Aiko Sonoda: The rickshaw driver of Arashiyama

November 17, 2012

by Yuka Yamazaki

I am in Arashiyama: a region on the outskirts of Kyoto that recalls the ancient world of Japanese nobility and their elegant poetry. I learn that this was a popular place for secret meetings between lovers.

This was an aspect of Arashiyama I encountered with the help of one of my dear friends who happens to work here. Aiko Sonoda might be an ordinary university student like me, but it is what she does outside of class that makes her particularly unique.

Aiko is a jinrikisha or manual rickshaw driver. This form of transport is several centuries old, and today you can see them at some of the major tourist spots in Kyoto. Operating jinrikisha is usually the preserve of men, since it requires a huge amount of physical strength. But Aiko takes it all in her stride, always wearing a heartwarming smile on her face.

Before Aiko was able to start working as an ichininmae fully-fledged rickshaw driver, she had to endure a long period of training as well as pass an exam to qualify her as a tour guide. But perhaps the toughest challenge was to defy the perception that a woman, particularly one as petite as her, was not suited to pull a rickshaw. Her track record as a competitive runner and her passion, however, won the day. Now, tourists from all over the world can have the pleasure of having Aiko as their guide.

“Why did you want this job so much?” I ask. Aiko explains that she was already working at a rickshaw company, preparing the drinks and towels for the drivers. She saw how the guides could interact with the visitors and bring a smiles to their faces, and looked on with longing as they rode away together into the distance. “If only I could make them happy too,” she thought.

She tells me about an elderly couple she guided, who were visiting Arashiyama for the first time since their honeymoon. “I was so glad to be able to share that precious time with them,” she says.

We meet on this early summer morning by Nonomiya Shrine, tucked away in the famous bamboo groves. Aiko is going to take me for a ride on her rickshaw for the first time.

It’s raining a little, so Aiko pulls the hood of the rickshaw over my head and places a warm red blanket on my lap. We already know each other well, but today, she is treating me like a princess! I take out my notebook and start writing when she stops me: “No need to do that: just sit back, relax, and enjoy!”

“Let’s go!”

Aiko stops periodically to let me take photographs, take in the scenery, and to share stories with me of love and scandal from the time when Kyoto was home to the imperial court.  I shower her with questions. I am so impressed by her abilities as a guide, and how she still looks pretty even as beads of sweat (and rain!) gather around her forehead.

After our hour is up, I disembark the rickshaw at Nenbutsu-ji Temple having seen Arashiyama from a completely different perspective. She writes out my receipt, addressed to “Princess Yuka”!

Aiko then gave me several recommendations on how to spend the rest of my special day in Arashiyama, including a 400 year-old restaurant called Hiranoya which served Japanese matcha tea with sweets.

 

Aiko’s achievement is truly a testament to her strong personality as well as her love for her heritage and culture. Arashiyama would be lost without her, just as a poet would be lost without his brush.

How can I get a rickshaw ride?

It’s easy! You will see many rickshaws in Arashiyama, almost as soon as you leave the station the guides will greet you and invite you to ride with them. The cost depends on how far you want to ride, but the fee for one person is usually 2000 yen, for two people 3000 yen. Some drivers, like Aiko, speak English.

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