Tips and Thoughts on Cycling in Japan: A Tadaima Japan Roundtable Discussion

So far, the Tadaima Japan team has tackled the highs and lows of using trains and automobiles in Japan. For this roundtable discussion, we’re sharing our thoughts on yet another mode of getting around town: cycling. Read on for a free-flowing conversation on the challenges of cycling in Tokyo and our favorite locations to ride.

Urban cycling

A bike parked outside of an Arakicho, Shinjuku restaurant.

Anthony: Last time, we discussed driving in Japan. This time, let’s share our opinions about cycling—here in Tokyo and beyond. Who’s up first?

Amelie: My experience with cycling in Japan is similar to my experience with driving in Japan. In other words, I don’t cycle much. The reason is that in France, I didn’t cycle at all. I always used the subway and trains.

Actually, I cycled a lot when I was little, but I stopped during middle school. But, I do like cycling, and I sometimes ride a bike when I travel to touristy spots—when I was sightseeing in Thailand, for example. This goes for Japan as well. However, I’ve never cycled in Tokyo. To be honest, I’m a little scared because I have a couple of friends who told me about the accidents they had when they were cycling here—sometimes with cars and sometimes with pedestrians. So, I’m interested in your Tokyo cycling experiences.

Anthony: I guess I’m like your friends. When I first came to Japan, a friend gave me a mamachari. I had been cycling all my life—mainly mountain biking—and I found myself with this casual bike that I was totally unfamiliar with. It wasn’t designed to go fast on the streets. Regardless, I wanted to explore Tokyo, my new home, by bike. It didn’t take long before I was hit by a car. It wasn’t a major accident, but it was enough to knock me over. The driver pulled over and got out of his car to check on me. Fortunately, I was fine, and besides some cosmetic damage, so was the bike. However, this incident made me realize that Tokyo isn’t the best city for cycling. You have to be really careful.

I kept cycling in Tokyo after this incident, but it was enough to inspire me to buy a proper road bike—something that could better match the flow of traffic. And I’ve been riding that bike ever since. Still, there have been several near misses—almost always with taxi drivers running lights or making blind turns.

David: It’s important to distinguish between the two main uses of a bicycle. One is to commute—going to the train station and then on to work, which involves riding in traffic and the associated risks. On the other hand, I use my bicycle purely for fun. I don’t use it to go to work or to run errands. Cycling is just a leisure activity for me.

I used to have a mamachari, but it was too small for me to cycle comfortably. So now, ironically, I’ve got a folding bicycle, which looks even smaller [laughs]. But it’s more flexible—you can raise the seat a little higher, so it’s actually the right size for me.

When it comes to riding in Tokyo, the trick is to find the right spots where you can cycle without dealing with traffic—big parks for example. Some parks don’t allow cycling, though. So, check the rules carefully. However, big parks will often have bike paths.

Riverways are even better. Some of them also have dedicated cycling paths that allow you to ride for kilometers. You’ll find these paths along Tokyo’s major rivers such as the Edogawa, Tamagawa, and Arakawa and even some of the minor ones as well.

River riding

Anthony: I agree. In fact, if you want to try cycling in Tokyo, my favorite course is along the Arakawa (river). A lot of rivers have cycling and jogging courses, but they’re often interrupted by intersections or random dead ends. The Arakawa, however, will take you all of the way from Tokyo Bay to neighboring Saitama Prefecture—without any interruptions. It’s an incredible ride and I highly recommend it.

David: Once you move a little bit out of the center of Tokyo, let’s say beyond Wakoshi, there’s a lot of nature. Tokyo’s a large, dense city, but it’s all centered on where the train lines and train stations are. Travel away from the city center and the distance between train stations opens up, and eventually you’ll find yourself cycling past fields, small forests, and old houses, wondering if you’re still really in Tokyo. This is where river riding can take you.

The Tamako Cycling Road. One of Tokyo’s bright spots when it comes to getting around on two wheels.

The only issue with cycling along a river is that, if you want to make a loop, you either have to return the same way you came, or find another river that takes you home. So, my folding bicycle is perfect for this situation. Once I’ve had enough riding for the day, I can cycle to the nearest train station, fold up my bike, put it in a bag, hop onto a train, and go back home. Or, I could do the reverse: take the train out to my destination and cycle back.

Anthony: Unfortunately, when I go out to a river, there’s often a part of the ride that simply isn’t fun—the sections where I have to fight traffic in order to reach a good cycling spot. Then, I’ll have to fight traffic to return home. So, I’m constantly exploring Tokyo to find the perfect route through the city.

Urban cycling: traveling from Nakano-ku to the Tamagawa (river).

David: There is some good cycling inside Tokyo. It’s just a question of finding the wider streets that have several lanes for traffic. These often have lanes for bicycles…

Anthony: If people aren’t parking in them…

David: That’s always an issue… Although it’s technically not allowed, a lot of people do cycle on the sidewalk. And, some sidewalks have proper cycling lanes. You’ll find these around Toranomon, for example. It’s quite nice to cycle there, especially on the weekend since it’s a business district. It takes a lot of trial and error to find good places to cycle, but they are out there.

A few final tips

Kawaguchiko, one of Mt. Fuji’s Five Great Lakes, offers excellent cycling experiences. Getting out of the big city is well worth the effort.

Anthony: So Amelie, does any of this make you interested in giving Tokyo cycling a try?

Amelie: I’m only interested in the riverside and park riding that you two mentioned. I’m still going to pass on riding in the traffic-filled streets of Tokyo.

Anthony: In that case, everyone, let’s share our final thoughts on this topic. Overall, cycling in Japan is awesome. Just try to get out of the depths of Tokyo. Check out the Shimanami Kaido or the Hokkaido countryside, and you’ll have a blast. Do some destination cycling, or simply enjoy cities that have a better-designed network of streets.

Island hop via the Shimanami Kaido for the cycling experience of a lifetime.

David: I have two closing thoughts. First, you don’t have to buy a bicycle to ride in Tokyo. A lot of the city wards have rental programs. Most of the rentals are mamachari bikes, but they’re very cheap. There are also bike sharing programs, but they differ from location to location and you have to register for them. Secondly, if your tires are underinflated, most bicycle shops throughout the city will fill your tires for free.

Amelie: I’m actually thinking about purchasing a folding bike, and if I do buy one, I might try some of the courses you suggested, taking the train there and back.

Hit the road

Are you ready to hit the road? For more on cycling in Tokyo and beyond, check out the following Tadaima Japan articles:

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.