Anyone who has visited Japan before can attest the country has one of the most efficient transportation networks on the planet. This is especially true in the nation’s capital of Tokyo where you can easily get from point A to point B in a matter of mere minutes. Alas, all of this convenience comes at a cost. You see, this easy to use system of getting around gives rise to what I like to call “hub culture.” Simply put, since it is so easy to get from station to station via train, things that are worth seeing or doing consequently tend to congregate around these important transportation nodes. As a result, the areas between the various stations are often considered to be something akin to a no man’s land though nothing could be further from the truth.
As a purveyor of Japan’s many hidden gems, this is a bit of a tragedy. While first time visitors to the country will undoubtedly be drawn to centrally located attractions like Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing, repeaters would do well to dive into the various diverse layers of the city. Honestly, at least as far as I’m concerned, much of Tokyo’s charm lies in the nooks and crannies that exist in the liminal spaces between the major train stations. For example, not too far from Ueno you’ll find the charming area of Yanaka. This section of Tokyo was one of only a few areas to survive the fire bombings that ravaged the city towards the end of World War II. Hell, even the city’s many residential areas offer a glimpse of a different side of Japan that most visitors miss entirely.
OK, as a visitor from overseas, by now you must be wondering how one goes about exploring the regions between Tokyo’s many train stations. Until recently, the only answer I had for you was to suck it up and hoof it but recently I’ve become a huge fan of Docomo’s bicycle sharing system. While I had seen these bikes when out and about, I hadn’t given them a second thought until a friend recommended that I give them a try. I’ll admit that at first the registration process seemed a bit daunting, however I’ve been nothing short of addicted to peddling my way across Tokyo since figuring it out. In the remainder of this article, I’ll outline how you, the reader, can enjoy the benefits of this handy service.
By the way, for the fellow Americans (and others hailing from countries with car cultures) if you haven’t heard of share cycling before, know that this convenient system is quite popular across Europe. Basically, the long and the short of it is that a business will plant any number of bicycles across the city. By paying a nominal fee, a user can access any of these bikes for a short period of time. Typically, the standard practice is to return the rental bicycle from whence it came but with share cycling you can bring it to any of the related stations throughout the city. This makes the practice far more convenient than conventional systems and especially so when it comes to one-way trips.
Signing Up with Docomo
To begin using Docomo’s fleet of rental bikes, you’re going to need to first make an account with them so head on over to this site. Now, I am not going to lie and say that this platform is easy to navigate but at the very least, they’ve done you the favor of Google Translating the information already. To begin the sign up process, you’re going to want to hit the “Register” button as can be seen in the above screen shot. A few steps thereafter, you’ll be taken to a page where you will need to fill out some personal information. Here, there are two things you will want to be mindful of. The first of these is the section regarding your email. Here, you’re going to want to be absolutely sure that you’ll have on-the-go access to whatever address you enter as the codes for unlocking the bikes will be sent out via email.
In addition to my cautionary note regarding your contact information, one other section that you should pay extra attention to is the one that is innocently labeled “会員プラン/Plan.” Here you’ll need to make the choice between signing up for a “One-Trip Membership” and a “Monthly Membership.” What’s the difference you ask? Well, with the “One-Trip Membership,” you’ll need to pay 150 yen for your first 30 minutes of use with each additional half hour costing you another 100 yen after that. On the other hand, the “One-Trip Membership” costs you 2,000 yen per month up front but eliminates the initial 150 yen charge. While the choice is up to you, I highly suggest that most overseas visitors opt for the “One-Trip Membership” unless you know that you’ll be making heavy use of the bikes.
Now the craftily cost conscious among you may have picked up on this already but by buying yourself a “Monthly Membership,” you essentially unlock the ability to travel across Tokyo entirely for free after the initial investment. The only caveat here is that you must return the bike to any of the affiliated stations within thirty minutes or else the additional 100 yen charge kicks in. Assuming that you can manage this and have an intimate knowledge of how to use Google Maps, this is a great way to save some cash. Baring this devious method though, you’ll need to use Docomo’s service as many as thirteen times to make the “Monthly Membership” worth it.
Reserving a Shared Bicycle
So you’ve completed the registration process and are ready to give this cycle share thing a try. Now what? Well, to make your first reservation, log into your newly created account. After doing so, you’ll be taken to the screen that’s pictured above. Here, you’re going to want to select “Choose from port” and select the ward that you’re in (Minato-ku, Shinagawa-ku, etc.). From here, there will be a place where you can filter things down to the specific area of the ward you’re in. For example, if you’re in Minato-ku, you could select to only show share cycle station in Roppongi.
Note that you can also make a reservation by hitting “Select a bike.” To do so, you’ll need to input the bike’s unique code that can be found on a placard right above the rear wheel. While this might seem like it’s far more convenient than trying to hunt for a hub as per the “Choose from port” method, I’ve actually found it to be incredibly frustrating. For reasons that I cannot comprehend, whenever I’ve tried to make use of this seemingly handy feature, I’ve constantly encountered screens that tell me that someone else has already reserved the bike. Maybe someone is just constantly beating me to the punch but it’s absolutely infuriating. Who knows? Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did though so give it a shot.
Anyway, regardless of which method you use, once you’ve made a reservation, you’ll be shown a screen with a password on it. You can either screen shot this or refer to the automatically generated email that will be waiting in your inbox. Thereafter, you’ll have a grace period of twenty minutes to actually get to the bike. During this time period you won’t be charged anything but if you fail to input the code within twenty minutes, your reservation will be forfeited. Because of this, you’re only going to want to look at bike share stations that you reasonably believe you can make it to within this limited time frame.
Key Points to Remember
OK, let’s finally talk about the bikes themselves. Once you’ve made your reservation and made the trek to wherever it’s parked, you’re going to need to unlock the damn thing. To do so, begin by hitting the “Start” button on the number pad. Next, you’ll want to input the password that appeared after you made your reservation in the previous step. If you closed the browser window, just open up your email. As mentioned above, you should have received an automatically generated message that contains the code. Once you’ve entered the password, the lock on the rear wheel should release and you’ll be free to use the bike but do note that the timer is going to start ticking.
Once finished using the bike, you’re going to need to take it to any of the many spots across Tokyo to return it. Here’s a map of all the locations. Be aware that these are all equipped with a wireless device that communicates with the bicycle. If you see a green light flashing on the rear wheel interface, this means that you’re clear to begin the returning process. All you need to do is manually lock the bike and then hit the “Enter” button. If done correctly, you should get another email from Docomo to confirm that the bike has indeed been remitted. Should you get no such notification, this means that you did something wrong or missed a step and are still being charged.
Note that all of Docomo’s bike are equipped with an electric motor that will assist you when pedaling. This means that even those without the calf muscles of Lance Armstrong can make it up the many hills that comprise Tokyo’s landscape. While many of the bikes vary slightly, in general there will be three power settings ranging from high to low so experiment with what works best for yo. In addition to the motors, all of the bikes are outfitted with a light. Know that if you’re biking around at night, this must be turned on by law so be sure to do so unless you’re set on checking “chat with a Japanese police officer” off of your travel itinerary.
Other Helpful Resources
While I’ve actually linked to all of the following links throughout this article already, I realize that not everyone clicks on every hyperlink. So, in the interest of making things simple and easy, I’ve compiled three useful links that are bound to serve you well while enjoying Docomo’s cycle share service.
- The Login Portal
This link will take you directly to Docomo’s back end where you can log into the system an reserve a bike. I highly recommend bookmarking this for quick and easy access when out and about!
- Bike Share Station Map
Docomo’s platform is notoriously hard to navigate if you don’t know the various areas of Tokyo well. Instead of trying to blindly guess, just refer to this map that’s also embedded above to find the closest spot to you.
- English Walk-through
This site is owned by Docomo and clearly delineates exactly what you need to do to make an account with easy-to-follow English instructions. Refer back to this if you are confused.
Hopefully these will help to alleviate some of the awkward headaches that I first had to endure when trying to figure out how navigate Docomo’s service.
There’s Some Downsides
Tragically, Docomo’s cycle share is not all kittens and rainbows. As I’ve alluded to here and there throughout this piece, the service is not without its frustrations. To begin with, the back end of the platform is comically difficult to use. Not only is the navigation the product of shoddy engineering (case in point, don’t you dare hit the “back” button on your browser), the interface itself is also incredibly challenging to use unless you have an intimate knowledge of Tokyo’s various locales. Rather than trying to figure out this woeful mess, I simply suggest that you locate the nearest port to you via the map that I’ve referenced several times before.
Platform issues aside, I’ve also had some some challenges with available inventory on occasion. Seeing bikes can be dropped off at any bike share hub within the city, they tend to congregate at heavily trafficked areas. As such, many of the quieter regions of Tokyo sometimes end up not having any cycles to rent. What’s more, many people looking to make some side cash with Uber Eats have recently turned to using Docomo’s rental bikes as their go-to set of wheels. This definitely limits the overall inventory and thus makes it difficult to make use of the cycle share service around dinner time.
All in all though, if you can actually manage to overcome the challenges, Docomo’s service is a major boon for both visitors and long term residents. Personally, I’m a huge fan of cycling around Tokyo but I hate having to own a bike as it means figuring out where to park the damn thing. While I am ashamed to say it, I’ve lost countless bikes to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government due to illegal parking. Moving forward, rather than pay to purchase yet another bicycle (that will eventually too be claimed by the bike collector), I’ll just pay the premium for access without the need to worry about parking.
Until next time travelers…