Learning to Ride – Awkward Biking in Tokyo

Learning to Ride – Awkward Biking in Tokyo

Everyone rides a bike in Tokyo. Ancient ladies speed by on their electronic cruisers; young girls sullenly pedal down the sidewalk – one hand steering, the other texting.  Salary men, grandfathers, robed monks, moms laden with two, even three small children.  They bike in the rain clutching umbrellas. They read newspapers and magazines as they ride and I even witnessed one older gent, impeccably dressed in a Tweed hat and Ascot, taking in a novel as he slowly propelled himself forward.  Tokyo bikers ride straight as rulers, no weaving, no unexpected movements.  They ride on the sidewalk.

I have spent a fair amount of time bicycling behind my wife (a native-born Tokyoer — is that right?  Tokyoite?) as she navigates with irritating ease between pedestrians, cars, moped drivers and bicyclists.   Where she is smooth, a pachinko ball dancing between hundreds of tiny pins, I am a fucking bowling ball in a china shop.  First off, its been years since I cruised around on my ten speed and asked my mother, inspired by Breaking Away, for toe clips.  Secondly, whereas in New York I am seen as chubby or maybe plump or possibly husky, in Japan, I am FAT and people are happy to tell me this: “Jami-Chan you got soo fat! ” “Jami-Chan you are HUGE!” So, I am a huge, ungainly, hairy, fat Jew shakily riding my bike through crowds of Japanese people and living in tremendous fear of killing everyone and possibly myself. How do you know someone is behind you and about to pass?  How can you tell, on this narrow sidewalk, that someone isn’t going to step out of that ramen line and knock you over?  How can you figure out that the wizened old lady with a thousand yard stare and a basket full of daikon radish is going to move to her left and pass you with only an inch to spare?  I don’t, so i always get left behind, stopping and starting, braking with my feet as I see my wife angrily waiting for me down the street.  It reminds me of skiing with my mother when I was young.  My sister and I  would zip down the slope and half-way down have to stop and watch my mother SLOWLY make her way to us — we would sing a song…”Doo Doo Doo…My name is Sharon…doo doo doo…I’m making my turns.”  We would laugh until she would reach us and we’d speed off again.  Karma’s a bitch, and now i am getting the same treatment from my wife and I feel like a yold, which is Yiddish for a kind of country bumpkin, greenhorn with no style or grace.

I figure it is a kind of native Tokyo telepathy.  The same kind of connectivity to your other citizens that allows a New Yorker to slalom their way down the most crowded sidewalks at a dizzying pace. There is just the knowledge, ingrained in the Tokyo mind, that people are going to do the expected — and part of what is expected is that you can count on people being aware of where they are in space and time.  To my great shame, I am the clog in this equation — I am the tourist that you bump into in New York because I suddenly stopped to look at the Empire State Building.  I have heard a near symphony of muffled sounds of annoyance, from the “tschok” of a tongue cluck to the sharp intake of breath, in response to some weird movement that I have made. I hope, by the time I am 80, to be able to hop on my bike in a bespoke suit of Harris Tweed and read Proust as I pedal down the street with nary a kissed tooth being heard.

But, for now I will continue to take my awkward frame and hitch it to the bike seat, because really there is no better way to get around this city. Tokyo is huge, a monster and the neighborhoods are hives, warrens really with no grid, no logical system of layout and no addresses actually (for years — pre GPS and Smart Phones — the only people who could identify an actual address were postal workers, pizza delivery guys and cab drivers). Subway stations are not always close so everyone rides to them, leaving their bikes with no fear of them being stolen (again the opposite of NY where you could park your bike in a bank vault and still have a 50-50 chance of some skilled junkie waltzing away with it). Beyond the neccesity, I feel myself inching just a tiny bit closer to Tokyo, when I weave through these tight-packed residential streets with their alien building materials and tiny gardens and have no clue where I am until the street I am on spills out, like a meandering creek, into the flowing river of a shopping district. Then, I am a man on a bike falling in love with my new home.


2 Replies to “Learning to Ride – Awkward Biking in Tokyo”

  1. Skilled junkie waltzing away…
    breathtaking prose. One typo, you can count of people should be count on, but really that might be that one bit of flaw to make perfection the humble human form, rather than joust with the divine ideal.

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