With the provisional title of Gaijin on a Push Bike, this was written about my first and longest cycle tour of Japan, a tour upon which I embarked ten summers ago. As such, it should come with the disclaimer that back then I had only been in the country for a short while, and therefore still harboured the typical preconceptions and prejudices of a newbie.
To set the scene, in July 2005 I had recently moved from Tokyo to Ibaraki, changed jobs from being an eikaiwa (英会話 / English conversation school) teacher to being an ALT, and started going out with Mrs M (although this was still several years before she became a Mrs)…
I would like to be able to say that I chose a cycling tour of Japan because of my inherent sense of adventure, because I wanted to test my physical limitations, because I wanted to get off the beaten track and discover the true heart and soul of that most enigmatic and mysterious of countries. I would like to be able to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. Granted, I did find my sense of adventure, I did test my physical limitations, and I did get off the beaten track and discover at least something of the true heart and soul of that most enigmatic and mysterious of countries, but all of that came later.
Having worked in Japan as an English teacher for over a year, I had seen little more than the inside of a classroom, the inside of my apartment and the inside of the local pub. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself with a six-week summer holiday on my hands. At last I would be able to explore the country in which until then I had merely been living. The trouble was, my modest teacher’s wage wouldn’t stretch to airfares or upmarket accommodation, and unlike, say, India or Thailand, where you can get by on a budget of approximately 50p a day, this was a country of distinctly first-world prices. Cost, therefore, was my primary consideration, and transport my best bet for saving money.
Contrary to what you might think, the Japanese do not get around using hover boards or jet packs. True, car ownership has increased over the years, and the bullet train network is expanding to reach ever more remote areas of the country, but in everyday life they are a nation of cyclists. With the cheap labour of China just a few hours away by cargo ship, you can buy a brand new shopping bike – or mama-chari, as it is called (incidentally, I love the fact that ‘mama-chari’ evokes the word ‘chariot’. It makes the humble shopping bike seem so much more romantic) – for the equivalent of thirty or forty pounds. From housewives to career women, builders to salesmen, police officers to gang members, everyone rides around on these clunky little one-speed machines with step-through frames and shopping baskets, their comfy seats set as close to the ground as possible (boys and men, incidentally, have no qualms about riding what their contemporaries in the UK would deride for being a ‘girl’s bike’). Children are ferried about by bicycle almost from birth, and it is not unusual to see a mother with one child on the front of her mama-chari, another on the back, yet another in a sling and shopping bags dangling from each handlebar, with not a safety helmet in sight. Because they are usually forbidden from being driven to school, many children will also commute by bike from when they are twelve years old, some for a round trip of an hour or more. Consequently, by the time they reach puberty, the average Japanese boy or girl can ride a bicycle while simultaneously holding an umbrella, typing a text message, drinking a can of Coke and chatting to the friend who’s hitched a ride on their luggage rack.
Pedal power was clearly the way to go if I wanted to blend in with the locals, although if I was to make it any further than the end of the road, I needed something with more than just the one gear, and for as little money as possible. In Japan, everything is disposable: when you tire of a gadget or a gizmo, an item of clothing, a household appliance or even a car, you simply throw it away and buy a new one. So despite there being approximately ninety million bicycles in the country as a whole, it is surprisingly hard to find one second-hand, and I was obliged set aside my miserly principles by shelling out for a new one.
Like any two-wheeled mode of transport, the Mariposa Outlook set me free, and having bought it, I was soon cycling everywhere. I cycled to work, I cycled to the shops, I cycled to aikido practice, I cycled to Japanese class, I cycled to the pub and – most challenging of all – I cycled back from the pub. The Mariposa came in a nausea-inducing colour scheme of cyan, red and yellow, and possessed a frame so heavy that it might have been fashioned from solid lead. It was further slowed by front suspension and knobbly tyres, and had been designed for messing around on muddy tracks, as opposed to pounding out the kilometres on tarmacked main roads. Before I could embark on my journey the Mariposa needed a full makeover, and for this I took it to my local Gran Stage hardware store, which had neither Grannies nor Stages, and looked very much like a branch of B&Q.
Long rows of mama-chari lined the way to the bicycle department, where alongside kids’ trikes with pink paintwork, top-of-the-range racers hung on the wall like expensive artworks, and the shelves were stacked with all manner of accessories, from brake blocks to chain guards, spare wheels to gear levers, dynamos to multi-tools. Behind the counter stood a comedy double act in beige shirts and green aprons, one being slim, serious and softly spoken, the other big and lumbering, with wonky teeth, boss-eyes and thick glasses. As the straight man got to work on the Mariposa, his sidekick stood by and showed off his rather limited English skills.
‘What have you been using to lubricate the chain?’
‘Hello! Very good! Yes! Thank you very much!’
‘Ah, that explains it. Can you see? Rather than helping the gears work better, it’s actually clogging them up.’
‘What should I use instead?’
‘No English! Here, not speak English! Very sorry! Thank you very much!’
‘Chain oil. It’s only two hundred yen.’
‘OK, I’ll take some of that. I was wondering if you could fit a longer seat post as well.’
‘I not go England! Only Japan! Japan, very beautiful! Thank you very much!’
‘How high would you like it to be?’
‘Oh, about up to here, I should think.’
‘You go holiday? Bicycle holiday? Very good! Brave man! Thank you very much!’
By the time they had finished, the Mariposa looked even more ridiculous than before, with new and disproportionately thin tyres, a rack and panniers on the back, and a plastic shopping basket secured to the handlebars. I was out of pocket by approximately the same amount of money it had cost to buy the bike in the first place, but it had been worth it for the sheer originality of service.