Cycle of life

NATASHA HOLLAND
Last updated 07:28 24/10/2013

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Tokyo - hot, heaving - and suddenly I'm nervous.

I buckle my helmet and stare down at the cause of my panic.

It's just a bike, I tell myself, nothing I haven't seen before - and it's a cute buttercup yellow.

I'm with a group of 15 people, mainly Americans, Scots and English, and a Polish man who works for Nike.

Crazy to be so nervous but I can't help it. I have visions of crashing or falling off.

In a back alleyway of the business district of Tokyo, I swing a leg over and make the wobbliest start probably known to mankind.

Classy it is not, but at least I'm away and pedalling with the Tokyo Great Cycling Tour.

Within five minutes we've biked down an alley and onto roads, crossed major intersections, pedalled over a couple of bridges and ridden in and around pedestrians on footpaths.

The first 15 minutes flash by so quickly that I don't take anything in. I'm worried about falling behind the group and so busy concentrating that I forget to look up.

It's a piping hot day and my sunglasses are starting to slide as sweat and sunscreen begin to mix.

Dare I risk taking a hand off my handlebar to fix them?

Taking a deep breath I do just that and suddenly the nerves are gone.

It feels surreal to be actively biking around Tokyo. I don't feel like an average tourist just sightseeing. I quickly feel part of the fabric and ebb and flow of life on the streets.

Bikes have been used for a long time in Japan to get around, so motorists and other pedestrians watch out for our group. But I soon learn that as a cyclist, you must give way to pedestrians.

We cycle past the Sumida River and to our first stop, Tsukuda- Jima, the old fishermen's island. We gather about our tour guide, who hands out what tastes like salted whitebait to munch on, as we are given a quick history lesson on Japan.

This sets the scene for the day - biking, stopping, listening and learning.

One of the highlights is cycling to Odaiba, a man-made island at Tokyo Bay, where we laze about in the shade of a tree and eat our lunch.

A man on the tiny beach catches my eye.

He's on a blue deck chair with a matching chillybin beside him.

Working on his golden tan, he would belong on any beach in New Zealand or Australia.

He stands out because his picture-perfect tanning pose is at odds with the backdrop of bridges and skyscrapers.

Resting up, I have to ask my biking companions if they, too, are seeing fish jump out of the water.

In a city of more than 9 million people, the beach is clean and free of rubbish, and the water appears to be in a healthy state given fish are so easy to spot.

After lunch, we put our bikes on a boat and catch a lift across the water to Hinode pier.

Our guide provides homemade ginger beer for the crossing, and it's perfect timing three hours into the ride to sit back and let Tokyo glide by for a bit.

At each stop, our tour guide uses a notepad to explain the history and stories of importance to Japan. Instead of viewing attractions from afar, we become part of them.

Up till now, getting about has been relatively easy.

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The day's toughest challenge has the nicest tradition behind it.

Hopping off our bikes, we stare up 86 giant steps leading to the Atago Shrine in Minato.

An American in our group takes a look at the steep steps and then he's away, jogging up them effortlessly.

The original task set down by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, in January 1634, was for challenger Magaki Heikuro to climb the steps on horseback to collect part of a flowering tree.

Today, the Japanese still use the steps when starting something new - perhaps a promotion or to ease the path of change. They, too, take on the challenge set down by the ruler hundreds of years ago, minus the horse.

Whatever your pace, fast or slow, there are handrails to hold on to. Use them.

In 1633, shogun Iemitsu stopped travel abroad and in 1639, almost completely isolated Japan by reducing outside contact.

While this is certainly not the case today - you can find Western food, bakeries and pizzerias in Tokyo as well as global chains like Starbucks and KFC - the legacy of purposeful isolation is that local cultures and traditions remain rich and strong in the country.

They are truly part of everyday life for the Japanese.

We see it at the shrines and temples as people pray. It's in the way people move about in an orderly fashion - there's no barging or pushing as people get on and off public transport.

It's shown in how people are greeted and thanked with respect.

Nothing in the day feels as though it is "on show" for tourists.

We cycle into glimpses of everyday life in different parts of Tokyo, from people in a back alley stepping into taxis, to the woman who, oblivious to the sweaty cyclists standing near a shrine, climbed past us up the small steps to pray.

Six hours of biking flashes by so fast. It is sensory overload. You are literally following your guide from stop to stop and have no clue as to where you are in the overall scheme of Tokyo.

Our route was graded as "easy" but you do need a bit of steam to get over some of the bridges. This was probably the only time that I got truly left behind. I got stuck in the wrong gear, which made it really hard to keep up.

Perhaps because you are using your own energy to get around Tokyo, instead of passively sitting in a tour bus, there is a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

As with the best experiences in life, if you are open to it, sometimes a life lesson sneaks in, too.

What did Tokyo teach me that day?

To look up, not down - and that you've got to keep pedalling to move forward in life.

FACT FILE: TOKYO BY BIKE

  • One of four packages offered by Tokyo Great Cycling Tour, the Tokyo Bay Ride runs every Saturday and Tuesday from 9am till 3pm.
  • It costs 10,000 yen (NZD$124) and includes a bike, lunch and guide.
  • The route is described as "easy" but reasonable fitness is required.
  • Bookings essential - tokyocycling.jp

WHAT TO EXPECT

  • An offer of extra padding for your bike seat. Take it. A brief history lesson at each stop.
  • Free time to explore at each stop.
  • Water is provided and topped up as needed.
  • A tour leader and a tour back-up person ride with each group, so you don't have to panic about getting left behind or lost.
  • You will bike on roads, in traffic and among pedestrians, so you need to be confident in riding a bike.
  • The pace of the day is quite fast, so reasonable fitness is needed.
  • Lunch is provided as part of the tour.
  • Tour guides speak excellent English.

WHAT TO TAKE

  • Sunscreen.
  • Wear a watch or take your phone so you know when to meet up with the group after free time.
  • Some basic Japanese phrases such as arigato (thank you).
  • Showing respect and good manners goes a long way in Japan.

* Natasha Holland travelled to Tokyo courtesy of Air New Zealand

- Fairfax Media

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