Japanese Rickshaw (人力車): Rolling in Style

Japanese rickshaw Ginrikisha  人力車 in Japan

I’ve only ridden in a pulled rickshaw pulled by a person on foot once. I remember it being cold – and I remember someone (a parent perhaps) complaining about the price. I was too young to remember much more than a simple awe at the fact I felt powerful; how else do you explain that feeling of superiority when someone else is doing all the work just for you.

I want to ride a rickshaw (or ricksha / Ginrikisha  / 人力車) in Japan. Every time I see one of these human-pulled rickshaws, I have to bit my tongue, lest I accidentally ask the price. If I ask the price, I will probably be pressured into paying for a $50 scenic ride around town. I’m really bad at saying no.

So instead I just take pictures.

Japanese rickshaw Ginrikisha  人力車 in Japan

For all intents and purposes, I’m ignoring bike or motor pulled rickshaws. I find the rickshaws pulled by a small, agile man or woman, dashing through the crowds (and often wearing traditional Japanese clothes), incredibly fascinating. Their navigational skills, presence, and stamina amaze me.

Japanese rickshaws were invented by three men in 1869 in Tokyo. They received their first patent from the Tokyo government that next year; two years later they had built and distributed over 40,000 rickshaws in Tokyo. The popularity of these ginriksha (human powered car) spread like wildfire. Period paintings and photographs often depict women in kimonos sitting in the back of these human-powered rickshaws.

I don’t blame them. Have you ever tried walking long distances in a kimono? It’s awful.

Japanese rickshaw Ginrikisha  人力車 in Japan

Most of these rickshaw drivers ran out of business when “real” cars came to Tokyo in the 1930s. Aside from a short come-back after World War II (due to the lack of cars and gasoline in Japan right after the war); the older generation hoped this was “a chance for Japan to return to its roots.” Nope, the rickshaws are still scarce. Once people were able to find gasoline to fuel their cars again, these rickshaw skeletons went back to the garage to gather dust.

Now, human powered rickshaws are only found in major festivals, the district of Asakusa (and other historic districts in Japan), or on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or other couples holidays in Japan. And I still creepily take pictures of these rickshaw carts every time I see them, dreaming of the day I have enough cash to throw down 3000 yen for 10 minutes in one of these carts.

Side note – as I mentioned before, nearly all the Japanese human pulled rickshaw car drivers will wear traditional clothes. Depending on the season, they might have everything covered. They might also have, like, nothing covered.

So be prepared to see a little bit of this. It’s all part of the show.

Japanese rickshaw Ginrikisha  人力車 in Japan

(PS- Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this – which I know you are – I do remember the time the whole family crammed into the back of a bicycle powered cart to take us to the Zilker Christmas Tree. As cool as that was, the guy was on a bike, rather than on foot, so I’m choosing not to count it.)

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