by Ron Bernthal
As Hiroshi Nakamura bicycles through Sakai, Japan, a city of 850,000 just west of Osaka, he maintains a fast, fluid pace, moving quickly along narrow cobblestone roads and asphalt bike paths, sometimes taking shortcuts through grassy fields in public parks, carefully avoiding startled children and mothers pushing baby carriages.
Occasionally a local resident will recognize Mr.Nakamura behind his sunglasses and bicycle helmet, and call out a friendly greeting, which doesn’t slow down the 63 year-old Nakamura, who glides fast around street corners, barely slowing down before pulling into the driveway of Sakai’s modern Bicycle Museum, where a small group of Japanese bicycle aficionados await his arrival with pens in hand, hoping for an autograph, or at least a picture.
Hiroshi Nakamura, the curator of the Shimano Foundation’s Bicycle Museum Cycle Center, and a long-time employee of the well known bicycle parts manufacturer, which is based in Sakai, won the Japan National Cycling Championship in 1970, when he was a university student, and he has remained a celebrated bike racer and a recognized authority on bicycle manufacturing, ever since.
Sakai is a good fit for Mr. Nakamura, for with about one-million registered bicycles in the city, as well as Shimano and other bicycle firms, Sakai is aptly called “The Bicycle Capital of Japan.”
Not only does the city produce 40-60 percent of the bicycles made in Japan, but the municipal government here has constructed dozens of well-paved bike paths throughout the city, many connecting to other bike routes that wind their way through Kansai Province, linking Sakai to Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto. And local hotels and bike shops encourage visitors to ride bikes with affordable rates, charging only about 300 yen ($4.00) for a full-day bike rental.
Sakai’s bicycle manufacturers owe their expertise and success to the to the city’s oldest trades — knives, scissors, and guns. Blacksmiths began forging Sakai “blades” in the 16th century for workers cutting the area’s thick tobacco plants. During the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate marked the sharp blades with the words ‘Sakai Kiwame’, which guaranteed the product’s authenticity, and they became well known throughout Japan as being of higher quality than any imported foreign knife. Even today, Sakai blades are highly respected throughout the world, and most Japanese chefs will not enter the kitchen without their personal Sakai-made sashimi and nakiri knives.
Working with metals seemed to agree with the early craftsmen in Sakai, and the city became known for manufacturing high quality samurai swords, when those weapons were used. In the following decades, hundreds of small, family-owned studios were ubiquitous in Sakai, making scissors, guns, and other metal-related products, paving the way for the earliest Japanese bicycle manufacturers in 1899, after Europeans introduced the product to Japan as early as the 1860′s.
Shimano, whose Sakai headquarters are located just a few minutes’ bike ride from Nakamura’s Museum office, began in 1921 when Shozaburo Shimano established Shimano Iron Works and started producing just one product, the bicycle’s freewheel. They moved to their present factory and administration building in 1936.
Thirty percent of Shimano’s manufacturing facilities were destroyed during World War II bombing raids, and after rebuilding the plant, the company began to concentrate on producing the high-end bicycle components that are now so highly regarded around the world. They also manufacture gear for the fishing and golf industries as well, and have opened plants in several other countries.
In 1992 Hiroshi Nakamura, a long-time Shimano employee, was asked to help open the new Bicycle Museum, and he selected the exhibits, designed some of the inter-active displays, and created many of the bicycle routes that now crisscross the city.
There are five historic roads in Sakai, which was an important seaport during the Muromachi period (1300′s-1500′s). The Takenouchi Road is one of the more popular biking routes, cutting through Sakai for almost five miles. On the route bikers pass historic white-walled houses and earthen walls, and sometimes have to wait at street corners as colorful, old-fashioned street cars, with bells ringing, have priority on the narrow streets.
Along many of the bike routes are numerous century-old “street corner museums,” small studios and shops, often in old houses, where the ancient Sakai skills of knife forging, gun making, rug weaving, incense production, and kelp processing are shown to visitors, with some of the products also available for purchase.
The other historic routes (for biking or walking), all within the Sakai city limits, include Nishi-Koya Kaido (9 miles); Kumano Kaido (3.5 miles); Kishu Kaido (3 miles); and Nagao Kaido (3 miles). Parts of these roads are modern-looking, asphalt commercial streets, while other sections are narrow, cobblestone lanes, or packed gravel paths through parks or along streams. Bikers pass shrines, temples, historic fountains and sign posts, and numerous old homes and storefronts.
Because the Shimano factory does not offer public tours, the main attraction in Sakai for bikers, other than cruising along its bike-friendly streets, is the Bicycle Museum. Mr. Nakamura has collected dozens of unique bicycle memorabilia for visitors, from the early high-wheelers of the late 1800′s to Tour de France paraphernalia, but his modesty does not allow him to display his own winning bike from the 1970 Japan national race, a classic Italian Cinelli Super Corsa, which hangs on a wall in his house nearby.
“Most Americans seem to like riding mountain bikes, for leisure or city riding, while Japanese and Europeans favor racing bikes,” Nakamura said, as he toured a visitor around the museum after his bicycle jaunt through the city. “When Shimano started this museum they wanted to combine the two cultures and display many different kinds of bicycles to interest everyone who comes here. Not only do we want to introduce bicycle culture to the people in Sakai and Osaka, but we have lots of nation-wide contests as well, including one that drew 35,000 children across Japan who sent us their drawings of bicycles. We do short bike touring, seminars, and show films to our visitors.”
As Mr. Nakamura moved among the bicycles hanging on the display racks, he lamented the fact that Japan’s car culture these days is often too much of a temptation for most Japanese. “Although Sakai is very flat, which makes it an excellent city for riding, our car culture is so dominant that it is difficult to get the Japanese out of their cars and onto bicycles. I think this is the same in the U.S. as well, but it is too bad that more people are not riding bicycles.”
The aversion to bicycles among many Japanese changed, albeit temporarily, after the March, 2011, earthquake in northern Japan, when many subway and train lines, including those in Tokyo, came to a halt. With about eight million workers in the affected areas needing transportation to jobs, bicycles suddenly were in high demand.
The Osaka-based Ashai Company doubled its bicycle sales in the month following the disaster, and Taiwan’s Giant Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer, said its Japanese retailers showed a 23 percent increase in the weeks following the earthquake.
Although Sakai’s streets are not as jam packed with bicyclists as in Amsterdam and other European cities, its many bike paths and historic roads, combined with its flat terrain, attract local commuters riding to railway stations, housewives on shopping errands, and international visitors who find Sakai’s proximity to Osaka, only 20-30 minutes away by express train, a pleasant excursion.
During warm weather, a short ride to Sakai’s Old Port will bring bikers to the Sakai Fish Market, where local residents purchase just-caught fish and seafood from vendors, and then cook their lunch themselves over small, table-side barbeque grills. Everyone sits at wooden picnic tables under a large open-air tent, and local residents are always happy to offer suggestions about the best way to cook the fresh fish, prawns, squid, clams, and scallops over the hot coals.
Bicycle Museum Cycle Center
18-2 Daisen Nakamachi
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