Saturday, August 23, 2008
A Shiny New Chariot For Madam
My 6-year old bike recently passed the point in rickety-ness where I could no longer continue to use or repair it. We had it fixed a number of times in an attempt to not create more waste. In fact, I believe we probably paid the entire price of it all over again in various repairs, but the last straw was when the seat coils rusted and snapped on one side. Replacing a seat costs close to half of the price of a new bike, and mine was a rattle trap with a cornucopia of little and medium-size problems. We put the old one on the great Viking bicycle barge to Valhalla and bought a new mount.
The CH had spied some cheap (9,000 yen) city/utility bicycles (aka "mama chari") at a local supermarket a short while ago and secured me the vehicle pictured above. My old bike was orange and that may lead you to believe that it was easy to find in a sea of bikes, but the truth is that everyone buys these cheap bikes and there are only a few colors so there are always a lot of duplicates around of any given cheap bike. As I learned on my new bike's maiden voyage, this silver number is no exception to that. There are tons of twins out there for it so sometimes it's like finding your car in a huge lot in which you've forgotten where you've parked.
Incidentally, I tried to track down why these are called "mama chari" (ママチャリ) and found a lot of different explanations and highly varied translations. I always thought that "chari" was short for "chariot" and the nickname for these low-budget models was rather waggishly offered. Others have claimed that "chari" means "bicycle" in Japanese, but the only word I know for bicycle is "jitensha".
These bikes are decent transportation, but they are clearly designed for someone with a smaller frame than the average foreigner, even the average foreign female. The span of the handlebars is a little too short and the bars themselves relative to the position of the seat are too low. That is, when I put the seat at the proper height for comfortable leg extension while peddling, my knees nearly hit the handlebars. The bike was clearly designed for people with a shorter reach and shorter legs, and I'm not particularly tall or short for a foreign woman. They obviously are designed for the petite Japanese housewife (possibly even with the ever-shrinking older ones in mind), but I'm only running errands, so it's not important that the bike suit me perfectly.
My first major run on the bike was to one of the local markets that specializes in cheap fresh fruit and vegetables. Well, maybe they're not incredibly "fresh" as I believe they are probably cheap because they're not good enough for markets selling more expensive fresh produce. My bike is parked about in the center of the picture above, two bikes away from the bike with a poodle in its basket.
Seeing pets in bike baskets is not uncommon in Tokyo and I always find it troubling for two reasons. First of all, bike parking is always tight near shops because you aren't allowed to park along the sidewalk in many places as its illegal. It's actually illegal to park in this space (that's what the signs say), but everyone does because it's the only space from which this very popular market can be accessed. They only cart your bike away if you park there for over an hour or so. Anyway, because the space is tight and all the bikes have kickstands and brakes on the handles which easily snag other bikes parked as close as possible to them, it's very common for bikes to get knocked over as people struggle to extract them. In fact, the domino effect where one bike goes down and the rest follow occurs on a relatively regular basis. The woman who put her dog in the basket is putting it at serious risk in the event of an accident where bikes all topple over. When I parked, I had to be super careful not to even nudge the bike next to mine lest it fall over and hit the bike with the dog in it.
The other problem is that the dogs are almost always tied to the bike by their leashes and a lead that has been tied in such a way as to be short so the dog can't move around too much. As you can see in the picture above, there's a green lead tied to the bike. If the dog were to jump out of the basket, it could hang itself if the length is just a little incorrect so I think this is really an irresponsible thing to do. I realize that people can't take their dogs into the shops, but I think they should tie them to a pole or some other stationary object rather than leave them in their bicycle baskets like this. Behind this particular market, there is a small park where a dog can safely be tied to a variety of objects, not to mention a pedestrians' only covered shopping street where he could be tied.
Getting back to bikes though, if you look at the parking shot, you'll see a lot of the bikes have huge baskets on the back and the foremost one has what look like black pot holders on the handlebars. The big baskets are often kiddy seats, though sometimes they are extra baskets for carrying purchases. I hate both of these kinds of lumbering monstrosities because they are really hard to navigate around when you park and one of these people comes along and forces their bike into a narrow gap between you and another bike. If there's only a front basket, it's a lot easier to get out in such close, disorganized parking.
As for the pot holder things, in the winter I always think these are to keep hands from freezing, but women use them in the summer as well. My only guess is that they keep them on in the summer to protect their hands from exposure to the sun. Japanese women hate freckles (and tans for the most part), and often wear long sleeves or sweaters in the sweltering summer to keep their skin as white as possible. Personally, I'll take freckles over baking in a sweater in 90 degree (32 degrees C) weather any day.