Cycle of Life

By Kei. Hamilton

The urban density and visual spectacle that makes Tokyo such a fantastic walking city is greatly intensified by bicycle. Whether for serious touring, or relaxation and exercise, or simply for more convenient shopping, owning a bicycle, or jitensha (自転車), makes much more of the city accessible—up close and personal. Bicycles can be taken on the train for free if disassembled and bagged, which is practical for quick biking excursions to the fringes of the city and beyond. Bike rental by the day and week is readily available and reasonably priced. Numerous international cycling groups exist, which are not only a great way to discover the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Tokyo, but to meet new friends from all over Japan and the world.
Riding a bicycle anywhere in Japan, however, is not for the faint of heart, and requires that one be “in the moment” at all times to keep from either being run off the road by a wild motorized vehicle or smashing into someone sure to step directly in your path every few meters. It is often simply an exercise in maneuvering around obstacles fixed and moving. And although there appear to be no apparent rules to follow outside the laws of chaos theory, there actually are laws that say bicycles are supposed to use the streets and not the sidewalks, and cyclists can face stiff fines for infractions like riding two to a bike, or carrying two (or more!) children, or riding with lights turned off at night. The laws are for the most part simply ignored and unenforced. Officially, cyclists are required to obey the following rules:
  • Keep to the left margin of the road
  • Line up behind other bicycles
  • Always stop and look both ways at stop signs and railway crossings
  • Ride on indicated sidewalks
  • Obey traffic signals at intersections
  • Only one person may ride on one bicycle
  • Grip the handlebars firmly with both hands
  • Do not use a cell phone while riding a bicycle
  • Do not hold an umbrella or other items while riding a bicycle
  • Children must wear a helmet

As mentioned above, fines can be quite high. Mothers caught carrying two children can be fined ¥20,000, and riders with lights turned off at night or carrying another person can be fined ¥50,000. In all, however, if one uses common sense, keeps to the left as much as possible (except when people and other bikes force you to pass on the right), rides excruciatingly slow and always yields to pedestrians, there should be no international incidents. Riding while under the influence of alcohol, on the other hand, is a big no-no, and can land you in jail for up to five years with a maximum fine of ¥1 million. And of course, other charges could apply depending on whether any casualties or property damage occur.

Bicycle Heaven and Hell

The ardent cyclist will revel in the Tokyo’s numerous upscale shops carrying the finest bicycles on the planet and costing upwards of ¥700,000. The local commuter will appreciate the cheap and ubiquitous “mama chari” bikes with their big baskets for shopping, which can be had for around ¥10,000 or so, or often for free from friends. Whether you buy or receive a bicycle, always make sure to register it immediately, which you can do at the bicycle shop or the local koban (police box) where you live. It will join the 90 million other registered bicycles in the country. Then you’ll have to keep it from getting stolen, as bicycle theft is a rather common occurrence in Japan. Most bicycles are equipped with a basic lock, but you’ll need something more substantial to truly deter theft.
With some 10 million registered bicycles itself, and ever more rigid laws about where to park them, there appears to be a big industry in hauling off illegally parked (and abandoned) bicycles, so it’s always advisable to use the bicycle parking facilities as opposed to chaining it to a post. They are high tech and usually free for the first two hours, and very reasonable considering the sense of security they bring.

Taking a Bike on the Train

Japan Railways luggage policy states that there shall be no charge for bicycles for use in cycling or sporting events if the bicycle is disassembled and placed in a bicycle carrying bag, or if the bicycle is a folding bicycle that has been folded and placed in a bicycle carrying bag. Nylon bike bags, or rinkou bukuro (輪行袋) are available from ¥3,000 and upwards at more good bike stores. On city trains the front and rear carriages often have a little more space, and on the shinkansen the rear of any carriage usually has just enough space behind the rear seats to fit in a bagged bike.

Useful Links

Bicycle Paths in Japan(Japanese)

Cycle Tokyo

Tokyo Great Cycling Tour

Tokyo Rent A Bike

Tokyo Bike(Japanese)