COVID-19: Due to the current outbreak of COVID-19, visiting crowded public spaces is not recommended.
Post-apocalyptic movies have it all wrong. Sure, their characters are often desperately running around and searching for food. But when it comes to the getaway, they’re often driving around or hunting for fuel. Where is the gasoline still coming from? And aren’t vehicles pretty noisy and easily detected?!
I’ve got my end of the world scenario all worked out. It would just be me and my bicycle. As long as my legs can pedal, my bicycle and I would be happily dodging zombies.
In fact, the humble bicycle is often overlooked – and unfairly so. When people come to Japan, they think of the trains, renowned for their impeccable cleanliness and timeliness as well as more unusual “features,” such as white-gloved men politely packing passengers into carriages during rush hour.
But bicycles are also a popular mode of transport among groups of all ages and social standings. Walking down a Tokyo street, you’ll spot a mother riding a mamachari, an electric-assisted bike with two children on board; a salary-man hurtling along, briefcase balanced precariously in the basket; an UberEats delivery person hunched over on a road bike, large, square bag strapped to her back; and perhaps an elderly gentleman, gliding along more slowly than walking pace but still determinedly heading to his destination.
Best of all, bicycles give you a different way of experiencing the city, a way to see, smell, hear and feel the streets; fresh(ish) air, inhaled in and out; pedal and heartbeat forming a rhythm as you create your own journey. By contrast, travelling by train gives a very closed and fixed experience of the city, and your trajectory is framed between two stations, two disjointed pinpoints from which you can only radiate outwards.
But discovering what lies between the network of stations can be like opening a hidden doorway or discovering a secret passage through the city. With the weather becoming warmer and spring finally underway, it’s time to get out and pedal your way on a different path.
Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to spend three days travelling by bicycle and moving ’round the city without getting on a train or a bus. I was to trial two share cycle schemes run by two of Japan’s largest telecommunications companies NTT Docomo and Softbank. How easy are they to use? What adventures can they unlock?
There is something very appealing to setting off without a rigid plan in mind and seeing where your wheels take you. Moreover, I saw this cycling opportunity as an excuse to explore Tokyo’s cafes, as exploring while exercising surely deserved to be rewarded with sweets. I was essentially going to become a pedal-powered Pacman. Let the munchies begin!
DAY 1 – CHEESECAKE
View this post on Instagram
明日の土(3/28)、明後日の日(3/29)は、時間を短縮して、11:30〜18:00までの営業です！ ご協力宜しくお願いします！ #tokyocafe #tokyostyle2019 #チーズケーキ #cheesecake #cake #cafe #カフェ #学芸大学 #aworks #スイーツ #東横線カフェ #チーズケーキ専門店 #카페 #토쿄카페 #커피 #치즈케이크 #일본카페 #chefoodo #チーズプロフェッショナル #誕生日ケーキ #プリン #抹茶 #抹茶スイーツ #固めプリン #푸딩 #strawberry #말차 #말차라떼 #桜スイーツ
It’s a random Tuesday and I have made plans to visit a very delicious-looking cheesecake cafe with a friend – AWORKS Cafe in the popular residential area of Gakugei Daigaku in the southern ward of Meguro.
The store’s Instagram is pretty much the epitome of food porn, and any calories gained from gorging on these sweet delights will undoubtedly be burned by cycling there. What’s more, it’s a beautiful day to go cycling.
I decide to investigate Docomo’s scheme and discover an amazingly attractive website in English! Then I click the link to take me to the app… which is mainly in Japanese and has a highly impressive low rating of 2 out of 5 stars.
Once installed, I am faced with a screen which show my location and my nearest docking point… which has no bicycles available.
Fortunately, the next nearest one does, and I am taken through to a registration screen. It seems you have to register independently for different service areas rather than for the overall service. This doesn’t make much sense and I immediately wonder whether I can return the bike within a different registration area.
The pricing is also confusing. It is 2000 yen for a month, which is very reasonable, but if you go over 30 minutes of use, it’s 150 yen / 30 minutes to extend. However, I am renting just for a few hours on a non-membership, one-time use basis. It says 150 yen for the first 30 minutes, 100 yen per 30 minutes thereafter.
This is all getting too complex and I don’t quite know how much I am going to end up paying. So I decide, NEVER MIND, ADVENTURE TIME! And, on the plus side, the registration screen is bilingual!
Bicycle reserved, I have 20 minutes to find it and unlock it with a PIN. Over 1km away, just walking to the bicycle park is a bit of an adventure. Then I am presented with the challenge of finding the docks in an ocean of bicycles…
I find it just in time. I type in the pin code, unlock the bike and set off.
This is MISTAKE NUMBER ONE.
I am amazed at how heavy the bike is. Then I realise it is an electric-assisted bike so I just need to turn the power on. It says 0%. There were no other bicycles at that port to switch it with, and by now, I’m running late so there’s no time for cycling to another port. I decide to switch off the power for now, and just pedal it and see how far I get.
Not so fast! Literally. I have to switch the power on to tackle inclines or my pace slows so much that I won’t make it to the cafe before it shuts. The useful thing is that the wide basket means I can sling my bag in the front with my phone at the top, easily accessible for navigating.
I load up Google Maps and hit walking directions, swaying left or right at the robotic voice commands. Normally, I ride a road bike where I zip down the roads, but this bike moves so slowly and is so sturdy, it’s built for the pavement. That’s how many of Tokyo’s cyclists get about.
And, at a slower pace, I get to grab a few shots of the suburbs on my way through. The streets are mercifully quiet and the ride is pleasant, aside from the time pressure.
6.5km. I arrive and am rewarded by a queue at least 30 people long. My friend is patiently queueing but she shakes her head in despair. Our cheesecake dreams are seemingly shattered. But then we consult the power of technology and look at a map: we discover there is a coffee store only 4 minutes’ walk away, which also has cheesecake.
Best of all, it is the kind of place we would never have discovered unless we had been searching in a very specific area. Even then, it proves hard to find due to one of the smallest signs in the world.
Yes, this door is the entrance to Hummingbird Coffee, which clearly is only advertising to those in the know. And it seems like the shopkeeper wishes we were not in the know. He rapidly stutters out that we need to wait outside, and in the highest level of polite Japanese explains there are a few rules that “may surprise foreign customers” such as being asked to move seats so other parties can also fit. He looks at us anxiously like he hopes we might change our minds. We don’t. He has cheesecake in there, and we’re going to have it.
It is not long before we find ourselves seated in a minimalist room that falls somewhere between a doorway into the past and a still life exhibition. Our faded wood table blends with the grey of the wall, dried flowers in a vase adding an accent.
We order and the owner nervously tells us we’ll have to wait. Just like his demeanour, his words are very serious – it’s about half an hour before anything appears. I’ve ordered a café glacé, a sweetened ice milk coffee that comes served in an elegant wine glass, alongside a black sesame cheesecake. The cake is light on the creaminess, with only a mild hint of cheese, but the earthiness of the sesame is glorious.
What’s more, as I hop on my bicycle to go home, I realise I am wearing matching leggings. I have literally dressed to match my cake, which probably makes me far more Instagram-worthy than the cafe we couldn’t get into.
Then I make MISTAKE NUMBER TWO.
They say that greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and, in this case, it bitterly proves to be true. I decided to explore the area a bit, strolling the main shopping street, which proves to be home to more sweet delights.
But the real reason I am taking my time is that I know from Google Maps there is one of my favourite dishes very nearby – tantanmen spicy noodles in a sesame broth. What’s more, this chain store Couki offers a black sesame version. Wouldn’t it be great if I ate black sesame twice in one day – both savoury and sweet?
I enter the noodle store and find it smells rather unpleasantly of something chemical. But I have committed and I am presented with a bowl of sadly rather average noodles. The Sichuan pepper tingles my tongue and urges me onwards. I eat as quickly as possible and leave.
THAT’S MISTAKE NUMBER THREE.
My bladder, full of coffee and water to quench the saltiness and spiciness of the noodles, is busting. I power on the bike and pedal as quickly as possible in the direction of home. But the battery soon gives out. It is taking forever to pedal this monstrous beast anywhere. Frustrated, and in an increasingly urgent situation, I decide to head in the direction of the nearest docking point to abandon the bicycle there.
I push it up an unreasonably steep slope and manage to get it to a drop-off station. I lock it with relief, cursing Docomo under my breath, and rush to the nearest public toilets, which happens to be a grim, dark block in the neighbouring park. That is how I end my first cycling adventure before beginning a 45-minute walk back home.
But at least I showed you a different side of Tokyo.
Afterwards, I checked the app for my bill. I had used the bicycle from 12:26 – 18:14, a total of 5-and-a-half hours.
There was a charge for initial use of 165 yen – the first 30 minutes at 150 yen plus tax. Then, there was a charge of 1100 yen – 5 hours at 110 yen (incl. tax). So according to my mental calculator, the total for the 5.5 hours cost 1265 yen. That’s quite an expensive day. And why were the prices not initially including tax? I’m mildly scandalised.
DAY TWO – PARFAIT AND MORE
Docomo is basically the equivalent of the Devil, I have decided. It’s time to try out Softbank’s cycling scheme, Hello Cycling.
Aside from the name and the menu, the site is not in English but it wins points for being cute and somewhat easy to understand.
What’s more, the pricing is very clear with no sneaky tax: 70 yen per 15 minutes or 1000 yen for the day. Basically, choose whether you’re a commuter or day-tripper.
I am a day-tripper and I am delighted to discover there is a bicycle station only 215m away from my front door. Too excited by this revelation, I prepare to go out and I make a rookie error: I forget to reserve it.
The result is I end up on a 15-minute walk to a different dock to retrieve a bicycle from a parking lot that looks like it’s been hit by a cycle cyclone.
I play a kind of Tetris, lifting fallen bicycles, rearranging them, and slotting them into spaces, in order to retrieve my trusty steed for the day.
And he is a trusty steed indeed. Curved handlebars, a comfy padded saddle, nice wide basket… and best of all… an English display mode and 100% power. I set off towards my destination and the bicycle immediately feels more comfortable, smoother, and basically better than Docomo’s bikes in every single way.
I glide through the streets, soaking up the spring sunshine, the sky a vibrant blue.
However, my victory is slightly short-lived. We are on the main street and there is no bicycle parking to be found. Parking on the street is not allowed in Japan and bikes cluttering pavements near stations risk being taken away and put in the bicycle pound, for which you have to pay a hefty release fee.
I am by Todoroki station and “no parking” signs are everywhere. My friend patiently follows me down some side streets as we scour for a more secluded spot.
Eventually, we find a bicycle park that is apparently 100 yen for an hour but I have no idea where one pays. Instead I take a cheerfully ironic picture pointing at a sign that says “Obey the rules.”
I am headed to a fairly well-kept secret – Todoroki Valley. Tucked away in the densely popular Setagaya Ward suburbs, it is a wooded river valley with a roughly one-kilometre walking route, leading to a shrine, gardens and even a waterfall.
It’s so incongruous that it feels surreal. Following the steps down from Golf Bridge (no golfers spotted), it’s like stepping into a different world. There are dog walkers, people painting, and ducks bobbing in the river.
We break off from the valley and climb up to some gardens for a lookout view, before heading to a nearby park where the trees make striking shadows in the afternoon sun. We are a world away from the hustle bustle of Tokyo’s city centre.
There are plenty of pretty cherry blossoms around… but I have cycled nearly 8km and walked a few kilometers more. It’s tea time! We head back towards the station area and I find the nearest parking spot for my bicycle and return it. With a click of a button, it’s done. It is so simple.
My friend has promised me parfait and he leads me to what looks like a narrow street of apartments by the train tracks.
But this is Tokyo and the city hides many secrets. Tucked inside what looks like an ordinary apartment block is the highly trendy Patisserie Asako Iwayanagi. There are no conspicuous signs suggesting that a dessert store might be there – I can’t even spot its name – but a queue of women outside is a giveaway. We sigh, and resign ourselves for a wait.
It takes less time than expected. Within 30 minutes, we are allowed inside and I immediately order the seasonal special sakura and strawberry parfait. The salty sakura gelato is incredible, although the strawberries themselves are a little underwhelming. Yet this place is all about the ‘Gram. This parfait is a poser.
But the girls next to us have ordered two cakes each and we eye their plates with such obvious interest that they burst out laughing. “It’s all your fault!” we tell them as we order three different kinds.
We shamelessly tuck into tarte tatin, the caramelised apple juicy, but the base too thick; next, a matcha gateau, which is a little too mild. But the star of the show is the chocolate cake with pistachio, which has such a pure chocolate mousse flavour that I have to take a while to absorb it.
Suddenly, we realise that it has grown dark outside and the staff are clearing up. Four desserts deep and we are literally the last people left in the store.
It’s time for me to locate my ride home. I fire up my app and search for my nearest bicycle station. It is only 5 minutes away, although I accidentally walk into a private driveway before I locate it.
Around 45 minutes later, I am parking the bicycle around the corner from my apartment.
Hello Cycling. Hello the best of Tokyo life.
I check my app for my bill:
02:22 – 700 yen
00:54 – 280 yen
980 yen for adventuring. But given they offer a 1000 yen for 12 hours deal, perhaps I should have kept my bike out for the day, or parked it at a dock immediately after each journey… Some forward-thinking needed.
DAY THREE – GATEAU CHOCOLAT
Good morning, cyclist enthusiasts! I am back again at the same spot near my home, collecting my Hello Cycling bike – the same trusty steed that took me home last night.
Before long, I am rattling my way southwards to Nakameguro – a nice easy 5km ride downhill. The area is famous for cherry blossom along its canal and now is the perfect time of year for viewing it. Luckily for me, there’s a Hello Cycling parking slot right nearby. I dismount and venture forwards on foot.
I follow the river southwards towards Meguro passing under blossoms and soaking up the dappled sunlight. The water flows calmly past and seems to match the slower pace of life out of the centre of the city.
I am on my way to meet a friend who has returned to Tokyo after two years abroad, and we are reestablishing our long-held tradition of afternoon tea and cake. We have settled on Jubilee Coffee and Roasters as a convenient halfway meeting point. It’s a small cosy coffee shop, with plants adorning the window and jars of beans lining the counter.
We are soon slurping on ice lattes and tucking into a densely rich, chocolate cake. I am not sure I have done quite enough exercise to warrant the amount of sweets I am consuming, especially since the bicycle is electrically-assisted, but the cake is pure, smooth cacao bliss in my mouth and I am pretty sure it is speaking to my soul.
The gateau obviously calms me too much because I decide to rather charitably give Docomo another try to get home. I set off towards a nearby docking area.
I am now in Shirokanedai – a wealthy area. I pass Don Quijote Platinum, an upmarket version of the bizarre yet beloved discount store and can’t resist a perusal of its “interesting” products. It’s always full of random trash you never knew you wanted. For example…
But I’ve been having too much fun in the store. I realise I have forgotten to reserve a bicycle at the parking dock I was heading towards. In an attempt to rectify this, I somehow manage to reserve two, and when I cancel one reservation, the app annoyingly cancels both. I try to reserve again but there is a time lag, and now the app says there are no bicycles available.
I am now standing among several bicycles in a row that are clearly waiting to be used, yet I can use none. Docomo is once again mocking me.
After 10 minutes of shivering in an unseasonably icy wind, the app updates and finally lets me rent a bicycle. You don’t get a choice in which one it randomly picks; the code I receive is for a bicycle with only 17% power. But I am too cold to care –I need to get moving and stubbornly start pedalling.
Yet this seems to be a different model of bicycle from the Shinjuku Ward version I rented before. The seat is at maximum height but I feel like I might knee myself in the face. It is so uncomfortable that there is no way I am attempting to ride it all the way home. Plus, after one slight hill and the power dips to 15%. It’s draining fast.
Shivering and now feeling distinctly exhausted, I redirect to the nearest dock, which is in Ebisu. I get slightly lost and end up pedalling down a street where all the lampposts are shaped like beer, taunting me with a drink I definitely can’t have (NB: any kind of drinking and cycling is illegal in Japan).
Eventually, I find the port and abandon my bike with only 9% to spare. I vow I will never again be so forgiving, I could just get the train but I am determined to see my challenge through to the end. I stomp towards the nearest Hello Cycling bicycle.
10 minutes later, I am pedalling back into sanity, with a begrudging appreciation of all the parts of Tokyo I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, beer lampposts and all.
Docomo Bike Share Service:
Hello Cycling (Softbank) :
You can also register your IC card (eg. Suica, Pasmo) to unlock the bicycle. Instructions can be found here.