Tokyo was the last stage of my trip. I had arranged to meet some Japanese designers at the Tokyo Design Centre and also to meet up with a couple of old college friends working in the car industry in Tokyo. Harry has lived in Japan since he graduated. His wife is Japanese and he is a director of a local design company. Tim is a more nomadic typical car designer, in Tokyo for a stint after several years in California.
I arrived at Tokyo’s Ikebukuro station, unpacked the bike, loaded it up and cycled off to find the Kimi Ryokan. I had been there before so I knew the direction but it’s always difficult to find places in Japanese cities as there is no straightforward street address system. Most places will provide you with a map that shows landmarks such as big shops or businesses and one of the main functions of local policemen is to give people directions.
I was quickly aware that cycling in Tokyo is just as easy, and nearly as relaxed as cycling in Tsukuba or Sado-ga-shima. The traffic is generally not too heavy, it’s ok to use the sidewalk and there is a network of very quiet side streets. It’s a big city with some spectacular buildings but it’s also on a very managable scale, off the main roads it has a village feel and none of the relentless pressure one feels almost anywhere in London (Ironically the very centre of London is the calmest area since the introduction of road charging).
While I was negotiating a place to store the Brompton (space in the Kimi Ryokan, as everywhere in Tokyo, is very cramped. The rooms are tiny and the receptionist didn’t really want the bike indoors) the owner appeared and said that he was also a Brompton owner. His bike was built in Taiwan and we had a discussion about the difficulty of getting parts now that production is only in the UK. The Taiwanese version was slightly different in some of the technical details so not interchangeable.
The entrance to the Ryokan is down a short flight of stairs into a space like a small version of the basement “area” of many London houses, built to give access to the basement kitchen for servants and tradesmen. Although it wasn’t as secure as indoors, Japan is relatively free of crime and locking the bike to the railings just outside the front door and not visible to the street was very convenient. Brompton purists insist that it’s always best to carry the bike indoors with you, and have heroic tales of how they outwitted some poor doorman who was only doing his job. But 13kg is a significant lump of metal to carry around and I am only too happy to avoid it if I can.
My travels on the Tokyo rail system are described in the Brompton by rail page but I gradually found myself choosing to cycle between the different parts of the city rather than take the train. As in London, it’s all too easy to see Tokyo as a series of islands around the stations on the Yamanote Line and a bike helps you break out of that way of thinking and see the city as a whole.
Tim, who had been in Japan for a few weeks, had already invested in a new bike and was revelling in the freedom after car-bound years in California that left him with a bad back. His back was improving and we agreed that cycling was the perfect way to get around and see the most intersting details of city life. Since I had the same story from another Tokyo-based Brit that I met on the way to Japan I feel safe in asserting that the Lonely Planet Guide is entirely wrong in saying that you would not want to cycle in Tokyo traffic.
There may be times when pollution forces everybody in Tokyo to avoid the streets, although I have been told that passive car drivers with much lower level air intakes are much more at risk than active cyclists, who are further from the exhaust pipes and probably more able to metabolise the pollution. Most of the time the situation is very manageable. Drivers are disciplined and considerate, traffic flows steadily and predictably, and the option of road or sidewalk makes it easy to deal with each situation that arises.
When cruising around local areas the sidewalk is easiest on main roads, if you want to cover some ground the road is usually better although you can always dive onto the sidewalk if the traffic is too crowded or a tricky junction looms up.
My first steps in this direction were on realising that, rather than using the very big crowded stations like Ikebukuro and Shinjuku, I could go to a smaller station next along the line and cycle to my destination more quickly. So I discovered that my favourite store in Tokyo (or possible the world), Tokyu Hands, may be officially in the Shinjuku area but it’s actually closer to Yoyogi station where it’s a very short walk from train to street and the route to the shop is a quiet back street.
Tokyu Hands describes itself as a “creative living” store. It is a combination of DIY, hobbies, household goods, camping, cycling, hiking, cooking, office supplies, art materials, furniture and much more besides. It’s the place to go to find a multitude of gadgets from the clockwork battery charger for your mobile phone (a novelty when I saw it in 1999 but no self-respecting Japanese hiker would be out of phone contact) to a miniature carpet sweeper that picks up eraser fragments from drawings and an ingenious rain cover for your bicycle seat that flips over to reveal a dry section when it’s time to ride (It rains a great deal in Japan).
On my first trip to Tokyo I was impressed to see cyclists nonchalently pedalling along while holding an umbrella up and I soon realised that this was a vital art if you want to use a bike in Japan. Before long I was whipping out my folding brolley at the first sign of rain and my only regret is that Brompton have yet to develop a version of the umbrella clips that adorn the front forks of many Japanese bikes. However the elasticated mesh side pockets on the Brompton front touring pannier are a good second best.
I spent a happy morning pedalling round the markets in the Asakusa district where traders cater equally for tourists and for locals looking for bargains. So I not only bought some cotton Yukata robes to take back as gifts but I was also able to find an excellent lightweight jacket that would have cost a great deal more in the UK.
Asakusa was also a good place to find a restaurant that served traditional food but could cope with confused foreigners. By contrast I ate a couple of times in a popular cafe near my hotel and had great food on both occasions but, lacking a readable menu, found it difficult to place an order. The waitress was very friendly but, perhaps unlike her European colleagues, had little idea that it was possible to communicate with somebody who did not speak your language.
On the second occasion I found myself talking to my neighbour at the bar who spoke a little English and, like me, was from out of town. He was an engineer visiting Tokyo on some business to do with professional accreditation and in some ways less at ease in the big city than me. We solved the choice problem partly by sharing bites of each other’s meal and then ordering a dish between us that he wanted to try but doubted he had capacity for.
The hotel also provided some entertainment in the form of Western visitors learning Japanese and enthusiastically engaged with in the minutiae of daytime TV cookery and craft programmes, not a bad way to get to grips with everyday language.
I spent an evening with Harry and Tim in a bar which, like all Japanese bars, padded out the alcohol with a steady supply of small tasty dishes, not unlike the tapas principle. We relived past glories and bemoaned the decline of standards. I visited the overwhelming Akihabara district (Electric City) where you can buy every kind of electronic gadget and, perversely, bought a replica Samurai sword for my son. Then after a last night at the Kimi, and a last soak in a hot tub, made my way back home.