More than a recreational vehicle, in Japan the bicycle is a major mode of transportation for anyone going anywhere.

P36-1I love to drive—but when I got to Japan, I was hit with the harsh reality that I would have to start taking trains and riding a bicycle to work. I was told my bicycle would be waiting for me at the train station. Off I went to meet my new two-wheeled friend. A Board of Education member was there to introduce me on my first day, as otherwise it would have been impossible to find it in the sea of bicycles lined up at the parkade. I was in awe. I had never seen so many bikes parked in one place at one time.

The bicycle I was introduced to was unlike any bicycle I’d had before. It had strange covers on the handles and a quirky basket on the front. (I later found out that this kind of bicycle was affectionately called a “housewife’s bike.”) As I pedalled away, I felt like a gawky adolescent, sure that everyone was staring at me. The bike was prominently upright with the handlebars sitting quite high and the seat quite low. I was certain the odd foreign girl riding the geeky bicycle with the cool handgrip covers was going to stop traffic.

I didn’t stop any traffic in the end, although I am sure a few people turned their heads when I stopped at an intersection and an ear-splitting screech came from the brakes. I swear I heard a wine glass break. (I was told this squeak would help alert people in front of me, but it was actually from the high humidity of the country, which quickly rusts the brakes.) Luckily, my first trip ended safely and without incident, my pride still intact.

That bicycle became one of my best friends. It took me everywhere. Bicycles are much more than a recreational vehicle in Japan: they are a main mode of transportation for anyone from students in their school uniforms, to businessmen in their suits and ties, to businesswomen in their skirts, blouses and high heels, as well as many housewives on their way to shop for the daily groceries. Mornings and after school will be a regular parade of bicycles, of students plugged into headphones, finishing their breakfast or, worse yet, texting their friends while pedalling at lightning speeds.

Another noticeable group is the “salarymen,” the business group. They will ride their bicycles to work from the station nearest to their office and often take the bike to office drinking parties. This sometimes results in a new form of “drunk driving.”

The most interesting group, though, is the housewives. They are able to shop for a family of five, do the banking, pick up the dry cleaning and still fit in a coffee with their friends, all on their trusty bicycle. But, oh, make sure to cover up. Full-face visor, scarf, long sleeves, hand covers and sunglasses are all necessary for your cycling pleasure. You may not be the coolest person on the street, but you will get where you are going.

SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe