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.
“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.