Pick out Japanese snacks for your ride at Yanaka Ginza, the old Tokyo shopping street dripping with shitamachi charm. Or stop at Eikyudo in Kuramae for sweet treats such as chestnut yokan (jelly) or moreish soft-butter madeleines. Exquisitely seared yakitori is served at Yanaka’s Terusumi, and the unique aroma at Genraku Sohonten is pork shoyu soup, slow-cooked with care for three days. Elsewhere, Sugita in Kuramae was perfecting crispy tonkatsu, fried in pristine copper pans, long before the dish went global.
Mr & Mrs Smith x Tokyobike
Discover Tokyo's Ueno
For a more enriching ride, do your two-wheeled wandering through the old shitamachi neighbourhoods around Ueno. Asakusa’s ancient temples, torii gates and huge red-paper lanterns; fragments of old Tokyo at Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi; and Kuramae, where skilled artisans craft high-quality wares for a hip new clientele, are all satisfying antidotes to the specious consumerism of Ginza and Shibuya. This area’s historic parks, peaceful riversides and fine eateries are just rewards for the curious cyclist.
Stop for tea but stay all day at Hagiso, a cute townhouse that bills itself as Tokyo’s smallest cultural institution, offering an eclectic programme of gigs and exhibitions. Next door to Kuramae shrine is Sol’s coffee, where twice-roasted beans make for velvet-soft lattes. Yanaka’s relaxed atmosphere is no better felt than at C’est Qui?, a local winebar with a real sense of community (leave your bike on the street before entering the bar’s typically Tokyo-esque passageway).
Monozukuri is the very Japanese philosophy of craftsmanship dedicated to continuous improvement. You’ll recognise it at many of Kuramae’s artisanal independent stores. Swing by Classico for simple casual wear with a focus on folk art, Ren for unisex bags fashioned from the finest pigskin, and Kakimori for bespoke, made-to-order notebooks. You’ll also find inner calm in the mere presence of SyuRo’s hammered, polished and treated metal objects (we didn’t realise it was possible to fall for a rounded copper tin). In nearby Bakuro-cho, Starnet discourages excess in any form, evidenced by its soul-nourishing art, glassware, clothes and organic edibles. Well worth a visit.
Arrive early to avoid the crowds at the Sensoji temple in atmospheric Asakusa. This elaborate complex of shrines and pagodas is reached via the red Kaminari-mon, or Thunder Gate, and the busy shopping street of Nakamise-dori. Keep your eyes peeled for traditional geisha known in these parts to totter on their gota, carrying groceries. In April, Yanaka cemetery is one of the prime locations for sakura matsuri, the cherry blossom festival that marks the end of Japan’s harsh winter. Nearby, pretty Shinobazu pond in Ueno park was an inspiration for literary heavyweights such as Yasunari Kawabata and Mori Ogai.
How do the Japanese see themselves in the eyes of the world? Gain insight at the National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) on the eastern edge of Ueno park. The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and Ueno Zoo are also nearby. A full day of cycling, even at a leisurely pace, is enough excuse for a soak at Misuji Bathhouse, whose antique kawara roof and ponds full of colourful carp will transport you back to Japan’s Showa period. Across the River Sumida in Ryogoku is the spiritual home of sumo, the Kokugikan arena: watching these giants grapple live is like strangely captivating theatre, and an experience worthy of any bucket list.
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