Two wheels better than four in Tokyo

Two wheels better than four in Tokyo

Why the Japanese capital is the world's best city for cycling
cycling in tokyo
Speeding past the Imperial Palace once the roads close on Sundays.

Relatively flat and bisected by rivers and quiet backstreets, Tokyo is perhaps the best major city in the world for cyclists, especially in the cool dry winter months before the spring rains and summer humidity.

The mama-chari (“mother chariot”) push-bike is one of Tokyo’s defining features -- an estimated 20 million are on the streets -- most being used for the home-to-train-station commute.

An increasing number of citizens are also realizing that a sturdy mountain bike or sleek racing bike can take them to almost anywhere in the city within an hour or two. With a bike, the journey from door to door is often faster than it is using trains or buses.

cycling in tokyoA row of mama-chari near Toritsu-daigaku station in Meguro ward. Tokyo has an estimated 20 million bicycles.

Colorful roads

”It’s a great way to explore the city,” says Alastair Rogers, a teacher and leader of local rock band Sunset Drive, who claims to have cycled almost 30,000 kilometers in Tokyo, or 40 kilometers a day on average in the past two years.

“It’s a much more refreshing way to live than walking up and down stairs and waiting for crowded trains,” says Rogers.

Though Western-style bicycle lanes and bicycle activists are rare, Tokyo’s streets are well-paved and often colorfully painted.

Since many drivers are cyclists, as well, riding in Tokyo is generally safer than in car-centric North American cities, and the air is less polluted than Bangkok, Hong Kong or Beijing.

Thanks to the recent installation of bicycle parking lots around the city, parking a bike is safe and cheap -- usually ¥100 a day, compared with ¥25,000 a month to park a car near home or office.

cycling in tokyoGingko trees form an Acropolis for nature lovers on Icho Namiki boulevard near Gaien in Aoyama.

Behind the concrete clutter

For some, cycling is a Zen way to transcend the claustrophobia of crowded stations, underground mazes and concrete clutter, and become intimate with the city’s topography and ancient character.

In streets ablaze with autumn colors, the trees appear as well-preserved bottles that finally let forth their red and golden wines to celebrate the passing year.

Many cyclists, who know Tokyo better than taxi drivers, say it’s best to follow the city's network of rivers and canals, or back streets along train lines, which inevitably lead to bayside beaches, breezy rivers and quiet mountains.

City Routes

cycling in tokyoMarunouchi never seemed so quiet.

1. Setagaya and Meguro to Tamagawa and Haneda

The best routes depend on where you live. From Setagaya or Meguro wards, for example, the Nomikawa river, plus back streets near Setagaya, Komazawa, Meguro or Nakahara boulevards, lead toward cycling trails along the Tamagawa river, running between Tokyo and Kawasaki for about 50 kilometers all the way from Haneda airport to the Okutama mountains.

2. Waseda west to Inokashira Park ... or east to Arakawa River

From the Waseda area, a waterway winds west around Shinjuku through Nakano and all the way to Inokashira Park and beyond.

Heading east the Kanda River cuts across the city center,  a neon-reflecting highway streaming past Yotsuya-station, Tokyo Dome and Akihabara all the way to the Sumida River and then the Arakawa river, which runs from the ocean breezes of Kasai Park to the rice fields of Saitama.

cycling in tokyoA sign on the cycling path in Yoyogi Park says “speedo otose” (slow down). Along the way, near the Meiji Jingu Outer Gardens, or Gaien, a spectacular avenue named Icho Namiki (Ginkgo Avenue) forms an Acropolis of golden ginkgo trees with leaves resembling Japanese fans.

For parents, a circular route near the Sendagaya national football stadium is a great place to put kids on training wheels on Sundays, when cars are forbidden.

3. Shibuya to the Budokan

From Shibuya station, Roppongi-dori goes up and down to the national Diet.

From there, Uchibori-dori, encircling the Imperial Palace, is car-free on Sundays until 3 p.m.

Just north of the palace, Kitanomaru Park, near the Nippon Budokan of The Beatles and Cheap Trick fame, is a great place to watch the leaves of Japanese maples change colors from lemon to orange to fiery red to purple.

cycling in tokyoA path under the Rainbow Bridge offers views of Odaiba.4. Naka-Meguro to Odaiba

From the Naka-Meguro area, the Meguro River, flanked by cherry trees, flows into the Venetian waterways around Gate City Osaki and the Shinagawa area.

After a brief stretch of concrete clutter along Yamate-dori, a bridge between the JAL and JTB towers (and then a right turn) leads through a port area to a windy seaside beach across from Haneda airport.

Even better, turn left before the bridge and follow Tennozu Island road under the Rainbow Bridge, which though off-limits to cyclists and pedestrians, has a nice park with a view of barges and small Japanese boats with red lanterns.

After the Hamarikyu Gardens and Tsukiji fish market, a right turn near the old Kabuki Theatre onto Harumi-dori leads to a series of bridge crossings to Odaiba, a manmade abode of oceanside walkways, futuristic convention halls and whipping winds.

If you're too tired to pedal all the way back, pay ¥680 for the ferry from Odaiba to the port near Hamamatsucho station, and then head toward Tokyo Tower through the Daimon temple en route to Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku or elsewhere.

cycling in tokyoA child along for the ride.

Rental options

For novices or tourists, it's easy to rent bikes near Nijubashimae station for the Imperial Palace ride on Sundays, or in the north end of Yoyogi Park for a ride on any day through psychedelic forests where youth play on the koyo carpet of autumn leaves.

It’s easy to find bikes at Tokyu Hands or thousands of small indie shops selling cheap Chinese or more expensive European brands -- often with Shimano brakes and other gear made in Japan.

Greasy-fingered repairmen seem to lurk in every nook and cranny of the city, and ward offices usually have free detailed road maps.

Christopher Johnson is author of the novels Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue. Visit his blog here.

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