Transport in Tokyo
I’m a German, living in Tokyo since 7 years. Cycling is one of the hobbies I took with me to Japan. How to people get around in Tokyo?
- By train/bus: there are many train stations, e-payment is easy, it’s cheap, on time - so this is by far the most heavily used method
- By car: this is much less used. To register a car, one has to prove that the car has an own parking place. Parking in Tokyo is quite expensive.
- By bike: this is often used to transport children, groceries, sport. Less so for commuting.
As for terms: bicycle in Japanese is 自転車/Jitensha, literally ’the machine which moves by itself’. When talking with Japanese, one would typically not say ‘bike’, as this sounds exactly like the Japanese work for motorcyle.
After moving to Japan, I was moving around by foot and public transport, but I quickly also started to search for a bike. The most common bike is the ‘Mamachari’, a bigger bike intended to transport groceries or bring chilren to school. This starts around 200eur, but was not appropriate for me. Bike stores are all around, they have also sport-, mountain- and roadbikes. Problem: with my 1.86m I’m rather tall by Japanese standars, and bikes in the right frame size were rare.
I considered shipping my bike from Germany: would cose at least 800€. Bringing the bike as ‘oversized baggage’ with me in a plane would cost 150€ - but appropriate packaging for transport is a topic, as well as getting the bike to the airport in the first place.
I investigated the second hand market as used goods in Japan are typically in very good condition - and foreigners (more likely to be tall) also sell there. Eventually I got myself a ‘Giant escape R3’, for around 5万円. Turns out “French valves” are mostly used, in Germany plain car valves are more common, so refilling air at the gas station is easy. Dynamo are not very common here, I got a LED front light, rechargeable battery is attached and supplies 3h light, recharging is done via USB-micro connector.
The brand is ‘Giant’. In Germany, I always considered this as an excellent name, so was proud to get one for a good price. In Japan, bikes of that brand are not really considered any special - I suspect the difference is simply as the company is rooted in Taiwan and transport to Japan is much cheaper than to Germany. So it’s more rare in Germany.
Directly at the store I registered the bike with the police: my name and address got mapped to a number, which is imprinted on a sticker on the bike, and probably also a harder to remove frame number. If stolen and found somewhere, the bike can be mapped to me.
Biking infrastructure, cycling laws, helmet
My first goal for a trip was to commute to the office: that took 50min by public transport, and 2h by bike. That was a rough ride: the rules seemed quite frightening. Many cyclists are moving from the walkway to the road without watching over their shoulder. At pedestrian crossings with traffic lights, cars are stopping when thr traffic light is red - but the majority of cyclists is ignoring that when no pedestrians are interfering.
In Japan, like in Great Britain, cars drive on the left side of the road. Some roads in Tokyo have bike lanes, but bikes are in general ok to use the footway where normal pedestrians walk. On many streets with biking lanes, one sees parents transporting chilred in the mamachari on the footway.
As for laws: after accidents, there is a strong tendency to consider the vulnerability of involved parties. This means that in accidents with car and bike involved, the bike is likely to be seen favourably. For accidents with bike and pedestrian, the pedestrian is likely to be seen favourably.
As for helmets: since April 2023, we have 努力義務 to wear a helmet. This is not a ‘you are forced to wear helmet’, in the same way as people were not forced to wear mask in the Corona time. Literally, the term says ‘you have to do your part for helmet wearing’. Practically, there were only a few helmet wearing bikers in April, but after a few months it’s now picking up. Watching what others do and following along is an important part of the society here, I suspect that when a critical mass of people adopts the helmet, it will accelerate acceptance further.
In my part of Tokyo, every bike driver has to purchase a liability insurance, that’s 1400円 per year. This can be obtained by the local post office, and be payd in cash.
I’m not doing much maintenance myself apart of cleaning the bike chains, applying fresh oil to the chains, and refilling air at pomp stations. For getting flat tyres replaced and so on, I use repair shops. In Germany, these would take in the bike and have me wait for 3-5 days for repairs. In Tokyo, these shops are short on space and try to not take in your bike over night: for most repairs I can fetch the repaired bike after 30 or 60 minutes. Prices are reasonable, and as this is Japan, no tip (German: Trinkgeld) is given.
In summer 2022, I was with the bike waiting in front of a traffic light, I was located on the normal lane which is also used by cars. A car did hit me from the back, apparently the driver had not seen me. The back wheel had to be completely replaced, and I had slight back pain. In that situation, the car driver affered to call the police, but I just wanted to get along and refused this. The car driver left his name and mail address, but interestingly did not hand out his business card.
I went to ~5 bike shops until I found one which had a wheel for replacement, having to order one would take weeks or months. I informed the car driver via mail about the repair costs of ~150$. He offered to ‘give me 200$, to compensate for the pain’ - which I refused. I turned out to have back pain for a few weeks, not compensated with 50$, so I asked him to just pay the 150$.
All of these mails were plastered with “I’m sorry”, but this is one aspect of Japanese communications I do not like: the driver would say this simply because he was supposed to in this role. I could not evaluate whether this was meant seriously or just following the expectations.
My biking occasions/activities
In 2018, I moved to Shibuya area - aiming at just the right distance to the office so I could commute by bike. Then came Corona, 1.5 years without commuting to the office.. but now I go to the office most days of the week, 25min per trip.
Apart from that, I go to the Onsen/bath once per week, alternating between 2 very nice bathes. Each trip is ~1 hour. I mostly listen to podcasts when biking, using one in-ear-plug, so I still can take in all traffic noises happening around me.
From 2019-2021, I did the Tokyo metro biketrip: visiting all 292 metro stations in the Tokyo metropolis area by bike, I took a picture of the entrances. 7 new stations had been built after starting the project. The idea was to visit various places around the city - which worked out nicely! I can highly recommend this approach.
Appart from these, I also go to events by bike, for example the Nibelungen opera performance, to concerts, to do groceries, and so on.
I use a “Finn mobile holder”, which looks like a rubber strap which you wind around the handlebar of the bike, and can easily attach your smart phone for map guidance.
I have having to confess it, but Google maps is my ‘quick and dirty’ app for setting markers on the browser interfeace, then starting the app on the mobile and using the routing functionality. For bigger trips, one can use brouter.de for route planning, then export to files and import these into OSMand on the mobile. With OSMand, one can also use offline maps, saving electrical power on longer trips. Details are here, with my experiences from a recent 250km-in-3days trip.
In Japan, also the Yahoo maps app is an alternative to google maps. Both are closed and proprietary, but Yahoo has better maps in some regions.
If you live in Tokyo or somewhere else in Japan, I can really recommend to get a bike. The local specialities might take a bit to get used to, but in general biking is a nice experience here, one feels safe.
Did I forget an aspect? Please let me know!
Last modified on 2023-07-02