Ride On: The Joys of Winter Cycling in Japan
With the East Coast starting the year off with a big windchill, biking to work may not seem like the most appealing New Year’s resolution. It’s freezing outside, there’s snow on the ground, and nobody likes to risk falling into the snow before their first cup of coffee. And yet, biking in the wintertime is one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself, especially if your route takes you through the streets of Tokyo. After all, the humble bike is an integral part of Japanese civic transport, and as such has claimed an eternal spot in the lives of Tokyoites.
Just like in the Netherlands or Denmark, cycling is a yearlong activity in Japan. While Shinjuku businessmen squish themselves into the subway cars of the Yamanote line, a small army of cyclists take to the streets during rush hour. The city of Tokyo alone is the most bicycle-dense megacity in the world, and it is estimated that 16% of all trips made each day are on a bicycle. While most of us put our bikes into storage at the first sight of snowfall, winter is the season when you are actually more likely to see more bikes whizzing around in Japan. It’s not uncommon to see lines of bikers in the streets of Tokyo or Osaka in the colder months, their riders snuggled up against the chill to go to the store, the office, or the post office. “The Japanese have a very strong communal culture,” says the team at Tokyobike, a Japanese bicycle company based around the concept of Tokyo slow- the idea that cycling, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination. “When it comes to bikes, the more people ride them in the city, the more people become sensitive to the needs of bike riders. It’s not uncommon to find bikes left unlocked on the streets in Tokyo, riders on the sidewalk (a regular habit in the city) and very few bike lanes.” The winding alleys and cramped corners of cities like Tokyo may be too narrow for cars or buses to get through, but they make perfect cycling routes for running a quick errand if you’re in a rush.
There are some surprising benefits to biking in the winter that you won’t see if you only bike in the spring. Biking keeps your metabolism going and helps maintain a strong immune system, which is essential for warding off flu season. It’s also easier to stay warm when you’re biking than when you’re walking around or waiting for public transportation. For the Tokyobike team, though, the best part is the quiet time. “In winter there are fewer people out walking and biking around,” they tell us. “It is such a calming feeling to ride peacefully along the temporarily deserted streets and bike paths. There is nothing cooler than being the first set of wheel tracks in the fresh snow early in the morning.”
As a bike-friendly metropolis, Tokyo has no shortage of options for the cycling enthusiast. Visitors can stop by Tokyobike Rentals in Yanaka and take in the city sights on their own (very stylish) bicycle. The Kato-Sumiyoshi Architects-designed Bicycle Culture Center houses a collection of vintage posters, international magazines and rare bicycle parts for aficionados to pore over. Inside the museum, slim bike chains are repurposed as space demarcators, and visitors can get lost in the library stacks, which contain over 9,000 publications pertaining to cycling. On the sporting side, keirin is a memorable, if unusual, cycling sport to watch. Described by Wired as “The most extreme sport you’ve never heard of,” keirin involves competitors circling a track on fixed-gear bicycles with no brakes, pacing themselves behind a motorbike for two kilometers before making a mad sprint to the end just inches from each other. Crashes are common and dramatic. Originally developed in 1948 for gambling purposes, keirin evolved into an accredited sport over the years and became officially recognized at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Alongside horse racing, boat racing, and Formula 1, it remains one of the only four sports on which it is legal to place bets.
Of course, you don’t need to become a professional cyclist or compete in any races to become a winter biker. If you’re ready to face the cold, Tokyobike recommends layering up.“If you’re only going a very short distance (like a mile or so), normal winter clothing and a big comfy coat are totally perfect,” they say, “For longer distances, you’ll want lightweight layers and moisture-wicking fabric. Wool is best for the first layer, and then a water-resistant outer layer to keep you prepared for the elements.” Start small and pick a route that is mostly flat and between 15 to 20 minutes long to ease into this new habit. Avoid trolley tracks when you can, as your tire may slip on them and send you flying into the snow. A comfortable helmet, a strong lock, and reliable bright lights are musts for metropolitan cities. And remember: “Always keep ears and fingers covered when it is 40 degrees or colder,” says Tokyobike. “Wiggle your fingers or toes at stop lights if they start to feel numb”
After you’ve mastered these tips, all that remains is finding your route. Whether it’s a major city avenue with cars whizzing past you or a route of quiet winding backstreets, find the path that feels most like you and make a daily routine out of it. After all, making your own way is part of the fun of winter biking. “At Tokyobike, we live and breathe the concept of ’Tokyo Slow’, which is all about exploring and discovering your surroundings while on a bicycle—you get to see much more on two wheels and really connect with everything around you,” they tell us. “[Biking] is as much about the journey as the destination. We encourage everyone to take the long way once in a while. Is there a good cafe on the way to work? A nice place to stop for dinner or a drink on the way home? Is there a more scenic way, or a faster way? Take your time and find each one.”