April 16, 2007
by Masaki Fukushima & Mamiko Tsunai
What is a Jinrikisha?
Stated quite simply, a jinrikisha is a kind of taxi: a human-drawn cart with two large wheels and seating for two passengers. Jinriki literally means “human power” and sha means “car” or “vehicle.” Nowadays in Japan, trains and the automobile have infiltrated modern life, so we can see jinrikisha only at the prime sightseeing spots and sometimes at a wedding. If you are planning a visit to Kyoto, however, you should consider taking an enjoyable ride in this vestige of Japan’s past.
It is said that the jinrikisha was invented in Japan in about 1868. Something similar had been seen in Paris from the 17th to the 18th century, but that cart was used to carry big loads of cargo. In Japan, three different men are credited with inventing the jinrikisha at the start of the Meiji Era, apparently after studying horse-drawn carriages introduced at the time.
The jinrikisha rapidly became popular because passengers riding one, pulled along by a healthy, strong runner, could move twice as fast as when walking. The cost, too, was cheaper than a carriage. Jinrikisha were also faster and less expensive than the human-carried palanquins (kago) which had been common in Japan until then. The new invention soon spread, not only around Japan but also throughout much of Asia. However, jinrikisha have gradually and markedly decreased because of the development of railroads and especially the appearance of the automobile.
Jinrikisha on the Periphery of Kiyomizu Temple
These days you have almost no chance of seeing a jinrikisha on the ordinary roads of Japan because of the spread of cars and buses. However, in several famous historical tourist spots such as Kyoto, Kamakura and Asakusa, jinrikisha still offer attractions to the tourists, including a special tour with the jinrikisha puller guiding you around. In the area nearby Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto there are a lot of very narrow paths such as Kiyomizu-zaka, Nine-zaka, Sannen-zaka, and Nene-no-michi, where you can hire a jinrikisha.
We call the person who draws a jinrikisha the shafu. Many shafu nowadays are good-looking men. This is part of a strategy which assumes that most of the tourists who want to take a jinrikisha in their travel-destination cities must be women, although a few of the shafu are actually women themselves.
The pullers are very persuasive, and will tempt you to go for a ride. And why not? They can tell you detailed stories about Kyoto’s history or its tourist spots. (Check first whether the shafu speaks English. Many do.) There is one drawback, however, if you are traveling on a tight budget. The fare is rather expensive: 2000 yen per kilometer per person. Still, by riding a jinrikisha you can really enjoy the ambience of the ancient city of Kyoto. And you can take a jinrikisha even on rainy days. The jinrikisha has a waterproof retractable roof that keeps out rain, and the puller will pull his jinrikisha with his raincoat on.
Each jinrikisha has its own name, after a deity or a natural feature of the region, and it is interesting to learn about the name of the particular jinrikisha you have a chance to ride.
A Precious Experience
Many residents of Kyoto have themselves never taken a ride on a jinrikisha. But once you have ridden on one, you may agree that it would be a waste never to have the experience. The eye level is fairly high — as high as a bus passenger’s — and the speed, gentle by today’s standards, is very comfortable. While riding you can feel a cool breeze blow against you. You can ask the puller any question about Kyoto because he is well-versed about the city. Just take a ride on a jinrikisha when you visit Kyoto! We are sure that it will give you a precious experience that you would not have otherwise!
Be sure to see a related article on our website: Rickshaw in the Arashiyama and Sagano Areas