My Mother is a Tractor - Chapter 10

A Life in Rural Japan

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Ode to my jitensha

All who wander are not lost. - JRR Tolkien

At the end of my second week I had my first Friday afternoon off and was informed, much to my delight, I would have every Friday afternoon off. I decided to try out the old jitensha (bike) left to me in the apartment and headed to Itoigawa, the next town over. But maybe I should tell you about my bike experiences first....

I fell in love with mountain bikes years ago. I was living in Santa Cruz, California and everybody was riding them. Considering the terrain of the campus where I was studying this was not surprising. I acquired my first mountain bike, a Giant ‘Iguana’, through a back scratching deal with a friend who was shortly to embark on an internship to Ireland. I simply had to go to her ex-boyfriends place, break his thumbs, re-arrange his face, and then steal her bike back. Okay, that’s a lie. I just had to give him the impression that I was the new ardour in her life, and that her bike was now a required commodity which I would be minding for her. Fortunately he was a good six inches shorter than me so he didn’t have any qualms about that. He was also pretty spun out on some illegal substance when I knocked on the door. He probably thought the next day, “Hey, like, where’s the bike man?”

As soon as I went back to Australia I traded in my old ten speed racer and bought an ‘Iguana’ of exactly the same style and colour. After graduation and my move interstate to near the Australian Alps I spent many weekends discovering its back tracks and unspoiled landscapes. When I left there and went home to university for grad work I was now minus a car. Hence the Iguana became my sole transport. As I prepared to leave for Japan I dismantled it, put it in storage, and bid it a fond farewell, as my meagre baggage allowance would not allow it to accompany me. Having been assigned to Omi, sandwiched between the sea and mountains, was a definite bonus for someone like me who loved sailing as much as mountain biking. Not that I ever saw anything remotely resembling a sailing boat in Omi while I was there. But I eagerly looked forward to buying myself a new bike in Japan - the land of techno-wizardry. So many inventions pour out of this land it’s hard to keep track of. The one I liked the most were the underpants you could wear for six days in a row. The concept went something like this – you rotated them 120 degrees for three days, turned them inside out, and then repeated the process for another three days. On the seventh day one rested and washed I suppose.

I had noted on my JET application about my interest in cycling. Obviously having paid attention to this, upon arrival my supervisor proudly handed me my ‘assigned bike’ - a five year old mama chari (granny bike) with rusty chain. “Okay”, I thought, “this will do for a few days till I find myself something a lot better”. With some leisure time on my hands I shocked the town by riding the old bike to Oyashirazu in my first week - the gruelling distance of some seven kilometres, via the winding and narrow Route 8. But I dared not attempt much more than that.

After a couple of weeks I was still riding the mama chari and still no closer to a new bike. I had dropped hints to the Board of Education, but no one had listened. No shop in my small town stocked mountain bikes. I rode to Itoigawa and finally found a shop that stocked them. I then realised exactly how much taller than the average Japanese I was as the proprietor showed me bikes that looked more like they needed training wheels. In my non-existent Japanese I thanked him for his time, rode home on the increasingly gruesome granny bike, then threw myself on the bed and cried till I dehydrated.

I took a trip to Joetsu City and couldn’t find anything with a price tag that had less than six zeros on it. Enquiries on the internet turned up naught. Finally the local English conversation teacher mentioned she had a friend who might be able to order me one from a catalogue. I picked one with the largest frame I could see and crossed my fingers. Even at what seemed an exorbitant price. But I was becoming desperate.

A couple of days hence I attended a seminar in Takada. Another teacher turned up with exactly the same bike I had ordered. He let me take it for a spin and all I could think was, “Oh no Koji”. Well, not that actual expression because I didn’t know it yet, or even what a Koji was. That’s just a metaphor for what my thoughts were - but hopefully you get my drift anyway. It was far too small for me. After the seminar we had the obligatory enkai, and later we drifted down Nakamachi toward a karaoke bar.

As I stumbled down the road in a drunken haze I passed Maruishi Cycles - a small shoebox of a bike store. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. Was that a mountain bike sitting out the front all by itself? A real mountain bike? A real gaijin size mountain bike. I moved closer and checked. Lawdy, lawdy, it was. I hadn’t drunk too much sake. Well, actually I had - but that didn’t impair my judgement in this case. This lonely looking machine was covered in cobwebs and dirt, it had flat tyres and other signs of a long wait for a new owner. But there it was - a genuine ‘Scott, Made in USA!’ mountain bike. I approached the owner who was just closing up shop and asked him in slurred broken Japlish how much. “go-sen” came the reply. Huh? I asked him to write it down. ¥5,000 the paper said. In an instant my fingers flashed toward my back pocket as I thought, “Please, don’t let me have drunk my money away!” My prayers were answered. I handed over the cash out of my wallet and the good shop owner set about adjusting everything to suit my size and pumping up the tyres.

I’m not sure why it was so cheap. I think either, A) he was scared of the drunken gaijin and wanted to be quickly rid of him, or B) no Japanese person could get their leg over the seat, making it effectively dead stock to be let go at a large discount.

The next morning I called to cancel my catalogue order. Too late, it had already arrived. No cancellation allowed. That’s not the way Japanese do business, supposedly. Through some quick phone calls I managed to on sell it to Joanne, another newly arrived teacher. I proudly cleaned my ‘Scott, Made in USA!’ and thus began a new love affair. My only one. Well, in that context it could be said.

I fitted all kinds of snazzy appendages, and rode my bike everywhere. I discovered new tracks and new ways of getting places. I rode to and from Joetsu City a few times. I began riding to my visit schools seven and thirteen kilometres away and when my town found out I was promptly banned from doing so because it was considered abunai (dangerous). Even when the snows arrived in January I would ride to school most days. I was taken aside by a teacher and had the inherent dangers pointed out to me. I told them it was okay because I had ‘snow tyres’. With a knowing nod, and a quick wakarimashita (I understand), it was then okay with them too.

I rode around nearby Sado Island twice. The second time I missed the ferry by a few minutes and slept on the concrete outside the terminal overnight waiting for the first boat out in the morning. I was the only transport on board and all the port employees waiting to direct traffic off the ferry laughed as a lone gaijin on his bike came rumbling out from the hold. My students admired my dexterity of being able to ride through the rail underpass near the school without having to push up one side, and tried to emulate me on their mama chari.

My gruesome mama chari was now mainly used for shopping trips or left at the eki (train station) when I went away for weekends. It was borrowed by Tom, a friend from the next town, about a year after I arrived and later it vanished from out the front of Itoigawa eki. Its gomi pile replacement, which was in much better condition, did the same a few months later from Omi eki. The new bike I had on sold to Joanne disappeared from outside her adult English class one night, but after an ‘intensive’ police search was recovered from a gomi pile a few weeks later. As far as I know Maruishi-san (the bike shop owner in Joetsu) is still plying his trade on Nakamachi, and still afraid of drunk gaijin perusing his stock.

Chapter continues...

Further related reading by the same author:

The Shanghai Bikeman plus Time Warps, Broken Dreams & Endless Greenery


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A "life in Japan" on the "JET Program" book

Tags:Life in Japan, Jitensha, Books, Cycling, Travel, JET Application, My Mother is a Tractor, mama chari, Joetsu City, Takada, Sado Island, mountain bikes

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