Close your eyes and throw a stick in pretty much any Tokyo neighbourhood, and there’s a good chance that you’ll hit someone riding a bicycle. With roughly 72 million bikes on the streets of Japan, they’re an essential part of daily life for many, especially in urban areas where space for motor vehicle parking is both limited and expensive.

Last weekend, though, we stumbled upon a fleet of sparkling new bicycles that couldn’t be more different to the typical mamachari shopping bikes that everyone from junior high schoolers to worryingly wobbly grandmothers pedal around town. Sleek, compact, and with”Suicle” stamped on their crossbars, these lime-green lightweights are available for anyone with a prepaid IC bus or rail card and a half-decent sense of balance to rent.

Eager to know if the ride, and the process of renting and returning, was as smooth as a nearby sign purported it to be, we took a couple of the mini bikes out for a spin.

Built by Japanese electronics giant Panasonic and being rolled out in a handful of commuter towns in Tokyo to allow easy access to stations and the local area, the Suicycle scheme has only just begun, and is still relatively unknown even amongst locals.

The Suicle station (or “port”, as their makers prefer them to be known) we found was located near Higashi Koganei Station on the JR Chuo Line, which runs from Tokyo Station in the east through vibrant Shinjuku and all the way out to the mountains and forests of West Tokyo. Situated directly beneath the line in a gap between two of the giant concrete pillars keeping it aloft, the bicycle parking area is yet another example of Japanese town planners’ recent desire to make use of valuable space that might otherwise sit vacant.

Inside this fenced-off, sheltered spot stood row upon row of shiny new compact bikes destined never to have an owner of their very own. Instead, they are designed to be picked up, dropped off, and shared by hundreds if not thousands of people during their lifetimes. Stamped with the name “Suicle” (a combination of the onomatopoeic word ‘suisui’, meaning to move smoothly and quickly, and ‘cycle’), the bikes are accessible 24 hours a day and the process of picking up and dropping off is fully automated.

Entering through a narrow, pedestrians-only pathway, we found the pay station, a machine roughly the size of a typical vending machine but with a large LCD touch panel in its centre.


It’s here that commuters and sightseers alike scan the same Pasmo or Suica prepaid IC cards that they use for public transport to rent or return a bike, choosing whether to take one out for an hour at a time (starting at 100 yen/US$1), for the whole day as a “visitor” to the area (500 yen/$5), or to pay for a full month of hop on, hop off use (2,500 yen/$25).

Renters are required to provide ID and register a form of electronic payment on their first use, but it’s simply a case of filling out a simple form in order to receive a unique ID number that will be tethered to the card you’ll use for future payments. After that, you’re free to select a bike and, having scanned your card one last time to pass through the automated security barrier, you’re away.


With a comfortable synthetic leather saddle, durable, puncture-resistant tyres, a sturdy wire-frame basket (not to worry — in Japan, even the cool kids have baskets on their bikes!), bell, front-wheel lock for when you’re leaving the bike somewhere other than a Suicycle station, and three twist-grip gears to make use of (sorry, speed freaks, but these bikes are intended for crowded city areas rather than the velodrome, after all), these are genuinely sharp sets of wheels.


▼ The currently selected gear is displayed in a small window on the handlebars


▼ Panasonic’s logo is proudly displayed on the crossbar


Having spent years back in my native UK riding mountain bikes with thick, chunky tyres, I was expecting – particularly since I’m no shortie at 6’2″ – the compact Suicle to be awkward and bumpy, but after a quick seat adjustment I found it to be a pleasantly smooth ride. As we cycled, deciding to keep following the train tracks towards Kichijoji, which is famous for its array of cafes, restaurants and independently run stores, people commented on how kawaii (cute) our bikes were, with some double-taking at the duo riding matching lime-green bikes. Clearly word of Suicle has yet to get out.

It was when we reached our destination, however, that we realised that despite the millions of bikes and people’s reliance on them, life is far from easy for cyclists in Tokyo.

For a city that is home to so many bicycles, finding a place to leave your bike in Tokyo can be an absolute nightmare. Arriving on a Sunday afternoon in popular Kichijoji, we came across a line of bored-looking people standing with their bikes waiting for spaces to open up in a bicycle parking area. Continuing down the road, we spotted another bike park, but it too was already full. Our stomachs grumbling as delicious aromas wafted out of nearby restaurants, we were eager to dismount and get a menu in our hands but instead spent almost half an hour looking for a spot to park up. In the blink of an eye, our little green bikes – the very things that had made us feel like proud kids on Christmas morning just a few minutes earlier –  were now the very things stopping us from having fun.

Abandoning our initial idea of eating at a local restaurant, we decided to pick up a few snacks and head over to nearby Inokashira Park, but before we’d even begun to think about where we’d stow our bikes once we got there, we realised we’d have to put them somewhere while running into a store to buy the things for our little picnic. With patrols carting illegally parked bicycles off and slapping their owner with a fine for good measure, leaving your bike tethered to some railings even for five minutes can be a risky business in Tokyo, and with bicycle parking areas costing anything up to 500 yen (US$5) a pop, one starts to wonder whether it would have been easier just to hop on the train to begin with. Admittedly, Suicle bikes are intended mainly for those who travel predominantly between their home and local train station, but with only three dedicated Suicle ports having been set up so far, renters, particularly “visitors” paying for a full day’s use, are limited to where they can go without forking out extra cash and fighting for parking spaces.

Cycling in Tokyo, too, is far from the suisui experience one might expect it to be given the number of cyclists. Bike lanes are startlingly few and far between, and so those on bikes have to choose whether to share dangerously narrow roads with cars, buses and trucks or – as so many do, despite it technically being against the law – riding on the sidewalks, which means travelling at a snail’s pace as well as irritating pedestrians who have to step out of your way as you pass, and resulting in thousands of accidents each year.

It’s still early days, though, and with a little expansion and some additional publicity, Suicle could one day be as integral a part of Tokyoites’ daily commute as the trains they ride, and maybe even rival London’s Boris Bikes or New York City’s recent Citi Bikes schemes. The hassle-free pick-up, drop-off system works brilliantly well, the rates are competitive even at this stage, and it’s incredibly refreshing to be able to hop on a bike that you know is both being maintained properly and something that you can wave goodbye to the moment it has served its purpose.

Now, about those bike lanes…

All photos: RocketNews24
Suicycle homepage (Japanese)

Dropping off your Suicle. Just hold your card in front of the reader

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▼ Check the amount you owe, and hit the “pay” button

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▼ The entry/exit lanes function only when a single bike/rider are present at any one time


▼ The sleek Suicles themselves