On Running and Cycling in Tokyo; Tokyo on Foot (Or Bike)

Nov 29, 2018


On Running and Cycling in Tokyo

 

I like running. I don’t really LIKE running, but I run five times a week for exercise. In my time of running around the western end of Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Setagaya, Suginami, and Nakano), I’ve learned the streets pretty well, and in the current article, I’d like to talk a bit about moving around Tokyo.

 

On the benefits of learning the streets

On March 11, 2011, there was a massive earthquake that absolutely paralyzed the trains in Tokyo. At the time, I didn’t know the major streets in Tokyo, and as such, I had no idea what to do. As a consequence, I went through a six-hour adventure home by bus, foot, and bicycle that, if I had known the streets, would have taken two or three hours tops. Now, because I know the major streets pretty well, I am confident I could walk home if I needed to from anywhere in Tokyo.

 

On the benefits of running or cycling

Good exercise, ‘nuff said. Also, in the process of navigating Tokyo’s major streets, you will develop a feel for the city you would never get by remaining a train commuter. Also, depending on where you are going, running or biking is actually faster than the train.

 

Major streets

I live in Shimokitazawa, in the western part of Tokyo (Setagaya Ward). Essentially, I run five to six miles at a time, and this has allowed me to grasp an understanding of not only Setagaya, but also of neighboring Shinjuku, Shibuya, Nakano, and Suginami Wards. In this area, there are several major streets, and if you remember these, you should be more or less okay if and when moving on foot or on a bicycle in Tokyo.

Also, I should add this here. Most streets in Japan DO NOT have names, so by “major streets,” I’m limiting my discussion to those streets fortunate enough to actually be named.

 

Kanpachi

Literally “ring eight.” There are a series of “ring roads” in Tokyo, these roads “ringing” around Tokyo. This is the outermost of the eight ring roads.

 

Kannana

 

Photo taken by the author

 

Literally “ring seven” of the ring roads (see the above).

 

From my standpoint in Shimokitazawa, these both run roughly south to north, and the following roads all intersect with these ring roads or run in parallel thereto, running east to west (intersecting) or similarly south to north (parallel). With these points in mind, you can find your bearings quite easily, because you have a rough “grid map” in your mind.

 

Nakano Doori

 

This is a major road that runs in parallel to Kannana, extending from the following Yamate Doori to, as far as I have run it, Waseda Doori, all the way past Nakano.

 

Yamate Doori

 

Photo taken by the author

 

A major thoroughfare, running roughly in parallel with the ring roads (as this is actually the sixth ring road), and as far as I know, this runs from Shinagawa or thereabouts in the south to Itabashi in the north. This also forms the boundary between, from the west to the east, Shibuya and Shinjuku and Nakano and Shinjuku (and probably several other wards).

 

Koshu Kaido

 

Photo taken by the author

 

This road runs perpendicular to the ring roads from west to east and is an extremely long road (a whole article could be written about its history). With this road, we are getting close to the grid map I was talking about

 

Honan Doori

This also runs perpendicular to the ring roads, running from west to east, and is between the aforementioned Koshu Kaido and the following Omei Kaido.

 

Omei Kaido

 

Photo taken by the author

 

Also an extremely long road that runs perpendicular to the ring roads, also running west to east, and also VERY LONG and probably having books written to its history.

 

Waseda Doori

 

Photo taken by the author

 

A long road, also running perpendicular to the ring roads and alows us to grasp a rough grid map.

 

Grid

I translate patents for a living, and for most people, when you throw out words like “perpendicular to,” or “parallel with,” I understand that most people can’t really get a feel for what is intended. Allow me to provide the following graph.

 

_______________________________________Waseda Doori

_______________________________________Omei Kaido

_______________________________________Honan Doori

_____^__________^_________^_______^____Koshu Kaido

Kanpachi    Kannana    Nakano    Yamate

 

So here, we have a rough four-by-four grid, running north to south and east to west. With this grid in mind, even if you get lost, as long as you keep in mind that heading north (or south, or east, or west) for a certain distance (most of these roads are only separated by several kilometers), you will eventually wind up on one of these major roads. Also, these roads ARE LONG. For example, if I wanted to run very far east from Shimokitazawa (toward the imperial palace etc), I would just run east down Koshu Kaido, because I know this road will at least lead me in the general direction I need to go. In the same way, if I were in central Tokyo, and a major earthquake occurred, and I needed to run or cycle home, I would ask someone, “how do I get to Omei Kaido or Koshu Kaido from here”? These are such major roads that anyone will be able to tell you how to get to these roads, and once you are on one of these roads, just go straight in the correct direction.

 

Running and Cycling on the Major Roads

Aside from the practical benefits of learning the streets, I recommend running and or cycling on the major roads for other reasons. To begin with, the minor roads or back streets are literally a maze, especially in the western part of Tokyo where I live, so YOU WILL get lost (more below). Also, some major roads (of the above, especially, Yamate Doori) are designed for runners and cyclists, so you don’t have to worry about some of the problems that come with back streets (once again, more below). The only problem is that some of these major roads run through really crowded areas where you will stand out like a sore thumb if you jog through them (for example, Nakano Doori until it intersects with Omei Kaido, is a perfect street for running, but after Omei Kaido, you will find yourself in the extremely crowded Shoutengais (commercial streets) of Nakano, where running becomes quite difficult).

 

Running and Cycling on the Back Streets

The benefits here are shortcuts and finding many really interesting places. The problem is that running on the back streets, especially in this part of Tokyo is that: these streets are mazes and you will get lost, and the streets have lots of blind spots and are very narrow and are therefore pretty dangerous (i.e. cars come out of nowhere and you run a good chance of getting nailed if you aren’t paying attention).

 

More on danger

 

Photo taken by the author

 

Tokyo is a very safe city, not only in terms of crime but also in terms of traffic safety. Having said that, this is a city of 12 or 13 million people, with millions of bikes, cars, people, buses, and trains etc moving around at the same time, Accidents DO HAPPEN. Every koban (police box) posts the previous day’s traffic statistics (see the above picture). From years of running around Tokyo, this is a very typical daily statistic of the commuter’s butcher bill in Tokyo: every day, roughly one (I’ve never seen more than three) person is killed and 100 are injured in traffic accidents. Keep this in mind. If you run at night, wear clothes that are easy to see, don’t listen to music that is so loud that you cannot hear what is happening around you, and, if you choose to run the back streets, keep your eyes on these corner mirrors, which allow you to see if a car is coming.

Get a basic “geographic grid grasp” of the area and follow some basic safety precautions, and I think you will find that Tokyo is a really fun city to move about on foot (or by bike).

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