Tips for Keeping Warm on the Streets of Tokyo

With winter upon us its time to share two unique ways I've found to keep warm on the streets of Tokyo.

Tip No. 1 - Get behind a bus.

Not only do they shelter you from the wind and have a nice drag effect but their engines are located in the rear, and those engines are toasty warm. While waiting at intersections bus drivers are required to stop the engine to reduce emissions, so you're not bathing in exhaust fumes, but be careful of the toxic plume that may engulf you once the light turns green.

Tip No. 2 - When its time to stop, stop beside a subway vent.

Red light ahead? No buses around? Subway vent on the sidewalk nearby? Don't creep through traffic to the intersection, huddle up to the subway vent instead, those baby's pump out warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer. By the time the light turns green you'll be toasty warm, or at the very least thawed out enough to reach the next vent.



Cyclists using phones to be fined up to Y50,000

Authorities in Osaka Prefecture have finally put their foot down on cyclists who yap while they pedal. Tokyo Shimbun (Dec 1) reports that effective Monday, people in the prefecture caught using cell phones while riding a bicycle could be fined up to 50,000 yen.

In 2007, 18,500 bicycle accidents were reported in Osaka Prefecture and in many cases, the cause was found to be people steering with one hand or distracted while using a cell phone.

Over three-day periods in July and August, prefectural police in Osaka and Sakai cities observed that of 1,380 passing cyclists, 214, (15.5%), were listening to music players and 50 (3.6%) were using mobile phones.

In addition to banning talking on cell phones while cycling, Osaka’s new law applies to cyclists who use the phones to send messages or play games while in motion.

Laws prohibiting such activities are already in force in Akita, Hyogo and Tokushima Prefectures.



Natural Selection in Action

As we enter summer I've noticed more people pedaling to work along my route each morning. Riders sharing my route come and go, there are some regulars with whom I exchange greetings and smalltalk about the weather or traffic, but there are few you see every day and few who stand out from the crowd.

Recently though one fellow has got my attention. Its partly because he is cycling dressed in a suit, minus the jacket, even as the temperature pushes beyond 30 degrees and partly because he is riding an ordinary shopping bike in the traffic. But the thing that first grabbed my attention was his pedaling style which can only be described as frog-like. With one heel on each pedal and knees pointing 90 degrees out from the frame rather than parallel to it, he cranks his bicycle at quite a clip looking like some kind of giant animated frog.

But above all this unlikely cyclist has my attention because I'm watching to see just what kind of accident eventually kills him.

You see this fellow takes great delight in being ahead of everyone else. At a red light he creeps from behind into pole position, cunningly watching the lights and leading out when he expects them to turn green. He'll pump his frog legs in a comical fashion to get up to speed and leave us all in his dust. Well, at least until a few meters down the road when he is caught up and easily overtaken.

In order to regain first place in his imaginary race this guy takes extraordinary risks to his safety. He'll run red lights at smaller intersections without checking if they're clear. He'll race down the inside of moving traffic oblivious to the drivers blind spots, oblivious to those turning into side streets, and those emerging from them. When the space between car and sidewalk is too narrow he'll jump onto the sidewalk, then swerve back out into traffic with barely a glimpse behind him. I've seen him attempt to adjust something on his frame while drifting into on-coming traffic, almost colliding with the car in front of him as he quickly returned to his own lane.

All this time myself and other riders who value our lives are playing it safe yet manage to repeatedly overtake him, as when he is not being Evel Knievel he is understandably slow, what with his suit, mama-chari and amphibian pedaling style.

Just this morning after a similar series of events frog legs was out in front coming up to a traffic light which marks the end of his race, for it is at this light his 'competition' disperses in different directions. I watched him speed up as the light turned orange, then as the light turned red he entered the intersection and sat up in the saddle as if he had just won a stage victory in the Tour de France.

If it wasn't so damn dangerous it would have been hilarious. Actually, forget the danger, it was hands down the funniest thing I've seen on a commute in a while ...

I've witnessed him in action about 3 times now and fully expect to see him in an accident right before my eyes. While I love a spectacular crash as much as the next guy I don't want to see frog legs get himself injured or killed.

But what can I can do to prevent it from happening? I'm quite aware of the danger he is in, is he? Do I collar him at a red and give him some friendly advice? Do I avoid overtaking him knowing that will just fuel his desire to get ahead again. Would he ride like an idiot regardless of his perceived place in the "race"?

At the end of the day he is a grown man, responsible for his own decisions and actions. I'd hate to see him in an accident, but its already enough work just looking out for myself out there.

I think I'll let natural selection run its natural course.



The Trail Store - My New Favorite Place

I needed some SPD pedals for the second-hand Cannondale I bought at Suginami Green Cycle. But when you've paid just Y18,000 for an entire bike its hard to part with Y10,000 for a pair of pedals.

On the way home from work on Friday I swung by The Trail Store, where I had bought some shorts and a saddle a week earlier. After locking my bike in the rack provided I strolled inside and was instantly greeted with a smile and a "Hey, how do you like that new saddle?". Right away I felt at home.

We shot the breeze for a while before getting down to the business.

"What kind of SPD's do you have?", I inquired.

"Not many I'm afraid, just these ones that have a platform as well.", was the reply.

"Oh the platform is fine, they're for a cheaper bike I ride in normal shoes, but would just get more use out of it if I had SPD's.", I explained.

Now the pedals he had pulled from the glass cabinet were a staggering Y9,000, and I didn't really want to go there for a Y18,000 bike. Faced with a lack of options, I was prepared to get these for my Giant and put the Giant pedals on the Cannondale, but was hoping for something cheaper. Without a word a second staff member began rummaging around in some packaging behind the counter and came out with some Shimano SPD's with a plastic platform.

"How about these, they're a lot cheaper." he beamed.

"Perfect, I'll need a wrench too." Deal done.

He comes back with a wrench and a pair of SDP cleats. "Here take these cleats as a gift." he tells me.


Here is what I got at the Trail Store, I got recognized when I walked in and was treated warmly. I got listened to and I got understanding. With just the mention that I was buying parts for my second bike the staff understood that Y9,000 pedals weren't what I was looking for and went out of their way to find something cheaper. Then, in addition to all this, I got a Y1,300 set of cleats for free. All this on only my second visit.

The Trail Store in Setagaya is my new favorite bike store.

The Trail Store
Phone: 03-3411-4702
Hours: 11:00am - 8:00pm
Closed: Wednesday



Buying a Reconditioned Bicycle in Tokyo

The sheer number of bicycles abandoned around your typical Japanese train station is mind boggling.

The local council employ an army to visit stations in their jurisdiction and tag all the bikes parked in the surrounding streets. If you return at the end of the day to find your bike has been tagged, you simply remove the tag and toss it in the bin before riding home, thus indicating to the officials that your bike has indeed not been abandoned. After a period of time the stations are revisited, and the bicycles that have tags remaining are loaded on to the back of a truck and transported to a locked holding yard. The bicycles will stay in the yard for another period within which it is possible for the owner to reclaim their bicycle.

Eventually it becomes obvious that a number of bikes are not going to be claimed, and these bikes pile up at a simply astonishing rate. At this point, and I have witnessed this near Shimo-Ochiai Station on the Seibu-Shinjuku Line, a garbage truck is reversed into the yard and one by one the unclaimed bicycles are fed into the crusher. When I first saw it I couldn't believe it, perfectly good bicycles being crushedSome days I'd imagine setting up a business. Take some of the better bikes off the hands of the council at a token cost, give them a spot of maintenance, and re-sell them second hand at a fraction of their original cost. Of course being a geek, without an ounce of business sense to call my own, the idea went unrealized ..

... Until now ...

No, I haven't mustered up the courage to set up such a business by myself. But it seems that, in Suginami-ku at least, the local council has decided to act and try to save at least a small percentage of the abandoned bikes. They have established a bicycle recycling center voluntarily staffed by a number of retired, bicycle loving, gentlemen.

The recycle center is called Suginami Green Cycle and is located at Eifuku 2-1-11 (ph: 03-3327-2287). A timetable listing the dates they are open to the public can be found here.

These guys hand pick the most promising looking bicycles from those scheduled for destruction, transport them to their yard and get to work servicing them for re-sale. They open to the public once a month for three days in which you can purchase a second hand bike for a fraction of its original price.

In addition to the standard shopping bikes and mama-chari, if you arrive early on the first open day of the month you'll find they also have a selection of mountain, cross and city bikes including names such as Bianchi, Cannondale and Specialized, but you have to be quick as those obviously get snapped up quickly.

So, it happens my wife was there one afternoon with a friend who was collecting a ladies Bianchi she had purchased the previous day. She was chatting with one of the elderly volunteers about her bicycle nut of a husband. She told him how much trouble its is to transport my expensive MTB up and down the stairs whenever we want to go out as a family and how I was thinking of getting something cheap to leave downstairs for just these occasions, but that cheap bikes aren't my thing ...

Of course being a bicycle enthusiast himself the fellow understood where she was coming from, and led her over to a Cannondale MTB not yet ready for sale and offered it to her for a good price once it was complete. She sent the photograph below to my phone immediately, along with the price, to which I responded buy, buy, buy!

The bike is an aluminum frame Cannondale F300. Its a great frame which was used on all the F series bikes of its year from the cheapest to the most expensive. During its release year in Japan this bike retailed at Y99,000. My wife bought it for Y18,000 and when she arrived to pick it up they had included a complementary Cateye light for the front and a kickstand.

As I mentioned its a great frame, so the plan now is to continue to upgrade my Giant MTB (below) passing down the components from that to the Cannondale, starting with a new pair of SPD pedals as I can't stand riding on platforms any more.

Before closing I'd like to congratulate Suginami-ku on taking the initiative to recycle some bikes, it just makes sense. But perhaps more importantly it has given a group of retired guys a way to help out their community while doing something that they love.

I'd also like to state for the record that my wife is awesome. She's not a cyclist by any means, but there she was, in a mechanics shop, without me dragging her there, on the lookout for a decent bike for me. You've got to love that! I'm a lucky man.



Time For Some New Gear

I've had a pair of Perl Izumi cycling shorts for almost 10 years, the mountain biking type which look almost normal except for having a padded bum. Over the last couple of weeks they developed a pair of holes, one in each butt cheek which progressively grew larger to the point that if it weren't for the internal lining and pad they would have been deemed obscene.

I'd been meaning to drop into Y's Road in Shinjuku to grab a new pair for a few weeks, but family commitments meant I never found the time. By Monday my shorts had all but disintegrated, so during my lunch break I rode on over to The Trail Store, a shop specializing in MTB and downhill bikes and gear in Setagaya.

It was my first visit to The Trail Store. Usually it takes a few visits to a new shop to establish an understanding with the staff that you're serious cyclist and expect to be treated as such. But this time the fact that I had ridden the ass out of my shorts immediately earned me the respect of the shops owner.

I planned not to spend any more than Y10,000 but after trying on a few pairs I eventually settled on a pair of Oakley MTB shorts way over my budget. I justified my purchase with the knowledge that all the expensive gear I had bought in the past was still going strong despite constant use, while the cheaper stuff had fallen apart years earlier.

In addition to a ratty 10 year old pair of shorts I also have a ratty 8 year old saddle. It looks terrible with its cover all worn off, but is still comfortable enough and I had grown quite fond of it over the years. Like my worn out shorts my worn out saddle was kind of a status symbol. I had ridden my saddle to dust. Besides the sight of it bought down the entire value of my bike, thus making it a great anti-theft device.

After purchasing my new, more expensive than expected, shorts and returning to the office I realized that the holes in my old pair had been caused by constant rubbing on some old seams on my rapidly decaying saddle. Wearing my new shorts on the old saddle would do nothing but shorten their working life .. not something I wanted as I had planned to spread the cost of the shorts over a number of years.

So, having already gone over budget purchasing the shorts, on the commute home I swung by The Trail Store again and picked up a new saddle for just over Y10,000.

By the end of the day I had gone roughly 3 times over budget, but as my daughter noted when she saw my ride the next morning "Daddy, it looks like a new bike." And indeed it does.



Getting Paid to Ride Without Turning Pro

I received a pleasant surprise when I opened my pay envelope last month, for no apparent reason there was an additional 10,000 yen. That's cool, I rarely question accounting errors especially when they are in my favor, but I eventually gave in and had to ask why it was there.

It is tradition in Japan for you employer to pay your commuting fees, this is the door to door cost of your trip to work and back using public transport. Until now whenever I needed a new commuter pass, I mentioned it to the helpful lady responsible for such things, she would give me the required amount of cash, I'd purchase the commuter pass and return the receipt to her. From there I assume the receipt went into accounting land for some further action.

That all comes with quite an administrative overhead. So, from this financial year the annual cost of our commuting fee is broken down into 12 equal amounts which so happens to correspond to the number of months in the calendar year (its like they planned it) and that amount is now paid into our accounts along with our salary.

This represents a nice little increase in pocket money as the commuting fee is paid based on the mistaken belief that I'm catching two trains to work in the morning and two back each night .. which we all know is wrong .. I'm out there on the roads dicing with death.

Of our roughly 30 employees 5 commute to work by bicycle at least twice a week. Its a well known fact as we park our bikes in the stairwell, hang our sweaty gear on the balcony to dry, take 'bird baths' in the restroom, and generally mess up the carefully designed office environment with our eye burning lycra clothing and obscene amounts of reflective tape.

Despite the fact that not everyone is commuting in the traditionally accepted manner, all employees are entitled to receive the commuter fee as a condition of their employment .. only some of us are spending it on new wheels, lights, pedals and shoes.

I'm effectively being paid to ride to work. How great is that?



Mysterious Nomadic Bicycle

A few years ago a friend I cycled with almost every weekend (lets call him Ralph, because thats his name) was returning home after a late night out. Ralph arrived in Ikebukuro to find that his connecting train had already finished running for the night, as the majority of passenger trains are prone to do sometime after midnight.

Faced with the prospect of an expensive taxi ride or a long walk home Ralph had an alternative solution to the predicament he found himself in. There are always a lot of bicycles around any station, of these many have simply been abandoned by their owners. In fact, on a regular basis all the bikes are tagged then a week or so later the ones with remaining tags are considered abandoned and are "disposed of" by the local council.

So, in his wisdom Ralph decided he would "borrow" the most abandoned looking one for his journey home.

Now Ralph loves bicycles. He loves looking at them, buying them, riding them, racing them, and maintaining them. Be it a $7,000 road bike, or a $90 shopping bike, he treats all bikes with the same respect.

That cool September evening he formulated a plan that would provide wins for all involved. He would "borrow" the most run down, forlorn looking bicycle he could find. Then, as he was returning to Ikebukuro in the following day, he would spend some time fixing it up and return it to the same location in much better condition that it was in when it was "borrowed".

So with ease Ralph picked the lock of the saddest, most in need of maintenance shopping bike he could find and proceeded to make his way home. Luckily none of the local police paid him any attention in his possibly alcohol influenced state, and he arrived home without incident. After parking the bike downstairs in the space provided, secured with the same ineffective lock he had picked earlier, he rode the elevator up to his apartment contemplating the joy the owner would experience at discovering the bicycle elves had visited in their absence

Awaking the following morning Ralph recalled the events of the night before, and after a shower and some breakfast, he gathered his tools and proceeded down stairs to get started on the bike so he could return it to its rightful owner.

It was then that his flawless plan came undone. The bike was gone, nowhere to be found. Between the hours of 2am and 10am Ralphs stolen bicycle had been stolen! Is nothing sacred?!

Since this event took place we like to think that this bicycle is wandering the country like David Carradine, selflessly assisting hapless travelers reach their destination before mysteriously disappearing into the night seeking others in need of its service.



Things That Will Kill You

Lets face it the road isn't the safest place for a cyclist, but I'd rather take my chances there than on the sidewalk. There are a lot of things out there that will kill you and today I'd like inform you of the one I encounter almost daily and one that with out fail rattles me every time ... I'm talking about the left hand drive vehicle.

As you'd expect, given the local custom of driving in the left hand lane, the vast majority of vehicles on Japanese roads are right hand drive. Despite local driving tradition, it is perfectly legal to drive a left hand drive vehicle on Japanese roads, provided of course you stay in the left hand lane, and therein lies the danger to cyclists.

Being the driver of a right hand vehicle on occasion, I'm acutely aware of my position in relation to the oncoming traffic as its on my right hand side, closest to me. As a result I position the car close, but not too close, to the center line of the road. I do this because I'm am less aware of the position of the left hand side of my car, and don't want to accidentally hit a parked car, opening door, or heaven forbid a fellow cyclist. When I overtake a cyclist I tend to overcompensate and give them plenty of room, again because I'm less aware of the position of the left side of my car than the right. Best to err on the side of caution.

You might imagine that because the driver of a left hand drive vehicle is sitting on the sidewalk side of their car that they would be more aware of cyclists and thus give us all a little more space when overtaking, but the exact opposite is true. I believe that there are two possible reasons for this. My first theory is that because they are less aware of how close the right hand side of their car is to the center line, and thus oncoming traffic, that they overcompensate by driving closer to the sidewalk more attentive to oncoming traffic than cyclists with whom they share a lane. My second theory is that because they're on the cyclist side of the vehicle that they're well aware of our relative positions and don't need to overcompensate as much as the driver of a right hand drive vehicle and thus overtake more closely.

Of the two I'm hoping that my second theory is the accurate one, but whichever it is, it still boils down to the fact that drivers of left hand vehicles will regularly overtake you way too close for comfort.

Having said this, in general space tolerances in Japan are a lot finer than in other countries. Cars parked within a centimeter of a wall, drivers folding in their side mirrors to allow an oncoming car to pass by, sidewalk cyclists passing within a whisker of pedestrians, being pressed bodily against someone on a train, its common place, and the fact that these fine tolerances translate to the roads keeps us cyclists on our toes.


Common Myth #23 - Tokyo is too big to get around by bicycle

Despite housing a population equivalent to that of China*, Tokyo is nowhere as large as you may imagine

The subway is evil and will quickly deceive you into thinking Tokyo is enormous. I used to ride through the dark, maze of subway tunnels oblivious to direction, distance and time to emerge in an exciting new part of the city like magic, much akin to stepping through Doraemon's magic door. I've always had a love of maps and a keen sense of direction but when I emerged from the subway I would have not an inkling of where I was in relation to my starting point. All I knew for certain was I was right where I wanted to be and that was fine by me.

While traveling underground with no point of reference with the sensation of moving really really fast you're easily deceived into thinking that the distance between stations is vast. While the truth is that in all cases within Tokyo at least the distance between two stations is easily walked.

To put it all in perspective, Tokyo measures a mere 25km from North to South and a slightly more generous 90km from East to West. It is bordered by the Arakawa River on the North, and the Tamagawa River on the South, both of which offer great cycling escapes, which I must remember to write about in the future. East of the city is Tokyo Bay, and to the West are scenic, relatively unpopulated mountains. The mountains are home to some spectacular cycling routes, but avoid cycling on the bay lest you sink.

Now lets try a mental exercise :

Armed with these dimensions, try to imagine an empty Tokyo sized space. Next, recall everything you know about what actually exists in Tokyo, Shinjuku, Tokyo Dome, convenience stores, manga cafe's, giant radioactive lizards, Mayor Ishihara, everything. Now, force all that imagined stuff into your imagined space, sprinkle it with roughly 12 million people, wipe off any overspill and wonder at your creation! Thats a small space with a whole lot of stuff in it, therefore its only logical that the distances between all the interesting points can't be all that great.

Its not until you get off the train and try walking or cycling around for a bit that you come to realize just how close everything is. For example you can take the train between Shibuya and Ebisu which will cost Y130, involve climbing numerous staircases, some waiting on the platform, and a few minutes of travel time, or you can walk it easily in under 15 minutes

Most residents, foreign and native alike, would never entertain the idea of walking the distance between two stations when there is a perfectly good train provided to do the job for them. As a result they have a skewed idea of the true distance between places, and are living under the misconception that Tokyo is huge.

Tokyo is smaller than you think, once you discover that for yourself you'll want to cycle everywhere.

*you may wish to check my numbers on that.


Tokyo by Bike

We've all seen images of public transport in Tokyo.

We've seen images of people packed so tight into rush hour trains that they're pressed flat against the glass, their faces all deformed and barely able to breathe. We've seen the white gloved platform attendants ensure that no train leaves the platform at less than 120% capacity. When you find yourself in one of those images for the first time its quite a laugh, when you find yourself in these images daily the comic value begins to fade.

I imagine sharing stories of your experiences on public transport in Japan would provide an endless stream of humorous content for a blog. Someone should get onto that idea because its not the topic of this blog, no our blog is all about cycling in Tokyo. Commuting, exploring, or just popping out to the supermarket on the trusty mama-chari, any topic is fare game.

With a bit of experience up my sleeve cycling in and around Tokyo I've learned the odd trick, avoided the odd accident, and seen the odd, occasionally extremely odd, thing or two. I'd like to use this blog to share some of those stories, tips and general observations with everyone, but what I am really hoping is that my writings will encourage others visiting or living in Tokyo, to get off the train and start exploring the vibrant city of Tokyo by bicycle.

You'll be surprised at what you'll discover when you travel around Tokyo by bike.