Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | April 19, 2009

A Car-Less Lifestyle

Part 1: Biking is Beautiful

Here’s a recent article from The Japan Times about a Danish diplomat and some initiative he’s pushing about biking/climate change etc. (ARTICLE) To tell you the truth, I didn’t read as much about his new initiative as I did his biking route. The intersection he meets his colleagues at each time they ride is the bridge I cross everyday on my way to school. They ride past our new apartment along a bike path that is now our lifeline to the rest of Tokyo.

Here is the writer’s description of the ride along the river:

Getting up early is certainly not easy, but it’s worth the trouble, the ambassador said. And indeed, the morning ride along the Tama River was, as I found out, a pure delight. Though I often ride a bike around my home district, being out there at that time set me free from the usual noise pollution, constant near-misses involving people and cars, and rows of sterile concrete buildings.

From the virtually straight Tama River cycling track, you command great views of the river and its surroundings, including a golf course, baseball grounds and soccer pitches, all the while basking in the morning sunlight, the mild breeze — and, just then, enjoying the cherry blossom, too. Even the occasional bumps and jolts along the way — which made my bike’s plastic shopping basket shake and rattle, but fortunately not roll off — didn’t seem to matter.

THIS is why we moved over here.

Part 2: Life on Two Wheels

I haven’t been carrying a camera around much lately, but I’ll try to get a couple shots in the next few weeks that might give you a glimpse of our new bike culture. It truly is a complete cultural shift when you learn to live without a car, and we’re learning more about how to deal with the challenges and the blessings that a car-less life can bring. I’ve laughed once or twice recollecting a conversation I had with my friend Dain. He and his fiance (and our peanut of a god-daughter, Lena) sold one of their cars in the hopes of becoming a “one-car family.” I was a bit skeptical at first, thinking about all the things they might “need” a car for, but fully admired their choice. Now, I have a much better perspective on how absolutely possible that life is (though the ability to make that choice depends a bit on where you live, of course).

As far as the downsides go, imagine something as simple as going shopping for groceries. How do you get your goodies from Point A to Point B when you don’t have a backseat or a trunk? If you have more than one bag or any large-ish items, where do you put them? The system I’m currently trying out is putting one bag in the clanky metal basket on the front of my bike and hanging the remaining bags from my front handlebars- no easy task when you’re steering around potholes, small children and other cyclists. Rachael is lucky enough to have a sort of flat wire bed (you know, like a truck bed, but smaller, for a bike) mounted on the back of her bike. We use a couple of bungee cords to tie down larger items or boxes there (no Dad, no Zap-straps or tie downs, just a simple bungee cord- sorry, inside joke there for Bob White, the proud master-packer). Another option is using a delivery service. Yesterday we paid 10 bucks to have our new stove top delivered a couple miles to our home- not bad for the hassle it saved.

How about if it’s pouring down rain? And you’re dressed to the nines (…or at least the eights) on your way to work? I’d begun to master riding one-handed with an umbrella in the free hand, but that just doesn’t work along an often busy and breezy river path. Many of our friends have head-to-toe Gortex suits to shield them from being totally saturated upon arriving at school. There’s no chance I could buy one here on account of the extraordinarily high prices and compact men’s clothing sizes, so I’ll have to wait to pick one up in the States this summer at REI.

Besides these inconveniences, a bike commute costs nothing in gas or insurance and is helping us both get in better shape. Ironically, it’s really more of a luxury to have exercise be a built-in part of our day, rather than a stand alone chore in itself. I think that’s part of what our lifestyle in America was missing. We’d wake up, get ready for work, then we’d walk about 30 feet to our car in the parking lot, drive through traffic to work, walk 30 feet to the door of the school, and repeat the same things in reverse in the evening. Just about the only thing that got us out of that inactive routine was taking our dog Callie for a walk.

Once, and only once, have I driven in Tokyo. This was the pimped-out ride that we used to move our stuff from one side of the river to the other. It felt like I was driving something out of a Lego set (notice how I had to crouch so much to get in). I got my practice at driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road in Thailand, so that wasn’t too bad. But I’m happy to say it’ll be a long time before I need to drive here again.

The only fear I’ve had of not having a car is in case of an emergency, but we have several friends in the neighborhood and have the emergency number (110 rather than 911) memorized and ready to call. Just the other night, I had a bizarre allergic reaction and thought, there’s no way I could bike to a clinic or hospital…what should I do? Somehow, millions of people in this city make it just fine without a car, and I’m glad to be one of them.

Now, I just need to get a decent bike.

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