Bicycles in Japan

I was impressed with the number of bicycles I saw in Japan. Bike parking lots in cities both large and small were huge and usually full of bikes.

Coming from a city that consistently rates as one of the most bike-friendly in the US, I was pretty impressed with the volume of bicycles I saw in Japan. That being said, there were some marked differences I observed about bikes and how they are used in Japan.

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Safety

_DSC1697In the US, one rarely sees a cyclist of any age riding without a helmet. Indeed, there are many laws that require the use of helmets in the US, at least for children. I cannot recall seeing anyone wearing a helmet in Japan while cycling. On the other hand, I never saw anyone riding a bike on any major streets. I only saw them on sidewalks and on the shoulders of neighborhood streets. Indeed, signs intended to warn pedestrians and cyclists of the dangers of traffic on major streets were downright frightening.

_DSC2899I never saw anyone in a major hurry on a bike. People on bikes were usually riding at a comfortable speed, and not pushing themselves to perspiration-generating exertion. So the risks of cycling in Japan may be lower due to less direct interaction with traffic and generally lower speeds.

Bikes on Buses and Trains

In my bike-friendly city, every city bus has a bike rack and trains have hooks on which to hang bikes. Often, a bicyclist may ride his or her bike to a bus stop, board the bus, exit the bus, then use the bike to reach a final destination.

I never saw a bike brought onto a bus or a train in Japan. Most cyclists seemed to be going to and from work or school, or running a simple errand. Since public transportation is so efficient and extensive in Japan, the necessity for taking your bike on the train or bus is probably low. Indeed, many Japanese people likely have no trouble making do without owning either a bike or a car.

Security

Heavy bike chains and U-locks are ubiquitous in the US, and you rarely see a bike parked or left unattended without it being securely locked to a heavy bike rack, bar, or post. Even so, bike theft is a big problem in the US and, sadly, bike thieves are rarely caught and prosecuted.

In Japan, I often saw bikes parked on their kickstands with no bike rack or heavy lock in sight. There might have been a small ring lock on the rear fender to prohibit the rear wheel from spinning, but such locks were so lightweight, so flimsy, that I wouldn’t have needed bolt cutters to disable them.

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You can barely make out the rear wheel lock. It is a small chrome arch just under the seat.

On the other hand, I also didn’t see fancy, expensive bikes in Japan. In the U.S., people may spent hundreds or thousands of dollars for bikes with high-tech and lightweight frames, disk brakes, advanced gear systems, bike computers and lights, clipless pedals, paniers, and so on, but in Japan all the bikes I saw looked to be pretty utilitarian. Many appeared to be at least ten years old and downright drab … but reliable.

I have no idea whether bike theft is a major problem in Japan, but based on the casualness of where I saw bikes parked and the overall lack of cyclist ostentation (in bike, gear, and riding), coupled with the generally low crime rate in Japanese society, I suspect the level of bike theft (and therefore the need for bike security) to be extremely low.

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Long Time Passing

It has been nearly a month since my last blog entry. I know some of you have enjoyed reading my observations and experiences, and I continue to try to think of engaging and thoughtful things to share. If you like what I have written and want more, please let me know. If there are any topics in particular you find interesting or would like me to explore, please let me know. You may comment here or send me email. Thank you for your interest.

Picture Bride

Ojiisan (grandfather) came to America in 1904. He was 24 years old and came in the bottom of a boat crowded with no beds, compartments, or privacy. “It was just like a cattle ship,” he said.

He worked on the railroad and saved up enough to buy land. He settled in Hood River, OR, and purchased marginal land he cleared and on which he built a quarter-mile road to using horse, dynamite, and hand tools. He built a rustic house with cracks in the wall and no insulation.
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After several years he wrote his mother saying he was ready to marry, and she sent him several pictures of eligible brides. Arranged marriages were the norm and still occur today; one of my friends with whom I went to high school had an arranged marriage. My grandmother, a picture bride, came over on a boat to Seattle with forty other picture brides in 1911.

When we retold this story to my Japanese relatives earlier this year, they assumed it was an arranged marriage. Although it was arranged in a way, the concept of a picture bride was completely foreign to them. Normally, arranged marriages involve formal meetings between the families, and eventually between the prospective bride and groom. Circumstances prevented my grandfather from meeting his intended. He could only view a photograph and rely on his relatives back home to make the arrangements.

Nearly fifty years later, my grandmother’s side of the story came out when she was asked by my father’s mother how she felt about going to a foreign land to marry a stranger. Not surprisingly, she didn’t want to.

Normally she would have no say in the matter; what one’s parents said was the law. But her parents must have been fairly progressive, because they gave her a choice. So why did she come?

My great-grandmother visited my grandmother’s family and asked her go to America to marry her son. She said, “no.” My great-grandmother returned several times, and each time, my grandmother, who by all accounts was a very timid and shy woman, refused. Finally, my great-grandmother got on her knees, cried, and begged her to go to America, and she replied, “oh well, all right, then.” She was 19 years old when she immigrated.

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This story and the story of my grandparents’ life in America is included in my mother’s book, Made In Japan and Settled in Oregon. It is currently available only from her, though copies sometimes pop up on Amazon and at other used bookstore locations.

It is my and my brother’s intention to republish the book with more stories and pictures, and make it available through online bookstores. It will take time, but it will happen.

Kabuki

While we were visiting friends on the island of Shikoku, our hostess looked at various events and discovered that the Tokyo Kabuki theater comes to Shikoku and performs during the month of April in the historic Konpira Grand Theater (金毘羅大芝居). This is the oldest original Kabuki theater in Japan and is located in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture. Other kabuki theaters were damaged or destroyed due to earthquakes and the bombings of WWII.

After parking and climbing a hill, we arrived at the courtyard in front of the theater. Vendors encircled the yard selling souvenirs, drinks, and food. After making our way up through the line we entered the theater, removed our shoes, and placed them into numbered slots. This was something we saw in many places: museums, shrines, baths, etc. We then climbed steep wooden stairs to the balcony, and made our way to our seats, which were excellent: center, balcony. (I shudder to imagine how much our tickets cost, which of course our hosts insisted on paying.)

The seats were flat spaces with thin cushions. At least there were chair backs against which to lean, but for us Westerners, especially tall ones like me, I had to shift many times between cross-legged style and legs to the side to survive the entire performance. Certainly my knees were thankful during intermission and at the end to stretch when I could stand again.

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The lower seats. Note audience members “walking the plank” to their seats

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Below us people sat in similar flat square seats with seat backs. But instead of aisles, people had to walk along narrow plank catwalks to get to their seats. Between the tall stairs and narrow catwalks, one must remain lithe, limber, and well-balanced to visit the kabuki theater!

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The ceiling of the theater was covered with many lanterns that sported beautiful designs, possible family crests known as kamon ( 家紋).

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The vacant corner seat for the percussionist

Seated at the far right edge of the stage was a woodblock percussionist. As curtain time approached, he would hit a woodblock once. As the time got closer, he struck twice, then thrice, then multiple times as the curtain was quickly opened. Instead of rising, the curtain was whisked quickly to one side like a drapery on a curtain rod.

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Following tradition, all the roles were played by male actors. Those who played women were amazing in their movements and voices. If one did not know, they might easily be unaware there were no female actors.

The play was “Ise Ondo Koi No Netaba,” first performed in 1796. It was based on an actual murder and involved a spurned lover, revenge, foiled plans, a geisha house, and a cursed, bloodthirsty sword.

As the main actors entered the stage, it was common for members of the audience to clap. It reminded me of melodrama plays I’d seen where there was interaction between audience and the characters on stage. When players ran off the stage, the woodblock percussionist would often clack the blocks in time to their running footsteps.

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During intermission, we pulled out our boxed lunches and drinks and consumed them at our seats.

Although the whole play was in Japanese, we were given English programs that described of the plot. The costumes and sets were bright and colorful; and again, the female characters were amazingly acted by the male actors.

Kabuki is not inexpensive, but if you have the chance to see it, it’s quite an experience!

Cha no yu

We drank a lot of tea during our month in Japan. One time we enjoyed a special treat in the form of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony, called “cha no yu” (茶の 湯 literally, “boiling water tea”) is a very formal and stylized ceremony in which powdered green tea (matcha 抹 茶) is prepared and served to guests. It is a very beautiful ceremony to watch. Japanese people of all ages study and practice cha no yu for years.

Our ceremony was performed by one of my mother’s former students. She learned English from my mother almost 60 years ago, and we laughed a little when we realized this was the first time she ever heard my mother speak Japanese. When my mother taught, she spoke only English and indeed convinced most of her students she knew no Japanese.

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We were ushered into a tatami mat room that had a small hole in the center of the space. In the hole, hot coals heated a pot of water. This sunken hearth is called a ro (炉) . I understand that the tea ceremony and the configuration of the room will change depending on the season of the year.

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We were offered small treats of homemade dried persimmon and other snacks while our hostess carefully and gracefully went through a sequence of steps. She drew hot water from the pot and used it with a washcloth to clean the tea bowl. She carefully measured out the powdered green tea from its beautiful lacquered container, added the boiling hot water, then used the bamboo whisk to stir and whisk the tea, which carefully dissolved the powered tea and created a froth.

Once the tea preparation was complete, the tea bowl was offered to a guest. As is customary with any offering, the bowl is presented with two hands and received with both hands. It is also good form to take a moment to admire the beauty of the bowl in which the tea is offered by turning it your hands. Irregularities and imperfections in the bowl are highly prized.

I loved watching our hostess prepare each person’s bowl of tea. Not only were her movements graceful, as in a ballet, but even when she set things down or aside, there was a choreography to her moments. When she set down the beautiful bamboo water dipper, it was carefully balanced upside down on top of the tea pot. When not in use, the delicate curved bamboo tea “spoon” was balanced atop the lacquered tea container. The bamboo whisk was stood upright on its handle, ready for its next use. Every movement was planned and executed with deliberation and grace.

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And the tea tasted wonderful.

If you ever have the chance to attend a cha no yu, I highly recommend it!