Japan’s acrobatic noodle delivery cyclist

These photos, taken on the streets of Tokyo in the mid-20th century, show what food delivery looked like before the onslaught of modern services like Swiggy and Zomato. Riding a bicycle holding the handlebar of the bike with one hand, these noodle delivery boys weave balanced towers of soba noodle bowls on their shoulders in and out of traffic to carry dinners and snacks for their customers. this service is called demai, which literally means “go to the front”, and it’s older than you might think.

demai It is believed to have originated in the mid-Edo period in the 1700s. It was mainly used by the wealthy. daimyo, feudal lords who sent servants to tell shopkeepers that they wanted food delivered to their homes. for a longer period of time, demai Developed into a more mainstream practice enjoyed by everyone from students to office workers. One of the most popular meals was soba buckwheat noodles that could be eaten either cold with dipping sauce, or served hot in noodle soup. It was an economical dish and could be carried around without losing the taste or appearance of the food.

The job of soba noodle delivery was dangerous and demanded a great deal of finesse and skill. Often men were required to handle dozens of orders in a single trip, as owners usually lacked hands, and the only means of transport they could afford were bicycles. On these peculiar transports, the men carried over a hundred bowls, stacking these bowls of noodles and soup one on top of the other. Some of these piles were five feet high. Like the acrobats of a Russian circus, these precarious towers were then balanced on their shoulders as they rode a bicycle, holding the bike steady with one hand and gently grasping the precious cargo with the other.

soba delivery boys

In a 1961 Reuter article requiring reporting on new bicycle traffic laws that required a cyclist to place both hands on the handlebars while riding on roads, officials from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s traffic section were quoted as saying Mune: A bowl of soba on your shoulder is dangerous. It should be banned from the point of view of road traffic safety. But we will not impose any strict curbs as they will lose more than half of their customers.”

The article ended in an optimistic note: “With this assurance of police ignoring the illegal traffic practice, ‘soba’ delivery boys will continue to race the streets of Tokyo.” Unfortunately, such landmarks, not seen today, may be replaced by safer and more efficient methods of food delivery.

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

soba delivery boys

References:
# Photos of the splendid old Japan art of soba delivery,
Spoon and Tamago
# Japan: Tokyo: New traffic law for noodle delivery boys. 1961, british path

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