Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Biking in Tokyo amid smoking businessmen, mamas with child

By Kyung Lah, CNN
Click to play
Japan's bicycle commuters
  • CNN's Kyung Lah rides her bike to work
  • About 15 percent of Japan commutes via bicycle
  • She cautions about distracted businessmen on bikes, marvels at moms with kids in tow
  • Biking in Tokyo requires a mix of sidewalk and street riding; few wear helmets
  • Tokyo
  • Japan
  • Cycling

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- My mountain bike hasn't seen a mountain in about two years. But it has seen a lot of Tokyo's jammed roadway, which I would argue on some days provides as much of a perilous track as any rugged, unpaved trail.

I commute to work on my bike, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes each way. Given that a subway commute can take nearly an hour door-to-door, the bike is a no-brainer for me. About 15 percent of Japan commutes via bicycle, so I'm in good company.

And since Tokyo is one of the world's safest large cities, my laziness is my biggest obstacle.

Here is what I normally see during an average commute.

*Biking Businessmen

You must, first of all, be prepared to dodge numerous businessmen on bikes -- smoking and talking on their mobiles -- all at once, mind you, and traveling along the same jammed morning roadway. One might be amusing, but I'm usually dodging a large number of suit-clad fellas yammering away on pink mobile phones (usually the only color apparent in their all-black work attire).

*Mamas on Bikes

Once you get around the smoking businessmen, you'll encounter an even bigger biking compadre: the mother with children, sometimes two, one in front and the other perched in the back. I once saw a woman biking with her child in a backpack. What is amazing about these women is that they're almost always dressed impeccably, down to hose and three-inch high heels. I am often left wondering how it is that I'm sweating profusely, while they calmly bike up and down Tokyo's biggest hills with human cargo in tow.

*Sidewalk Shuffle

You don't bike on the street in Tokyo -- you sort of bike on the street and sidewalk. Some sidewalks are marked off with bike lanes, which all pedestrians completely ignore. With more than 10 million people in Tokyo, sidewalks are rarely empty. I often think my old bike trails in the backcountry mountains are much safer than downtown Tokyo at 8:30 am. Which means ...

*Street Weave

You must leave the sidewalk and hit the roads. Tokyo's roads are notoriously skinny, and drivers here are used to leaving no space between their cars, parked cars and the lane next to them. I have on more than one occasion been pushed along by the side mirror of a vehicle. Which explains why I'm so perplexed by ...

*No helmets

I don't understand how no one wears helmets, other than a few bike messengers and me, the paranoid American. Japan loves helmets, when it outfits delivery men (who drive cars) and security officials. There will be no apparent safety need for your pizza delivery person to wear a helmet while driving a car, but when it comes to cycling to work, few commuters wear them.

I spoke to a dedicated subway commuter recently who said she would never commute by bike because it's too dangerous. I can see where she is coming from, but by the time I get home, I've blown off the stress of the office on my bike and reduced my carbon footprint.

Most importantly, I've soaked in the odd and oftentimes beautiful sights of Tokyo. Seems like a fair trade-off to me.