Rickshaw nostalgia, meeting with the japanese past

This article appeared in the latest issue of the magazine Urbania in french, special street. Available paper version , in all outletsor digital version (PDF ) on Urbania Online Store. Even easier; just subscribe !

In Japan , the largest company rickshaw Ebisuya , offers guided tours by rickshaw drivers with rail history … and having a physical Adonis . And it works .


At age 33 , Kei Inoue perhaps look like a young Little Miss , but it is a veteran rickshaw. Slender as a bar of iron, bronzed face and lit by an eternal smile, it is a contagious energy. It’s been more than eight years he runs the streets of Japan , pulling his rickshaw tirelessly for Ebisuya . It is near Kaminarimon Gates of Asakusa in Tokyo, where a branch of the company, I met him for a little talk on the subject.


The rickshaw jinrikisha pronounced in Japanese , developed during the era called Meiji ( 1860-1912 ) . « At the time , before the railway and automobile , horses were reserved for the war , so they were extremely rare and expensive , explains Kei . The carriages have been adapted for a human to pull . It became the exclusive taxi of high society .  »


After the arrival of the automobile, the rickshaw has almost disappeared, relegated to museum curiosity . Until Norio Hamawaza happens in the background.

The history, it’s selling

The rampant urban sprawl and technological advances have made great nostalgic Nipponese . They developed a deep desire to relive the simple moments of the Belle Epoque , and in great detail . The historical theme has become trendy in the Japanese tourism industry


It was after having seen rickshaws in a tourist villa that Hamazawa had the idea of ​​founding Ebisuya . In 1992, in Kyoto , the former owner of a car rental company has launched a fleet of 50 cars. Success was almost instantaneous. A few months later, he introduced the concept in Tokyo.


Ebisuya has continued to grow since opening branches in culturally strategic locations throughout the country (including Nara and Kamakura , cradles of the most powerful families of samurai ) . She now has a dozen and employs over 300 people. Making it the largest company in the country rickshaw just ahead Jidaiya, its largest competitor.


For seeing the vein several agencies have similar suit. The competition is fierce. When Hamazawa revealed that he was considering introducing motor rickshaws , the boss Jidaiya was outraged,  » We can not call it a rickshaw !  » Until that happens, how Ebisuya is she different from the lot ?


« Customers do not really make the difference between each of the companies , said Kei . We want to change that. Most of them are small, sole proprietorships, or only occasionally , for example in service during festivals . Ebisuya has developed a truly professional service year round . Our mission is to introduce Japan at the time with passionate and as charming and entertaining guides.  »


Beautiful footwork

Clients recognize and choose to Ebisuya rickshaws , the company multiplies the tricks to improve its visibility. Sandals ninja style and wearing tight clothes physical whittled the rickshaw pullers , the Shafu , are positioned at strategic points and sell their salad screaming loudly . When a client is the lessee, they present packages, prepare the rickshaw and invite their client revered board .


Ebisuya has an advantage over the competition: it has its own stations , as well as taxis. Moreover, the division operates in substantially the same way. Carts are parked along the street. A poster on the curb indicates prices. The dispatcher coordinates the flow with his walkie- talkie. The meter is running . The goal is to offer the most entertaining experience possible in the allotted time. And then it starts again. Next customer : me.

But it was not Kei -san would be my Shafu . Unavailable , he asked the dispatcher to bring another driver to accommodate my travel quest.

She asked, “She speaks good English?” 

« Yes, Miyako is an excellent Shafu ! She has good legs. She is half German and speaks four languages.  » An über – Shafu , what!


When Miyako showed up , I immediately noticed her thighs and knees under shorts that seemed on the verge of splitting. With hams Similarly, it could easily blow up my body into eight by me taking four . I contented myself to bow as a greeting , lest it crushes my hand with his fist . Because you can only push a rickshaw all day long , it is guaranteed to have the clamps instead of hands.


Handle a rickshaw through the streets of Tokyo requires the agility of a ninja and the endurance of a samurai. In addition to tour guides pulling a cargo tens of kilos, Shafu must remain vigilant to avoid obstacles of Tokyo Jungle: buses, taxis and cyclists who distracted gossent on their iPhone. But I had nothing to fear. My driver, a real expert , could have done that finger in the nose.

The Shafu , the  master puller

People like Kei and Miyako , this is exactly what the company Ebisuya research. Dynamic world , in great shape, with Gambarimasu in the blood , a term that could be translated as  » I is not the potato. » And to be a rickshaw driver , you do now have to actually release . And beautiful appearance is a must, as it is a showcase for the company.


Once hired, the recruits are Ebisuya rigorous training about two to four weeks on the handling of the rickshaw , security and maintenance. The program , developed at the headquarters of Kyoto , focuses primarily on client approach and the history of Japan . On the one hand , the Shafu must master the art of conversation, show pleasant and friendly company. On the other, they must memorize every corner , historical facts and anecdotes neighborhoods . The company can boast pretty encyclopedias as itinerant workers.


The job is of course VERY physical , and during the summer festivals , it became hellish as the pace is demanding. The company therefore favors young people who have a history of sports , and boys look ikemen ( handsome guy ) with a nice personality have a major advantage , because the customer is 70% female.


Besides, how ‘s it going with the customer ? According to Kei, « Customers are initially very shy , but as we are friendly and courteous , the atmosphere expands rapidly . Some even become regular . While I was working in Kamakura , regular packages often took several hours. One day, we stopped in a deserted place for a break . The customer began to be a little too adventurous with his hands. I am out respectfully refusing his advances. But this kind of incident is not common . There are sometimes flirts and saucy jokes , but we politely decline this kind of familiarity. Have a relationship that goes beyond that of customer and employee is strictly prohibited.  »


Japanese classical restraint. It is also found in the way of accepting gratuities . « We often offer us a tip, yes, but we must always initially decline. This is the Japanese way .”

We say, “We’ve taken a lot of your money , use it for anything useful. But if the client really insists we accept. »


Moreover , I was surprised on my side of the ride comfort of a rickshaw . Well, we is not Craters – of – Hens – Giant City as Montreal , but this stuff do not have shock absorbers or power steering as standard. They are assembled entirely by hand in a factory in Gifu, near Nagoya, respecting the smallest detail traditional methods. Each unit takes three to four months of installation and cost about $ 18,000 , almost as a small Honda .


Kei also told me that each cart is « baptized  » as it does for a boat. I thought it would happen to me with clichés names like  » The lacquered threat  » or  » The Japanese comet  » , but these are generally traditional stuff, though often with a wink, like Red Bull , Top Gun, or Sky Tree.


Some say it is cheesy , others that it is just a tourist trap , but the rickshaw is undeniably a vehicle of nostalgia in this country where tradition and modernity arise contrast , and Norio Hamazawa very well knew how to exploit it. I must say that the fine fellows in shorts, it works universally.


Carl T. Slater

Carl est un gaijin banlieusard paumé vivant à Funabashi, pas trop loin de Tokyo. Il n'a d'autre chose à offrir que des observations biaisées sur les trois dragons d'Asie, tout en essayant de ne pas trop faire honte à sa femme.

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