Riding in Japan has a different feel than San Francisco- the closest I can get to describing it is “bike like water.” Just like being a pedestrian on the streets or on a train, there’s a culture of not blocking the flow of people to their destinations going. This gets scary at times- instead of waiting at a red, cars make their turns right up to or into a crosswalk, completing them when there’s a break in the pedestrian traffic. Bikes move from road to sidewalk to road again, and rarely stop, only slow down. I’m still not completely used to it- with a sidewalk full of pedestrian traffic in both directions, I can’t see why we make any room for the woman on the one-speed cruiser trying to break through- but it’s part of the culture, and one irritated gaijin isn’t going to do much good by getting angry at it. There’s little sense of right-of-way anywhere in this town; cars won’t hit pedestrians, but they also won’t hold themselves back at a white line just to make them feel a little more at ease. A bike may have a perfectly usable road on its right, but especially if the rider is middle-aged or older, it will stick to the sidewalk regardless of how crowded it is, slowing down to a half-ride, half-walk waddle thing until it’s through the crowd.
To be honest, I hate this system. I like knowing my role in traffic, my rights and responsibilities, and riding as fast and regularly as I can within those bounds. I like being fast but predictable, and acting like a car except where it’s absolutely necessary. Riding in Japan is ambiguous; you never know when a pedestrian could pop out of a store or a car could make a turn from a side street, so you need to keep your speed at a level where you can stop or slow down near-instantly. I think a fixie would actually be a lot of fun here; the hills aren’t too bad, and it seems to lend itself to the sort of fluid riding you need here.