Mamachari and the Tokyo Picnic Club

Maria and I took the Tokyo Metro across town on Thursday morning to Tokyo University’s Industrial Science campus where I would be giving a presentation to about 15 architecture and urban planning students. We both hadn’t slept enough the night before because we’d been at a street festival with a few of her classmates late into the night. I’d heard and read that festivals are a core part of Japanese culture—and excellent venues to try a smattering of different types of Japanese food—so I couldn’t pass the opportunity up, even though part of me just wanted to lie in bed and read that night.  I’d filled many of the cold, quiet nights on the farm in Scotland reading under a heavy comforter with my feet curled around a hot water bottle. My body greedily absorbed every minute of sleep I allowed it while I was on the farm, but in Tokyo my body refuses to sleep when I ask it to. Part of it is the jet-lag, but part of it is my fault. I simply won’t get in bed and close my eyes at a reasonable hour—there’s been too much to see, too many people to talk to, and too much on my mind.

We get to the festival and there are dancers, drummers, children holding lanterns, groups of men carrying miniature temples, street vendors, and masses of observers. We’re not sure where to go, but then we realize that this blur of people, movement, light, and sound is slowly moving towards a temple off in the distance at the top of a hill. There’s a group of about ten of us now—representing nearly every continent on the globe and each of us with a different accent—and it’s impossible to stay connected to the group amidst the joyful chaos.

Maria, her friend Julio, and I aren’t in a hurry and we let the others get ahead of us. Maria is Brazilian-Japanese and she has a wiry, lean frame that makes the enormous camera she has around her neck look even bigger than it is. I initially thought it was odd that the ATMs in Tokyo provide directions in Portuguese—especially because the only other two options are Japanese or English—but I soon realized that there is a sizable Brazilian/Portuguese population in Tokyo. I learn from Maria that many Japanese immigrated to Brazil before the industrial boom in Japan to work on coffee plantations and a strong connection remains between the two countries today.

Maria snaps photos incessantly. Julio is jovial and talkative. He explains to me what each food vendor is selling; I’ve never seen so much seafood prepared in such a diversity of ways. We pull coins out of our pockets and buy whatever looks good. We pass flimsy plastic trays of food back and forth between each other as we walk down the crowded sidewalks and our hands get covered in grease. “I’m going to finish this, Christine!” Julio warns with a smile as he opens his mouth wide and grips the last few sautéed mushrooms between his chopsticks, slowly guiding them into his mouth. I tell him to finish the mushrooms because soon I’m gnawing on a skewer of chewy grilled squid.

Finally we can’t eat anymore and we’ve arrived at the steps to the temple. The stone stairs are big, uneven and old; Tokyo police officers are stationed every few yards politely warning us to watch our step with a slight bow and a forged smile. Maria jokes that Tokyo police officers have nothing to do. We look back down at the scene below. There are thousands of people behind us and an equal number of camera flashes sparkle.

Pulsating drumming drowns the sound of the crowd out as we arrive to the hilltop courtyard surrounding the temple and inside the temple I can see hundreds of shoe-less people on their knees, drumming. Many people linger in the large courtyard, but Julio yells that he wants to go inside the temple and Maria and I nod. We go up the stairs of the bright red temple and a robed monk points to a box of plastic bags. We each pick up a bag, take our shoes off, and place our shoes in the bag. Then he gives each of us a small drum and a drumstick and guides us onto a platform.  The platform faces a gold, intricately decorated shrine surrounded by offerings of fruit, flowers, bags of rice, and bottles of alcohol. I sit down, first cross-legged, but then realize that everyone else is sitting on their knees with their feet behind them. I put my plastic bag down next to me and get ready to start drumming. Everyone is following the same beat. It’s a very simple beat and monks keep the rhythm consistent as they walk up and down past rows of knelling worshipers with their larger, louder drums.

I start drumming. The task of drumming, the vibration of the drum in my hand, and the omnipresent noise stills my mind. I’m not thinking about biking, my career future, people at home, or what else I need to do while I’m in Japan. I do feel connected to the strangers around me though. I know that they too have worries, fears, hopes, ambitions, and secrets—but this seems to be a collective exercise in temporarily letting go of the inward thoughts we cling to. I’m not entirely sure of the religious symbolism behind the drumming, but it feels good. The three of us drum for a long time and after we leave the temple we all agree that the drumming did something for us. If nothing else, we feel relaxed.

It’s late now. Our bikes are in a secure bike parking facility that closes at midnight and its well after midnight. Julio assures us that we can still get our bikes out. We get there and he puts the number of his parking spot into a machine that is covered with directions in Japanese. Then he puts 100 yen in (about a dollar) and we hear a loud click. His front wheel has been released from his parking spot; we won’t have to leave our bikes overnight. Maria and I pay our fee and the three of us make our way down the now silent streets. We cut through Ueno Park and see the outline of the park’s temple against the backdrop of the brightly light buildings of the larger financial and commercial districts. We can hear some of the animals in the Ueno Park Zoo; the smell of animals and hay drifts over the walls of the zoo and I again think of the farm in Scotland. There is a pond full of lotus flowers that will bloom sometime long after I’ve left Tokyo. I remember talking with Roos in Amsterdam about how her late-night rides home from parties with friends are always the best part of the night for her. Julio and Maria’s unexpected friendship has unlocked Tokyo for me.

Night turns to morning quickly and Maria and I are soon part of the morning bustle on the metro. We arrive at the classroom and I meet Professor Hiroshi. He’s well-dressed and more concerned with getting coffee made for everyone than he is about starting class on-time. I tell him I have 22 slides, but that I can hurry through them, and he tells me to take my time. We do a round of introductions and then I start my presentation. Crafting the presentation made me realize how much I’ve learned and as I speak I realize how much this topic means to me. I explain the problems we have in the United States with sedentary living, cities that are planned for cars, and fossil fuel dependence. The last part of my presentation focuses on bike culture and the social stigma many Americans have about active transportation. I explain that in many parts of the country using a bike is only something you’d do if you were broke, had your driver’s license taken away, or were emulating Lance Armstrong on a Saturday afternoon. I showed this recently released GM ad to make my point.

We ended up discussing active transportation for the entire two hour class. Professor Hiroshi pulled up some recent mode split figures for Tokyo that he created. (Mode split=percentage of travelers using a particular type of transportation.)

Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world with a population of almost 13 million people. Actually seeing what a 13 percent biking mode split looks like in a city as populous as Tokyo just looks like a lot of biking—millions of trips are made by bike every day! But, let’s stop for a minute and talk about trains because trains are a big part of why cycling is so popular in Tokyo. Trains methodically and efficiently move people about Tokyo prefecture and Japan in an almost factory assembly line-fashion. The trains are always on time. Train station escalators have a line of people to the left that stand still for the ride, leaving the right side open for passengers who are pressed for time and need to run up the escalator to their train. Instead of mobbing the opening doors of the metro cars, Tokyo residents form neat lines on the platform and patiently file into the train cars when the doors open. The trains are meticulously clean, generally very safe, and great places to be rocked to sleep by the swaying of the train. The train system in Tokyo has played a big role in how the city has developed and the complete network of routes is an essential part of what makes car-free living possible.

Bikes (especially ones with baskets) are an important part of the car-free lifestyle too because they make trips around the neighborhood that are too short for a metro ride, but too long for walking, quick and easy. I’ve mistaken grocery stores and ramen houses for bike shops more than once since I arrived in Tokyo because of the sheer number of bikes parked outside of them.

Outside of a restaurant in the Kichijoji ward.

Professor Hiroshi explains to me that in Japan they call utility bikes mamachari, or mom bikes.  “You know, for carrying vegetables, meat, and babies,” he says. “But lots of men and people who aren’t moms ride them too!” I protest. He and the rest of the class laughs and they describe a concept that has already been explained to me many times in Holland and Denmark. “Mamachari just means that you aren’t using the bike for sport, you’re biking to get around and run errands,” one of the students in the class says. Mamachari bikes are relatively cheap ($200-500 USD unless it’s an e-bike version) and disposable. My friend Junji says that in the Kichijoji ward where he lives close to 48,000 bikes are abandoned every year.  

There are, however, plenty of people who bike for speed and ride custom-built, slick bikes that are hardy disposable. There is a fixie sub-culture that is developing and the loose rules around biking in Tokyo are starting to cause problems because people aren’t just doing mamachari-style riding anymore. Despite the high levels of cycling there is almost no cycling infrastructure and the cycling infrastructure that has been constructed isn’t consistent across the 23 wards. The consequence is that the few bike lanes that have been built are not acknowledged and end up full of pedestrians. Officially, cyclists are to ride in the road in the absence of a bike lane, but at least half of all cyclists ride on the sidewalks—including police on bikes. Cyclists on the sidewalks use their bells liberally and are generally courteous with pedestrians, but pedestrians still get annoyed. Younger riders on faster bikes take to the streets.

Professor Hiroshi says that the Tokyo Police—if they had it their way—would like to do away with bikes all together because cyclists make their job harder. Three modes of transportation are using the roads, but there is only adequate infrastructure for two modes of transportation (cars and pedestrians) and this creates conflicts and accidents.

Bill, a serious Taiwanese student who seems like a deep thinker makes an interesting comment. “What is the bicycle?” he asks. Then he pauses for several seconds. The whole room is quiet. “Is it part of us?” he continues. “Sure, it’s made of steel, but sometimes when I ride my bicycle I feel like it becomes part of my body. The bicycle is in the middle of a machine and a human.” I know what Bill is talking about. My bike, at times, feels like an extension of my body. Cars have a normalizing effect. A young fit man and an old man in poor health can both drive a car at the same speed. Bicycles expose the strengths and the weaknesses of our bodies, and our minds too, to a much greater degree. Also, although bicycles can feel like they are part of our bodies they are still machines that make us move at speeds much greater than we could ever move on foot. Bicycles, like cars, can seriously injure—and in rare cases kill—pedestrians. Cyclists aren’t the softest users of the road, nor are we the hardest. Cyclists are the middle child of the road.

There is more work to be done in Tokyo improving bicycle infrastructure and expanding bike parking facilities, but the bicycle represents a significant part of the transportation puzzle. The class ended and I felt like Professor Hiroshi and his students taught me more than I’d taught them.

At the end of class.

It wasn’t until we were leaving for lunch that I learned about Professor Hiroshi’s fulltime hobby outside of academics–picnicking. Yes, Professor Hiroshi is a passionate promoter of picnics and a founding member of the Tokyo Picnic Club. There are a lot of restrictions (both legal and cultural) about how people should behave in and use public spaces in Tokyo. His picnicking movement is about showing people that they can and should enjoy public spaces. Picnicking and bicycling have some interesting parallels. I’d discussed the right of way (ROW) in my presentation and showed pictures from the different cities I visited of innovative uses of the ROW—like green spaces, pea patches, and ping pong tables. Americans have a hard time thinking outside the box when it comes to ROWs and bikes challenge our thinking about how roads can be used. Professor Hiroshi believes that Tokyo residents would benefit from getting out of their small urban dwellings and using public spaces in a more relaxed, informal, and social way. He’s using picnicking to challenge the public space status quo and remind people that they have a right to use public parks.  He gave me some Tokyo Picnic Club green tea and some leaflets about how to have a picnic. I’m considering starting a Seattle chapter.

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