The rickshaw driver: a common sight around Asakusa and yet what do we know about them, other than they seem really fit? To learn more, we spent a morning with Reiji Kimura, who’s a veteran shafu (rickshaw driver) by day, and a metal band drummer by night.

What does a typical day look like?

It depends on the company you work for, but I can set my own schedule. I try to start as early as I can, especially on weekends and holidays as it increases the chance of getting more customers. If I go out drinking the night before I may start later the following day. [Laughs] Basically, if I’ve earned enough to reach my goal for the day, I head home. Sometimes it only takes two hours of work in the morning and I’m done! On an average day, though, I’d say I take up to three to four rides, with the most in one day being 10. On bad days, though, I’ll only get one ride the whole day. The worst-case scenario – which has happened once – I’ve gone home with no rides and nothing to show for it. That was the worst.

Why did you choose this job?

I can schedule my work to fit around my personal life. If I decide to take a random Wednesday off to hang out with a friend, I can. I’ll lose out on any potential earnings that day, but I can usually make it up on a weekend. Since I’m in a band, it’s important for me to have a job that’s flexible, and this way I can make more than I would with a normal full-time or part-time job. I also get a great workout. I’d say I run about 20km on busy days, and about 10 to 12km on quieter days.

How do you become a rickshaw driver?

The application process differs depending on the company, but our boss will generally let anyone who seems genuinely interested give it a try. Fast learners can pick it up in a couple of weeks, while others take a couple of months. The training period is very rigorous, though. Because we drive on public roads it’s imperative that the training reflects the weight of that responsibility. Our boss usually vets potential drivers himself and is very particular about safe driving. We have a strict policy to stop guiding when we can’t guarantee the safety of our passengers. There are a lot of things to consider: the size of the rickshaw, how easily we can maneuver it in traffic – in many ways, it’s a lot like driving a car. But, thanks to our strict system, our company has had zero accidents to date.

“I was told once by some young women that they wanted to ride with a good-looking guy and not me”

What’s the most important aspect of being a rickshaw driver?

Apart from the dedication to the safety of our passengers, I think it’s good to have an open and friendly personality. I was told once by some young women that they wanted to ride with a good-looking guy and not me. That hurt! [Laughs] You can attract customers with a pretty face, but it’s important to make sure the customer has a great time. A rickshaw ride isn’t just a ride around the area – we give full tours with little-known informational tidbits about the area and try to create a dialog with our clients. By conversing, I can find out a client’s interests and tailor the tour to those. I’ve taken a few people to what is now their favorite gelato shop, for example.

What’s hardest about the job?

Being dependent on weather conditions. On hot summer days, I can down about 2.5 liters of tea and water in just a couple of hours. In winter, it gets so cold! Our busiest seasons are Golden Week and the New Year’s holidays, when people travel the most. The New Year is especially busy, as people come to Asakusa from all over the country throughout January to start their year with a temple visit at Sensoji. On those days I’m driving all day, from morning until night.

What’s the best part of the job?

I love meeting new people every day. People come to Asakusa from all over the world. Most of my customers are Japanese, but I have a lot of Korean and Chinese customers as well. Then there are of course many people from the US, Europe, and Australia as well. I get to practice my English, too. I start off a bit rusty, but by the end of the day I feel pretty fluent!

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever experienced working?

I drove one person on four separate occasions in the same day. He really got into the area and asked me to take him somewhere. He’d wander off and explore, or eat, then I’d run into him again and he’d ask me to take him somewhere else.

Reiji’s Rickshaw Tour

Most Popular Route
“The Shitamachi route: I take customers around and explain about historical Showa and Edo period buildings that still stand in the area for a full-on retro experience.”

Favorite Spot in Asakusa
“Matsuchiya Shoden. It’s one of Sensoji’s constituent temples, but is kind of far away from the main temple area, next to Sumida Park by the river. The temple itself is beautiful and it’s a well-known power spot. It’s been portrayed a lot in ukiyo-e during the Edo period.”

Book a Ride
Reiji works for Hidaya, which has 10 drivers, three of whom speak good English. To book a driver for a ride or event, send a tweet to @Asakusahidaya on Twitter. Or book directly via Reiji at [email protected]