The Bicycle Chronicles, December 2012

When I first got to Japan in 2006, I had every intention of buying a car. I had visions of finding off-the-beaten-path villages at the seaside or deep in the mountains, places not easily accessible by public transportation—the real Japan. I came to find out, however, that the complications of owning and driving a car in Japan, particularly as a non-resident, were more than a little daunting: driving on the left side of the road; $7 per gallon for gasoline; difficulties in securing insurance coverage; insane prices for both long- and short-term parking. Hmm, time for a rethink…

“Why not a bicycle?” Saki suggested. “Yeah, right,” I replied, summoning my inner disdainful teenager. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since before John Lennon met Yoko Ono (seriously!), and I had no plans to subject myself to the rigors of two-wheeled self-powered transport again. I’d sooner walk. Or so I thought. In point of fact, I became thoroughly disabused of that notion after the first half-dozen times I trekked the mile-and-change to the local train station, a distance Saki was able to cover in about six or seven minutes on her bike. So, little by little, I allowed myself to be cajoled into bicycle shopping.

Our local bike store, Seo Cycle, two minutes’ walk from my first apartment, had two-wheelers of every imaginable variety on offer, from pricey multi-speed touring racers to knobby-tired off-road conquistadors. By far the best seller, however, was (and is) the mama-chari, a single-speed cheapie outfitted with basket, headlight, ting-a-ling bell, and a rear parcel shelf. It is configured similarly to what we would call a “girl’s bike” in North America (i.e., the frame bar is a low step-through one, rather than the high groin-threatening bar found on a “boy’s bike”). Mama-charis are inevitably made in China nowadays, and they bear such names as FatCat, Herbifor and PatioBox. There isn’t much to choose from in terms of options, other than color, so I chose a spiffy silver one with white sidewall tires. As I recall, it had a weird moniker as well, but it has long since eroded away, both on the bike frame and in my memory. Interestingly, the metallic paint and the whitewalls were no-cost extras; this was not the case with the last car I bought, so I felt I was getting quite a deal. All in, with taxes and tags included, it cost me 7000 yen, about $65 at the time.

One of the fine things about bicycle ownership in Japan is that the bike shop proudly applies its dealer decal onto the back fender of your new conveyance, guaranteeing that forever after, if you need air in the tires, a brake adjustment, or a squirt of lubricant on a recalcitrant lock, all you have to do is show up unannounced at the shop, and the repairman (or occasionally repairwoman) will sort it out for you for free while you wait. On average, I have used the bike for six months of each year, usually the bad weather months, and it has soldiered on without complaint, thanks to the bi-weekly ministrations of the shop staff. It still rolls on its original tires. I have replaced the front brake pads once; that cost me around $10 for  parts and labor, and to the best of my recollection, that is the sum total of what I have spent on the bike in six years and countless kilometers. The basket is rusted through in one corner, but it still holds stuff, so long as the stuff in question is larger than the hole. The back tire is getting a little edgy, though, and there is a clunk in the pedal mechanism when I stand to pedal uphill, so it is just a matter of time until the cost of repairs will exceed the cost of buying a new bike.

I have since changed apartments, and Seo Cycle is no longer close by, so I suppose I will have to find another shop to buy my replacement bike. The prices have gone up a bit; a new mama-chari  will likely set me back 9000 yen, or about $110, thanks in part to inflation, and in part to the erosion of the US dollar. It will look remarkably like last year’s model, and the one from the year before that, apart from the shinier paint and the deeper grooves in the tires. It will probably be made in China, and it will likely have some new name (no less weird, though), perhaps Pendergrade, Road Ansser, Whale Land or Futurity.

If I have discovered one thing in six years of bicycle ownership, it is this: about half the bikes in Japan are silver in hue, which makes it challenging to find one’s silver bike in a parking lot roughly half full of silver bikes. I’m thinking to get a different color this time around, perhaps metallic slime green or dayglo orange, something visible not just from across the parking lot, but from across the galaxy.


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