Cycling to Todai

May 22, 2007

The woman in the next door to me at the dorm in Odaiba is called Waki san. (Waki is pronounced like the ‘Marky’ in ‘Marky Mark’.)  She is a Masters Chemistry student at Tokyo University (called ‘Todai’ – short for ‘Tokyo Daigaku’ – by the Japanese), and each weekday she cycles the distance to and from university.

Having done the same sort of thing in Canberra for many years, I asked Waki one day if she would mind my tagging along behind her – for the experience of cycling in
Tokyo, but also because I wanted to see Todai. She agreed, and so the next morning I prepared for the journey.

Waki had bought her bike – a quite attractive black mountain-type bike – from a Japanese chain store called Muji, which seems to be a sort of Ikea for all things except furniture – clothes, small household items, and also bikes. I didn’t have a bike, so I had to borrow one from Emiko, another Japanese woman on my floor.

Emiko and Waki

Emiko bought her bike second hand from another student for about $50. It is what the Japanese call a ‘Mamacharo’, which translates roughly into something like ‘Mum’s shopping bike’. It has a wire basket on the front, three gears, a bell and girly handlebars.

Luckily, these things are everywhere in Japan. Men, women and children ride them everywhere – to school, to work, out shopping, or to nightclubs and restaurants. Just yesterday, in
Ginza, a forty-something ‘sarariman’ unlocked his mamacharo and cycled down the footpath of the main shopping drag. It’s not unusual to see mothers cycling around with toddlers strapped into chairs placed over the back wheel. Or to see young women cycling them down streets, on the wrong side of the road and directly into the flow of traffic, without a care in the world.

Most Japanese don’t wear any protective gear. Only westerners wearing professional gear and cycling to and from work on the road system, and bicycle couriers, wear helmets and gloves. This may be because most Japanese ride on the footpaths, dodging and weaving between pedestrians.

And that’s pretty much what I did. First, Waki and I went northeast through Odaiba, heading for the bridges that would take us over the wide canals and into Tokyo proper. The area around where we live is quite deserted, so we were able to make good time.

After about 15 minutes we had crossed the bridges and were passing through places like Tsukishima, Tsukiji-shijo and Kachidoki on our way north. Here, things became much more crowded. It was about 10am, many people were out shopping or going to work. Our progress slowed down a bit – but not by much, because Waki is used to this sort of riding and was able to weave her 10-speed mountain bike through the crowds like a pro. I was a bit slower on the 3-speed mamacharo. People were always appearing – out of doorways, subway exits, cross streets, etc.

Thankfully, one thing the mamacharo has in spades is stability. You can ride this thing at less than walking speed, and – unless the ‘operator’ is a moron – it will stay upright. This feature came in v. handy.

When the crowds became too much, or sometimes just randomly, Waki would swing right into the left lane of the road, which took me some way out of my comfort zone. After continuing on for a while, she’d then switch back to the footpath. It made the journey quite interesting!

Before long, we came to a large crossing. Dance music was blaring from a large video screen on one of the buildings, there were plenty of people. ‘Hang on’, I thought, ‘I know this place.’ I had reached
Ginza, and was waiting to cross Chuo Dori – one of the most exclusive shopping districts in the world – sitting on a rusty mamacharo.

We cycled for another half hour, heading first along main roads – around the Imperial Palace and the ultra exclusive businesses and government departments stationed in Kasumigaseki, up to Ueno, through Ochanomizu (literally ‘tea water’) – and then along a number of backstreets, so that I quickly lost my way and had to shuffle to keep up with Waki, whom I may have delayed with my amateur Tokyoite-dodging.

After an hour, we reached Todai’s ‘Red Gate’ (‘Aka Mon’, I think), which is apparently the famous entrance to the famous university.

Aka Mon

Inside, the buildings were a mix of the classical style and the truly appalling 1960s architecture that seems to plague all the sandstone universities in
Australia. I must admit, it was nowhere near as attractive a place as the more pleasant parts of Sydney or Universities (I’ve heard that UWA and
Queensland are pleasant too, but I can’t comment because I just haven’t visited them).

I wandered around for the better part of an hour – most of the time quite lost – before deciding to head back. I passed through the ‘Red Gate’ and down the first two back streets that I could remember, then found my way back to Ochanomizu, but after that I was completely lost.

And I’d left my map in my room back in Odaiba.

All that I had to go on was my sense of ‘general direction’ and my limited Japanese, which allowed me to ask the nearest Japanese waiting for the lights to change at the lights: ‘Sumimasen,
Ginza wa, doko ni arimasu ka?’ (I could find my way home from
Ginza – I just didn’t know how to get there).

Luckily I found a main road, pointed the mamacharo in the right direction, and cycled off, taking occasional soundings from the very helpful Tokyoites who had the misfortune to meet me. After about half an hour, I arrived at Chuo-dori,
Ginza, once again. Just in time to see the politics bloke from Seven News doing a live to camera about the PM’s visit to
Tokyo. When they were finished, I asked the cameraman if Johnny was actually there in
Ginza – unfortunately, no.

The rest of the journey was uneventful – just a pleasant ride along pleasant roads, glad that I was back cycling again.

Here are some photos of the more pleasant parts of Todai:

Todai 1

Todai 2

Todai 3

Todai 4

Todai 5

Todai 6

Todai 7

Todai 8

Todai 9

Todai 10

 

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