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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 5: Bicycling and Injury

Bicycling is big in Japan. Between the expense inherent in the car, the expense the government pays for registration and inspections, and the expense in parking, cars are just too expensive for everyday use for many people. Still, they need some way to handle medium-distance personal travel, and bicycles fit the bill nicely. One of the first buildings I was shown as a uniquely japanese oddity when I arrived was a brand new parking garage–for bicycles. It had a capacity of several hundred, and already it had very good usage rates for its spaces.

I also rode a lot while I was there. From my house to the nearest train station was about half an hour whether I rode my bicycle or took the bus, and the bicycle had the advantage that I controlled the schedule and didn’t have to pay anything. It worked out pretty well for me–my Japanese lesson was just opposite that train station, and enforcing a minimum of two hours of riding a week helped counterbalance my dietary habits and keep me fit.

However, things didn’t always work out perfectly. It was early November, and I had been making the same bicycle commute twice a week for months now. I had things pretty well figured out, and it was my habit at the time to ride for long stretches without touching the handlebars. It was pointless, but it helped keep me amused. That day, as I was riding along a relatively barren stretch of road with rice fields to each side, I accidentally swerved just a little, but it sent my front tire into the little unpaved area surrounding an ornamental tree. That, in turn, completely upset my equilibrium, and I couldn’t recover in time.

All in all, it was a rather spectacular wipeout. I was lunging forward to get positive control of the handlebars before the front wheel went into the depression, but the slight jump of the handles as they twisted when the wheel went in was enough to cause me to miss on the first attempt. It was kind of interesting that gyroscopic forces helped me stay upright for about 20 more feet before my oscillations passed a critical point and the front wheel snapped perpendicular to the direction of travel. I went over the handlebars and took most of the force of landing with my hands and elbows. My bicycle skidded to a stop next to me, paused a second with wheels still spinning, then gently fell over the edge of the road into the rice paddy a meter below.

I wasn’t much interested in moving for a while there, but it wasn’t too long before I tried to move even if only to find out which parts still worked. The interesting thing about trauma like a spill from a bicycle is that there is initially very little pain; you have to determine experimentally the extent of the damage. I was lucky; aside from some bruising and some missing skin on my hands and arms, I was uninjured.

Until I started trying to find out, though, I was terrified: if I had broken a limb, I would have been in big trouble. It went far beyond not having health insurance at the time: I was alone in a foreign country, without anyone who knew exactly where I was, and I was injured. If I had a broken arm, I would have had a rough time figuring out the hospital system, but things would be pretty much ok. Much scarier was the possibility that I had a broken leg. The road I was on had moderate vehicular traffic, but almost no pedestrians; any serious injury could have been very difficult to recover from. My only way out, even with such minor injuries as I actually had, was to limp home and patch myself up. The prospect of not having that option was horrifying. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about that except resolve to fall less often when riding.

In the meantime, I actually had to deal with patching myself up. It’s a simple process, normally: buy some antibiotic cream and some bandaids, and apply as necessary. The only difficulty was that I owned none of those things, my dictionary didn’t even include the word ‘antibiotic’, and the one reliable thing about shopping in a nation whose language you aren’t fluent in is that you are highly likely to buy the wrong thing the first time or two you try. In this case, I was a lot less willing to tolerate amusing mistakes of that sort than I normally was. In the end, I just went to the pharmacy–it was the store with the logo which looked exactly like the powerup that lets Mario shoot fireballs–pointed at my injuries, and asked for help. It worked; they figured out almost immediately what I was looking for.

There is really nothing at all like the experience of standing at your kitchen sink, extracting gravel and trimming off dead skin from your hands, and realizing with absolute certainty that this was about the best possible outcome. Really, all I lost from that accident was the cost of one Japanese lesson that I had to skip and some hit points. It seems almost silly, remembering how shaken I was by the incident, but all I could think about at the time was how very far away from everybody I was. I was well enough to go to work that afternoon, but had I fallen just a bit harder or tangled a bit more awkwardly, I might have spent that time lying on the side of the road trying to attract someone’s attention. There’s normally a pretty wide spacing between an inconvenience and a catastrophe, but that day it felt like the two were nearly touching, and that I had escaped as well off as I had through sheer luck.

Actually, there was a hidden benefit to the whole episode: the kids absolutely loved the new vocabulary that day; Beginners learned words like ‘band-aid’ and ‘injury’ and ‘ouch!’; older ones get to tell stories about one time when they hurt themselves. If there’s one thing I know about teaching English to small children, it’s that you have to capitalize on absolutely everything that engages their attention. Somehow, making a game out of things helped with the pain a bit, too.

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Comment by lil_bunnyrabbit
2008-01-02 23:52:38

God, I wish we had that wipeout on youtube it sounds ridiculously gnarly.

Comment by alphabet26
2008-01-03 01:48:05

I got hit by a car when I was riding home from work one day…I didn’t speak Japanese, they didn’t speak English. Well, I did understand a little Japanese when the guy said on the phone, “Gaijin-san nihongo ga wakari masen.” And despite the fact that I was pretty much in a complete panic and a bit of pain, I did feel all triumphant that I understood him.

But I was a bit luckier than you, I think, because even though I did panic a bit, I was through Nova and I called up the Japanese staff to help with the translating, and the staff also accompanied me to the hospital the next day.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 04:53:44

… you know, I hadn’t thought of that at all–but you’re right. It was a totally cinematic crash.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 05:28:56

It’s hard to judge our relative luck between the two cases; given that paying for much more than than what I did could have gotten kind of sticky, I felt really lucky not to actually end up needing hospital attention.

I can totally empathize with the sudden flash of triumph upon hearing a sentence and realizing that you understand it completely. It happened to me more than a few times. Then I was always either really proud because I learned the necessary Japanese two days prior, or kind of embarrassed because it was straight out of the Japanese 1 that I’d had before ever arriving in-country and I had no right to feel triumphant. I never had such a flash immediately after being hit by a car, but it’s easy to see how it’d override even that set of emotions and sensations, at least temporarily.

Comment by moonplanet
2008-01-03 05:41:29

I’ve been in 3 Japanese hospitals in total [across the country because I was travelling], though one was a specialized clinic. Every time I had to get a hospital card with my information on it before they could help me [it wasn't so serious that I needed immediate help]. So I don’t know how they go about helping you when you need immediate attention – they’ll might ask you to make a card afterwards, I don’t know…

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 07:02:45

To be honest, the only time I’ve seen the inside of an emergency room was when my grandfather fell and hurt his leg while we were visiting England. I’m hoping that events keep that statement true for as long as possible, but if I ever do need emergency care, it’ll be a new experience for me no matter where it happens.

Comment by dr4b
2008-01-03 12:10:20

Oh man. One month after I moved to Japan — and two weeks after buying a bike — I was hit by a car carrier truck riding through southern Saitama at night. It was probably one of the worst days of my life in Japan (the second-worst was the day my eikaiwa was overrun by gigantic buzzing insects). Anyway, I was also really fortunate not to have anything broken — but also, maybe due to the nature of the incident, they made me go to the hospital. Given, my Japanese is pretty decent for a foreigner (I too studied computer science and Japanese and stuff in college) but it really was a pretty crazy experience. I also worked it into my lessons — did you know that the Japanese word for “reservation” is the same as that for “appointment”? Spontaneous lesson on not telling a hospital that you have a reservation! I at first thought I’d have to pay tons of money for the hospital, but you know what? The ER visit actually only cost like 30,000 yen, and the truck driver’s company paid for it anyway.

I have no particular point here, but I did want to say I read your whole series, and I sympathize. I too wonder whether I’ll be able to find a programming job once I finish the eikaiwa contract, because, yeah, somewhere along the line it’s really going to hit me exactly how much I am not a teacher, similarly.

Comment by onesweetgirl
2008-01-04 19:26:21

I wiped out on trolley tracks in the road near my apartment. My bike wheel caught between the tracks and the pavement when I was trying to cross the road and the only thing that actually saved me from eating road was my sunglasses. A few weeks later I ran over a bum as he walked out of an alley. Oops.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-04 19:46:41

If you do find something in programming in Japan, I’d be interested to hear about it. I’m not exactly looking right now, but I’d love to at least know how you found the position.


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