Despite long-standing conflicts between cyclists and others with a stake in using Tokyo’s streets, Japan’s capital can be a great place to tour by bike — as I discovered last weekend while participating in the “Tokyo Great Cycling Tour,” a one-day guided trip organized by Tokyo-based operator Alive and Kicking Co.
On that cool autumn morning, I arrived at 9:30 at the city-center starting point outside the Marunouchi Hotel beside JR Tokyo Station. There, I found five brightly colored city bikes neatly lined up next to the hotel entrance, and very soon the day’s four cycle-tourists and TGCT guide Carlos materialized beside them. After Carlos, who works for a shipping company during the week and volunteers to lead these tours on weekends, fitted each of us with a helmet, we set off on the day’s 30-km trek.
In the next six hours, I was amazed at the variety of sights to be seen and activities to be enjoyed with the help of a bike. From the Marunouchi business district it was only a few minutes’ ride to Nihonbashi, home to the imposing 113-year-old, stone-and-brick Bank of Japan and other landmark buildings.
After passing through the financial district of Kayabacho, we soon found ourselves pedaling along beside the Sumida River, in full view of bundles of high-rise condominiums. Then we crossed a bridge over to the Tsukuda- jima district, an “island” of reclaimed land dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1867). There, we parked our bike at a local shrine and walked along narrow alleys lined with rows of little, old wooden houses.
Tsukuda-jima, as Carlos told us, was where a group of fishermen from Osaka migrated to in the 17th century to develop the fishing industry in Edo (present-day Tokyo) under orders from the founder of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, Ieyasu Tokugawa. After sampling some Tsukuda-ni fish (stewed Tsukuda-jima style, with sugar, soy sauce and sake) that Carlos conveniently had stashed in his messenger bag, we walked down one of the nearby alleys and found a tiny temple that can fit only two people at once — along with a ginkgo tree growing up through the ceiling.
After a short break around there, we were back on track, heading to our next stop at Tsukiji Fish Market — the biggest in the world. While we marveled at the sight of fresh seafood and knife-wielding fish cutters, Carlos bought some fresh tuna sashimi there, which we later savored along with our packed lunches in a grassy Odaiba park overlooking Tokyo Bay.
The newly developed beachfront district of Odaiba was a remarkable contrast to the old Tokyo we had experienced thus far. There, we marveled at new Tokyo as we walked our bikes through the Toyota Showroom, where visitors can test-drive various cars, and passed a group of young kosupure (costume-play) enthusiasts wearing all manner of uniforms, wigs and makeup. By then, especially after a leisurely picnic, both myself and my traveling companions (Carlos, a British-American couple and a Moroccan couple) felt like we had known each other for months.
From there, a boat ride along Tokyo Bay from Odaiba to Hinode Pier near Hamamatsucho, on the waterfront near Tokyo Tower — with our bikes on board being no problem at all — gave our legs a rest and allowed us to see the city from a different vantage point.
As we enjoyed the cruise, the other cyclists all said they had found it so enjoyable to ride around Tokyo.
But how did they find the streets of Tokyo?
“I was impressed by how easy it is to get around by bike,” said Briton Mark Stevenson, 46, who lives in Beijing and was visiting Tokyo for the weekend. He said Tokyo is easier than many cities for cyclists because it is relatively flat, noting that he really enjoyed seeing Atago Shrine in Minato Ward, where we had stumbled upon a wedding ceremony.
Jamyl Mamri, 32, a Moroccan native living in Montreal who was visiting Japan for the first time, agreed that cycling was probably the best way to explore Tokyo. “There is a lot you can cover by bike,” he said, while riding back from the Imperial Palace, our last stop of the day. “It wouldn’t be possible by cars, walking or even by motorcycles.”
This was a tour at the weekend, so there were almost no businesspeople crowding the sidewalks and much less traffic than usual. Yet, where else in the world can you see kosupure enthusiasts, giant condominiums, a miniature temple, the Imperial Palace and the world’s biggest fish market — all in one day?
From Oct. 1, the “Tokyo Great Cycling Tour” will operate on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well as on Saturdays and Sundays. Besides the route covered here, participants — who pay a fee of ¥10,000 — can also choose another one that takes in the Ryogoku sumo stadium, Ueno Park and the University of Tokyo. For more information, visit www.tokyocycling.jp/index.html or call (03) 4590-2995.