This time last year we were lighting up frosty Melbourne nights with the inaugural Winter Lights Ride, performed by a great bunch of enthusiastic bike riders: Sarah Newman was one of them and decided to leave the Australian homeland behind to set out to discover a new (bicycle) culture, in Japan.
Where do you live, what’s your area like?
For the past 6 months I’ve been living in Shimokitazawa, which is Inner West Tokyo. There is a distinctive lack of neon signage here in contrast to Shibuya or Shinjuku [both only a 20 minute ride away]. It’s quite an eclectic neighborhood which is renowned for vintage goods. Be it books, clothes, records or furniture, you can find it all at Shimokitazawa, but you’d better like brown and orange!!
It’s easy to get disorientated in the labyrinth of tiny lanes, basically too narrow for cars! They do however accommodate a never ending flow of people, on foot, bicycle, skateboard or scooter.
What brought you here, what makes you wanna stay?
I was drawn to this area because I felt it drew somewhat of a parallel with my previous residence, Northcote/Melbourne. Of course it’s totally different!!! But I could relate to the general style pallet and lifestyle of the residences. I took comfort in that.
Around the corner from my house is a great Bike and Skate shop (The swinging House/ 25 LAS). The guys that work there are all cool cats, yet totally unpretentious! Its basically two businesses being run from the one store. As is often the way, it’s somewhat of a destination in the local bike/skate community. I usually pass by every day on my way to and from work, resulting in a quick ‘Ohayou’ [Good morning]. These little interactions make me feel like I’m really a part of something.
When and why did you start bike riding in Tokyo?
Perhaps my primary motivation for coming to Japan was to explore and enjoy it’s thriving urban bicycle culture. In Melbourne a few of my friends work as bicycle messengers. Thanks to the yearly Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) there is a strong global network of likeminded bike enthusiasts. I worked hard at establishing my ‘friends of friends’ contacts, as a result I managed to make friends in many major cities.
I actually brought my bike over with me from Melbourne. After initially spending 4 weeks in Osaka I cycled to Tokyo via Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Shizoaka, and Yokohama. I stayed the night in hostels and at some bike messenger offices. The journey took a week, I did it by myself, and although it was sometimes tough, completing the challenge certainly was personally satisfying. They day I arrived in Tokyo I was so exhausted I cried in the reception of the Yoyogi Youth Hostel!
How does it feel like to ride around in Tokyo?
Japans attitude to cycling is completely different to Australia’s. In Japan everyone cycles, and they have done for centuries. I would estimate that 70% of Japanese own and regularly ride a bike. The most common type of bicycle here is a Mammachari; a cheaply made step through bicycle with an array of baskets and child seats haphazardly attached! I often marvel and cringe when I see one of these things loaded up like a donkey – A child on the front AND back, numerous bags piled up, and somewhere buried underneath a petite Japanese woman is peddling hard! In Australia there is a much more antagonism between cyclists and motorists, but in Japan most people are on the train or their Mammachari. The roads are full of taxis.
Keirin Track bike racing is also the most popular form of gambling in Japan. As the sport developed and improved over decades past, so too did the array of purpose hand built frames. Whilst Keirin is mainly a spectators sport, it captures the interest and fascination of bike enthusiast’s world over. In the 90’s some mechanics started building up ex-racing frames for use on the street, the start of the urban fixed-gear revolution in Japan.
In the Major cities of Japan sport and track bikes are becoming very fashionable with the younger generations. There is a healthy bicycle subculture here which means if you know the right people you can play bike polo every week and race an Alleycat once a month. There are also tri-annual open days at the Keirin Velodromes. It’s also extremely social. There are more than 7 messenger companies in Tokyo, and they are very unified. Each month all the messengers and their friends will come together at a dispatch office in Shibuya for a party – It’s amazing! There is also a strong creative streak amongst this community, and there seems to be a never ending list of exhibition opening parties to attend.
Apart from beer they love nothing more than a good dress-up group ride. I remember the day after I arrived in Tokyo everyone met at Tokyo tower for a group Halloween ride. The costumes were insane!!! As about 40 cartoon characters, ghosts and celebrity look a likes cycled through the neon lit streets of Ginza,Shibuya and Harajuku I had to pinch myself [hard!]. When Christmas rolled around they were at it again!!!
One messenger even wore a Rudolph jumpsuit all day as he cycled the company cargo-bike! Everyone was under strict instruction to refer to it as his sleigh! It was hysterical!
Anything that you would want to introduce in Melbourne?
In all honesty, I do enjoy the freedom of not having to wear a helmet, even though I know it’s to my own avail! But that aside, I think there is a definite lack of themed dress-up group rides in Melbourne!
In case we want to visit, where do you recommend riding to?
Natural Cycles in Kyoto is easily the most interesting bike shop I have ever encountered! It is owned and run by Kishimoto-san and his wife. Both are fine artists and musicians.
When recruiting for staff the primary requirements are focused on the applicant’s musical ability. The team doubles as a music ensemble that make good use of the recording studio on the shops mezzanine. Bike mechanic skills are irrelevant as new starters simply begin an apprenticeship. Kishimoto-san takes a creative approach to everything he does; he was in fact one of the previously mentioned pioneers, early on converting ex- Keirin bikes for the use of local Kyoto messengers.
Here a video of my friend 84kick [ha-chi-yon ki-ku] Professional trick rider, fixed gear free-style and some Tokyo scenery.