Photo/IllutrationA spare of a bicycle presented to Emperor Emeritus Akihito when he was the crown prince is displayed at the Bicycle Museum Cycle Center in Sakai Ward of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. (Toru Tajimi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

SAKAI, Osaka Prefecture--It may seem far-fetched, but ancient "kofun" burial mounds here share something in common with a relatively recent invention: the bicycle.

The tombs constructed in the Mozu area in or around the fifth century are part of cluster approved for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage list and renowned worldwide.

It is said that iron tools were needed in vast quantities to shift the mountains of soil and slabs of stone to construct the massive burial sites, some for the repose of emperors, and that many skilled artisans from China and elsewhere were drawn to the area to foster metalworking techniques.

Those forging skills were handed down to gunsmiths many centuries later. But when the central government went into gun production on its own in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), skilled metal workers in Sakai were thrown out of work. So they turned to repairing imported bicycles and producing cycling components.

Domestic production mushroomed after bicycle imports dried up in the aftermath of World War I, paving the way for Sakai to develop into a major production area.

That fact is celebrated by the Bicycle Museum Cycle Center situated in Daisen Koen park in the city center.

The three-story museum and its Bicycle Square are run by a public interest foundation set up by Shimano Inc., the world’s largest bicycle component maker, which is headquartered here.

Three hundred or so bicycles are on display, offering visitors a chance to explore the development of this simple invention that transformed the way people get around.

They include a replica of the Draisine, which was invented in Germany in 1818 and is the world's first bicycle, and the same model featured in a painting by Claude Monet with his eldest son astride one.

A highlight of the display is a children’s bicycle with training wheels housed in a glass case for protection. It is a spare of one presented by the city government to Crown Prince Akihito, present-day emperor emeritus, in 1936 when he was 2 years old.

The bicycle, one of two produced by a local industry group, has a dark red frame featuring an illustration of a golden-colored phoenix. The emblem is made from “shippoyaki” cloisonne ware.

“I heard that each company involved in the project brought components and assembled them with pride,” said Masayuki Hasebe, 68, the museum’s secretary-general.

The classic bicycles are not just for show. On the second and fourth Sunday of each month, as well as on national holidays, visitors can take 23 replicas representing nine bicycles out for a spin in Bicycle Square.

I opted for a Draisine and arrived at the circular track hoping to feel like a European aristocrat. But as the two-wheeler has no pedals, the ground has to be kicked to gain momentum.

I wobbled this way and that, and a child of elementary school age playfully overtook me as I groaned about the strain on my thigh muscles.

Two centuries have passed since the bicycle was invented.

Hasebe organizes workshops and cycling events to promote bicycle safety, an issue he takes very seriously,

“You mustn't ride around in the way that makes pedestrians fearful,” he cautioned.

The Bicycle Museum Cycle Center is a roughly 13-minute walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line. An alternative route is to take a Nankai Bus at Sakai-Higashi Station on the Nankai Koya Line and get off at the Daisencho stop.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed on Mondays (except national holidays), and the day after a holiday, as well as during the year-end and New Year holidays.

Admission is 100 yen (90 cents) for those aged 65 or older. The same fee applies to junior, senior high school and college students. Adults pay 200 yen and elementary school pupils are charged 50 yen. Admission is free for elementary and junior high school students on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays.

Visit the official website at (http://www.bikemuse.jp/).