Basic Questions on Cycle-Commuting in Tokyo

Jan 21, 2009
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Chicago / Tokyo
#1
Dear all --

I am an American, coming to Tokyo in April to work at the University of Tokyo. I will actually be on the Kashiwa campus, but am hoping to live in Tokyo proper, and to do some of the commute by bicycle.

I currently live in Chicago, and am a happy rider out here (despite the cold!) It is very flat in Chicago, and these days I mostly ride a fixed-gear (with brakes -- the Raleigh One-Way.) I had a couple basic questions that would really help me plan my living situation; I appreciate any opinions/answers!

1. what is it like commuting by bicycle through Tokyo? The Tsukuba express leaves from the Akihabara station; some of the places I was thinking of living were on the other side of town (near either Ikebukuro, or Naka-Meguro stations.)

2. distance-wise, the above are not terribly bad commutes and in Chicago would be very doable -- we have generally wide streets, and the downtown core you can skim around. Will I be able to happily coexist on the streets with cars in Tokyo? Are there side-streets that you can link together to avoid the most heavily-trafficed/narrow places?

3. are there good websites for cycle commuting in Tokyo? One thing I have learned from a brief visit to Japan is that many questions of etiquette are very different from the West and I am afraid of somehow violating the "unspoken laws" of the road. We have them here in the States, of course, but they're different!

4. what is the terrain like? I do like riding fixed, but don't want to be miserable. I can chose to bring alternatively my geared bike, which can climb walls.

5. how do people feel about sweaty folks on the subway? In general, I will be doing a reverse commute (going out of Tokyo in the morning, coming back in the evening), so it should not be as bad.

Many thanks. It would be great to hear from people who do commute by bike in Tokyo (and be pointed to their websites); I confess I have no idea if it is really doable day-in/day-out, or if it is more of an iron-man thing.

Please note: I do not (yet) speak Japanese. My apologies.
 
Jan 14, 2007
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Noda
japanichiban.com
#2
I live near the Kashiwa campus. If I were you, I'd live between Tokyo and work or even closer to work. On the East side of the campus there is a lake in Abiko that has a nice cycling course around it, and a little creek with a cycling path that almost goes all the way to the campus.
On the West side is Edo river and Tone canal that also has a good cycling course.

Route 6 and Route 16 are too busy for morning or evening commutes.
The main roads are not that wide, compared to what you are used to.
 

Phil

Maximum Pace
#3
I'd second Pete and suggest considering living out of the city a bit...there is some good cycling around Kashiwa and points north and east.

1. I like riding downtown Tokyo and Chiba...lots of lights, lots of people and cars, but if you stay alert, perfectly do-able. However, I'd avoid the arterial roads leading in and around the city.

2. A lot of the big roads aren't fun to ride. There are more lights than Chicago, so expect a slower pace. All roads are narrow, with very few shoulders, and on the main routes you'll be sharing them with heavy trucks.

3. This is the best English-language site about cycling in Japan that I know.

4. Tokyo and most places out east are generally flat, but if you want to go on any long rides (with TCC for example) and explore some of the countryside, you'd probably want a geared bike.

5. Same as anywhere else, I'd think. If you do stay in Tokyo, you'll be commuting against the flow, so you might avoid the sardine packing that is the typical commuter experience. Note that you will have to partially disassemble and bag your bike, and if you are catching a busy train, you might not find any room for it.
 
Jan 21, 2009
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Japan
#4
Good questions. I have some questions to add.

I am moving to japan with really no reason. Except that I would like to learn Japanese (Anyone want to practice with me?). I'll use my bicycle to ride around and explore and visit places out of the way. i'll probably avoid taking the subway unless I need to.

What tips do you have for locking up your bike? Should I worry?

What are the basic cycling rules? Is there a government site with road rules etc?

More specifically, must you wear a helmet, can you drive on the road, do you need specific reflectors/lights?

Finally, do you need brakes on your bike? Mine don't...

Oh, and what are the unspoken laws in the states? I dont know them :p but maybe we dont have them in Florida.
 
Jan 14, 2007
2,514
213
83
Noda
japanichiban.com
#5
What tips do you have for locking up your bike?

Depends how good your bike is and how much risk you are prepared to take.
Crappy shopping bicycles get stolen if not locked.
I never leave my bike outside for more than an hour without it locked well and in view of a lot of people. One chain and lock good, 2 or 3 better.

Should I worry?

I worry if mine is not inside at home or not between my legs.

What are the basic cycling rules? Is there a government site with road rules etc?

Basically the same as the car rules. Lights at night. Bell optional.

More specifically, must you wear a helmet, can you drive on the road, do you need specific reflectors/lights?
Helmet optional.
Road prefered. (left side).

Finally, do you need brakes on your bike? Mine don't...

I take it you have a fixed wheel?
I'd recommend even a front brake on a fixie for commuting.

Oh, and what are the unspoken laws in the states? I dont know them but maybe we dont have them in Florida.

Just be polite and cautious. Don't lose your temper if something goes wrong. Chances are you will get angry because you didn't know what's to be expected over here. I used to blow my car horn a lot when I first started driving in Japan. Now I realise that I was the fool not the kids walking down the middle of the road.

Just rememebr that roads in Japan (especially small back roads) are not for just transportation but for every and anything. Old ladies pushing their shopping trolleys down the middle of the road have just as much right to be there as a speeding sports car. (more so).
 
Jan 21, 2009
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Japan
#6
Hey thanks for the input. I do have a front brake, for those emergency stops.

I expect it to be more hectic since there will be much more people in a small area, so at least I am mentally prepared. I'll bring two locks, just in case. I never leave my bike alone for long unless I am at the library, but criminals don't usually hang out there in Florida haha.

I'm bringing my bike on the plane. I read on this forum that I should leave it in the box for the train ride. Any other advice?

thanks
 
Jan 21, 2009
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Chicago / Tokyo
#7
so

Thanks for the responses so far. I'm getting the impression that considering cycle-commuting in Tokyo is not absurd, but neither is it a walk-in-the-park and that some route-planning to avoid the heavy streets is essential. My guess is that I'll plan to commute daily, but also not be too proud to take the subway.

I was planning, by the way, to simply ride to Akihabara and leaving my bike at the station there when I take the train (Tsukuba express.) My sense was that Tokyo is safe enough to do that? (Leave a bike securely locked downtown during the day.)

In terms of traffic skills in the States -- at least in Chicago, you have to be assertive; take the lane when you need to, when it can't safely be shared, and so forth. Cars return the favor in the sense that if you leave room, they'll take it without hesitation. In general, the right to use the road is respected by drivers as long as you are a confident and safe rider.
 
Jan 21, 2009
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Japan
#8
Ok, I get it. Don't come to Florida because it's not exactly the same. Well, in St. Petersburg anyway. We have some bike lanes, but besides taking those, I usually end up on sidewalks. It makes me extra defensive, and I know it's not safe, but it's safer than being on the road getting stuff thrown at you. A car brushed my side the other day...and I was in the bike lane haha. Oh well. That's life.

I think I will be living closer to Shinjuku, but if you ever feel like going for a ride, let me know, that's for anyone.
 
Oct 19, 2008
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Tokyo
#9
Hi all, i lived in Chicago, Gold Coast, for a couple of years as well and did a lot of bike commuting. Here in Tokyo _Minato Ku area_ i use bike road bike for all my commuting and love it but there are no nice bike paths like the lakefront or Wells Ave etc. You have to be more careful than in the States as many roads are narrow with small blind sidestreets. Cars are more likely to cut you off when they turn left rather than staying behind you.
You're not supposed to but i have found the safest way to use a bike in my area is to pretend you're a car whenever possible. Police don't like it but when they see you're Gaijin they typically let it go. I also use a Burley Rover to transport my dog to Yoyogi park which is a blast but according to the Japanese probably not allowed. I have never been stopped though.
Fixed or Geared? Many bike messengers ride fixed bikes, but while the city is mostly flat, there are some short steep climbs to navigate, so i suggest to take a geared bike. Yes, lots and lots of traffic lights, everywhere.
I miss the Chicago Lakefront!

View attachment 383
 

marc

Speeding Up
#10
Thanks for the responses so far. I'm getting the impression that considering cycle-commuting in Tokyo is not absurd, but neither is it a walk-in-the-park and that some route-planning to avoid the heavy streets is essential. My guess is that I'll plan to commute daily, but also not be too proud to take the subway.

I was planning, by the way, to simply ride to Akihabara and leaving my bike at the station there when I take the train (Tsukuba express.) My sense was that Tokyo is safe enough to do that? (Leave a bike securely locked downtown during the day.)

In terms of traffic skills in the States -- at least in Chicago, you have to be assertive; take the lane when you need to, when it can't safely be shared, and so forth. Cars return the favor in the sense that if you leave room, they'll take it without hesitation. In general, the right to use the road is respected by drivers as long as you are a confident and safe rider.
I commute just about every day through the east side of downtown Tokyo (along the Sumida river), and it's generally a pretty easy experience. I haven't encountered hostile drivers here, and so many people ride that drivers in general seem more aware of our existence. It's the mamachari (granny bike) riders that are the real hazard: riding against traffic, no lights, on the phone, frequently drunk, and always oblivious to traffic rules. At our last get-together we swapped stories of the most insanely dangerous riders we'd encountered.

About staying off the heavy streets: the ones that are heavy enough to be hazardous are the semi-highways that feed into the city from the suburbs. Traffic is dense and fast enough (and shoulders are narrow to non-existent) that it's too dangerous to ride. Once you get into the city, however, even on the main streets the traffic flow is slow enough that it's reasonably safe. Ikebukuro - Akihabara is pretty much all this type of traffic. Basically, once you have a look for yourself, you'll be able to decide what's safe and what isn't.

About leaving your bike: it will probably be safe from thieves, but it may not be safe from the local parking authorities. Lots of people ride, so lots of people want to leave their bikes by the station, and there aren't enough legit spaces to go around. The city will periodically sweep through and tag illegally parked bikes with warning notices, then later in the week sweep again and load everything into a truck for impound.

One option: instead of riding to Akihabara, ride to Asakusa station a little further north (also on the Tsukuba Express Line), since they have an underground bicycle parking lot. I don't know about space or price, but your bike is likely to be very safe there. You may even save some money on train fare!