One Very Small Japanese Motorcycle

Why is everything in Japan is so freaking small?  I really don’t get it.  Like, they say Japanese people are short, but they’re really not.  Sure, there’s some grannies who could pass as Seven Dwarf number eight, but there’s also plenty of folks around my height, and I’m six foot.  Although I do wear a lot of vertical stripes, so maybe that makes me look taller, I don’t know.

At any rate, I finally got a gentsuki, which is what we call a moped here in Japan.  Only it’s not like one of those Italian numbers that a sorority girl would ride around campus in a bikini top holding a cappuccino.  It’s a pretty manly machine, actually.  I mean, for a moped.  If it were just 20 percent bigger, it would be bad-ass, it really would.  Freaking Japan.

Working in the Beehive

Japanese people like things that are small, crowded, or both, that’s what I’ve concluded.  They say they don’t, but they really do.  Like, I work in an office with about a hundred Japanese men and women.  No cubicles, just long rows of desks pushed together so everybody can raise an eyebrow every time my chair squeaks or I scratch a random part of my anatomy.  Now, as much as I like the whole Japanese teamwork thing, I like my own space more.  And since we’ve got all these other rooms that are never used, I went to my Japanese boss and in my humblest Japanese manner said, Sumimasen, why don’t we use some of these empty rooms?   He glanced up at me with his mouth twisted like a sour fish.  He does that a lot.  He was like, Dame, which is Japanese for “no effing way,” although in my head I always translate it as “daaaaamn,” for some strange reason.  Anyway, I was like, Hasn’t anyone ever told you that Japanese people don’t say “no” directly?  He thought for a moment, and then said, “No.”  Oh, he’s very witty like that.  I’ll send you some links to websites about your culture, I said.

Anyway, the next day I showed up to work on my gentsuki, and when I walked into the office it was like I was wearing a Hello Kitty suit.  A hundred people just stared at me.

“What?”  I said.

“Hey Ken,” the guy across from me said, “You got a bike?”  In Japan, they call a motorcycle a bike.  It’s crazy.  What they call a bike, I have no idea.

“Sure did, Nishida-san.  But remember, it’s not ‘Ken,’” I said.  “It’s ‘Seeroi-san,’ right?  You know, we talked about this?”  Since everybody else is on a strictly last-name basis, and I’m the only white guy in the place, I’ve developed something of a complex about my name.

“Hey everybody!” Nishida announced, “Kenny bought a scooter!”  Well there goes that.

Then Maeda-san spoke up.  “Ken, I saw you this morning!”  Maeda is the girl who sits two desks down from me.  She’s got terrible teeth.  “You got a Super Cub!” she cooed.

“Yes,” I replied, “Mister Seeroi bought one last weekend.

“Hey everybody, Kenny bought a Super Cub!”

The Honda Super Cub

On the Japanese scale of one to Samurai, some things more, well, Japanesey than others.  Shinto shrines, tatami, ikebana?   Solid tens.  Chopsticks and ramen?  Okay, they’re from China, so they only get a six. Sushi, probably a nine.  Think kendo and manga are emblematic of Japan?  Try riding a Super Cub.  Easily an eleven.

Every Japanese person knows the rattly sound of the Super Cub engine and the ka-chunk of its gear shift.  Since Honda’s made them for 50 years, you’d think that gear shift would be a bit smoother by now, but no.  Anyway, that sound drifts into summer windows with every passing mailman, newspaper guy, policeman, and soba delivery kid.  The Super Cub is the most produced motor vehicle in the world, and it’s ridden almost exclusively by men, for some manly reason.  Like, everybody’s uncle rides one.  If you’re Japanese and your uncle doesn’t have one, you freaking buy him one.  That’s just the way it works.

Buying a Japanese Motorcycle

Anyway, to be honest, my experience with getting a scooter license had kind of bummed me out, with the whole Oh-you’re-a-foreigner trip.  The important people at the DMV spent a full day talking down to me in pidgin English and treating me like their shoe-shine boy.  But all that changed once I started walking into dealerships with a pocketful of yen.

If you want to be treated like a rock star, just go shopping for a used motorcycle.  Used bike salesmen are the nicest guys in the entire freaking world.  I went around town on my bicycle until I saw a Honda sign in front of a small garage packed full of motorcycles.   Inside, a portly man was poking at an engine with a screwdriver.  He stopped and wiped his hands on a rag.

Welcome, he said.  I want a Super Cub, I said.  I have three, he said, and I can make you a deal.  How much do you have to spend?

Now that’s more like it.  None of that Ooo, your Japanese is so jyouzu business.  The moment I told him 800 bucks, he stopped seeing white and started seeing green.  He explained every aspect of the Super Cub in such exquisite Japanese detail that I could’ve been the Emperor himself.  The only time things got a little fuzzy was when I asked about the model year.  And then he couldn’t tell me.  Maybe 2002.  Or 2004.  Or 1996.  It seemed a little fishy, but then that’s Japan, you know.  Like I couldn’t tell you what street I live on, since there isn’t a street sign for miles.  Actually, I’ve never known any of the streets I’ve lived on here.  Somehow, you just get used to not knowing stuff.

I went to half a dozen dealerships, and everybody was awesome.  They all treated me terrifically, calling me “Seeroi-san” and speaking Japanese like I was a normal adult.  That’s not always easy to get in Japan if you look white.  Or black.  Or brown.  Anyway, I finally went back to Mister Portly and he agreed to throw in a free helmet and a basket on the front, so I said “Okay, Super Cub me.”  Like maybe I could use the basket for grocery shopping or something.  The price rather coincidentally came to exactly 800 bucks, which seemed like a pretty excellent deal.  I handed him a stack of  cash and he took care of the registration.  It was the easiest thing ever, like an anti-DMV.  I’m all about the easy.  Then he picked what looked like an old construction helmet off the shop floor and handed it to me.  On the front, it said something in English.  I put it on.

Japanese Motorcycle helmet“How do I look?” I asked.

“Now sunglasses,” he said.

“Okay, how about now?

“There’s a mirror over there.

I walked to the mirror and it was like one of the Village People staring back at me.  “That’s kind of disturbing,” I said.

“Eh, could be worse,” he said.

Riding in Japanese Traffic

For some dumb reason, I bought the bike on a Friday night, which meant to get it home, I had to learn to ride during rush-hour while looking like I should be singing YMCA.  It didn’t help that I’d worn a pink shirt with a wide open collar and white vertical stripes.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the Super Cub isn’t actually a scooter, but a tiny little motorcycle.  See, with a scooter, to make it go, you just turn the hand grip.  To make it not go, you use the brakes like a bicycle.  Scooters are butt simple.

But the Super Cub?  God knows where all the controls are.  One brake is where your right hand is.  Another brake is under your right foot.  Where your left foot is, there’s the gear shift.  You have to press that in two different ways, and I can never remember either.  And you have to let off the gas when you press it, and then for some reason the accelerator, brake, and turn signals are all in the same place, up at your right hand again.  Meanwhile the left hand isn’t doing diddly-squat, except trying not to honk the horn.  It’s like a bike designed by Picasso.  If it were a cat, it’d have it’s feet where its ears are, and a nose where the tail should be.  It’s complicated, is what I’m saying.

But traffic or not, I had to get home so I was like, Okay, let’s do this shit.  With the dealer watching, I put on my sunglasses and construction helmet, adjusted the mirrors, put a foot on what I thought was the brake, clicked on the turn signal, and slowly eased it into first gear.  “Thanks, man,” I yelled, and hit the accelerator.  I’d actually done it—got a Japanese license, negotiated and purchased a motor vehicle.  I was awesome.

Only nothing happened.  The bike didn’t move.  I looked at Mister Portly.  He looked at me.  I turned the accelerator further and the engine whined, but still nothing happened.

“You know, I think it’s broken,” I said.

“Try taking it off the kickstand,” he said.

Once I got into traffic, things got a little, let’s say, worse.  Going 30 miles an hour felt like a hundred.  The shocks were springy and the tires kept slipping into ruts.  I was like, Okay first gear, second gear, all good, not too close to the curb, okay now third gear and, Aw crap!  Did I just blow a stop sign?  It doesn’t help that instead of big signs that clearly say “Stop,” Japan uses these things that look like tiny red yield signs with some crazy Japanese thing written on them.  God knows what they say.  And while I was trying to figure that out, I started down a one-way street the wrong way.  So I quickly pulled onto the sidewalk, but instead of the brake hit the accelerator and knocked over a potted plant.  Well, no time to fix that, so I just kept rolling around the corner.

The Only Rule is There are no Rules

Within five minutes, I’d broken every rule of the road, plus a few nobody’d ever thought of.  I hit the brake instead of the gear shifter and turned on the high beams when I meant to do the turn signals.  I kept trying to make sense of all the knobs and switches and meanwhile I got horribly lost.  You know, there’s only about five street signs in the whole nation anyway.  Finally, I came to a stoplight and managed to get the bike into neutral.  Whew, that was a relief.  Then the light changed and I couldn’t figure out how to get it into gear again and suddenly there was a line of cars in my rearview mirror.  Oh, that’s bad, I thought.  So I slammed it into first and wrenched the hand grip.  This had the unexpected consequence of making the front wheel part company with the earth’s surface.  And then several dozen Japanese people got the pleasure of watching a white guy in a pink shirt and construction helmet ride a screaming wheelie through an intersection.  After that, I decided maybe I wouldn’t use first gear any more.

Turning the Corner

If there’s one thing about me, it’s that I have really good balance.  Ask anybody and they’ll be like, “Ken Seeroi?  You mean that guy with the really good balance?  Yeah, I know him.”  That really helps in cornering.  And there’s only one word to describe the feeling of leaning into a turn on a tiny motorcycle in Japan:  freaking awesome.  I made a right and powered into the curve.  Sweet.  At least I could do that well.  So I flipped a quick left and roared around the corner.  People were checking me out, like who is that dude?  I was like, yeah, Japanese people, how you like me now?  They were pointing and waving; I couldn’t believe it.  I was like, man, I love this place.  Then I noticed a car coming straight at me.  That seemed kind of bad.  Then another, and then a whole nation of tiny cars was in my lane coming toward me.  I had a momentary epiphany regarding the gap between theory and practice.  Which is to say that while I understood that we drive on the left in Japan, I’d clearly failed to apply this in any practical sense.  A few inches from the oncoming traffic I swerved into a parking lot, stopped, and sat down shaking on a curb trying to figure out why I’d baked a batch of cookies in my pants.

This went on for about a week.  Then things started to become a bit more second-nature, until at this point, I feel I am no longer a menace to society.  I am reformed.  Sure, I can’t find my way back home from the supermarket and I still don’t know what most of the road signs mean, but I haven’t been arrested or killed anyone either.  So that pretty much meets my life goal of being just slightly above average.  Come to think of it, it’s probably a good thing that bike isn’t any bigger.

23 Replies to “One Very Small Japanese Motorcycle”

    1. Now that would be hilarious.

      I’ve actually been thinking of doing a trip. Like I read about some Japanese lady who toured the whole nation on a gentsuki. Then again, there’s always the train.

        1. Yeah I know, I gotta be the laziest dude in this whole damn country. There’s always just so many fun things to do here! Totally not my fault. Okay, well maybe a little.

          So for sure, I’ve got one more thing I’m working on right now and as soon as that’s done I promise promise the next thing that goes up will be the Japanese Rule of 7. I’m pretty sure.

          No, for real. And thanks for reminding me.

    1. Hi Emmett,

      For sure, the insurance is mandatory. The dealer will enroll you in it when you buy the bike, so it’s super easy. It ran me 9600 yen for the year, so it’s also pretty cheap. But I shudder to think of what a pain in the butt it would be if you actually got in an accident, having to deal with the police, insurance agencies, and all that paperwork in Japanese. My plan for that eventuality is to quickly hand the other party a stack of yen and peace out.

      I also enrolled in the optional insurance (nini houken), which costs about 25000 yen per year. My understanding is that the obligatory insurance doesn’t cover very much, so on the offhand chance I drive my gentsuki through someone’s living room (a distinct possibility), I got that too.

  1. Great post, Ken. I want to get one of these Super Cubs, but my wife won’t let me. Something about me almost certainly killing myself and then my kids having to grow up without a father.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I was laughing so hard I was crying. I’m looking into getting my gentsuki this week. Hopefully I’ll have an easier first ride.

    1. Wow, this week, that’s awesome. I’ve really had a lot of fun with the Super Cub, although it’s kind of a workhorse. There certainly are bikes that are easier, and probably a wee bit safer. Let me know what you end up getting.

  3. I’m considering picking up a scooter or something since I might try out the ALT deal in Japan. How is the supercub? I’ve heard a lot about em but never rode one (wasn’t even aware they had gears), is it 1 down up?

    I imagine that riding something motorized would be like turning on godmode after I rode around Honshu on a folding bike.

    1. Yeah, it’s straight godmode compared to pedaling around like a commoner. Internal combustion is a wonderful thing. The Cub’s a bit slow, but you can carry a massive amount of stuff and it’s built like a tank.

      The gearshift has a rocker pedal. Press down on the front and it shifts to a higher gear. Press down on the back and it shifts to a lower gear. For a manual transmission, it couldn’t actually be any simpler, although doing it in traffic is another matter.

      I love my Super Cub. You should get one. They’re cool.

      1. Would you happen to know anything about any laws regarding modifying them? I used to have a moped that I tossed about $700USD into when I was still living in Honolulu, and that little thing could get up to 80mph easy. (I suspect that would be a horrible idea in Japan though…)

        1. I don’t know anything about the legalities, but . . . from what I’ve seen, a number of people make some pretty crazy mods and get away with it. I saw a group of guys the other day riding some stripped-down, modded-out SuperCubs, and actually the bikes looked cool as hell.

          There is no inspection for bikes 50cc’s and under, so assuming you weren’t pulled over for doing 80, nobody would ever know. Also, a lot of bikes on the market—like mini bikes—are pretty ridiculous right out of the box, and people ride those.

          Whatever you do though, you know, be safe.

  4. OMG, Ken how did I miss this one. I started riding motorcycles when I was 12 and had a Honda CT-90 which is a bigger version of the super cub. That thing had street and trail gear settings and used a centrifugal clutch that meant I didn’t have to use a gear shift. Yes, it sure made that clunk sound when shifting and though some guys said it was too sissy looking because it had the dip in the middle like a girl’s bicycle, I knew better. I could put it in trail gears and climb inclines better than any of my pals on their Mini-Enduros or Bultacos. Though it didn’t do so great on dirt tracks as its center of gravity was too high, it will be always be my FIRST ride that I will always remember fondly. Also all the girls could ride on my bike because I strapped a really nice pillow on that back rack. Ahhh, memory lane can be so sublime sometimes. Great Story Ken and very funny, loved reading it! BTW, I think I paid around $300.00 dollars for my CT-90 back in the mid 1960’s, so $800.00 sounds like a good deal today for the super cub.

    1. I still see a few CT-90s around here once in a while. It looks basically like the Super Cub without the fairing. I gotta say, that little bike is one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. I really love it.

  5. Apparently the left hand has no controls, because originally one of the largest groups they were targeting this little marvel to, was noodle-shop couriers, who needed one hand free to carry all that soba. I have no idea why a basket wouldn’t do, but there you go.
    The BBC series (well, three episodes) ‘James May’s Cars of The People’ had quite a longish bit about K-cars and the Super Cub. He seemed to like it too. I’ll post a link here, if that’s fine:

    The Japan-specific stuff begins at about 34 minutes in, if you want to skip the earlier bits about weird three-wheeled british cars and a Citroen 2cv being shot at with a machine gun.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the link.

      I’ve heard that about the left-hand controls, but it strikes me as a little urban-legendy. So much that’s written about Japan seems to spring from one unreliable source, and then in the absence of any other details, that information gets passed around as truth. But that’s another story, I guess.

      As for the Super Cub, it’s hard to imagine anyone would design a motorcycle with the thought that you’d ride it with one hand. And as you point out, the Japanese already possessed valuable basket and box technology.

      1. The one-handed riding is definitely part of the Super Cub’s design. They were intended for practical use as delivery bikes, and most soba boys rode their bicycles one-handed with the goods in their left hand, so the Cub had to appeal to that market.
        The design history is somewhere on the Honda website, straight from the horses’ mouths.
        PS.. In Britain we also call both bicycles and motorcycles bikes.. The context usually makes it clear which is meant.
        Great blog! Cheers.

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