Cycling to Shibuya

As discussed in the last post, I am currently staying in Saitama, a city in the Greater Tokyo area which is approximately 25 km outside of central Tokyo. On Sunday I found myself at a bit of a loose end, the weather was crisp, clear and bright, perfect for a bit of exploration.

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Japan’s version of a ‘shared use’ facility. Because Japan doesn’t treat its pedestrians with the same level of contempt as the UK does, the concept works surprisingly well.

Not willing to pay the extortionate rate expected for mobile data roaming (and forgetting to activate even the possibility before leaving the UK) I had to rely on an offline map for navigation. Add to this the unexplained failure of my phone’s GPS since arriving in Japan and I realised that travelling through the most populous metropolitan area in the world might require some creative navigation. After wandering around for a bit, I decided that I would use the train lines as a means of navigating. Thanks to the Carradice bag packed in my T-bag, I knew that I could easily pack the Brompton up and hop on the (quite easy to use) rail network should the need arise.

After heading towards central Tokyo for a while, I realised that if I followed the forking points of the train tracks correctly I could make it to Shibuya, a place I’ve wanted to see since sinking many an hour into Jet Set Radio many years ago.

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The Greater Tokyo area is remarkably permeable. Whilst there are some one-way restrictions for motor vehicles which do not apply to cyclists and pedestrians, this high level of permeability applies to motor vehicles almost as much as cycle and foot traffic. In order to make my journey I merely needed to have a rough idea of which direction I needed to travel in and the roads and streets always managed to allow me a way through. Despite this permeability, I was not bothered by a particularly notable volume of motor traffic on residential streets. Navigating through the crowds of pedestrians and other cyclists was the main obstacle I encountered and was one I was happy to work around.

This lack of rat-running is likely in part due to the fact that it just doesn’t seem to be acceptable here to haphazardly discard your car on whatever piece of public land you fancy at the other end of your journey. Cars here are stored when not in use, not carelessly abandoned. The result is that people seem to make fewer frivolous car trips (and seem to own fewer frivolous cars) with the bicycle picking up the slack instead. Residential streets are places rather than just routes, and these places are perfectly inviting for cycling and walking.

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Fancy a hot can of (surprisingly good) coffee whilst wandering, slightly lost, through a Shenmue-esque neighbourhood? No problem (I recommend the Rainbow Blend).

In addition to the extensive network of pleasant, permeable residential streets there are plenty of big, multi-lane car-centric roads running throughout Greater Tokyo. Thankfully these roads are made relatively pleasant thanks to two measures; shared use facilities and smoothing traffic flow.

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Cultural differences abound in Japan; here this sign is not an iron-clad guarantee you’ll have a bad cycling or walking experience.

Shared use facilities in Japan, whilst not a perfect solution, work unexpectedly well on the major routes. This is largely due to the fact that pedestrians are not treated with the same level of contempt in Japan that they are in the UK, so when cyclists and pedestrians are lumped together the experience is still positive. Presumably as a result of the ubiquitousness of shared use in Japan, there is not a great deal of conflict between the two types of user; pedestrians expect the encounter cyclists and cyclists expect to have to slow down or stop for pedestrians where volumes of foot traffic are higher.

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An elderly lady rides a typical Japanese city bike along one a shared use pavement. I’m not sure how she would feel about doing the same in London.

Don’t like it? Want to go faster? Get on the road. Cycling on main roads in Japan is also surprisingly pleasant thanks to measures which smooth the flow of traffic; all types of traffic. Next to the shared use sign in the above picture is a ’40′ sign, indicating a speed limit of 40 km/h or 25mph on what is effectively an urban dual carriageway. This speed limit, enforced by frequent stops for motor traffic at practically every set of traffic lights results in a consistent, smooth flow of motor, bicycle and foot traffic rather than the frequent short bursts of dangerous speed from motorists enabled by the complete subjugation of cyclists and pedestrians which we have in the UK.

The shared use facilities have priority over minor side roads which is enforced by a combination of fairly tight turning geometry and a general tendency amongst motorists to act as if they are in charge of machines which could easily kill or maim people if operated without due care and attention. At major intersections, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians get a green phase in the same direction at the same time. Motorists are permitted to turn left but must defer to bicycle and foot traffic heading straight ahead. Again this works surprisingly well thanks to a technique which Japanese motorists have developed known as ‘paying attention.’

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The very big roads have separate little roads running alongside them which are used for cycling, walking and as residents’ access. The structure above the road in this shot is a motorway which has high noise-abating walls.

Through a combination of these different types of road, I followed the train line a rather circuitous, approximately 50 km route to Shibuya. I saw plenty of little slices of life in Japan; a mother cycling to the shops with her child and his grandfather not far behind, children cycling unaccompanied along city streets and shopping malls so inundated that you have to pay for bicycle parking.

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Whilst it doesn’t hold up to The Netherlands example, Tokyo shows what can be achieved when government policy at least doesn’t actively suppress cycling.

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This was the one point I thought I may have to turn back; I had cycled down a residential street to an ornamental garden next to a river. I carried the Brompton down the steps and found that there was a path leading to a footbridge over the river leading me back to the train tracks I was using to navigate.

Eventually I made it to Shibuya. By this point my arms were really aching; unlike making a similar journey in the UK, I didn’t need to stop all that often. It turns out that my body has grown accustomed to the frequent stops I must make as a cyclist in the UK riding on a road network designed solely around motor traffic.

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A street in Shinjuku, pedestrianised during shopping hours. Nearby here is where I saw the only HGV I have seen in Japan. It was being used as a mobile stage to promote an album launch. Major freight movements seem to be by rail.

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A scramble crossing outside Shibuya station. By the time I got to Shibuya, after a short wander around, I was so tired I decided to head back to Saitama. Sometimes it is all about the journey.

Cycling alone and through the one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, I was unfamiliar with the language and the specifics of the law and yet I still felt safer than I ever do cycling on the roads back in the UK. The UK really has an awful long way to go.

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8 thoughts on “Cycling to Shibuya

  1. “Again this works surprisingly well thanks to a technique which Japanese motorists have developed known as ‘paying attention”
    Priceless Chris, absolutely priceless :-D

    Looks like an interesting trip & a brilliant use of the Brommie!

    • It’s been a pleasure to cycle here. I’m slightly worried about the shock to the system I’ll get when I have to get around again in the UK. I’m hoping to do a post about the utility bicycles almost everyone here seems to favour soon.

  2. Reblogged this on Japan Reblogged and commented:
    Recently on some roads with narrow pavements in my area, Kanagawa, bicycles are forced to main roads. In some cases, there is a problem because the main road is not so wide in my neighborhood.

    The bicycles for everyday use is somtimes called “mama chari” (bicycle for mothers), and as you see everywhere in Japan, parents put their kids in front of , sometimes behind, them. For many Japanese, those bicycles are for short distance vehicle for everyday life.

    Thank you for a nice post describing Japan.

  3. I support your pretty positive view of cycling in Tokyo. Having ignored the strong negative advice in a well-known travel guide, I hired a bike (for 300y for the day) just near Ueno and spent the day exploring Ueno Park, Akihibara, Asakusa and Sumidagawa. Safest I have felt in a long time on 2 wheels.

    • I had mixed messages about cycling in Japan before going too, but I’m glad I took the bike in the end. Whilst it isn’t perfect, it was still a more pleasant experience than cycling in the UK.

  4. “Japanese motorists have developed known as ‘paying attention.’”

    They might, but Japanese pedestrians and other cyclists certainly don’t. This is the biggest risk factor cycling in Tokyo. Expect only totally unexpected behaviour from both.

    “so when cyclists and pedestrians are lumped together the experience is still positive”.

    This is just pure nonsense.

    Walking the streets here is awful. Cyclists have little consideration. They are a danger – there have been numerous police reports, government assessments but nothing changes. As it is I try to avoid walking around here as much as possible.

  5. Pingback: After the gritting | Chester Cycling

  6. Hey there. I enjoyed the read. You cycled from Saitama to Shibuya?!! 50 km?! Wow, mad respect. Sounds like you had an amazing journey and I agree that the coffee from the vending machines are surprisingly good. ;) Take care and thanks for the read.

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