Cycling Japan: Tokyo

Earlier this year I posted my article on Cycling in Kyoto, which appeared in the Cycling Plus Malaysia November-December 2016 issue. Kyoto was just about the best introduction to cycling in Japan, since it was a nice gateway to the local heritage, but from a relatively safe urban environment that was not too different from everyday city life. After a number of days in the city, we then embarked on our long touring journey through the Noto Peninsula. Once that part of the trip was done, it was back to Tokyo, our initial landing point in Japan. Since this was not our first time in Tokyo, the city was more of a resting point after touring in Noto, and the last chance for us to a bit of shopping before home. That didn’t mean we were going to ditch our bikes though, heaven forbid!

Tokyo vs Kyoto

Let me start by pointing out that Tokyo and Kyoto are worlds apart. While cycling is common in both cities, the two experiences are completely different. Foldies are great for zipping around Tokyo.

Just like our home base of Kuala Lumpur, motor and human traffic in Tokyo is also dictated by the peak hours in the morning and evening. So too is the presence of hordes of pedestrians, who for all intents and purposes generally co-exist with two-wheeled commuters. However, once the working crowd is on the move, you will understand how difficult it is to pedal even a few paces with a solid wall of humans on foot blocking your path. At many points, I simply gave up and walked my bike instead. Too often these folk are either glued to their phones or listening to their MP3 players, and are dangerously oblivious to the cyclists around them.

Much like in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, a lot of cycling in Tokyo is done on the pavement, since there aren’t many cycling lanes there. This is despite the fact that it is actually illegal if the sidewalk is narrower than 3 meters. However, almost everyone does it, and you’re not likely to get stopped if you jump on the bandwagon. The irony is, the city didn’t go through the trouble of widening these paths, and it does get kind of narrow at a lot of areas, making a possible collision extremely likely. Theoretically that would mean extremely cautious pavement cycling unless it is in the more developed areas in the city like the business district. However, if you do find yourself pedalling on the sidewalk, it’s wise to remember that pedestrians always rule.

If you’re on the roads, you’d better be damned sure you are following the flow of traffic. So how do cars react to cyclists on the road? Most will cut a wide berth around you when overtaking, but there will be the occasional douchebag behind the wheel who doesn’t, or needs to honk to tell you you’re not fast enough and need to get off the roads. If there are parked cars along the road, be wary of opening doors, and remember that a lot of the taxis in Tokyo will have doors that swing open automatically upon arrival at a destination. Taxi drivers have also been accused of pulling out without watching out for passing cyclists.

Cycling rules aplenty

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Lights and bells are prerequisites for cycling in Tokyo, as well as avoiding things like riding tandem on a single seater bike, using your mobile phone or headphones, carrying an open umbrella, not riding single file, obstructing pedestrians, and obviously drunk riding (is there even such a term?) To be fair, we saw a number of cyclists breaking some of these rules, but knowing my luck I probably would have been hauled up in jail or something ridiculously silly like that if I was caught. I willingly stuck to whatever I knew was legal when it comes to cycling in Tokyo. (I guess that didn’t include riding on the roads only).

You can also apparently get in trouble for parking your bike if you’re not a resident, but places like in front of convenience stores are perfectly fine. That said, we used all manner of spots for parking while we were there and did not have any problems. Meanwhile, there are coin operated bike parking spaces all around the city, in addition to the fantastic Underground Bicycle Parking system. Our friends at Doowaroda took a short video while they were there, to show how little space the subterranean parking takes on ground level. Because of the ample availability of secure parking, some of the Japanese actually invest in two bicycles for their multi-modal commute to work. One bike to ride from home to the train station in the morning, and one bike to ride from the train station to the office; retracing the same journey in reverse at the end of the work day. There’s no wonder the bike parking lots are incredibly full, even at night by the time most folks are out drinking with their buddies or already tucked in for the night.

For our quick stay in Tokyo, we opted to stay at the Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi near the main train station, for several reasons.

  1. Proximity to the train station - ability to wheel our packed bikes and carry our backpacks to the station. This avoids the hassle of getting a cab with our oversized luggage.

  2. 24-hour working concierge - necessary for the luggage forwarding service we used while on Tour in the Noto Peninsula. AirBNB would not give us this option.

  3. Laundry service - we travel light while touring, which means doing laundry at least twice when we’re traveling. Clean laundry also mean less work upon returning to Malaysia.

  4. Hotel amenities - All the services that come with a modern business hotel including private bathrooms, which was great after a week of shared rooms and bathrooms on the road.

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Meiji Jingu & Ueno

From our hotel, our first exploration ride was pretty much flat ground around the business district. After the crazy uphill climbs of the Noto Peninsula, it was quite a nice change. Our first stop was Loro World Recumbents, to get our bikes tuned up after the weeklong tour and after some knocks during the transfers on trains. Pitstops included lunch at a basement level eatery with fried chicken, which the Japanese do so well. We also had a nice photo-op at the Akasaka Palace, one of the two state guest houses in the country for visiting foreign dignitaries. It was built in 1909 during the Meiji period for the crown prince, and features beautiful Neo-Baroque western architecture. If you want to see this stunning resemblance to Buckingham Palace, keep a watch for the 10-day period when the palace is open to the public. No such luck for us though, because it was November at the time.

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Since this area has a nice concentration of public parks, one stop we made was at the Meiji Jingu Gaien. It’s a pretty popular park with the locals, since it has an indoor ice skating rink, driving range, baseball diamonds & tennis courts. If you’re not too templed out, check out the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. The shrine is not the original, since the building was destroyed by air raids during World War II. With luck, you’ll come across a wedding procession in traditional Japanese garb, which is exactly what happened to us while we were there.

Nearby is the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. This is the site of the old sprawling Edo Castle, which was consumed by fire in the late 1800s. English language tours area available with the Imperial Household Agency, though tickets are either booked in advance or you can try showing up half an hour before the tour starts. It was closed at the time of our ride, but we were able to explore the surrounding gardens. The Kitanomaru park in the north and the Kokyo-gaien in the south are open to the public FOC, and the 10km perimeter is a favourite with cyclists and joggers to stretch their legs. Chidorigafuchi moat is also a great place to view sakura in the spring via boat rental.

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Yanesen

If you want a slice of old Japan in Tokyo itself, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, you can head to Tokyo's Yanesen area, which include the Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi neighborhoods. These are among the few places in the capital where you can experience what they call the Shitamachi atmosphere, basically an old town ambience reminiscent of past decades, with many historical structures, in the style of Edo-period Tokyo. It's pretty much the most traditional district in Tokyo, and is home to beautiful houses, artisans, temples, winding lanes and some great restaurants. For us, we focused on the Yanaka neighbourhood.

Located north of Ueno, Yanaka includes the large Yanaka Cemetery, which dates back to 1874 and miraculously survived the World War II air raids. It houses the final resting place of the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, also known as Keiki. There is also a private enclosure dedicated to the Tokugawa clan, family of the 15 Tokugawa shoguns of Japan, which can only be seen through double barred gates. The cemetery is also a sight to behold in April, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. 

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If you're in Yanaka, don't miss making a pit stop at the Kayaba cafe, housed in a building that was constructed in 1916. It's a great place to take a break from your time wandering around the neighbourhood, but there will be a bit of a line outside since it is a popular place with local students and artists. If you're not alone, take turns with your travel partner to check out a sake museum right across the street, so that one of you can hold a place in the line. We were only there for an afternoon matcha latte and coffee with an accompanying desert, so we weren't able to see what the place is like when it turns into a bar at night.

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As you can see, we barely scratched the surface of the Yanesen area since we didn't have much time. If you're travelling without a bike, you can also rent a bike there. We're obviously planning another trip (perpetually planning!) to fully explore all three neighbourhoods. Even if you're on foot, here some ideas you could most likely fit into a single day (or two or three or four) of exploration:

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10 things to do in Yanesen

Tsukiji Fish Market

Of course, a trip to Tokyo would not be complete without a visit to the infamous Tsukiji Fish Market. On weekends, the market and it’s surrounding areas are full to the brim with locals and foreigners. Even parking our birdy bikes there were a bit of a challenge, and we had to make do with squeezing them in at random spots in between perhaps 50 other bikes. Lines are long outside all the eateries, most of which only accept cash payments. For tourists, weekdays are the best time to make a visit there, but do make a note of what days the market is open to the public. Tsukiji consists of the inner and outer market, the first of which is where the fish is auctioned from 5.20am to roughly 8am. If you're keen to see the bidding, be there by 3am. If this is one of the main things you want to do in Tokyo, your best bet is staying at a hotel that is within walking distance, so that you can head there after a late night out or the traditional way of waking up early.

The outer market meanwhile, is a whole different ball game. The area has a whole range of sushi related produce and snacks, all manner of kitchen tools and crockery, in addition to the prerequisite cafes and eateries, and of course souvenirs (some cool t-shirts too!). All places to eat will have queues outside if you go lunchtime on a weekend, but the most popular ones have the longest waiting times at the door. While the sushi was very different from those that I tasted on our tour of Noto, it is still some of the best you will ever taste in Japan (or ever).

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Akihabara

Japan being the country it is, has unique pop cultures that are only found there and the accompanying retail products. One of the most infamous areas to hunt for these this is in Akihabara, quintessential modern Japan where the young folk gather. You'll see a number of maid cafes advertising services via girls who will not allow themselves to be photographed since they get paid to do that. This is Otaku land, where you can get all manner of anime merchandise and other collectibles, even those of the hentai variety. We spent hours popping in and out of the many different multi-storey buildings here, only leaving the area at night when most shops were about to close. I was sorely tempted to splurge on some items from some of our favourite animes (thank you netflix), but Eka talked me out of it. *sulks*

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Shibuya

If you're heading to Tokyo for shopping, you can't leave out Shibuya, a Mecca for the young and fashionable, and arguably the busiest part of the city. Here is where you can see first-hand the busiest intersection in Japan, which featured in a number of films like Resident Evil: Afterlife and Retribution, Lost in Translation and Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift. The scramble crossing is a fast-moving mass of commuters particularly during the evening peak hours, but I've stood in the middle with my Zoom recording device without anyone even bumping into me. It's an amazing sensory overload, with sights and sounds from at least three large TV screens on surrounding buildings and other advertising displays.

There are two famous statues at the Shibuya station that are popular meeting places. One is a statue of Hachiko, an Akita Inu dog remembered for his remarkable loyalty to his owner, whom he waited for at the Shibuya station more than nine years after his owner's death. If you're there on March 8th, you can see an annual ceremony to remember Hachiko's devotion to his owner, which is attended by hundreds of dog lovers. Hachiko cuts a lonesome figure at the Shibuya station, but he is finally reunited with his owner in another bronze statue at the University of Tokyo, where Hidesaburo Ueno was a professor. Another well known statue at the Shibuya station resembles a Moai statue, given to Shibuya by the people of Niijima Island, in celebration of Tokyo's 100th year as capital of Japan (previously Kyoto).

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From our hotel, the route to Shibuya was a stark contrast to our easy ride around the business district. Cutting through a number of both urban and neighbourhood areas, the route is not for the casual commuter, because it features a number of rolling hill climbs with some crazy steep ascents. An e-bike would have been very handy for this ride, because I was pretty hot and sweaty by the time we arrived. You could choose to bring your bike on the trains, but it has to be disassembled or folded and bagged properly, like most developed countries where the trains prioritise normal passengers. If you're in Tokyo, don't miss out on Tokyu Hands, where you can wander around for hours on end. For crafty folk, the store has anything and everything you need including for metalworking and leather making.

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The folding tales gang didn't have that much time to spend in Tokyo, since we were also traveling in other parts of Japan. You can see from this article that we missed out on a number of things to do and see in the capital, and that you can easily spend a month in the city without running out of activities. 

If you want more ideas for scenic rides in Tokyo, this list also gives you some suggested routes if you stay in the city a bit longer. https://www.timeout.com/tokyo/sport-and-fitness/best-scenic-bicycle-routes

If you want more information about what cycling is like in the city, head to http://www.tokyobybike.com

Meanwhile, if you don’t plan to bring your own bike to Tokyo, there are a bunch of rental options there https://tokyocheapo.com/travel/tokyo-bike-rental/