[Note: this is from a few weeks ago--I wrote it on the train while I was traveling back from Southern Chiba, and have just now decided to file it. It's a cross-post from my bicycling blog that frankly gets a lot more attention these days]
Yesterday, I had a great day riding through the city. I had just finished Kurt Vonnegut, Jr's Cat's Cradle, and I decided to look for anything else I hadn't read in one of the few used bookstores that sell titles in English, the Blue Parrot, located across town in Takadanobaba.
I did a sort of rambling trial on my way home from the Earth Day ride a month ago. This time, I used my experience from that trip, as well as advice from a guidebook, to partially plan a more defined route. It worked quite well.
Though Tokyo, like every developed city in the world, is ruled by the automobile, there are many areas, hidden from the 6 lane thoroughfares cars mostly use, that are more pleasant for the bicycle or pedestrian. A good example is on either side of the Toden Arakawa light rail line--the only of its kind in Tokyo. The Arakawa line cuts across the northern part of Tokyo, and roads run on either side much of the way. These roads, because they force a car to cross the line's tracks if it wants to take a right or left turn, are left mainly to human-powered travelers, with the occasional local traffic. Best of all, the Arakawa trains are remarkably slow and stop frequently, so it is possible for a bike to keep up with it and benefit from the railroad crossings, which stop cross traffic and effectively give the bike rider a green light. I raced the train, and though I lost a number of times, I was always able to catch up at the next station, and finally ended up winning. A bitter victory, as the intersections were no longer mine to blow through... For nearly 15 minutes, though, every intersection was mine.
Though my area has succumbed a bit to the temptations of sprawl, many of the areas the Arakawa line travels through--Kita, Toshima, and Itabashi wards, are still blessed with tiny, winding streets that both conceal the secret magic of Tokyo and provide refuge for those on foot or two (or three) wheels. Though these alleys will slow down the more athletic biker, I usually make about 20 km/h, and I much prefer them to the seconds-from-tragedy feel of the major throughways. I still hit the big roads, of course, when I feel like covering some distance ;).
I remember, in particular, one of these "alleys" opening upon a triangular shaped park somewhere just north of my destination. The park forked the road, and to my left was a man pulling a loaded cart the size of a truck bed behind him as he walked, and to my right, commuters, dressed in suits and dresses, were headed home on their charinkos. In the park itself, mothers were gabbing and the whole area was full with the laughter of children. Honestly, it wasn't the most beautiful area--undeniably city, concrete and a playground covered in fine gravel, with little that could be said to be green or flowery--but the air of relaxed interaction struck me. "This is what they mean by community," I thought, moved, as I rode past.
The first time I discovered these old alleyways was, of course, on my first trip here. I've explained, in another blog's entry, some of the peculiarities of the alleyways of Kita ward, where I stayed for a month. Part of my trip took me through this neighborhood, to meet up with a walking path along the Otonashigawa, a miserable stream. The stream is miserable because it is always a trickle, surrounded by a huge fortress of concrete that is meant, I suppose, to protect the surrounding residences from its capricious flow. But if you can manage to ignore the sad canal, the tree-spanned walkway that lines it is restful and pleasant, and there are numerous parks to stop off in for a moment, including a maple tree park, cherry tree park, and a park with several waterfalls.
The trip down to Takadanobaba from Otonashigawa wasn't particularly inspiring．I was very happy, once there, to find two Kurt Vonnegut books. It was a good find in a small English used book market.
On the way back I took some recommendations from a Japanese biking guidebook I use quite often. Though I have the series of books to thank for some great rides, this was a loser. It focussed on ugly, dangerous streets that could quite easily have been replaced by smaller, more esthetically pleasing roads. The emphasis, I suppose, was on speed, but I don't think choking on scooter fumes while waiting for that 10th light you've shared with it is worth the higher heart rate. But I saw them through most of the way until they recommended a four-lane parallel to a more enjoyable one lane. I chided the authors, then took my one lane back to the Arakawa rail line, which I took home.
Yesterday was a whim, but today I finally took a trip I've been toying with for some time. Although I really like Tokyo, I've been wanting both to get on some less-used highways out in the country to get some speed going, and to see the ocean. I can't say today's trip really satisfied either of these hopes completely, but it was still worth it.
I've been primarily riding straight from my house to someplace and back, only rarely using the train. But to get into "the country" from Tokyo, you have to really travel, and the best way is by train. So I set out from Nishi Arai at ten this morning for a three hour trip deep into the southern part of Chiba, Southern Boso. Chiba is opposite Tokyo across the Tokyo Bay, but although it is fairly close to the city, many areas are difficult to get to because of mountains, and parts of Chiba are quite rural.
I got off in Tateyama, an ugly city with narrow streets packed with cars and lined with strip malls. I was able to get some speed up, but the early part of the trip was marred by sprawl and cars. Nothing I haven't experienced before, but it was something I was hoping to get away from.
The trip got worse, however, once I reached the ocean on the other side of the peninsula. Chikura, the name of the region, has very little to recommend it, unless you like headwinds, viewing the ocean in tiny glimpses between shanties, or fishing boats. I don't like any of those things. I cursed the guidebook writers again.
However, the last 25 kilometers were much more pleasant. From Shirahama on, there are actual beaches, a tailwind, and wide views of the ocean. There are even short paths specially designated for bicycles that cut through tall grasses lining the beach. It was far more in line with what I had hoped to see, and I was happy to have done it. I probably won't come back any time soon, though.