Cycling Tokyo's Tamako Cycling Road

Byron Kidd
It was a spur of the moment decision at 7:10am to message partners in crime Chad and Brad to let them know that I planned to cycle out to Lake Tama on the border between Tokyo and Saitama after walking my daughter to school. Brad had much cleaning up and recovery to do after the previous days incredibly enjoyable bonenkai party at Studio C, but by 8:20am Chad and I were underway along the banks of the Kanda rive heading towards Kichijoji.

The ride out to the twin lakes of Tama and Sayama holds a special meaning for me as it was my first "long ride" in Tokyo just weeks after I began cycling. Having exhausted all the sights in my Lonely Planet guide book, and feeling the need to escape the city, I was browsing a map when I noticed two large lakes surrounded by parks northwest of where I was living at the time. After some serious consideration, I decided I could easily cycle there and back, and more importantly that I wouldn't get lost en route.

I cycled all the way from my apartment in Nakano to the lakes on Shin Ome Kaido, a major artery cutting Tokyo from East to West. On the map, this was the simplest, most direct route, but in hindsight, it was a poor choice being so busy and stressful. After an hour or two of cycling in hideous traffic I turned right onto what appeared to be a dedicated cycling path which took me to the very top of the Tamako Dam where I enjoyed beautiful views that stretched all the way across the lake to Mt Fuji.

After a break for coffee and a snack, while enjoying the sun and taking in the scenery, I examined a nearby map which indicated that there was a network of cycling paths around the two lakes so I set off to circumnavigate Tamako itself. The route took me through the trees past the Seibu Amusement Park, Seibu Dome, home of the Seibu Lions baseball team and gave me tantalising glimpses of the second lake Sayama-ko before I returned to my starting point and headed down the path back towards Ome Kaido.

Before turning back on to Ome Kaido for the stressful ride home I noticed the cycling path continued on into the distance for as far as I could see. It was very tempting to simply continue along the path and see where it took me, but I was still new to the city and had no map with me. As for smartphones with GPS maps, they hadn't been invented yet! With regret, I turned on to Shin Ome Kaido for the harrowing ride home.

After that ride, some research revealed the path I had been on was the Tamako Cycling Road which runs from the end of Inokashira Dori just North West of Mitaka Station right up to the Tamako Dam. Had I taken that path home on my very first ride I would have ended up in an unfamiliar location but would have been able to navigate my way home.

Over the years following my first ride to Tamako I started cycling insane distances in the mountains surrounding Tokyo and the Tamako route served as my short weekend ride, or a course I'd take others who were interested in venturing further afield by bicycle. My hardcore cycling buddies weren't interested in the course as they had to share a narrow bicycle path with slower cyclists and pedestrians, but the route has always been one that I enjoyed.

Until yesterday it had been over 15 years since I had visited the Tamako Cycling Road and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. From home, Chad and I rode along the Kanda river to Inokashira Park in Kichijoji, a peaceful car-free ride that I do often with my children. From Kichijoji we cycled to the start of the cycling road along quiet back streets which can often be difficult to navigate but in this case, we took almost a straight line along a road which ran behind the Inokashira Zoo and along with another of Tokyo's many hidden waterways.

Arriving at the Tamako cycling road I was amazed at the improvements that had been made since my last ride there. The entrance to the cycleway was wider and much better marked than it had been in the past when it could quite easily have been missed if you weren't searching for it (I'd overshot it many times on subsequent rides). Not only was it wider was but pedestrian and cycling spaces were properly marked, although of curse cyclists and pedestrians mixed because that's the Japanese way!

As we cycled on I noticed many of the smaller farms that existed previously had disappeared to be replaced with large mansions, warehouses and even a large new University complex, but here and there small stands attended by elderly ladies stood out selling locally grown vegetables. The path narrowed the further from the city we travelled, and when passing by a station the foot traffic increased which would have slowed us down if we weren't too slow already. Where the cycleway intersected with roads there were well-marked crossings and sometimes traffic lights and at one large intersection, a bicycle overpass had been constructed that was certainly a new addition since my last ride.

Cycling the Tamako cycling road was a much better experience than it had been in the past when it was narrower and more dangerous given that often you had to leave the path to avoid other cyclists and pedestrians. Chad an I could only guess why they hadn't chosen to continue the path all the way into Shibuya or Shinjuku which would have made traversing the whole width of the city a safe, easy and stress-free journey.  The answer actually lies not on the cycling road itself but what is under it. Running in a straight line from Lake Tama down to a water treatment facility is a large diameter water pipe over which the Tamako cycling road has been built which explains why it runs as straight as an arrow. In order to make maintenance of this pipe easier, the land above has been kept free of buildings and the above ground space has been given over to cyclists and pedestrians.

The route was a pleasure to cycle, calm, relaxing and stress-free. Even the stretch from the cycling we covered by road was not nearly as bad as other routes we could have chosen. The Tamako Cycling Road is a rare example of a cycling path done right in Tokyo and we can only hope that more such path can be constructed and linked together around the city.

If you're interested in cycling this route please contact me, I'd love to guide you there sometime.

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