Utsunomiya: Mickey Cycles

September 6, 2011

Sometime in the 1970s, a Japanese high school girl named Kikue approached an American tourist named Rod at the Toshogu Shrine, asking him if she could practice her English with him.  Rod said yes, and so was born a friendship and correspondence that would last for decades.  When Rod passed on, his daughter Nicki “inherited” Kikue, and they continued to write to one another and exchange gifts at holidays and birthdays.

Nicki, my mother’s college roommate, encouraged me to contact Kikue when I visited Japan, and I was immediately impressed by Kikue’s warmth and energy over email.  Kikue invited me to stay with her family in Utsunomiya (宇都宮, literally, “heaven capital”, or “heaven shrine”), a city north of Tokyo.  With a still valid JR “gajin” pass, I hopped on a Shinkansen after work one afternoon and headed toward Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県, “horse-chestnut tree”).

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The first thing I noticed about Tochigi-ken was the relative lack of humidity: the prefecture was surprisingly dry and pleasant.  Numerous strip malls, big box stores, and other features of suburban life sprawled along the straight roads, intermingling with rice paddies.

Kikue and her husband, Mitsugu, greeted me at the train station.  Together they run a motorcycle repair shop on the first floor of their home called “Mickey Cycles” (from the combined first syllables of their first names).  The first thing they did was proudly show off their 1958 Rikuo, a Japanese motorcycle built by Harley-Davidson.

The shop was full of vintage and custom motorcycles and bicycles, tools, and 1950’s advertisements.

Custom bike
They then took me with their son, Tetsuya, to a kaiten zushi (回転ずし) restaurant, where small plates of fish and rice travel past on a conveyer belt.  Having been to sushi boat restaurants in the US, this was still a new and unique experience! The sushi on the right says スパイシサラダ, “spicy salad”, and includes the kanji for spicy, 辛.  あぶない!

Spicy salad
Tetsuya works at the motorcycle shop and plays in a 1950’s cover band called The Polka Dots, where his stage name is Eddie Cochran. A huge rockabilly fan, he’s been to the US once for an Elvis convention in Las Vegas. He talked excitedly about the gigantic portions served at the Hard Rock Café. He showed us videos of his band’s performances, and his singing “Johnny B. Goode”.

The whole family loved anything from 1950’s America, old rock music, classic US advertisements, the film October Sky.  Excited to have a “astronomer” in their midst, they showed me their vintage books on rocket science.

Kikue and Mitsugu used to ballroom dance competitively, until Kikue hurt her shoulder a few years ago. Her closet was like visiting a Hollywood starlet’s dressing room, resplendent with sequins and sparkles and pearls.

We even watched some videos of Kikue and Mitsugu competing in dancing competitions!

Sunset in Utsunomiya was golden and glowing, really feeling like the capital of heaven.

It was wonderful to be around a group of vibrant, interested people so happy to be alive.

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