How Suburban Tokyo Promotes Cycling (without even trying)

Despite poor cycling infrastructure 14% of all trips made in Tokyo each day are made by bicycle. What is it about the city's suburbs that make cycling such an attractive transport option?

A Tour of Tokyo's Newest Bicycle Lanes

New bicycle lanes are appearing all over Tokyo, and thats great even if the lanes aren't so great themselves! We cycled as many as we could and here are our observations.

Fitness isn't a goal, it's a side effect

If you or a friend are cycling to get fit and not enjoying it then cycle to the shops instead. Before you know it you'll be fit, car free and better off financially.

How to Turn Your Old Mountain Bike Into a Tidy Commuter

Need a new commuter bike? Maybe not, because with a few cheap and easy modifications you can convert your mountain bike into a lighter faster commuter bicycle. Here's how ...

Japan's National Bicycle Commuting Ban

Strict government regulations and inflexible insurance rules effectively force companies in Japan to ban their employees from cycling to work. It's time for a change.

Cycling My Fuji and Fuji's Five Lakes

Climbing Mt Fuji by bicycle is a ride you have to put on your bucket list. The Pro's do it every year at the Tour of Japan, but us mortals can do it anytime we like.

June 26, 2009

Goodbye Hayes, Hello Shimano

I took my Giant MCMone to The Trail Store yesterday to have the fluid in my aging Hayes hydraulic disc brakes changed. Its something I've been postponing for a long time as every time I have the brakes serviced it ends up costing me a fortune.

Hayes hydraulics use Dot 4 hydraulic fluid which is corrosive, as a result of which, when it comes time to change fluid you realize that you have to replace a the majority of rubber seals and parts in the system. There is also the strong possibility that you'll have to replace your hydraulic lines as the insides are prone to deteriorate over time due to the corrosive nature of Dot 4. Add to that the cost of any brake pads and rotors that need replacing since your last service and suddenly you find that what you thought was the simple act of replacing your hydraulic fluid is now going to cost you a whole lot of hard earned yen.

So yesterday I was faced with the possibility of yet another expensive maintenance bill plus having to order in parts and wait for their arrival. More jokingly than not I asked how much it would cost to replace the entire setup with Shimano XT Hydraulics. The answer was roughly Y45,000 and they could be installed that afternoon. Sold!

Shimano XT hydraulics use a non corrosive mineral oil as the hydraulic fluid in addition to which both their rotors and pads are less than half the cost of Hayes replacements. With regular use Hayes brakes should ideally have the fluid changed every year while Shimano's mineral oil will keep going for up to three years. If your racing with Hayes on a regular basis you may need to change Dot 4 as often as every 6 months. I've never raced on the Shimano brakes so can't accurately comment.

All in all the running cost of the Shimano setup is a lot less than Hayes.

I wasn't expecting to blow Y45,000 when I walked into the store yesterday, but next time I go in for a service expecting to pay over Y20,000 I'll be glad I did.

June 23, 2009

Introducing the Mamachari

Recently I was asked by a journalist to define the term mamachari. That's a good question that left me scratching my head as mamachari isn't easy to define in a few lines of text.

First up the word mamachari is a typical Japanese mash up of the words mama, meaning mother and chari, a less polite word for bicycle.

The mamachari is a cultural icon, it's the Japanese equivalent of the family station wagon. Its the family workhorse used on shopping runs, for riding to the local station, taking the kids to school or picking them up from sports practice. Without it families around the country would be in a right pickle.

The defining features include, a top tube bent low that is easy to step over, a shopping basket on the front, a luggage rack on the back, mudguards, chain guards, dynamo lights, an integrated lock, a bell and a hefty rear stand that keeps the bike stable and upright when parked.

Oh, I forgot, one of the most defining features of the mamachari which is brakes that go "SCREEEEEEEEEEEECH!" when even slightly feathered, startling everyone within earshot.

After purchasing a mamachari, the upgrade of choice is a child seat. These can be mounted on the rear luggage rack or behind/between/in front of the handlebars. It's not unusual for a mamachari to sport two child seats, and on occasion you'll spot one with three! When the government implemented a ban recently on carrying two children on a mamachari mothers across Japan campaigned against the ruling and the government was forced to back down.

Our mamachari is of a newer breed designed with passengers in mind from the beginning. The child seat at the front is mounted low between the handlebars for added stability and when not in use as a child seat it converts into a decent sized basket. But as children soon outgrow the front seat we've had to add a second child seat to the rear of the bike.

Usually priced between Y10,000 and Y20,000 mamachari are essentially considered a disposable item. They're regularly left exposed to the elements for long periods of time, and for the most part are poorly maintained, even putting air in the tires seems a chore. Most people would throw a mamachari away or abandon it after years of neglect rather than undertaking simple preventative maintenance to extend the bikes useful life.

When buying a bicycle most Japanese don't consider anything other than a mamachari and initially I found this odd because when I think of bicycles I think recreation, mountain biking, commuting, racing, or for getting air off the top of a set of stairs. But in Japan I realized I'm in the minority, as even your average Japanese male purchases a bike for its utility, for making short trips to the station with a briefcase in the basket and carrying groceries home from the supermarket etc.

In a country of 130 million people 85% own a bicycle. Who'd have guessed that the majority use their bikes for practical purposes rather than jumping gaps?

Indeed, despite the fact I own 3 high end bicycles which are all incredibly fun to ride in their own way, when it comes time to pick up a 6 pack of beer or 5kg of rice from the supermarket my wife's mamachari is the most comfortable bike for the job. Why?


MamachariMountain Bike
UnlockingThe frame mounted lock can be unlocked by simply pushing in the key.A wire lock has to be untangled from around the wheel, frame and whatever the bike is locked to, potentially dirtying everything in the process.
LightsThey're attached to the bike, difficult to steal and don't require batteries.Have to remember to bring them downstairs and attach them to the bike. Also have to remember to remove them when I arrive at the supermarket lest they get stolen, reattach them after I've finished shopping and remove them again once arriving home. Thats a lot of work.
ChainguardKeeps everything nice and clean.Have to remember to bring a velcro strap downstairs to keep clothing from rubbing on the chain.
BellGets pedestrians out of your way.Saying "Excuse me", "Coming through", "On your right", or "Ding! Ding!" just doesn't work
MudguardsDry bumWet bum
ParkingPull in. Kick down the stand. Push a lever to lock the bike. Go shopping.Look for something to lock the bike to, not always easy. Remove the wirelock from handlebars, lock the rear wheel and frame to a solid object. Careful, you might get dirty.
Child seatI can take someone for company, or to push the supermarket trolley for meNo chance.
BasketHolds any amount of groceries I'm likely to buy in one go.Squash groceries into a backpack or hang them from the handlebars which not only interferes with the bikes balance, but is also frowned upon by the law. 5kg of rice? Impossible.


For those of you saying "Well thats fine but you can't race a mamachari can you?" I'd like to direct your attention to the Mamachari Endurance Race held annually at the Tokachi International Speedway which attracts hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators all of whom enjoy the festival like atmosphere. Suffice to say its all just a little fun with few serious racers, but plenty of great costumes.

So, despite the perceived un-coolness of the mamachari, it is by far the best bicycle for day to day use all over Japan and deserves a little more respect. The mamachari truly is the family station wagon of Japan, I don't know where we would be without it.

If you're looking for a second hand mamachari at a good price in Tokyo try Suginami Green Cycle.

Staying cool while cycling the streets of Tokyo

With the mercury set to rise to over 30 degrees celsius today, the first time this year, its time to start putting in to place measures beat the heat.

My favorite tip is this: The evening before your commute soak a face washer or small towel in water, roll it up like the warm towel you receive when you sit down at a restaurant and place it in a plastic zip-lock bag before dropping it into the freezer.

The following morning, and this is most important, remember to take the package out of the freezer and put it in your backpack or pannier. Depending on the heat of the day and the length of your commute by the time you reach your destination the towel has started to thaw and you can use it to towel down, lowering your body temperature and freshening up.

Try it on your next commute, both you and your co-workers will appreciate it.

When writing about staying warm on the streets of Tokyo in the winter I mentioned getting close to the back of a bus as the engine blasts out a lot of heat, suffice to say, avoid doing that in the summer.

Also, be on the lookout for subway ventilation, because in the summer those grates in the sidewalk blast out crispy cool air from the subway below. They're nice to get close to while your waiting at a red light.

How do you keep cool on the bike in the summer?

June 22, 2009

No time for cycling? Maybe you need to change bikes?

Recently I came to realize that I was kidding myself if I thought I could get out for more than 2 hours straight for cycling on the weekends. Given my desire to spend as much of my weekend with my daughters I usually set the alarm for 6am, put in 2 hours on the bike and return just as they're are starting to wake.

Unfortunately, two hours just isn't enough time to make it to the mountains for either an off or on road ride. Cycling to Tamagawa or Arakawa is an option, but upon reaching their banks it is almost time to consider turning back. In my two hours I can head West on Inokashira-doori or Route 20 and cover a reasonable distance, but its a straight line out, and a straight line back on flat, unending asphalt, with traffic.

Then there are other times over the weekends when the girls are busy and I find myself with a spare hour or so on my hands. There is not a lot of cycling you can do in an hour. Or is there?

My roadie side dreams of riding distance at speed, while the mountain biker within longs for shredding the hiking trails of Western Tokyo, but my schedule just doesn't have enough time for that and family. Clearly in order to use my fleeting moments of spare time to the fullest I need a new hobby.

Not impressed by any other hobbies I dropped into The Trail Store and bought myself another bike. The 2009 Giant STP1.



By now you're thinking I'm crazy. He doesn't have enough time to enjoy his two existing bikes and now he's gone and bought a third? How is that going to fix the situation? Did he hit his head? Well, hear me out.

My problem is time. Time just doesn't come in large enough chunks to enjoy all that my two existing bikes can offer. A decent road ride in a decent location takes hours, as does a decent trail ride. Yet give me an hour, the Giant STP1 and Wadabori Park across the street I'll do gaps, drops, wheelies, manuals and jumps until every muscle in my, no longer 17 year old, body aches for days. (Sunday morning to Wednesday evening to be exact.)

When I'm done I'm content in the knowledge that I've spent a fun hour on the bike. Not half an hour out and back from home in traffic you wouldn't even bother pulling on a jersey for, but a solid hour of adrenaline pumping madness like I've not had since I was a teenager.

June 17, 2009

Chump arrested for stealing high-end bicycles and parts

Tokyo - A man was arrested on suspicion of theft Tuesday after police found over 60 high-end bicycles and over 400 bicycle parts in his house in Setagaya Ward. Investigators said the unemployed suspect Yamaguchi (28) admitted to stealing luxury bicycles from the parking lots of apartments around his home and that he told police he wanted to open up a shop by stealing expensive bicycles.

In a strange twist, after admitting to stealing over 60 bicycles, he is denying that he stole the bicycle parts.

Apparently the suspect fell victim to a random bicycle registration check which revealed he was riding a stolen bicycle, how that escalated to the police raiding his home on suspicion of mass bicycle theft is unknown.

Police are confident they can return the bicycles to their rightful owners.

The home where he was storing the stolen bicycles is right on my morning commute, and just a few kilometers from my home. Who knew I've been cycling past a cache of 60 stolen bicycles every day for months now? Pleased he didn't get his hands on any of my rides.

June 10, 2009

72,000

72,000 is the number of abandoned or illegally parked bicycles removed from the streets of Setagaya-ku each year.

72,000 bicycles abandoned each year in Setagaya-ku alone. Lets assume for a moment that all 23 Wards of Tokyo see similar figures, that's 1,656,000 abandoned bicycles removed from the streets of Tokyo per year, the vast majority of which go unclaimed and are subsequently destroyed.

1,656,000 bicycles abandoned per year in Tokyo, not Japan, Tokyo ...

June 04, 2009

Cheap jerseys from Uniqlo

With temperatures increasing as we approach yet another notoriously humid Japanese summer, a cyclist can't be without too many jerseys. Depending on the frequency of your laundry cycle, if you're commuting daily you're going to need between 3 and 5 jerseys as, believe me, you'll need a fresh one every day.

Team jerseys in Japan will usually set you back over Y12,000 while plain Jerseys from Perl Izumi are priced around Y7,000. At those prices cycling wear in Japan can get pretty expensive.

If those prices scare you then you should take a trip to your local Uniqlo soon, as they currently have quick drying mesh shirts for Y1,000. I picked up a couple while in Kichijoji last weekend to try out on my daily commute and discovered them to be cool, comfortable, and fast drying. In addition to this they come in a variety of fashionable and/or eye searing colours for on road visibility and feature a limited number of designs.

Obviously they lack pockets in the back, and a zipper in the front for when it really gets hot but as a cheap alternative to a cycling jersey these tops are well worth the Y1,000 investment.

You can view, and purchase, these shirts on the Uniqlo website. Just be sure you're looking a the dry mesh (ドライメッシュ) types.

June 01, 2009

Can I take my bike on a train in Tokyo?

A question I'm asked a lot by people new to Japan is "Can I take a bike on the train in Tokyo?" We'll you'll be glad to know the answer is yes, but there are some conditions which make it more troublesome than just wheeling your bike into the carriage.

The generally accepted rule is that your bicycle must be sufficiently covered to prevent it from dirtying up your fellow passengers. Therefore, in the local vernacular, you have to "bag it".

Most good bike stores will sell nylon bike bags, or "rinko bukuro" ranging from Y3,000 to well beyond Y10,000. The majority fold down to a size that fits perfectly into a bottle cage which makes them convenient to carry when not in use.
Bicycle, bagged and ready to go.
Photo by: Kinya Hanada

Obviously your bike is big and the bag is small, so in general it is best to remove both wheels from the bike and strap them either side of your frame with the straps provided with your bike bag. You might like to place some cloth around your frame where it comes into contact with your wheels to prevent scratching or rubbing.

After your wheels are tightly secured, simply throw the bike bag over the whole package and run shoulder strap (also provided with your bike bag) from your headset to your rear fork or seat post for easier carrying.

If you find yourself without a bike bag and needing to ride the train in an emergency such as a sudden storm, strong winds or tropical downpour, then drop into a convenience store and buy some garbage bags. Bag each wheel and your frame in individually and you're good to go.

It has been rumored that there are cases in which you have to buy a special ticket to carry your bike on the train, but in 13 years of cycling around Japan I've never purchased one, so throw caution to the wind and only bother to buy one if you're asked by the station staff.

Also, on city trains try to ride in the front or rear most carriages as you'll find a little more space there for your bicycle. If you're riding the shinkansen then try to secure seats at the rear of any carriage as there is just enough space behind the rear seats to slide in a bagged bike.

If you're simply touring around the city I'd say avoid the trouble of bagging all together, as Tokyo is small enough that you can cycle from point A to point B in less time than it takes to bag your bike and take the train. Its only for those rides starting, or ending, outside the city that you should consider bagging your bike.

Update: After writing this article based on years of experience, rather than actual research, I came across Japan Railways (JR) rules for luggage which state 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.


The complete list of JR luggage rules can be found here.