The Electrifying Ride on a Japanese Denchari
By Mark Kennedy
First a warning to all cycling enthusiasts who live in Tokyo: If you aspire to be in the Tour de France and/or live to do laps around the Imperial Palace at breakneck speeds on an ultra-light weight, high-end bicycle, then read no further. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a leisurely bicycle ride now and then but can be a little intimated by all of the hills in many parts of Tokyo, then this short piece may be of interest.
It has now been about two months since I bought my first denchari or electronic assist bicycle, and I am hooked! After years of being a purist, at first I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about the need for this extra little boost—especially considering the price premium. Riding a denchari is, however, completely liberating. I can now go virtually everywhere in Tokyo on a bicycle! While the trains and subways are convenient, getting around town on a bicycle provides a completely different perspective. Yes, my denchari set me back about as much as half of what I paid for my first used car, but it is worth every yen!
Riding a denchari is completely liberating. I can now go virtually everywhere in Tokyo on a bicycle!
Denchari is actually an abbreviation for dendo-jitensha (electric bicycle) or dendo ashisuto jitensha (electric assist bicycle). Chari is Japanese slang for bicycle and is actually an abbreviation for slightly longer slang word charinko. You may have heard the popular word mamachari which is a bicycle used by mothers to transport small children and groceries. The Japanese language has many such shortened words that are composed of snippets of longer expressions.
Since my conversion to this new form of transportation, I seem to notice electronic assist bicycles wherever I go. Is it me, or has there been an explosion of denchari during the past year or so? While the major brands such as Yamaha, Panasonic and Bridgestone certainly seem to dominate the market, there are a wide variety of makes and models. As can be confirmed by checking out the churinjo or bicycle parking lot at virtually any supermarket or next to a train station in Tokyo, it seems like the biggest sellers are the electric assist version of the traditional mamachari.
There are, however, some versions that resemble mountain bikes. My denchari, a Panasonic EZ, was probably designed to appear to be a mountain bike, although it is certainly better suited for a more urban environment. While I found my denchari in the bicycle section of Don Quixote, they are available all over town. Some shops that specialize exclusively in denchari have opened, as well.
Like your cell phone, the only limiting factor can be the battery. While the battery easily slips in and out of its specially designed pocket built-into the frame, a good charge takes at least a couple of hours. If you’re just planning to ride around your neighborhood to do errands, then a single charge can probably last up to about a week. If you’re going to be riding for a while on a somewhat extended journey, then it’s a good idea to prepare in advance with a full charge.
My denchari has three operating modes: extra-power, automatic and economy. Thus it is possible to conserve the life of the battery to a certain extent. Distance, terrain, and one’s own weight all influence battery life. In a pinch it is possible to ride without the electronic assist, but be forewarned that at least at first this makes it seem like your brakes are engaged! It’s a great work-out, though.
As it will soon start to warm up quite a bit, I suspect that the true value of my new denchari will become apparent when the thermometer breaks past 25 and the debilitating humidity transforms Tokyo into a pressure cooker. Just the thought of trying to ride up the steep hill near my home on a regular bicycle in such conditions used to cause me to break out in a sweat. Now I am not fazed at all by the prospect of attacking that hill with my denchari. Go for a test ride and then use your very own denchari to go exploring.