National | CHUBU CONNECTION

Finn finds niche as Kyoto's first foreign jinrikisha driver

Chunichi Shimbun

As the season for viewing autumn leaves comes to an end in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, a tall young blond rickshaw driver is drawing attention.

Juho Tuomainen, 29, a native of Finland, started work as the city’s first non-Japanese rickshaw driver last summer, serving up the history of Kyoto to his passengers.

“It’s a job that’s only available in Japan,” he said he thought when he first saw the traditional human-powered two-wheel carriages.

At the foot of Togetsukyo Bridge, the 188-cm tall Tuomainen, clad in period costume, stood out as he explained a classic Japanese poem with a smile.

“During the Kamakura Period, Emperor Kameyama was sailing on the river under a full moon without a cloud in the sky one night and said, ‘It looks as if the clear moon were crossing the bridge.’ That is where this bridge got its name, Togetsu (the Moon Crossing).”

Tuomainen first came to Japan in 2009 as a 22-year-old tourist. At the time, he was a graphic designer. He met his future wife, Hikari, now 28, at a guesthouse in the ancient capital and began studying Japanese.

After three years of long-distance relations, the two tied the knot in 2012 and Tuomainen moved to Japan. At first, he served customers in a bakery and other places to polish his Japanese skills.

In May, he encountered a group of rickshaw drivers in Arashiyama who were smiling happily as they pulled their carts.

“They looked great, and I felt it was something that I could only do in Japan,” he said.

Intrigued, the Finn decided to give it a try and went to rickshaw company Ebisuya to apply as a tour guide that month.

After completing a month and a half of training and passing the written examination with flying colors, Tuomainen started pulling the carriages.

“(The training) was difficult because there was a lot of kanji characters in the textbook. I was studying at night and on my days off as well,” he said.

His hard work paid off. Tuomainen is now able to guide tourists around Tenryuji Temple, the Sagano bamboo forest and other famous sightseeing spots.

“He can serve Japanese customers without any problem,” said Hitoshi Kondo, a staffer from Ebisuya.

The job requires him to pull a cart that can weigh up to 200 kg with two people aboard. At first, the weight hurt his back and waist. He also felt nervous when taking customers to places he had never been before.

However, three months have passed, and the blond foreign tour guide now feels he has a better understanding of the Japanese and their emotions.

“At first, I didn’t feel anything when I saw the bamboo forest. But now I’ve learned to appreciate it, such as when I hear the leaves rustling in the wind,” Tuomainen said.

When he is giving a tour in English, he shares these feelings with his customers. But his stint as a rickshaw driver will end next March.

Tuomainen plans to go back to Finland with his wife to pursue his next dream — going to music school to become a professional musician.

He wants to be like Snufkin, a character from Finland’s famous Moomin cartoon. Snufkin is Moomin’s best friend and wanders around the world while pondering life, returning to Moominvalley every now and then.

“I met Japan and my wife while traveling, too. I want to continue searching for the next adventure and challenge whatever comes next.”

His favorite Japanese word is tankyushin, which means “inquisitive.”

“Japanese people value stability, and while that has its benefits, we should also take on new challenges. We are strong enough to survive it. Life only comes once, so let’s make the best of it.”

Just like Snufkin, he plans to come back to Japan someday.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Nov. 30.