Cycling in Tokyo

Cyclist waiting at a traffic light in Japan

It’s 7 p.m. in Tokyo and we are making our way towards the neon lights of Shibuya. It’s a short walk to the metro station, but in just 60 seconds we encounter 17 cyclists. All are cycling on the pavement.

It’s clear cycling is popular in Tokyo, but where are cyclists actually permitted? It seems Japan remains undecided on the issue. However, as of October the 25th 2011 (just a few days ago), the police have been told to crackdown on pavement cyclists. Whilst many of the areas are marked as dual use for pedestrians and cyclists, the translation seems to have been that everywhere is permitted.

As a pedestrians I can see how it is frustrating. You quickly learn to pick a path when walking down the street and stick to it. If you deviate there’s a good chance a cyclist will have to swerve around you. It doesn’t create an environment for a pleasant walk. However, this is Tokyo after all, a place not known for relaxation.

As a city, Tokyo is as modern, exciting and contradictory as they come. Warning sounds echo everywhere. From recordings of birds chirping in the metro, to songs from the latest boy band sensation as you walk around Shibuya. It’s a dazzling experience and one I felt more comfortable exploring on foot, before I hop on a bike next week.

When I do hop on a bike, I won’t be sticking out if I choose a Dutch style bike. Though not sticking out is a little hard to do in Japan. A western face always draws glances and waves from school girls dressed as sailors.

Tokyo racer bike

Whilst the predominant bicycle you see in Tokyo will have a pannier rack, a few gears and a step-over frame, there are big signs of fixed gear and single speed appreciation present. This is a stylish city after all and sights of red wheels, one front brake and no derailleur don’t come as a surprise.

There is however one thing about cycling in Tokyo that really surprises me. In a good way.

Picture of a bike with an attached lock

It’s the bike locks. Or, more accurately, the lack of them. Locking your bike here means turning the key in the lock attached to the rear wheel. It then snaps into place and the bike cannot be pedalled. On most bikes, this is the only form of security used. The sheer jealousy I’m certain I will feel the next time I lug my heavy Kryptonite lock into my bag will not soon fade!

On bikes lacking a lock attached to the rear wheel, a simple lock such as the Knog Kabana is suffice. Perhaps however, this too shouldn’t have come as a real surprise. Japan is a very safe country. I find myself tempted to leave my phone on a bench and wait to see if someone runs after me to hand it over or decides to pinch it. However, I need my phone, and anyway, I’m always forgetting the words for thank you very much.

Next week I’m going to try some riding around Tokyo so they’ll be more to report.

P.S. A very special thank you to everyone who has been getting in touch with me with Japan and Tokyo tips. It seems there’s a number of Japanophiles amongst London Cyclist readers. I’ve not had a chance to respond to all emails but I have read them and I’m following the advice.

Join 10,221 fellow cyclists who are subscribed to the London Cyclist newsletter

Sign up for our free newsletter to get...

  • Advice on the best cycling gear
  • A Friday roundup of all the latest London cycling news
  • Exclusive content not available on the blog

Subscribe today, and get exclusive access forever! (It's free)

*No spam, ever!

As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

9 Responses to Cycling in Tokyo

  1. Tim 31/10/2011 at 1:10 pm #

    I have lived in Osaka for 5 years and know all about those locks… They are very convenient 🙂

    However, I think you will find they are found mainly on the “mamachari” (nickname given to a bike predominantly ridden by housewives for commuting I.e those step over single speed heavy framed bikes you mentioned)… If you look at anyone with a real bike, they will also be using 2 locks like we are accustomed to in other big cities around the world.

    Bike theft is on the rise in Osaka!

    There are lots of cool bike shops in Tokyo! I hope you have a list of them and can get out to visit them!

    • Andreas 31/10/2011 at 11:12 pm #

      Mamachari – interesting nickname! I did see a couple of bikes with more security than just a wheel lock. I’ll be chatting with a few local bloggers on Sunday so hopefully they’ll be pointing me in the right directions.

  2. Richard Masoner 01/11/2011 at 12:03 am #

    mamachari – mama’s bicycle (chari = charinko = bicycle, but I like to think of it as Mama’s Chariot).

    Domo arigato gozaimasu = Thankyouverymuch. Pronounced all as one word like “doe moe are ee gaw toe go zye moss.”

    You’re welcome is Do itashimashite (“doe eat ah she mosh tay” — all run together). I think there’s a silly mnenomic that’s supposed to remind Engrish speakers how to say these things, but I can never remember them. Something about seeing my shoes.

    (Japanese mother, spent my teen years in Tokyo area — and thanks for the link love as always)

    • Andreas 01/11/2011 at 12:03 pm #

      Thanks Richard. I’m over in Yakushima now – very interesting and got a chance to do some cycling! Write up soon! Thanks also for Do itashimashite – was wondering what they kept shouting at me as I enter a 24 hour convenience store. Family mart all the way!

      • Richard Masoner 01/11/2011 at 11:17 pm #

        What they all yell as you enter a store is “irasshaimase” (ee raw shy maw say) or, more casually, “irasshai!” (ee raw shy) which is “welcome!”

        • Andreas 03/11/2011 at 11:49 am #

          Ah! One final question if I still have your attention! What on earth are they shouting when a car leaves petrol station? It’s almost like a ritual!

  3. Jozudave 01/11/2011 at 1:42 pm #

    I lived in Japan for 3 years and while you are right that generally crime is very low, bike (and strangely umbrella) theft is one of the only crimes likely to ever be committed against you. I’ve never had a bike stolen anywhere else, but have had two taken in Japan. Both mamacharis – one that was locked, one that wasn’t.

    That said, when I mentioned these thefts to colleagues they said it was most likely either teenagers or drunken office workers who wanted an easy ride home and the bikes would most likely be found abandoned somewhere and returned to me eventually. That didn’t happen unfortunately! Oh well!

    I’ve also just got back from a trip to Tokyo as it happens and biking has definitely been evolving there over the last 5 years. When I lived in Japan circa 2003-2006 it was uncommon to see someone cycling on the road and I would say at 80-90% of bikes were mamacharis. Now there are lots of proper bikes everywhere including lots of single speeds and fixies as you mentioned. It’s a great city for cycling single speed as the roads are so smooth, not too many hills and traffic is generally a bit more sedate than London. But… it is insanely humid and hot during the long summer in Japan… You have to get used to turning up everywhere very sweaty if you cycle… 😉

    • Andreas 03/11/2011 at 11:54 am #

      It definitely looks like a good place to cycle. Only complaint from what I’ve seen so far is the length of time you wait at some of the side traffic lights. I don’t think I’ve ever stood waiting at a traffic light in London for a full four minutes. I’m amazed at how many pedestrians don’t just take a chance and run across. They show better self control than I do!

  4. Loving the Bike 04/11/2011 at 2:47 pm #

    It looks like you’re having a great time, Andreas. Thanks for providing the wonderful pictures and sharing your experiences. I’ve never been there, but good to see all the tips and support you’ve been getting from our incredible cycling community.


Leave a Reply