Before coming to Japan, I’d went to visit a friend in New York, and joined him and his friends on a bike trip in Poughkeepsie. I needed a bike, so we went to his friend’s, a girl about my height, to borrow her single speed. It was quite a ride, with hills that challenged my body that I hadn’t been taking good care of. But I had so much fun, coasting on the empty roads and feeling the wind on my face, that I was determined to do the same in Japan. I didn’t know what kind of bike I wanted, except that it had to be light with a quick release front wheel.
When I came to Japan, the school was required to get a mama-chari for me. For a common bike, it was pretty expensive, starting at a little more than $100 for a single-gear mama-chari. I got a new mama-chari for a little only one available under $250, with 3 speeds.
I was really excited to ride a mama-chari at first. I felt like I was riding a beach cruiser, and I could get to school in the humid heat without worrying about being a sweaty mess. But it soon lost its charm. Mama-charis are built for stability, so its frames are heavy steel, their wheels are wide for traction. They are also built for moms, so when you buy them, they come standard with aluminum chain guards, which I’ve built a certain hatred towards, metal fenders, a rear upright kickstand, a rear wheel lock, a rear rack, a dynamo light on your front wheel, and a basket.
As I got stronger and more used to biking, the mama-chari felt slow and sluggish. I really wanted something light to feel that cool air in my face again, but I wasn’t ready to fork out a couple thousand dollars for a professional road bike. I am an urban girl through and through, with a taste for earthiness.
An acquaintance who knew more about bikes than I did took me to his favorite bike shops. The first sold GIANT bikes and Cannondales. Their catalog had a couple of single-speed bikes, but they seemed heavy at an average of 13kg, and expensive to boot.
And then we visited 9NINE. Oh my god, did it feel like home. While the shop interior was comforting, I had no idea what I was doing and wanted. It was intimidating, even though the store owner was really inviting. All I could say was I was just looking.
Winter came and went and I walked. When the snow melted, I was in the market again for a bike again. I happened upon the Fuji Feather on the Internet, and fell for its sexy urban marketing. I was still reluctant to get it, and searched for places where I could see and ride one in person. Getting to a bike store that had it in stock took too much time and was too much trouble and I really wanted to get started.
I decided I would buy it after making a visit to 9NINE, which I hadn’t done since the first time. In my terrible Japanese, I told the owner that I was planning to get the Feather, but wanted to see if he carried frames my size. We tested the smallest bike he had in stock, and it was still too big for me. I gave in at the point, and told the owner I would buy the Feather, and whether I could I it delivered to his store in case one had to put it together. He readily agreed.
Once I got the bike, the owner slowly introduced me to his group of friends and invited me to their rides around Lake Inawashiro, their BBQs, and drinking parties. A lot of the guys, shy and quiet, work for the post office, and the loud ones are business owners who own an American car dealership. In the past, the bike shop owner and the car dealer used to resell fashion they bought in LA boutiques. That’s how you hustle in Japan!
Only one other person on the rides is a girl, the wife of the childhood friend of the owner. Thanks to her, I feel more relaxed around the guys, and she’s is unexpectedly fit for a nerdy sort of person, so she’s like my unofficial pace-setter.
I still take the mama-chari to the bus and train stations when I go out of town, or when I can’t carry everything in a rucksack.