My first Japanese bicycle was a hand-me-down from my district manager in Nagoya. She was a big blonde Australian girl named Amanda. She had been in Japan for about 4 years. Hand-me-downs are common among foreigners in Japan. Teachers are shipped in and out in a constant rotation. Books, bikes, and dvd players were passed on from teacher to teacher because they were heavy and not easily mailed. Receiving someone’s old dirty bicycle was only a matter of time.
A “mama chari” as it is called, is short for mama charinko, or “old ladies bike”. It is usually some dark or light absorbing color with full fenders on the front and back of its under-inflated tires. It has a wide seat, a basket in the front, and one gear: slow and steady!
In most cases, a distinctive nickname explains what you are getting yourself into, like a cowboy hat, or a mini skirt. In the same light the mama chari holds no surprises in that it is a bike that old ladies ride. However, it has a somewhat different footprint on Japanese society. Different in that, aside from the occasional shiny mountain bikes used by the traveling Mormons, It seems to be the only bike that’s available on the entire island of Japan. The mama chari presents about 98% of all the bicycles on the streets of Japan. It has since dropped to about 90% with the introduction of hybrid bikes and foldable city bikes, but at the time of this story it is important to know that there was no other type of bike on the road. In true Japanese style, if it’s good enough for one person, it’s good enough for everyone. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. In other words, if I wear a suit and tie, and ride around on an old bike with a basket, I will stick out less than Mormons wearing suits and ties but on shiny mountain bikes. Its just might be crazy enough to work.
The fear of embarrassment soon subsides as you ride down the street with junior high school girls and salary men on the same nasty dark bicycles all heading to their destinations. Slow and steady!
I soon started riding my mama chari everywhere, to shopping malls and Buddhist temples. I would even ride out to bars to go drinking. At the grocery store bike rack, old ladies would give me a bow as I loaded my groceries into my basket. I would smile back and give them a knowing nod. We are all in the same club now.
Though I enjoyed riding the bike everywhere, the ride to work was my favorite. I was able to avoid a train, a subway and about a mile of walking. The Kurokawa school where I was working was squeezed between a convenient store, a subway entrance and the massive Nagoya Intercity Expressway. Or the “very high way” as I affectionately called it.
The highway amazed me. My office window looked out over it, or should I say under it. Even though my office was on the 5th floor of the building, the highway towered over me. It’s like an engineering feat comparable to the Great Wall of China or the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet, the people who drive on it and walk under it don’t even seem to notice. People outside of Japan have never even heard of the city of Nagoya, let alone its awe inspiring engineering wizardry.
One of my students who was fascinated by my fascination for the “very high, way”, told me that they call Nagoya the “Tree City”. This seemed odd because Japanese cities are not exactly known for their greenery. I have yet to see even a patch of grass here. She explained that when they rebuilt the city, (Nagoya was hit hard during WW2) they made the highways tall enough for light to get under them. So trees could grow. This may be the best explanation I have heard to why the highway towers over the city. From my own observations it seems like the most obvious reason is to put another highway under the “high” highway.
At Kurokawa, trees were not the only things under the highway. There were bikes, thousands of them. Rows and rows of the same kind of bikes as far as the eye can see. It was like some kind of strange breeding ground for dark ugly bicycles. Because Kurokawa was on the edge of the Nagoya subway system, it was the closest way for people in a wide area to get downtown. So people would ride their bikes to Kurokawa, park under the highway, and head to the subway station next to my school.
The Kurokawa bicycle gauntlet was so intimidating that I would lock up my bike in front of the convenient store. Even though the bike lock-up area was meant for a zip-in-zip-out situation, I would park my bike there for the whole day. Then, after work, I would run in to the store, grab something to drink and walk out as if I just parked my bike there. Genius!
Onenight after work, as I was buying my drink, I looked out the store window and noticed an old guy standing over my bike. He was wearing a beige Members Only jacket that every guy in Japan starts wearing when he hits fifty. He was holding a shopping bag in one hand and my bike in the other. As I approached the bike and started to unlock it, he began saying something to me. I didn’t understand him and gave him a polite nod and smile. His rant continued as he held my bike and would not let me move it. Did he think this was his bike? I tried to understand his Japanese but the only word I could comprehend was bicycle. Then he said,
“Yes English” I said.
“You…? Bike…?” he said as he pointed at me, and then the bike.
“Yes, my bike!”
“You bike?” he said again as if this time would make it official.
“Yes this is my bike.
I thought about helping the guy find his bike but he was already creeping me out, and I thought I’d better just get out of there.
“Yes. they all look the same, so you probably got the wrong one!”
Then the guy, grabs me firmly by the wrist, reaches into his shopping bag and pulls out a 2 way radio. It screeches and squelches as he nervously tries to press on the correct button.
“Squad 51… KMG… 365… backup requested at convenient store bike rack… I repeat… backup requested!” it was all in Japanese but you get the idea.
What the hell is going on here? Did I park in the wrong place? Maybe I did grab the wrong bike. I looked around to see, but then I remembered that I just opened the lock with my key. The guy had a death grip on my arm and when I tried to pull it free, he forcefully yanked it back and then shook his head at me to not do that again. He hooked the radio to his beige jacket and with his free hand pulled out a pair of handcuffs. A Nagoya city police car came roaring around the corner and my heart sank into my stomach. The car pulled up along side of us and the back door swung open.
“You police go!” the guy said. I hesitated and froze. I looked to see if anyone from the school was around. I was not sure if it was good or bad to see someone I knew. I was relatively new at this school and was not sure what the hell was going on.
The guy held up the handcuffs and stared me down to see if this was going to happen smoothly. I waved off the hand cuffs, and got into the back of the police car. He followed me in and sat down next to me.
“What is going on, why are you taking me to the station?”, I tried to speak calmly.
He said again, “You police go!”