The other day I was in a rush to run to the embassy, which was a good hour away by train. And so, like any other day, I biked to the station and left my bicycle leaning against the outer wall of the building just like dozens of other people on almost any given day. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think much of why people placed their bikes there in the first place. Follow the heard because it was easy. The question was, of course, was it allowed?
Plenty of structures in Japan explicitly say not to place bikes against their walls, especially if it’s facing a street. It’s understandable. With basically every Japanese household having one or more of these two wheeled modes of transport, to allow parking anywhere would be the same as asking for either a blocked street or a dangerously narrow one. Funny thing is, there’s almost always an unspoken rule as to where bikes can or cannot be placed too. Seemingly open areas with no restriction signs could be empty and entire day, but the precariously slim gap between two buildings could house maybe two or three bikes. And then, there’s just the habit of ignoring warning signs completely because hey, if they didn’t take anyone before they sure aren’t taking any now.
The “parking lot” of Tama Station (my closest station) looks like this:
It’s rare to find only two parked; usually there’s so many that bikes against wall get boxed in by other bicycles. With that volume, it makes sense that police wouldn’t go out of their way to impound all of them.
But lo-and-behold on the day that I was racing the clock, then too there were only around 5 bikes parked. In other words, sometime during the day all of them were removed and placed in a towed lot. Coming back in the afternoon and finding it missing was nothing more than a jolt of inconvenience. Yep. Not sadness or anger, just a strong sense of being inconvenienced. If everyone else can place their bikes there day after day, why was I one of the only ones who had a bike towed? Now it meant searching for the lot, going by bus, and biking all the way back. With an expectation of losing an entire afternoon (it only took about 2 hours for the entire procedure, surprisingly), I went on the search for my lost steed.
I never noticed if there was a warning sign posted in the area about not parking there. I mean, why would I? It just seemed like common sense since everyone else trusted it. On closer inspection though… the poster was always there.
That little yellow rectangle. That SINGLE little yellow rectangle. It’s the only warning and it covers the ENTIRE length of the station. I mean, I get it. Don’t waste resources and all that, but still. A little extra notice would be appreciated.
Notice the QR code on the bottom left corner of the poster? Scan that (or click here) and it shows you when it was towed, where it was towed from, what colored bike, what registration number, and where it was taken to (scroll down on the webpage until you see an excel like spreadsheet). My bike was taken to a lot reachable by a 45 minute bus ride.
I set out the next day with full intent to exercise my Gaijin powers as I pleaded for a waver on the 2000円 ($20) penalty fee. I was even prepared to act like I didn’t know a lick of Japanese. $20 is a lot of money for a struggling college student.
Yet, I couldn’t go through with it. Not because of some unneeded pride or my poor acting skills, but because the workers on the lot were two old men easily over the age of 70. It was shocking. To have two seniors past retirement age to do this kind of job… it was rather cute. Very befitting of Japan. Their movements were slow as they hunched their way over to each individual bike. Their greetings were nothing less than delightful and they smiled even though you came here doing more or less a crime. There was none of that discomfort that comes from the likes of American government facilities (we all know how wonderful the DMV is). And it wasn’t just to us, the people. When my bike was brought out this senior worker proceeded to WIPE DOWN THE ENTIRE VEHICLE. I almost wanted to stop his kindness, but reminded myself that it was probably part of his job. There was no way I could be a nuisance to these two, and there was no way I wanted to be a nuisance to a society that allows seniors to continue working in society if they so wish. I left with my spirits high and being $20 poorer. I also gained some sagely advice from the other worker to be careful of where I park my bike, as 2000円 is much too expensive for a foreign student (sound familiar?).
Sure, having to take a few hours to retrieve a possession was a pain, but it gave me a chance to see one way the Japanese government is providing some sort of financial support to the elderly. At the same time, I’m sure senior citizens participating in these programs feel a sense of being just as, if not more, useful to society as they were back in their prime. Plus, it’s a great way to kill time with friends.