The other weekend, I dropped my Breezer off at Everybody Bikes for a series of upgrades I had been putting off for some time. As some of these involved rewiring the dynamo lights, this promised to be a week-long stay. Without my realizing it, Matt had also decided to put the MinUte in the shop for its long-awaited new hydraulic brakes. But I wasn’t worried: we have another bike. I figured I would ride the Brompton all week instead.
But on Monday, I discovered the Brompton was having issues. It started making a loud buzzing noise from the front wheel. It sounded like a Vespa. People walking in front of me were turning to stare at my bike in horror as I rode. I remembered, belatedly, that it was overdue for the tune-up it was supposed to get after the first month of riding. Now the Brompton was out of commission and in the shop as well.
We typically have three adult bicycles in this house, and two riders, and this seems like it should be more than sufficient, but no. By Tuesday we had no bicycles in our household sized for a person over four feet tall. I figured I could make it to the end of the week on the university shuttle. But by Thursday morning I had lost my mind, and I was cruising craigslist for a cheap bicycle to get me to the weekend. This was especially the case because I realized there was no other way I could get to the Golden Gate Bridge birthday festival.
Fortune smiled. Nothing else could explain how I found a genuine mamachari, a Japanese mama-bicycle, listed in Oakland. Apparently they’re also known as oba-chari (for obaasan, or grandmother). “Chari” is Japanese slang for bicycle, from charinko. The etymology of charinko is unclear, ranging from the onomatopoeia for the ringing of a bicycle bell (“Cha-ring! Cha-ring!”) to a typical Japanese modification of the Korean word for bicycle, jajeongeo (“self-rolling-cart”). See also “takusei” for taxi or “seikuringu” for cycling.
I had heard of mamachari so I assumed they weren’t particularly obscure, but I think I may have been assuming too much. Mamachari are workhorse Japanese bicycles used by parents and grandparents to take kids to school and to pick up groceries. Basic models are dirt-cheap in Japan, $150-$300, viewed as largely disposable, and yet even more practical than the vaunted Dutch bicycle. Child seats on the front and back are ubiquitous, rear wheel locks are a given, step-through frames and chain guards ditto, and the kickstands are wide enough to leave two flailing kids on board safely. They’re single-speed or 3-speed with an internal hub. They come with bottle dynamo lights and the parts are crap but they are basically bombproof; these bikes live outside for years. Given that Japan has hills, there are also electric pedal-assist mamachari, which run the equivalent of $1000-$1500 brand new (whereas a much less practical electric bike with comparable tech in the US will cost you twice as much). These bikes are so useful and so desirable to parents in other countries that on the rare occasions they are exported they typically sell used for more than they cost new in Japan.
I recognized the photo I saw in the listing as a mamachari, and it was priced like a used mamachari in Japan. I assumed there was a catch but wrote right away. I heard nothing and guessed that I was out of luck. But on Friday evening I got a message: would I like to test-ride the bike Saturday morning?
Matt was in Reno with our son so I headed over to Oakland with my daughter the next morning. The second she saw the bike she begged to take it home. The woman who was selling it had no idea what a mamachari was; she had bought it from a co-worker who had brought it over when he moved to the US with his family from Japan. She’d used it for a year and a half to take her daughter to preschool but had just had a second child, and upgraded to a larger bike (a Yuba elMundo, which she loved).
When I saw this bike in person I thought: “I will probably never have a chance to buy a bike like this again in my life.” And it was so cheap! And there was nothing obviously wrong with it. I figured in the worst-case scenario, it would get me through the weekend. So I bought it and then rode it all weekend. It is not without its issues. I figured out pretty quickly it needed new brakes (always with the brakes in San Francisco). And yet I love this bike. It is so awesome.
When I took it into Everybody Bikes for a brake check, I had a microcosm experience of bicycling in America. The woman who works there was charmed by my new mamachari: “I’ve heard of these! But I’ve never seen one in real life before!” She thought it was awesome, so practical. The man who owns the shop was appalled. “How much did you pay for this bike? I hope it was, like, nothing.” He took it out for a test ride, and admitted that yes, it rode surprisingly smoothly, but, “The parts are… these wheels… they suck.” I told him I knew it was a POS; that was the point of mamachari. But it was an INTERESTING POS. And he admitted, that yes, the kickstand was amazing, and the rear wheel lock was the best he’d ever seen, and the child seat/cargo basket was beyond awesome. But the parts of the bike that he cared about? It’s true, they suck. This is bicycling in America: the parts of the bike that matter to aficionados are not the parts that matter to everyday riders. How else to explain that my sister, who is married to a former bike mechanic, has no rear rack or front basket on her commuter bike?
I told the owner I didn’t want to change anything about my mamachari that didn’t directly affect safety because I wanted to preserve it in close to its original state. He said, after staring at it for a while, that they would replace the front brake and true the wheels for me. I’m guessing he would like this bike a lot more if he were married with a kid. When I then said that I loved the retro bottle dynamo light, everyone working in the shop looked at me like I’d just admitted that I liked to eat garbage. My husband laughed and laughed. He said I’ve become too hip for our hipster bike shop.
I’ve only ridden this bike for a couple of days, and I shouldn’t ride it much more until it has a new front brake, but I’ll write more when I have more experience. It is full of surprises! In the meantime, although I may have a ridiculous number of personal bikes now, I have no regrets at all. When the Japanese parents at my son’s school saw my bike this weekend, they said, “So, so urayamashii!” I think I chose well.