This Just In, the Latest Transportation Upgrade

October 18, 2009

I didn’t exactly plan it this way, but in North America, where I spend only a couple of months each year, I have two cars (and typically only one driver), and in the Far East, where I spend most of the rest of my time, I have no car at all. For several years I have made do with public transportation and a bicycle, of all things. I wrote this to some friends shortly after arriving in Japan:

For the first time since I was a teenager, my primary transportation is a bicycle. Not a fancy one, either, just a simple one-speed 27″ normal bike. A ten-speed would be superfluous here, as the terrain is quite flat for the most part. Mine doesn’t have a brand name; I could have gotten a FatCat for 1000 yen more, or a Goofy (a strangely popular name here; there is also a baseball team called the Goofys) for a bit more still. But mine, a no-name plain-Jane, was on sale for 7700 yen (about $65 at the time), a scratch-and-dent special, only with no scratches or dents that I could find. It is silver in color; my other choices were a strident blue or a brownish maroon shade, neither of which spoke to me. It has a basket in front of the handlebars, and a flat carrying tray over the back fender. In the US, it would be a girl’s bike, as the top frame rail is quite low, not the crotch-crushing bar found on boys’ bikes stateside. You simply step through the bike to get on it, quite civilized really, rather than swinging a leg over in horse-mount style. I practiced for a couple of hours on the back streets around my apartment before venturing out into the real world. In Japan, in theory at least, driving is on the left side of the road. This theory apparently does not apply to bicycles, which use either side of the road, or the sidewalk, for that matter. When two bicycles approach one another on the sidewalk, someone moves. Could be to the left, could be to the right, you never know until the last moment. I asked a friend how it was supposed to work. She said that it was basically everybody’s responsibility not to get into an accident, as if that explained everything. Then she drove straight through a red light. She said it didn’t apply to bicycles. So I asked, “What if a crossing car doesn’t stop?” She said, quite unperturbed, “Then it’s his fault.” That answer was not totally satisfying to me, so I still stop at crossings and look both ways, just like my mom taught me all those years ago.

This year, though, I have made an upgrade in my transport, not a huge upgrade, but a small step in the right direction, a Honda Today 50cc scooter. It is quite similar to a scooter sold in the US as the Honda Metropolitan. I have put eleven kilometers on it so far without mishap. It was less than $1000 brand new, and even with helmet, tax, two years’ registration and insurance, license plates, etc, the whole enchilada came to only about $1300. It is reputed to get 100+mpg, which is nice in a country where gasoline runs about $5 a gallon. It is a bit of an adjustment after the bicycle, as I can no longer ride on the sidewalks or the wrong way on a one-way street, both of which are fair game for bicycle riders. I am staying off busy thoroughfares for the time being, and going blocks out of my way to avoid right turns across traffic (Japan drives on the left). My last motorcycle in the US was a Honda 700, so as you might imagine, this one feels a tad less manly, but so far it seems adequate to the job at hand, and as you can see from the picture, it is terminally cute. Oh, by the way, those two circles on my t-shirt are not the latest style fad in Japan, they are just reflections of the late afternoon sun from the rear-view mirrors.