Saturday, February 05, 2005


Our train station is famous in Japan because once or twice a year, on a slow news day, one of the TV stations will turn up with cameras and crew and explain to a nationwide audience that we have the biggest illegal parking problem of any place in Japan.

Within a week of this happening the embarrassed local government sends trucks around gathering up illegally parked bicycles and taking them somewhere inconvenient across the city, where it holds them for ransom, closely guarded by cheerful, semi-retired old men. The last time I liberated my bicycle from such a kidnapping I had to pay nearly ¥3000. I've had to do it three times since I've been here. It's not always after the TV news snippet. Sometimes it's at the end of the tax year, when they're trying to balance the city budget and are drumming up a little extra cash. Kidnapping bicycles is a profitable business around here.

The really stupid thing about this is that it's actually cheaper to risk the kidnapping than to pay parking fees, as long as your bicycle is not kidnapped more than twice a year. (I sat down and calculated this after my first exasperating ransom payment.) Not only that, the legal parking is inconvenient. You are likely to be assigned a parking spot so far from the station that you might as well walk from your house in the first place, and since the main reason for me to use my bicycle to and from the station is to save my back from carrying all the books and papers I have to carry for work, there isn't much point.

A few years ago they tore down the wonderful old friendly and traditional shopping area on our side of the station to make way for a modern, ugly 27-storey building, four floors of shops and the rest apartments. This was pushed through by the local government, hand in glove with the local construction industry and therefore also the local yakuza (mafia). The local people - EVERYBODY - opposed it, which is why it took twenty years to happen, but pressure was brought to bear, the mainstay of the opposition eventually collapsed (amid whispers of bribery and threats) and in the end the aging storekeepers sold out. Some took up offers of places in the new building, but many didn't. They moved, retired, or sold their businesses, and the atmosphere of the community changed.

These days, our wonderful modern building is held up as an example. Other city government officials visit in little clipboard-carrying groups, muttering to each other and taking notes on what not to do when you want to develop an area. Half the shop space in the new building is either empty or taken up by game parlours, they haven't been able to rent out many of the apartments, the crime rate has soared, community feeling has all but disappeared, and local shoppers flocked to the other side of the train station where the old shopping street still survives. It's a lot friendlier over there. Our side of the station is now famous for having one of the highest bag-snatching rates in Japan.

This new building, we were assured beforehand, would take care of the bicycle parking problem. A new underground parking area would be built for commuters, and besides that there would be parking for 8000 bicycles around the building. Some of this parking, of course, would be reserved for the people who lived there, but the rest was supposed to be for shoppers.

Our skepticism was well founded. The underground parking is expensive, inconvenient, and closes at some ridiculously early hour, nine or ten o'clock at night. Hoards of commuters are still arriving home after that, and where are they supposed to park? We're not told. Most people park around the station or around the building, illegally. The city employs a small army of semi-retired men who patrol the free parking area around the building from before nine in the morning (when the shops open) stopping people from parking there. What this means is that part-time workers (mostly women) who start work after nine o'clock, can park there, but early starters can't. They have to park illegally elsewhere.

I only need parking three times a week for work, and a local coffee shop owner right next to the station told me that I could use the reserved parking space outside his shop, no problem, don't worry about it. That is very sweet of him and I feel privileged. I think I'm the only person in this area who has free, legal parking for my bicycle at any hour of the day. My bicycle hasn't been kidnapped for a few years now, and the only price I've had to pay is the truly horrible coffee I feel obliged to drink once or twice a week at the ABC Coffee Shop.

Following are some pictures of bicycles parked around the station and around the new building.

On the right side is the ugly new building (you can't see how ugly it is close up), and on the left is what is left of the old shopping area. The supermarket on the left is closing soon, and will be torn down for yet more 'new development'.

There is no way all these bicycles belong to shoppers. At least half of them will still be there after the shops close. The parking area is supposed to be inside the wide bars on the right, but there is never enough space. This photo was taken around six in the evening, and there are some gaps. Earlier in the afternoon there were none.

This is the other side of the building. See the bars? Inside those is the 'legal' parking area for shoppers. All the bicycles behind the power pole are parked illegally. That is most of them, as they extend around to the other side of the building.

Across the road from the previous picture, every bicycle is parked illegally. That white signboard thing in the middle of the bicycles in the front is NO BICYCLE PARKING sign. These signs are all over the place, and get in the way when you park your bicycle.

This is the other side of the station, looking towards the Coop supermarket where we do most of our shopping these days. The Coop is on the right, and a bank on the left. The Coop has two bicycle parking lots, neither of which is visible in this picture. They are usually both full.

This is from the inside of one of the Coop bicycle parking lots, looking toward the Coop.

The Man tells me these are not very interesting photographs. I've told him they might be interesting for people who don't live here, you never know. In any case, they are the only ones I took today, and you have now seen a small fraction of our local bicycle parking problem.


Andy N. said...

Tell The Man that these ordinary pictures are extraordinary to this person, who is overwhelmed by the thought that 'over here', every one of those bicycles would be a petrol powered behemoth geting at best 7km/l (~16mpg), and probably much less due to the heavy traffic.

Wow. What a sane society, at least in in this way, in comparison.

& I see you've changed you look! :)

Badaunt said...

There are far too many cars here, too, but a lot of people don't use them for commuting because trains are faster and cheaper, and for grocery shopping there's nowhere to park.

That is changing, though. Recently there have been more big shopping malls with huge parking lots opening up in places that are inconvenient for people without cars. I don't know how successful they are, though - I recently heard that one that has only been open a couple of years is closing again. On the other hand, a new one just opened near Okaasan's place...

I really hope the pattern of having convenient shopping areas near train stations doesn't change too much. I really don't want to have to drive.

tinyhands said...

Ditto what Andy said, except we don't park our gas-guzzling behemoths on the sidewalk.

Badaunt said...

Tinyhands: They park cars on the sidewalks here, too. I'll take pictures sometime. This is a very annoying thing for a bicycle rider, as we're supposed to ride our bicycles on the sidewalk. The roads are too dangerous. (I found this out when I got pulled over by a police car for riding my bicycle on the road when there was a perfectly good sidewalk available.)

But when there is a sidewalk, there are CARS ALL OVER IT.

Anonymous said...

I feel that if there is not sufficient parking available for all the bikes, then it's the city's fault. The owners of the bikes should not be fined for something that is out of their control.

Over here, not that many people bike to work. Those who do can sometimes take their bikes right into their office spaces, depending on where you work.

Anonymous said...

ROTFL: you **HAVE** 2 ride your bike on the sidewalk! That's even more zany than driving your car on the wrong side of the road (England). And your description of the effect of The Orwellian Building----this sums up what's wrong with modernity (and with bureaucratic planning of cities/towns): no attention to the effect on the soul of the people or the area.

And no, the pictures are anything but boring, Badaunt! You have the most amazing talent to take even a mundane topic (bicycle parking) and turn it into not just interesting, but even witty, writing. Couldjoo please clone this gift over 2 me? (I'll pay ya with my German and French ability! [bg])

Regaled as ever by your posts,

Erstwhile Pedagogue (E.P. from now on)

Faerunner said...

Would that we had the bicycle problem here. Even on a college campus where everything is within walking distance (at most, twenty minutes to get to the opposite end of campus from my dorm) there are cars everywhere. Parking's limited here as well, and I don't see the logic behind having a car on campus when the only places I need to go are either within walking distance or serviced by the local bus route, which goes all around town and runs shuttles to the major shopping centers every half hour.

I feel for the people who lost their old shops. One less community gathering-place, one more point for commercialism. *sigh*

Badaunt said...

Pimme: This is EXACTLY how we feel. The government should provide sufficient parking. We are GREEN COMMUTERS.

But of course we don't make them any money...

E.P.: The rule about riding on the sidewalk was a big surprise to me, too. When I was pulled over I had just come off the sidewalk and onto the road, and I thought they were telling me off for riding on the sidewalk in the first place. It took quite a while to sort out that actually they were telling me to get back on the sidewalk.

Faerunner: The loss of the old shopping centre really hurt, and unfortunately it's happening all over Japan. I try not to think about it too much because it's so depressing. There's a brilliant book about this sort of thing: "Lost Japan" by Alex Kerr, and an even more depressing followup, "Dogs and Demons". I recommend them, even though they are depressing. They are energizing as well, in a weird way - written with such caring and anger at what is being lost here...