Mamachari Cruisin’

I was so sure that I had passed. I didn’t drive for two hours all the way up here for nothing. When I stepped out of the white sedan the tester took me off to the side and rattled down a list of things I needed to revise or improve. Once again, I failed the driving test in Mito.

I didn’t even know what to feel this time. I had been driving in Japan for a year now and over four years on the other side of the road. If I had really been that bad of a driver, I would have probably gotten into an accident or written up for a traffic violation by now. I was angry and felt helpless. I didn’t see a reason for me to take the test again. I figured I would just fail it again anyway.

All of these things were happening at once:

  • My international driver’s permit was expiring in a few weeks.
  • My August paycheck (paid at the end of September) was gonna be super low due to summer break.
  • My glasses had broken once again from playing basketball on Tuesday nights. So I had stopped playing; my only way of staying in shape at the time.

It all seemed like a sign. Maybe if a got a bike, all of these problems would be resolved. I could save rental car and gas money. Exercise would become a part of my daily commute; rather something I only found time for on Tuesdays. And the likelihood of breaking my glasses while biking was fairly low. It all made sense. Buy a bike and start pedaling everywhere and anywhere I needed to be.

I gave my company notice for my decision and spent the next two weeks on the hunt for a stylin’ yet affordable two-wheeler. I  went to the Mega Don Quixote; a discount store that sells just about anything you can think of. Anything but bikes, that is. I searched forever and came across skateboards, roller skates, tires, and just about anything with wheels, but no bicycles. In a  sporting goods store nearby I also came up empty. “This is madness!” I jokingly said to myself. Japan is a biking country. All my students bike to school. I see salarymen and women in the morning biking to the station. There’s even not one, but four bike parking lots surrounding the entrance to Sanuki Station. Everyone has to be getting these bikes from somewhere. Later I tried the local Keiyo D2 (a place that gives me an idea of what Wal-Mart and Lowe’s would look like combined). Tucked away in a quiet corner of the store, I found the bike section.

There were all kinds of bikes in the area. From the big heavy metal ones with grocery baskets in the front, to the deluxe mom-cycles with one or more baby seats. Surprisingly, they also had a few uniquely designed bicycles. They looked cool, but none of them seemed functional or comfortable. And then there were the bikes I’ve seen just about everyone ride. Those silver-framed, big-bone bicycles with wire baskets in the front. Silver coverings over the tires to keep mud from shooting up your back on a rainy day. A shiny metal platform jutting out of the back for strapping down packages. It was the functional, utilitarian, mamachari.

When I’d see my students riding these bikes home, they seemed so clunky and difficult to ride. I didn’t want to get a mamachari, because just about everyone had one. Yet I didn’t want to get something cool-looking but useless. Days went by, and still I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Finally, I caved and brought a tall, silver mamachari for about 20,000 yen (~$200). Realizing that I would no longer have a car in a week, I began to see why these bicycles were so popular among commuters.

Upon returning to D2 and choosing a bike, there was lengthy inspection process. The store clerk checked every single square inch of the bicycle, and tweaked things until they were in perfect riding condition. After a whole lot of bows and thanks you’s for my patronage, I rode the bike out of the store. My first time riding on one in a few years it seemed.

Man, if long summer drives through the countryside felt freeing, a bicycle invokes a whole new type of liberation. This is more than just rolling a window down to get some air. I am in and of the elements. The wind at my back, raindrop splotches on my lenses, bugs flying into my mouth…Ryugasaki might just take the city out of me yet.

My Mamachari

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