Ladies Start Your Engines- Culture Lesson #9

13 million people live in Tokyo, roughly half are women. Every week day morning, millions of these women put on a suit, make up, high heels, wrap a scarf around the neck, walk outside, and tear off to work riding a Mama Cheri. The mama cheri, a form of mass transportation in Japan, is a bike ridden on the sidewalk, side by side, with all the other pedestrians. Think New York City with half the sidewalk filled with walkers, the other bikers. Only everyone is polite. Unlike a mountain or road bike, the rider sits higher up in order to see above the heads of walkers- like a tricycle. Ubiquitous in Japan, the mama cheri permeates every level of society. In spite of the ever-present chaos on the sidewalks, these vehicles weave fluently among the walking commuters in a city where all inhabitants stake a continual claim on this space. Until I bought one.

January marked the start of our 6th month in Japan with full assimilation celebrated by the purchase of a mama cheri. MY mama cheri replaces the commodious station wagon abandoned behind. Full cargo set up for maximum hauling.  Tokyo refrigerators resemble the one from your dorm room thus daily trips to the grocery store are a necessity.  Although I appreciate my new Jillian Michaels’ arms, I’d like to shave some time off the hour daily trip.

Night riding? An environmentally friendly, solar-powered light illuminates the path.

Of course a bell on the handle bar alerts pesky pedestrians I’m on their tail and this built-in lock is a new “Must have”. No more clunky chains.

I coveted a bright pink bike similar to this Peugeot- minus the baby seat on the back:

I passed on it- my teeth and the electric motor would have given me away as an American.

Plus it looked a tad complicated to operate in a panic situation.

As there is in every culture- some sort of van exists. Horse drawn carriages, covered wagons- they’ve evolved through the ages. Mama cheri van. Frequently a baby is also snuggling blissfully on mom’s chest. Here it is. Space for 4.

The comfort ride for the lux toddler.

Andretti-san says in his neighborhood all the mom’s have umbrellas on the mama cheris. Slurs were thrown claiming the women dressed from head to toe in pink leopard print. Further assertions from the fastest driver in town also known to run over mama cheri riders crossing streets claimed that “these women” wore full face coverage visors “impeding their vision” and in some instances had windshields installed. HMPHHH!!! I asked for pictures.

I have seen some designer mama cheris with color coordination.

Here’s the rub. 13 million people in Tokyo, at least half riding mama cheris, the other half walking, and most ExPats haven’t ridden a bike on a sidewalk since the age of 10. Shortly after our arrival, I met a woman with multiple broken bones in her leg. Unnecessary roughness with a parked cab. Fresh off the plane from Michigan.

Next issue. Many ExPats, myself included, don’t own a car. Without a car, one tends to lose all navigational abilities. I bought this new death trap in Shibuya- only 20 minutes from my apartment. The salesman and I bowed our goodbyes, I left with my new mama cheri and had no idea how to get home.

Within 3 minutes of my trek home, a walker abruptly decided to make a hard left in to my path. Front tire grazed his pants. “Gomen nasai” Next came a woman, her dog fully extended on a retractable leash taking the entire the width of the sidewalk. They left me no options. I ran over the leash, choked the dog, and heard the leash clatter to the ground as I passed. Japan is a “drive left”, “walk left” nation but for some reason it’s not clear as to which side is correct for passing as it’s dependent on the person. This is difficult on a bike. Chicken was played several times as I tried to decide on which side of the pedestrian I should be when the oncoming bike approached. Indecision caused my 45 lb purse to shift in the front basket, offsetting my balance, sending me in to a gaggle of women. Brakes screeched as I headed toward them. All of their mouths opened in a collective “O” as I barreled in. They were fine but I crashed my bike for the first time. Dang it. Then came a biker on my tail. Couldn’t he just go around me on the street? Endless stream of pedestrians- constant weaving in and out. And lots of bikes all of whom choosing which side to pass. Which set my purse off kilter again throwing off my balance. Good thing the Offspring are too old to hitch a ride. Someone would go to bed crying. Or nauseous.

I’m now just pointing the bike toward a tall building in my neighborhood. My initial outing left me needing a drink- and a Valium.

Only one person had the answers to Japan’s most complicated questions- The Tasmanian Bloodhound- knower of all things.

Ouiser-     “On which side do you pass?”

TB-            “Tough one- you have to be the first one to make the move.”

Ouiser-     “Where do you park?”

TB-            “Always go with the flow and park where other bikes are, don’t park                                 beside a building in the financial district, but don’t park by the street in                         Shibuya or Shinjuku. One time I lost my bike for several days and thought                     it was stolen- someone had just picked it up and moved it to bike                                     parking.”

Ouiser-      “I don’t think I would recognize my bike. I’ll have to take a picture of it.”                          I’m not extremely caught up in certain details.

TB-             “If you get a ticket they tow your bike.”

Ouiser-      “WTF? No paying first?”

TB-             “You have to go to the bike parking lot by our house and pick it up.”

Ouiser-      “How do you know it’s there?”

TB-             “You don’t- that time mine was moved- I thought I had gotten a ticket and                      went to the lot to look for it. It wasn’t there. Thought it was nicked. Then                      road Skater’s bike to that same store, parked his in the same spot and                            HIS was gone, went back to the ticket lot and the guy told me to look in                          the bike parking area.  Someone had picked up both bikes and moved ’em                      to bike parking 30 feet away. Wasn’t that nice? So Japanese.”

Apparently a GPS tracking device is needed since everyone feels free to move bikes when necessary. If the bikes don’t have the installed locking device, many don’t lock the bikes at all. Crime rate is virtually zero in Japan. In fact, Offspring #2 and I were at the grocery store only to find a parked mama cheri which contained a sleeping baby. By himself. While his mother shopped. He was so cute- his hair stuck straight up. O#2 was so upset I had to wait outside the grocery store- in stealth mode- until the mother came out and rode away. I do hope it was his mother as the bike was not locked. I told O#2 I was sure it was his mother because they looked exactly alike.

Anyway, Offspring #1 rode my mama cheri to the store this morning for hot chocolate mix and was hooked until he saw his reflection in a store window and realized it did not fit with the current image he has of himself. When I see my reflection, I see it as assimilation.

This entry was posted in Culture Lessons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Ladies Start Your Engines- Culture Lesson #9

  1. Given the chaos you’re creating with your Mama Cheri, it’s probably a good thing that you DON’T have a car! 😉

    Interesting to read about the low crime rate in Japan. I was in Northern Europe one year and I also saw women leaving prams and strollers (with their kids inside), outside of stores. Not sure, even if the crime rate was very low, that I’d be able to do that.


    • amblerangel says:

      I’m still stunned at the lack of crime here. That said- I would NEVER leave my child strapped in a bike outside of a store- anywhere. I started to take a picture of it due to the surreal nature of the experience however even that felt criminal…. How’s the well deserved chaos at your site? SO happy for you…and a plant mystery solved in the process!


  2. sweffling says:

    What a riot! You made my morning, thanks 🙂 I would never have believed bike riding could be so complicated.


  3. This is a fabulous post! Entertaining and informative at the same time–not always easy to pull off–so congrats on that.

    I find this particularly fascinating having lived in Vietnam and “tried” to ride a bike there–more like failed! There people drive motor bikes on the sidewalks–use the sidewalk like an extra lane of traffic–crazy–and no one is polite–everyone is out for the kill! I rode my bike 3 or 4 times and gave up in terror!

    Safe in Port-au-Prince,


  4. cam smith says:

    I am in STITCHES!!!!!!!!! Love this Em!


  5. Training4now says:

    This actually makes me reconsider wanting a bike now. LOL I loved it though. Is the crime really low? That’s kinda nice with so many people around. I can’t wait to read the next one.


  6. That is a lovely culture lesson on the Japanese. I am sorry to say that I do not know how to ride a bike. The first time I tried it, I fell down and broke my arm. That cured me of my desire to learn biking.


  7. Ashmore says:

    A friend’s husband is an avid biker. He says their are two categories of bikers: “Those Who Have Had Wrecks” and “Those Who Are Going to Have A Wreck.” He was hit by a car (he’s fine now)…glad you got all that out of the way without involving a two ton steel monster going 60mph.

    As for navigation…what about a Garmin clipped to the handlebars? You don’t have to worry about it getting stolen either!


  8. Michi says:

    I want a Mami Cheri!!

    Apparently the crime rate is very low in Denmark as well. I met a fellow traveler from a small town of Denmark who told me that it is also quite common for mothers to leave their babies outside in their strollers or in their baby bike seats while they go shopping.

    Your posts only keep making me want to move to Japan even more!


  9. Jo says:

    Hi amblerangel,

    Congratulations on being FP & all the best for moving forward during this challenging road ahead in Japan with the aftermath of the earthquake.

    I have now read some of your well-written and entertaining posts. Several times I have caught myself laughing, especially when reading your accounts on the Culture Lessons. It is interesting how there are such large culture differences between countries but how in some cases similarities can also be drawn – like Michi’s reference to Denmark.



    • amblerangel says:

      Thanks for reading! We’ve so enjoyed living here and as you can tell have had lots of fun!! Learning the culture has been a wild ride but the Japanese people are so nice they make it as easy as possible in spite of all my constant bumbling around…


  10. What a great post! Here I thought learning to ride my new bike (basket included) in downtown Calgary was challenging.


    • After I hit the garbage man on the mama cheri I stopped riding it so much. Everyone I know has been involved in some sort of an “incident”- mainly due to the heavy traffic- hahah. Thanks for reading!


  11. Hi instantly concept i’d know you something.. This really is twice at the current i have landed by your blog in the last 2 many years hunting for absolutely unrelated equipment. Spooky otherwise what?


  12. Pingback: Expat Blogging via Haute Couture (A Tale you don’t Dare Miss) | reinventing the event horizon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s