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Short Stories
The Japanese Sagas (Part 6)
by Kristin K. Trompeter
While teaching ESL in Aizu, Japan


I think I might have mentioned before that I have bicycle issues. And this is a big issue in Japan where the primary mode of transportation is bicycles.

Now these bikes are not your ten-speed variety, nor even your five-speed. They are not mountain bikes. They are what most of my friends call granny bikes. These are the kind that you rent (or people in the 1920s and 50s did) when you are on vacation at the beach and you want to just tool around the boardwalk on wheels rather than your own two feet.

So, I have had a love-hate relationship with my bike (inherited from the previous teacher, Tom, who adored it). I love that it has two baskets, one in front and one in back, and facilitates my grocery shopping very nicely when I have heavy bags. Since I changed apartments I now live about 25 minutes walking distance from the closest grocery store. A bit of a hike with a six pack, 1.5 liter bottle of Pepsi, and another 1.5 liters of ice tea tugging at your numbing hands.

After almost five months here, I am much more at home with my bicycle and understand its value to the comfort of my life. I still have had some minor heart-thumping moments as I almost mow down the elderly women who I don’t quite ever expect to dart so quickly out of the fruit market and directly into my path, but so far no casualties.

Twice now I have almost been a casualty of the local high schoolers who seem to ride in packs of five strung across the sidewalk and forget, as they concentrate on shouting their latest ideas on how to stay out past ten so they can light fireworks under the bridges over the one river that runs through town, that there just might be other cyclists and, heaven help them, pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The newest challenge is riding a bike in the rain. And no, this has nothing to do with slippery streets and tires sliding their way to levelness. This has to do with holding an umbrella while riding a bike. Yes, an umbrella and not just any umbrella but those big one’s that seem like modified beach umbrellas.

Floored me the first time I saw it. I just stood there watching old, young, and everything in between whizzing by me with greater ease than those people I’d seen doing similar feats of daring in the circus. I felt like applauding as I watched them weave in and out of each other in perfect unison never seeming to have the slightest hesitation in judging darting through space despite the added dimensions of their open umbrellas. For some absurd reason - I was still in my bike denial stage, walking everywhere I think - it never occurred to me that one day I would be joining their ranks.

So the rainy season in Aizu is supposed to be one month only (unlike the three months that Thailand gets) and that month is said to be June. Then my students amended it to mid-June to mid-July. I thought this whole rainy season was a bit overrated as the three days of rain we had was a bit bothersome but nothing to write home about - so I didn’t.

Then came August and the week of Obon and suddenly we had thunderstorms that lasted full days and flooding.

A week solid of rain means that I could no longer abstain from having to try this latest bicycle feat. I had groceries that had to be bought and friends who called me a wuss for refusing to meet them on account of my fear of melting. Yes, I’d rather be thought wicked than chicken so cited melting rather than skinned knees and bruised ego, a.k.a. behind.

Finally, hunger was the great motivator and I hefted my big blue umbrella and approached my bike. Took me a couple of tries before I realized I should mount the bike and then open the umbrella. Had to open it before moving. The one time I tried in motion I collided with a traffic signal post. Luckily, despite some teeth-jarring, the post kept me upright and thus the wreck spillage free.

Now I just humiliate myself because in addition to an inability to open the umbrella in motion, I also cannot close it in motion. This is significant in that the last two sections of sidewalk before I reach my office are covered. Everyone else casually shuts their umbrellas and rides along leaving a thin trickle of water in their wake. Me, I continue on, umbrella spread in all its wet glory, shedding water in round circles like a shaggy dog that shouldn’t be let out in public.

I think the worst part about all this is that you actually do not keep that much drier using the umbrella. Due to the angle of the rain coming down, I am usually soaked from foot to mid-thigh and then from hands to mid-elbow. Many people have hand-arm covers attached to their handlebars (to protect from cold and sunburn and rain), but I still cannot bring myself to have one more thing to coordinate on the bicycle front. Though I must confess again to a fascination with the inventiveness of bike-related accessories here. It is a whole culture that I have barely skimmed the surface of.

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