“Can you ride a bicycle?” must be the dumbest question anyone could ask a citizen of Himeji city, western Japan.
“Did you grease today?”
Now you’re learning.
See, in my city, two wheels are king. Citizen Rider rules. In fact, you could say the place runs on rice, takuan and two wheels.
The lay of the land encourages it. Save for a few small mounds (which people call mountains), Himeji is as flat as a teppanyaki grill, with narrow streets cut with alleyways and a vast underground parking lot manned by cheery old men in powder blue vests.
True, the family car is an extension of the family home in Japan. Yet no citizen will deny that cycling is cleaner, cheaper and faster in rush hour AND, when the sun goes down, can be used under the influence of alcohol (but don’t quote me on that).
Citizen Rider is vaguely aware of the road rules, like some nagging little detail they once learned but can’t quite remember. So to all of YOU reading this and contemplating a visit to this great city, I say “When in Rome...” forget the helmet, ride on the sidewalk, the wrong side of the road even, do it while smoking, talking on a cell phone, holding an umbrella, with a case of beer in your front basket and your date on the back.
Seriously though, what makes the bicycle the proletariat’s choice is its versatility. It is packhorse, child carrier, people mover and treadmill to the half million of Himeji city.
In the Good Hood, north of Himeji Castle and my home for the past 14 years, people are not so much upwardly mobile as they are simply ‘mobile.’ Outside my door runs a street that should be called the Hood Chi Minh Trail for the amount of two-wheeled traffic it serves. Along this narrow stretch of blacktop comes and goes a host of familiar faces: the orange-haired kid with the pop singer’s voice, the dawn-riding opera singer (an elderly Puccini fan), the three complaining housewives (always three abreast), the chuckling kitchen gardeners who waft onions, the Funabiki Barber boys with their coconut haircuts, and the list rolls on.
Oh yeah, and then there’s me, the token foreigner on a peach-coloured ladies’ bicycle named “Sweet Libs”. This classic beauty is on extended loan from a friend of mine. So each time the cops pull me over for a random check of the serial number, I have to unwind a story so long their eyes glaze over like mackerel in a fish market. They quietly slip away, nodding politely.
Can’t blame them. For pulling me over, that is. You see, years ago, the city was besieged by a gang of bicycle thieves. That was the summer of ‘99 and I lost three bicycles--and one the following year--to sticky fingers. Word on the street was that the hot bikes were being shipped to hot countries in the southeast and even North Korea. A police crackdown choked their operation, but to this day I still wonder if some radish farmer north of the DMZ isn’t whistling happily home on a set of wheels that once turned to my rhythm.
There are half a million people in Himeji city. Almost everyone has a bicycle. Unfortunately not everyone loves their bicycle, and here and there you find them, abandoned, saddleless, half-submerged in the silt of Semba River or the Himeji Castle moat, or stripped to their frame in some vacant lot. How could you not love a bicycle that goes by the name “Fat Cat”, or “Ferrari”, or “Fromage”, or “Vincent”, or “Mimolett,” and my personal favourite, “Eleanor.”
Next week: The Good Hood erupts with summer festival fever. Stay tooned.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!