LONDON – Almost every Japanese household has one and they are an ever-present sight outside of shops and railway stations. Japan’s most common bicycle, the “mamachari” (literally mom’s bike), is used by people of all ages for short trips around the neighborhood.
But now these utility bicycles are becoming increasingly popular with Londoners looking for cheap yet reliable bikes that won’t be targeted by the capital’s prolific thieves.
Mechanic Noah Fisher, who used to live in Japan, has imported 475 secondhand mamachari from Japan and is selling them at an East London shop he opened in June with his wife, Ran.
So far, he has sold 60 mamachari, and interest is growing.
All the bikes have been fully serviced and retail for between £100 and £300 ($159 to $479).
Noah hit upon the idea after coming across many bike theft victims who were looking for a cheaper, quality replacement.
Brand new city bikes start retailing from about £300, so Noah thought that advertising a bike — albeit secondhand — under this price point would prove attractive, particularly if he could emphasize the quality.
“We don’t have bikes in Britain which can beat the mamachari on price and quality,” he said.
“Their materials and components are carefully selected and the Japanese go into such detail and think everything through. They are functional, sturdy and last over a long time.
“We get a lot of people who have lived in Japan and they hear about us and get sentimental.
“We have had several Japanese expatriates come in out of curiosity. Sometimes they think they are a little expensive. In Japan you could get a new mamachari for about ¥8,500 ($86).”
Many customers like the fact that the Japanese bikes have child seats and are not very wide, making them easy to store in narrow Victorian hallways, Noah added.
They are also lighter than reconditioned Dutch bikes, which look similar to mamachari.
Miho Kushibe-Szalai, who rides a mamachari with her son on board, said, “I was very happy to find this store and had a sense of nostalgia.
“I used to have a mamachari years ago in Japan. They are still so comfortable and I’m proud that they are still a great product, even if some mothers in Japan are now using electric bicycles!”
Another mamachari customer, Rej Bhumbra, said: “Its build, quality, design detail and relative unusualness attracted me.”
Noah’s wife, who grew up in Japan, found a supplier who buys second-hand mamachari at auctions and usually ships them to Africa and the Philippines.
The bikes are normally those simply abandoned and collected by local councils. They also include former post office delivery bikes, which are being phased out in Japan.
“We were one of the first people to bring them into Europe. We bought the cream of the crop,” Noah said.
Initially, he inquired about purchasing brand new mamachari, but the Japanese manufacturers are focusing on the domestic market only.
“They couldn’t quite understand why someone in Britain, which pioneered bicycles, would be interested in buying such low-grade utility machines,” he said.
He believes that despite technical advances, the mamachari will continue to be popular in Japan because they are cheap and convenient.
Mamachari are similar to European city bikes. They have an upright riding position, mudguards, a rear rack, front basket, built-in light and a stand.
Noah says that whereas the traditional city bikes are still popular in many European countries, British people tend to purchase more expensive mountain bikes for getting around cities.