Front page | Essays index


A Re-Cycle Adventure


Before leaving Canada to come to live in Japan, I had saved up what I had considered enough money to cover most of our expenses for a year or so, but the chunky 'key' money and deposit that we had paid when renting our apartment soaked up a big chunk of it, and we had to borrow from one of the kids' aunts to get by with until my own income grew large enough to support us.

Being almost broke all the time actually didn't bother us that much. I knew that I'd be able to make a good living sooner or later, and as the kids were very young (still only one and three), their needs were easily met. We ate carefully and as cheaply as possible, we made do with our old clothes, along with neighbourhood 'hand-me-downs' for the kids, and we provided most of our own amusement. One thing that was troublesome for us though, was transportation. We enjoyed walking in our neighbourhood, and found the trains excellent for travelling to other parts of Tokyo, but were frustrated by those in-between distances that were too far to cover comfortably on foot, especially with little kids in tow. (We had then, and still have now, no desire at all to own a car. They are destructive to the quality of life, dangerous, and expensive, and for a city dweller, are far more trouble than they are worth ...)

What we needed were bicycles. A pair of bicycles with child carriers on the back would give us access to a greatly expanded area of town - more parks, more varied shopping, etc. But our very limited funds meant that such a purchase was out of the question. A solution of sorts did seem to be close at hand, but whether or not it was socially acceptable was a bit of a question ...

Special parking spaces had been set up near the local station by the city, to accomodate the thousands of bicycles used by daily commuters leaving for other parts of Tokyo. As anyone who has lived in Japan for a while is well aware, this type of parking place also serves as a repository for unwanted bicycles. Rather than pay the small fee charged by the city for collection of large garbage items, the owners simply park them here to rust in peace. When I walked down the line of bicycles, I could see many of these 'orphans'. With tires now flat, and all identifying labels scraped off, they were obviously abandoned. From time to time, the city office tagged these 'junkers' with a label stating that if they were not removed by a certain date, they would be hauled away by the city. The word 'recycle' is quite a buzzword in Japan now, but the only future in sight for those poor machines then was to be dumped on Tokyo's trash mountain. So one evening I took a few tools down there, and 'liberated' a pair of old bicycles. I had to take a few parts from a number of different machines in order to put together a couple that would work, but finally came home with two quite serviceable, if somewhat dirty, 're-cycled' bicycles. Plenty of elbow grease, some squirts of oil, and the addition of some new inner tubes finished the job. We were mobile!

Our Japanese friends weren't so excited about this project as I, expressing the view that perhaps some of these apparently unwanted bicycles had at some point been stolen from somebody, and then abandoned at the station by the thieves, probably middle school kids. I had to admit that this indeed might be the case, but that with no way to trace these cycles back to the original owners, and the fact that even if such owners could be found, they would almost certainly not have any interest in 're-possessing' such a rusted pile of junk, my conscience was clear. I was simply doing a community service, helping to clean up the town and recycle some otherwise wasted resources. One of the two bicycles I 'saved' is parked here outside our apartment, still in regular use eight years later, but the other one is gone, and the way I lost it is one of those 'only in Japan' stories ...

While choosing our 'new' bicycles, I had come across a heap of trashed cycles in a corner of the parking lot, about 50 of them all thrown together in a huge pile, probably an attempt to temporarily clean up the area prior to hauling them away. I dug around a bit, and came across something very interesting, the frame (and one wheel only) of a bicycle with a 'transmission' device built in. I had been looking for a bike with a gear change, but this was better than I had expected, and I spent a long time going through the pile, sorting through various seats, wheels, and handlebars, etc., until I had put together a workable unit. After I had finished, and cleaned it all up, it worked just fine. The transmission gave me a very wide range of gear ratios, and I used this bike to haul my chubby little daughter to the day care centre every day, up a long, steep hill.

It looked a bit funny, with the front wheel obviously taken from a different bicycle than the rear one, but it gave me wonderful service for about three years. I took pretty good care of it, but I had no idea how to care for the complicated transmission, and it gradually started to give a bit of trouble. I usually do all the family bicycle repairs myself, but felt a bit intimidated by this one. I was somewhat afraid that if I opened up the transmission unit, there would be a fantastic explosion of little springs and gears, and that I'd never get it back together again. So one day, I wrote a short note to the maker, citing the bike model, and asking if they could supply me with some kind of repair manual for it. I felt sure that they must have something like that, although I was afraid that it might only be available to cycle shops.

As I had half expected, there was no reply. I continued to use the bike, but it gradually got worse and worse, and one day, broke down completely. I prepared to head back to the 'help yourself' bike stockpile, to look for a replacement, but felt so sad at losing that wonderful transmission, that I tried contacting the company once more, this time by telephone.

The customer service people there were friendly, but were not able to do anything for me. Not only did they not have a service manual available, but they told me, "That model is simply unrepairable. We had to take it off the market a couple of years ago. We're sorry, but there's nothing we can do for you ...". I knew when I was beaten, and I prepared to hang up, but at the last minute he asked me for my name and address. I thought that he might be sending me some kind of parts list, or repair advice sheet, so gladly gave him the information.

I guess it was a couple of days later, there was a knock on the door. It was a representative from the bicycle company. And there on the back of his truck, was a brand new mountain bike. A 21-geared, super-lightweight, mountain bike. A deluxe, very expensive, latest model mountain bike! He explained that as they felt quite bad that I was having trouble with one of their products, one that they felt was perhaps not manufactured well enough in the first place, they wanted to swap ... my old, broken cycle, for this new one. A straight exchange.

Of course I was flabbergasted. But on top of that, I was seized with guilt. I hadn't bought that old bicycle in the first place, and you could even argue that I had actually stolen it ... And now they wanted to give me a new 120,000 yen machine to replace it. I just couldn't do this, so I told the guy the whole story, and showed him my 'patchwork' bike. He looked a bit green when he saw it, and asked if he could use the phone for a moment ... The 'conference' with his home office was short. 'No problem.' It wasn't just the fact that they wanted to maintain their reputation for quality products, but they also wanted to have a look at my old bike, I suppose to study how the transmission had fared over the years, and how it had gone wrong.

So we made the exchange. He loaded my old heap onto his truck, and left me with that incredible, shiny new mountain bike, far and away the best bicycle I've ever had in my whole life. Of course, I couldn't just leave it at that. I wrote to that division of the company, thanking them very much for their gesture, and enclosed a thick pile of beer tokens for them to share around the office ...

This was more than three years ago, and that wonderful bike is still my daily partner, for expeditions near and far. I always keep it clean and oiled, and never use it in wet weather (I went back to the station and picked up another 'junker' just for use on rainy days ...).

And I've also paid back a bit of my 'debt' to that company. A couple of years ago, when my girls needed new bikes of their own, I wasn't able to head over to the station to scrounge a couple, as they had become old enough to feel embarrassed by such an idea. I had to bow to the inevitable at last, and go to a bike shop. But I didn't begrudge spending the money. After receiving such a wonderful gift, it would have been pretty cheap for me to refuse new bikes for them. So now ... we're a complete 'Bridgestone' family. Thanks, guys!