Friday, November 26, 2021

Bicycle Noodle Delivery: Tokyo’s Remarkable Memories

Imagine your favorite noodles being delivered at lunchtime by a restaurant courier. Although the way to order your lunch has changed, in Japan, noodles used to arrive by bicycle noodle delivery with a difference. Today’s constant rush and lifestyles that revolve around earning to sustain a better lifestyle means we are very comfortable with the art of ordering food. Select a food delivery app, and in a few clicks, we are all set to eat.

But the food delivery system is not a new concept. The old system of bicycle noodle delivery in Tokyo has been making news ever since a few pictures of delivery boys carrying stacks of noodles hit the internet.

The history of demae

The Edo period was an important part of Japan’s development. Not only was Tokyo, then Edo, made the seat of power for Japan, but the period also had some strict traditions that enabled the reign of the shogunates to last for about 250 years. During this time, the economic development of the country was underway. People walked to work and the daily commuter’s life was quite similar to what we see today, without the electronic encroachment.

The need to eat, but not go back and forth between work and home for lunch, gave rise to the system of food delivery. Since bicycles were not in use then, the delivery men, or demae (meaning “to go in front of”), carried dozens of soba and udon noodles — healthy, nutritious, and satisfying.

Soba bicycle noodle delivery in Tokyo, 1935.
Soba noodles deliveryman in Tokyo, 1935. (Image: Mainichi Shimbun via Wikimedia Commons)

The restaurants serving the food and offering delivery were initially serving wealthy clients in the 1700s called Daimyō, or feudal lords. Soba made of buckwheat contains Thiamine, or Vitamin B1, which was missing from white rice eaten by wealthier people. Soba noodles solved the deficiency problem by providing the missing Thiamine and reducing cases of Beriberi common in those days.

The original bicycle noodle delivery service

The noodles were packed and hung from a pole that was balanced on their shoulders. A fact to consider here is that after it was prepared, this food was piping hot. When the customers received their food it was still hot, so that will give you an idea of how fast these men ran to deliver the food.

In more modern times, with the use of bicycles, bicycle noodle delivery became more complex. As bicycles came on the scene, the city too was spreading. Tokyo was becoming larger and hence, these deliverymen had to cover an extended area within a short time. These deliverymen carried at least 20 food bowls balanced precariously on top of each other on their shoulders with one hand for support while using the other hand to steer the bicycle.

Often, they had to deliver to a company’s entire staff. This meant that the demae had to carry at least 30 portions of food on his shoulders. These stacks of food could easily reach 5 feet in height. Seeing a demae on his commute to deliver was no less than watching an acrobat do an amazing balancing act on a busy street. Eventually, demae competed with each other.

The demise of the demae

It was during this time that Honda was setting up a booming automotive industry. The rising number of cars and motorbikes on the streets made traveling by bicycle a difficult feat. Strict traffic rules of having both hands on the bicycle while riding among the growing amount of cars on the streets made this sort of delivery illegal. On March 28, 1961, Reuters reported the Metropolitan Police Department’s Traffic Section officials saying: “To ride on a bicycle with piles of ‘soba’ bowls on your shoulder is dangerous. It must be prohibited from the viewpoint of road traffic safety. But we will not place any stricter curb as they will lose more than half their customers.”

With today’s world full of late deliveries or the delivery guys being rude or stealing food from the customers, what those Japanese men achieved on bicycles was truly an art. One hand supporting the stacks of hot food, one shoulder holding the major portion of the burden, one hand steering the bicycle, and all these achieved without slowing down or getting into accidents on busy Tokyo streets. Late deliveries were not part of the normal. The photographs show these men having a smile as they balance and ride. This level of dedication and politeness is an art.

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Max Lu
Max Lu is an author who specializes in Asian geopolitics.
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