Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Dude, where's my bike?

If there is one lesson I have learned during my time in Japan it's that a stress-free existence here requires a blind adherence to the rules and that you should always budget at least an hour for all matters bureaucratic. Okay, technically, that's two lessons. But rules and bureaucracy go hand-in-hand here. Japan isn't the Land of the Rising Sun so much as it is the Land of the Red Tape.

Take bicycles, for example. Bicycles are treated no differently than any other vehicle in Japan. The upside is that cycling is a very mainstream form of transportation. The downside is that there are just as many laws for cyclists as there are for drivers. A partial list of things that are illegal to do while riding a bike include holding an umbrella, ringing your bell repeatedly, listening to music, talking on a cell phone, being drunk, riding through a red light, riding without a light at night, riding on the sidewalk, and parking in a no-parking zone.

Yes, you read that last one right. It's illegal to park a bicycle in a no-parking zone. Break this law and your bike will be towed to the pound. It seems kind of funny and absurd (there are no-parking zones for bikes? They actually tow bikes? There is a bike pound?) until it happens to you.

I will come clean and admit that I knew I was parking illegally. Mea culpa. There were signs explicitly stating it was a no-parking zone. But I had no other option. There is almost nowhere to park in downtown Kyoto. Of course, you can pay to park at one of those fancy bicycle garages but, to me, paid parking goes against the spirit of cycling. The beauty of riding a bike is that you never have to pay for gas or parking.

I wasn't the only one parked illegally. There were about two dozen other bikes in the same (very wide and very open) spot. It was a quadruple-wide sidewalk, with more than enough room for wheelchairs and baby strollers. I figured it was a safe enough spot to park. Besides, I was only going to be gone for 10 minutes. I just had to run into the bank and I'd be right back.

This was my tragic mistake. I should have known there is no such thing as "just running into the bank" in Japan. This country has an uncanny ability to turn even the most mundane errand into a bureaucratic nightmare. Forty-five minutes after I entered the bank, I was still sitting with a teller going over a pile of paperwork. She wanted me to sign a piece of paper that, despite her patient explanation, I simply didn't understand.

She tried switching to English but the only word I understood was "mafia." I was pretty sure her English was mixed up so I asked her to explain in Japanese. This time the only word I understood was "yakuza." A light went on above my head. She wanted me to sign a form declaring that I wasn't a member of the yakuza (because, apparently, the fact that I have two pinkies and zero tattoos isn't evidence enough). She nodded enthusiastically while apologizing that she clearly knew I wasn't a member of the yakuza but she needed me to put it in writing anyway.

With the question about my ties to organized crime finally answered, I was free to leave the bank. And so I half-jogged, half-walked back to where I parked my bike because I was late for a meeting with the Japanese Mark Zuckerberg (a shy undergrad rumoured to be a computer genius, complete with standard-issue hoodie and baggy jeans) who was making a special trip to my lab to fix my computer.

But my bike was gone. All of the bikes were gone. It was as if someone had taken a giant broom and simply swept them off the face of the earth. There was nothing but a big empty space where the bikes had been. I cursed and swore. I cursed the stupidity of no-parking zones. I cursed myself for parking in a no-parking zone. I cursed the stupidity of the bank for making me spend an hour testifying that I was not a member of the yakuza. I cursed the fact that I was now going to be late for my meeting with the Japanese Mark Zuckerberg. I cursed having to waste half a day getting my bike back from the pound.

But I didn't have time to deal with any of that now. I took the train back to school and spent the next few days bike-free. It's funny how much of an effort walking becomes when you get used to cycling everywhere. Wheels are so much faster than feet. The other day, I walked to Mister Donut (which is the closest thing to Tim Hortons in Japan) and all I could think was, "Oh my god! This is taking forever!" Everyone always talks up the benefits of cycling -- it's good for the environment! It's good for your health! But no one ever mentions the sinister side of cycling -- it makes you lazy and impatient.

It was good to take a break from the bike but by yesterday, I'd had enough of walking. It was time to go to the pound. I was kind of excited about going to the pound. I have never been to a real pound before, especially not a bicycle pound. But first, I had to return to the scene of the crime to figure out where the pound was exactly. Luckily, the no-parking sign contained a helpful map of where the bikes had been towed to.

I should probably explain that a bicycle isn't towed the same way a car is. There's no tow truck with a steel cable hooked up to the bike's front wheel, dragging it through the streets. What happens is a pick-up truck with an extra-long, extra-wide bed comes to a stop in front of a bunch of illegally parked bikes. A group of guys jumps out and hauls the bikes, one by one, over to the truck before lifting them up to another group of guys standing on the truck bed, whose job it is to pull the bikes up and arrange them in neat lines. They do this very quickly and very efficiently. It's like watching a well-oiled assembly line.

Getting my bike back required two train trips. One trip to where I had parked the bike (to take a look at the map) and another trip to the pound (or, as it turns out, the middle of nowhere).

The train took me south of the city. To the part of Kyoto you won't find in any guidebook. Unless it's to warn you to avoid going there. If Kyoto has a "bad" neighbourhood, then this is probably it. It was industrial, ugly and bleak. Nothing but empty lots, run-down houses, and tall fences. Exactly the kind of place where you would imagine a pound would be located.

I spotted the pound right away. It was cordoned off from the street with metal sheeting and barbed wire. But this is where the similarities between the cinematic pound and the real pound ended. Instead of being lunged at by snarling rottweilers, I was greeted by a group of friendly old guys. They directed me to a shed near the entrance-way where another friendly old guy asked me to fill out a form. I had to write down my name, my address, a description of my bike (I wrote down "black"), where I had parked it, and when it was towed. After I forked over 2,300 yen (about $20) and showed some ID, another friendly old guy escorted me to a long line of bikes that had been towed on January 28 (they were all neatly arranged by date. After four weeks in the pound, all of the unclaimed bikes are hauled out and crushed).

My bike was in the middle of the pack. The guy waited for me to unlock it and then I was free to go. Lesson learned. From now on, I will blindly follow the rules and always budget at least an hour for all matters bureaucratic.

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