you or has an official looking name sticker if you bring your own. Cops do random checks, and they look good to their superiors if they catch gaijin thiefs, so make sure you don't "borrow" a discarded bike unless you can afford the time to be hassled over it.

I have a Brodie Dynamo hybrid with discs and a huge gaijin-sized frame. Bought from a local mid-sized shop; they do have a few big bikes, but you have to look around if you are tall. I also have a Burley Samba tandem MTB which is technically illegal in most of Japan, simply because riding double, as students do by standing on rear alxe extenders, is illegal for safety reasons. Tandems just aren't given consideration in the law (except for some reason in Nagano, I am told) so they are illegal by default. However, I have never been hassled by a cop for any reason on any bicycle, not even my tandem. I have never owned a regular japanese shopping bike, or "mama-chari," as pictured above by blasdelf, and this has undoubtedly been part of the reason, as my bikes obviously belong to me (i.e., they are not standard shopping bikes).
posted by planetkyoto at 4:21 AM on July 30, 2005

A bike bag called a "rinkou bukuro" can be used to ride the train with a bike.

I want to thank you for this delightful image of someone with a bicycle mounted on top of a train, peddling furiously. I had been all grumpy and bleary-eyed, now--not so.

Very interesting thread.
posted by Tuwa at 7:45 AM on July 30, 2005

I now really want to tour Japan via bike, this is a great thread.
posted by cyphill at 7:53 AM on July 30, 2005

FifteenYearsAgoFilter warning: I last rode a bike in Japan in 1990. Things have probably changed.

Some towns/prefectures had strange riding laws. For example, where we lived (Kochi, on Shikoku), cyclists had to ride on the sidewalk downtown.

The whole vehicular cycling thing hadn't happened there, though the level of bike riding was quite high. Kyoto is the only place in the world where I've had a car (a taxi) calculatedly try to push me off the road.

Oh, and the driving on the left thing might confuse you for a bit. Being Scottish, I was okay with it.
posted by scruss at 8:13 AM on July 30, 2005

bicycle theft is huge in japan... be careful
posted by reverendX at 10:48 AM on July 30, 2005

Blasdelf: Have you seen Bike Friday's line of folders? Everything from basic to racers to touring. They also make killer tandems (not folding, but there are ones that break down and pack.) A friend in England has one of the tandems, with a kidback crankset. He or She rides with the daughter stoking, pulling the younger sun in a trailer, while the other parent rides a standard frame. I digress.

My one experience with Japanese and cycles matchs Blasdelf's -- the seats are criminially low for average Japanese riders, for my 6' 4" frame, they were a joke -- I'd try to spin, and basically fall off the bike.

Flying bikes over is usually easy. Call the airline now, order up a bike box. You'll need tools, in particular, you'll need to be able to remove the stem, the saddle, and the pedals. Threadless stems are much easier to deal with here -- if you have a threaded stem, make sure the stem isn't frozen into the steerer post by corrosion before you get to the airport.

If you don't have quick release wheels, you'll need that tool as well. Make sure that you have, or they provide, fork and dropout spacers for your bike. An old hub works just fine, so does a 1" dowel with a hole drilled through it for the QR skewers, cut to the right length -- namely, 110mm for fronts, 120-145mm for the rear, depending, or use the Rivendell Cheat, and make it 132.5mm, which will fit modern road (130mm) and mountain (135mm) dropouts. 120 and 125 are old road bikes, 140 and 145 show up typically in tandems. If in doubt, measure.

It's easier to get the box in advance, and pack it at home, but you can do it at the airport, if you have the tools. Warning: If you don't call in advance, they may not have a box handy. If you're flying out of a major airport on the major tenant airline (example, AA or UA at O'Hare, Delta at CVG, etc.) you'd probably be okay, but it's safer to order in advance.

Packing is easy. Wheels off, stem off. Pad and zip tie the bars to the front fork or top tube, depending on cable run. Either pad and zip tie the pedals to the frame, or put them in a bag and zip tie the bag. Both times I packed a bike, I pulled the chain off and bagged it, but this isn't required -- do, however, tie it to the chainstays to keep it from whipping around and mauling the finish.

It's eaiser to just pull the seatpost out with the saddle attached, but you might need to pull the saddle off to get it in the box. Do whichever is needed. Check to make sure the seatpost, if it remains in the seat tube, can't fall into the seat tube completely (Not a problem on modern bikes.) If the seatpost is out, install something to protect the seat tube. (Once again, a piece of wooden down works, but wrap tape around the top to make sure it doesn't fall in -- or get fancy and glue another bit to it.)

Finally, install the spaces, put everything in the box, seal the box well, and *label both sides.*. It will almost certainly already say "fragile, bicycle" on it, don't insult the ramp apes by repeating that -- they know what it is.

Important: You need to either pack the tools to reassemble the bike, or make sure such exists at your destination. You don't need much -- a small "roadside" kit and a pedal wrench is probably all you need, unless you pulled the chain, in which case, you'll need the correct chain tool, which may already be in the roadside kit. Check to make sure. But you do need them-- riding a bike with a loose stem and seatpost/saddle does not work, never mind one without a chain.

If your bike is worth real money, insure it. If your bike is irreplaceable to you, reconsider bringing it, or spend some money on a real bike shipping case, rather than the cardboard box the airlines give you.

Finally, while many airlines don't explicitly charge extra for a bike, they often do charge for the bike box, and the weight of the box and bike counts against your luggage allowance, so it might cost you to ship based on total weight or number of peices.
posted by eriko at 1:23 PM on July 30, 2005

Bikes and Japan. Two things I can talk about in one crunchewy AskMe question.

1. There aren't any special restrictions on bringing a bike into the country. It's not like they have a quarantine on them. That said, I'd be surprised if it weren't very expensive to bring over (possibly as much as a beater charinko). Even travelling domestically with a bike is a bit iffy, going with the boxes they sell you (expensively) at the airport; getting the bike properly packed in a sturdier bike-shipping box will run you at least, what, $200? Plus excess-baggage charges.

2. I can put you in touch with the author of Cycling Japan if you want. He's a really cool guy who likes to salvage junked bikes and reassemble them into usable beaters.

3. There is an entire network of hotels for cycle-tourists in Japan called "cycling terminals" (really--in Japanese it's サイクリングターミナル). I've got a little (Japanese-language) guidebook listing them that I picked up at the Bicycle Museum in Tokyo (which you should visit--they've got Moser's hour-record bike!).

4. You can get the same bikes in Japan that you'd get here, pretty much--not all Japanese people are short. But you'll pay more, mutatis mutandis.
posted by adamrice at 4:35 PM on July 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's been a while since I read it but there's a book All The Right Places where author Brad Newsham has idea of saving on high Japanese train-fare by touring with a second-hand monkey bike, and resulting misery getting off and pushing it up hills, in the rain. But I just want to have my own bicycle for in-town riding, rather than a "chari" -- thanks for the vocab, incidentally, with it, found Bicycles in Japan which answers registration and other questions.

a bike bag called a "rinkou bukuro" can be used to ride the train

Good info -- I was wondering about the subway, non-rush-hour, or on the suburban and rural lines. Never seen any passenger on these with a bicycle, like is allowed on some US light-rail systems (it's just gotta be forbidden?), but would anybody stop a big gaijin, wheeling it in or carrying his machine over his shoulder?

oh and he wasn't an 'exchange' student, rather, a graduate student, at Stanford. I offered to fix his busted brakes but he said it wasn't necessary.
posted by Rash at 10:58 PM on July 30, 2005

I see people with bagged bikes almost every weekend in Japan. bag fits in a little pack under your saddle, then you loosen the stem to put the bars parallel with frame, take off front wheel, usually pedals too, and bag it. Here's a picture.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:26 PM on July 31, 2005

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