Cycling Sayama

A forested area bordering western Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture offers day-trippers a chance to experience the great outdoors on two wheels

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Cycling in Tokyo has its pleasures, but immersion in nature usually isn’t one of them. With enough time and a bit of ambition, however, even a mamachari (literally, “mom’s bike”) rider can find places verging on the wild within the city limits or just beyond.

One of my first such discoveries after moving to Higashi Kurume in the mid-1990s was the Sayama Hills, a forested region bordering western Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture that includes Lake Tama and Lake Sayama, reservoirs that supply water to Tokyo. It’s better known to anime fans as the setting for “Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro),” the 1988 Hayao Miyazaki classic that depicts the adventures of two sisters in a magical woodland in the 1950s.

For my first trips to Lake Tama, I rode a mamachari on the Tamako Jitensha-do, a 22-km cycling path that runs from near the intersection of routes 7 and 12 in Nishi Tokyo City to the lake and circles around it.

Now, riding a far faster road bike, I avoid the straight 11-km path to the lake, taking surface roads instead.

As lovely as it is — with parks, shade trees and cute coffee shops along the way — the path crosses dozens of streets and has a corresponding number of barriers to weave through or steer around. Also, on weekends especially, it is crowded with pedestrians, from moms and dads with double-wide baby buggies to elderly folks with canes and shopping carts.

Once you have climbed the short hill to Lake Tama, you can turn right toward the lake and the park below (which has its own entrance halfway down the hill), or continue straight. Either way will take you around the lake on the bike path, but the latter presents a more challenging climb.

Pedestrians, mainly joggers and exercise walkers, are fewer on this portion of the path, but caution is still needed as I once painfully learned when, buzzing downhill, I rounded a corner to see a woman facing me a few short meters away, with a full shopping bag in each hand. Rather than move to one side, she stopped dead in the center of the path — and I did a front flip over the handlebars as I braked to a stop, landing on my back at her feet. She was kind enough to give me a handkerchief to wipe away the blood.

In addition to hill training for your next road race, the area offers an array of cycling, hiking and sightseeing options that require multiple visits to cover. One is nearby Lake Sayama, which is similar to Lake Tama in having a long, straight, open embankment on one side and a fence around the remainder of its perimeter to keep out would-be swimmers, boaters and trash dumpers. (Unfortunately, the latter are not easily discouraged, though the nearby roadsides are now cleaner than they used to be.)

On clear winter days you can see Mount Fuji, as well as the Okutama and Chichibu ranges, from the lake embankments. At dusk, dozens of photographers often converge on Lake Sayama, the better positioned of the two, for Fuji-at-sunset snaps.

Near the lakes are nature trails that go up and down wooded hills and in rainy weather are blocked by puddles. One such trail starts at Lake Sayama, near the end farthest from Lake Tama. It begins as a hard-surface road curving uphill, turns into a gravel road and finally branches into a dirt trail. One afternoon in early March, I cycled the entire length of it on my road bike (a mountain bike would have been better), pedaling past signs warning hikers and riders not to enter the 6-km-long trail after 4 p.m.

I had to dismount several times at the aforementioned puddles, but otherwise negotiated the trail without incident. I wondered, though, how many over-confident hikers had found themselves stranded on it with night approaching, shadowy branches looming and no signs of civilization anywhere. This, I decided, was no walk in the park.

Returning with relief to a paved road I headed left to a hilltop in Noyamakita-Rokudoyama Park, where I found a multistory observation tower that improved on the view available from Lake Sayama.

For those not into hill climbing or nature hiking, however, there is plenty to see both around the lakes and just below them. The destinations most familiar to Tokyoites are the Seibu Dome, where the Seibu Lions baseball team plays, and Seibuen Amusement Park. Both are easily accessible from the Seibu Kyujomae or Seibu Yuenchi stations, respectively, with the latter being convenient to Lake Tama.

When cycling, though, I prefer to explore the roads off the Ome-kaido, a winding two-lane road dating from feudal times that runs past the base of the Lake Tama hill and curves up a gentle incline, with the wooded hill visible on the right.

Though not as well-known as other Tokyo roads where traces of premodern Japan can be found, the Ome-kaido, particularly the section by Lake Tama, is lined with temples, shrines and old Japanese-style houses and shops.

One favorite is Hachiman Shrine, which you can access by turning right at the Hachiman Jinjamae intersection on the Ome-kaido (with a helpful sign pointing the way) and pedaling uphill into a sparsely inhabited wooded area until you come to the shrine grounds on the left. The relative isolation, the natural beauty and the view of nearby Higashi Yamato make this a nice rest stop, with the bike path around Lake Tama only a short climb away.

Farther down the Ome-kaido, just beyond Lake Tama, is the Satoyama Minka Iriguchi bus stop and nearby intersection. Here you can turn right and pedal a few minutes uphill to Rokudoyama Park and Satoyama Minka — a thatched-roof farmhouse that has been reconstructed to give visitors a glimpse of life in the prewar era, before rampant development turned much of the surrounding area into a vast bedroom suburb. Admission is free, with volunteer guides on duty and various activities available.

From Satoyama Minka you can turn right and keep cycling uphill on a narrow road that, if you bear right, will lead you to Route 55, the road going around Lake Tama. Again, I would not advise attempting this at dusk, since lights and signs are few and, with a wrong turn or two, you can find yourself pedaling in the pitch dark.

Around the time of Obon and into the fall, from this section of the Ome-kaido through the town of Mizuho, you are likely to come across neighborhood festivals, with kids pulling a mikoshi (portable shrine)(though not on the always-open Ome-kaido) and elderly festival officials sitting under a tarp and drinking sake. The air of generations-old tradition is palpable, though you don’t have to be a local to join in — or just watch.

Don’t overly fortify yourself with the sake before heading back to central Tokyo, however: The Ome-kaido is narrow, traffic on weekends is heavy and you may not have as much stopping room as I did when that shopping bag lady next hoves into view.