Cycling Adventures: Tokyo

Welcome to the world of jitensha and Mama-chari.

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By John Greenfield

Biking in Tokyo is not as bad as you’d think. Yes, it’s an extremely hectic, densely packed place – the metro area being roughly the population of California squeezed into the area of Hawaii. But when I visited this winter, I found the world’s most populous mega-city to be a surprisingly comfortable and friendly place to pedal.

The Tokyo transportation mix includes lots of everything. Sure, the streets are clogged with cars, but there’s also a terrific metro system that’s ubiquitous, fast, clean and gaijin or “foreigner”-friendly with signage and announcements in English as well as Japanese. And when the simultaneous four-way “pedestrian scramble” walk signals activate next to busy Shibuya Station, the resulting swarm would warm the heart of any ped planner.

There’s also tons of jitensha (“bicycles”), evidenced by vast bike lots at suburban train stations, Kasai Station’s Cycle Tree – an automated underground parking system with space for 6,480 vehicles – and the dozen or so bicycles parked curb-side on every other block. Thanks to the city’s low theft rate, most people simply put down their kickstand and free-lock.

Mama-chari (“Mama bikes”) rule the streets, or rather sidewalks, of Tokyo. These sensible commuter cycles are usually single or three speed, fully accessorized and often equipped with a shopping basket in front and a child seat in back. In the temperate winter weather, young adults on mama-chari sporting smart Anglophile fashions – men in Burberry jackets, slacks and scarves, women in peacoats, skirts and knee-high boots – are a common sight.

Wanting to get in on the action, I hired a six-speed cruiser for $9 USD a day from Tokyo Rent A Bike, near Nakameguro Station. It’s generally legal to ride on the wide sidewalks, and this is where you see most cyclists rolling at slow speeds. But I found slaloming around pedestrians to be stressful, so I soon took to the streets.

Cars drive on the left-hand side of the road in Japan and, recalling a UK vacation where my dad destroyed several mailboxes while learning to drive on the left, I worried I’d make a deadly mistake. But bicycling in the street felt surprisingly safe, the main difference being left turns were now easier to execute than right turns. And motorists drove at moderate speeds and with courtesy – I heard almost no horns.

Navigation was the biggest challenge since there’s no grid, many streets are unnamed and buildings are identified by seemingly random block numbers rather than street addresses. Using a street atlas, I was able to locate a few of the many bike stores recommended by friends from Chicago. They came to Tokyo in September for the Cycle Messenger World Championships, which drew hundreds of couriers from around the globe.

F.I.G. Bike near Harajuku Station is a spacious store selling multicolored fixies and BMX bicycles, plus stylish city bikes like the Vivo Bellisimo and UTB Picnic. Downstairs, there’s cool clothing by the local brand PEdAL.E.D., wallets made from recycled inner tubes and leather messenger bags with magnetic closures.

A few blocks north of Shibuya Station, W-BASE and Carnival occupy the first and second floors of the same building. These tiny shops can build the custom track bike of your dreams. W-BASE is especially densely packed with flashy frames and parts, including BMX gear. When I visited, a cluster of polo mallets leaned against a wall and a sphere of old inner tubers sat on the floor like a huge ball of yarn.

Manager Yohei Hanazawa helped organize the messenger championships here. Besides the usual checkpoint races simulating courier work, the champs featured track competitions on the Keiokaku Velodrome, home to the famous Keirin sprints and located near Keio-Tamagawa Station. “The messenger championships were awesome,” Hanazawa said. “I’ve gone to other cities for the championships and this time the world came to Tokyo. It was a great party – I didn’t sleep for a week.”

Other shops fixed-gear fans will want to check out include Blue Lug, Sexon Super Peace, Juice, Dreamworks and Beans. For relaxing times, sip a Suntory at Kinfolk Lounge, run by California expats who also build custom track bikes. The tiny, cozy bar features cocktails, like the Ginger Mint Mojito, and classic Keirin frames hanging from the rafters.

My most memorable Tokyo bike experience was joining the Half-Fast Cycling club on a cruise from the Roppongi district to Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Harbor with a replica of the Statue of Liberty, an onsen (“hot spring”) in a phony Edo-era village, and a giant robot sculpture.

Ride leader Mike Sims-Williams, a Brit, insisted the raison d’être of the club is getting together to drink beer. “We’re not about efficiency, we’re about camaraderie,” he said “People ask why we cycle from one beer vending machine to another. It’s because it’s faster than walking.”

We spun for about 10 miles down broad boulevards, through narrow, old-timey lanes and over bridges to the island, where we stopped for drinks at an outdoor cafe with palm trees and reggae music. Sipping a Kirin, Kanako Maeda said she has enjoyed the moderate speeds and friendly vibes on Half-Fast rides – with one exception. “Once, a woman stopped suddenly in front of me and, when I hit my brakes, a 100-kilogram man flipped over me,” she said. “He ran over my back, but I wasn’t hurt too badly.”

On the way home, we stopped at a park and did spontaneous laps around a circular fountain – bikes on the outside riding clockwise, bikes on the inside riding counter-clockwise. It was a good metaphor for cycling in Tokyo: chaos, orchestrated.

Thanks to Chris Dilts and Andy Golding for tips on bike shops and bars.

3 Comments

  • M. Hayakawa

    Cycling is indeed the best way to get around Tokyo as you see so much more than you would had you taken a bus, train or subway. The unexplored places between stations hold so much of interest that even many of the train bound locals do not even know about. When you’re on your bike it is so easy to stop when you see something of interest rather than seeing it zoom by outside the train window never to be seen again.

    The website Tokyo By Bike has a lot of information about cycling in Tokyo from someone who has been cycling in Japan for almost two decades.

    Well worth a visit: http://www.tokyobybike.com/

  • Malinda Lloyd

    I LOVED biking in Tokyo – people were so pleasant and easy to ride around! My husband has a great reveiw of his Bike Friday on his site

    http://www.lmlloyd.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=142:after-action-report-on-biking-tokyo&catid=25:bikes&Itemid=87

    My Mobiky only made it half way through our trip 🙁 But we biked from Tokyo bay to Nappori then Akihabara in one day.

    Loved every minute I was on that bike and even biked in the rain with no wet weather gear (it was august and super hot). Something I NEVER do 🙂

  • Mark B

    I think I have to add this to my Bucket List — pedaling Japan, not just Tokyo — from end to end.

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