A View of the Past: Japan from a Jinrikisha

You see them passing by in the streets, flashes of shiny black and vermillion, their curiously shaped hats firmly anchored to their heads, their split-toed shoes confidently gripping the pavement. Jinrikisha, commonly known as rickshaw in English, are the person-powered vehicles once the sole means of public transportation in many parts of Asia, now reserved for tourists in some of the most scenic areas of Japan. To many visitors from abroad, the idea of being hauled about by another person’s labor seems incredibly foreign. But while once considered a menial job, the nostalgic feel and chance to prove oneself physically have revitalized the industry, resulting in opportunities for runners and tourists alike. Shafu are not mere human taxis; rather, they are guides and historians, bringing the passing scenery to life and giving their fares a deep understanding of what they’re seeing.

The jinrikisha are built by hand in Gifu Prefecture, and, other than some improvements in materials, little has changed over the last half-millennia. The runners admit that the carts can become heavy, and the work itself at times arduous, but they still maintain it’s the best job they’ve had.

Fans of the jinrikisha claim there is no better way to see local areas. The scenery may vary wildly depending on the location, from Arashiyama’s mesmerizing bamboo forest to Tokyo’s vibrant city streets, but regardless of the sights, an unobstructed view and the pleasure of having a knowledgeable guide just feet away make it an unforgettable experience.

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