Riding with Your Rinko Bukuro

Japan has one of, if not the best transportation infrastructures in the world. The reasons for this are many. One is geography. Dense population centers peppered across not-all-that-much land mass makes it relatively easy, to lay railroads and pave roads from one hub to the next. Then you’ve got the sheer volume of money thrown at it. Japan spends a lot of cash on it’s transportation infrastructure. Has that spending has led to a some “white elephant” public works projects? Yes. Is that necessarily a bad thing for cycling? No. There are cultural legacies as well. During the Meiji Restoration railways were bleeding-edge tech and rail travel became an important symbol of Japan’s ascension to the world stage – symbolism that holds out-sized influence even today.

But enough with the boring historical notes – what’s the upshot for the selfish cyclist? The good news for us is that it makes cycling in Japan a breeze. Want to do a multi-city or region tour? No problem! Just hop on Japan’s punctual bullet trains. Need to get out of the clogged cities and into the mountains for a ride? Just throw the bike in a commuter train and you’re there. Tired of riding your same ‘ol loops? Hop on the bike, ride as far as you can and catch an express train back. What’s more, there are not even any charges for your bike!

The secret to unlocking these cycling conveniences is having your trusty bike bag, or “rinko bukuro” (輪行袋). Both private and public (Japan Rail) railways will let you on any train with your bike. The only caveat is that it must be in a bag. No exceptions. Not for a flat tire. Not for a broken frame. None. Why? Because it’s important to keep your filthy tires and bike grease off other passengers and the pristine seats – that’s why! Pretty reasonable in my opinion.

There are exceptions, but generally speaking there are 2 broad categories of bag: “Regular” and “Compact.” With the regular bags you simply pop the front wheel off and tuck next to your crank, turn your handlebars sideways and chuck it in the bag. Compact bags take up less space in the train because both the front and rear wheels will need to be removed and lashed to the sides of your frame. Yes, the compact bags take of a little less space, but IMHO it’s not worth the added hassle or greasy fingers (to help avoid the grease a lot of people will carry around some latex gloves).

Pricing typically falls in the 5,000-7,000yen (US$45-65) range for a new bag, but if you shop it you can likely bring that down some. Be wary of anything that’s priced a little too attractively – I’ve known a few people who thought they were saving a lot of money but instead ended up with a bag only capable of fitting one of those miniature folding frames. Generally speaking the bags can be stuffed in a bottle holder or lashed behind the saddle. I use it enough that I ponied up the $$$ for an ultra-light bag from my friends at Fairmean – it easily fits into a jersey pocket.

Pro tip – if you do find yourself stranded and without a proper bag and need to get on a train to get to where you’re going, head in to the nearest convenience store (“conbini”) and buy some large trash bags (or any bag for that matter) and tape. It doesn’t matter what the bike is covered with, so long as it’s covered. I have been caught out on occasion and had to resort to this. It’s ain’t pretty but hey, it worked.

Now that you’ve got your bike safely stashed away in your bike bag of choice and you’ve made it through the ticket gates, the next thing you’ll want to consider is where to be on the train. Be courteous to other passengers, avoid nasty side glances and take a spot at the extreme front or rear of the local commuter trains. Select a seat near one of the cars with bathrooms on the express or bullet trains so you can stash the bike in the hallway – don’t crowd the aisles in the passenger compartment. We’ve got a good thing here – don’t be the jerk that screws this up for Japan cyclists.

One word of caution before you set out – be sure to practice! Even if you’ve been cycling for years and know your way around the bike, you’d think the process of chucking a bike in a bag would be straightforward, but it’s not. It will be a confusing mess the first time you do it, and that is a peace of stress that you do not want when your train’s arriving in 3 minutes. On the other hand, if you just practice a few times you can probably be ready in under 10 minutes with a compact bag, and half that time with a regular size.

A final side note – a few years prior to the post a new rule was created, stipulating that the saddle must also be covered. In years prior the saddle could be exposed. Consequently, newer bags cover the saddle but you will still see a lot (probably most) legacy bags with the saddle hanging out. I am yet to see this saddle rule enforced. Ever. In the future, though, I can imagine station officials starting to give people with the older bags a hard time.

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