photography by Lee Basford
photography by Lee Basford
The beginning of Section Five heads out from Senso-ji along the Sumida River to Hamarikyu Gardens. There are few large trees in this once densely populated area, largely destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and again in the firebombing of 1945. At Azuma bridge there are two routes. If you’re on foot there’s the retro-futuristic water-bus that takes you along the Sumida River, landing within Hamarikyu Gardens. By bike the route continues south along Sumida River, passing through Yokoamicho Park and the memorial for the many thousands that perished here in fires that devastated Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake. A little further on in the sumo district of Ryogoku we walk our bikes through the small but beautiful Kyu-Yasuda Gardens. Landscaped for Zenjiro Yasuda, founder of Yasuda Bank and great-grandfather of Yoko Ono.
Home to numerous coffee roasters, this area supplies beans throughout Japan, including Blue Bottle, Allpress and Iki Espresso an Oceania-style café in the heart of the Kiyosumi Shirakawa, popular with many cyclists for their New Zealand style coffee and great food. At this point you can choose to cycle through Kiyosumi Park or spend more time in the traditional Kiyosumi Gardens watching turtles and fish under the surface of the pond from the isowatari stepping-stone paths.
Working our way through a selection of bridges and backstreets, passing the Matsuo Bashō Memorial Hall and the Chūō-ōhashi Bridge we find ourselves on Tsukuda Island, a place that retains a feeling of an older Japan. Originally settled by an elite group of fishermen from Osaka, brought there by Tokugawa Ieyasu the legendary shogun over 300 years ago. It’s the birthplace of tsukudani, a seafood preserve, often accompanied by rice. We visited the oldest store on the island, Tenyasu to pick up some omiyage.
There’s a selection of small parks before navigating through the backstreets of Tsukiji and on to the remaining few kilometers toward Hamarikyu Gardens which is fairly uneventful, making the experience within this oasis so much more inspiring. The combination of skyscrapers towering behind huge ancient pines is unique. The oldest tree here is a 300-year-old black pine, the largest in Tokyo—planted by the 6th shogun Tokugawa Ieyunobu and cared for over centuries to retain its bonsai like shape.
From here the route leads through Hamamatsu-cho towards Shiba Park and Zojo-ji under the shadow of Tokyo Tower which seems to be constantly in view. Within the expansive park there’s a 200-year-old giant bay tree, a cedar planted by President Grant and a giant 21m tall ginkgo, thought to have been planted in the 1600’s by Tokugawa Iemitsu the 3rd Shogun. The route travels through small backstreets and green areas until we reach the towering steps leading up to Atago Shrine, built in 1603 and at 26m the highest natural terrain in metropolitan Tokyo. Theres a sign informing people that running or training is prohibited, though carrying bikes up the steep flight of 86 stairs is a minor challenge. At the top you’ll find relaxing tree filled gardens full of history, where people would once gather to view Tokyo Bay and as far as the Bōsō Peninsula.
There’s a winding road that we follow down through the Toranamon area, where old Japan meets new in its many contrasts. If you arrive in time there’s Sowa, a small homemade ice cream store that’s been here since the 1950’s, creating some distinctly Japanese flavors. From here through Akasaka towards the largely modernized Hie Shrine you can choose escalators over steps to take you to its top surrounded by tall buildings. Coming out the other side leads through a green path alongside the Swedish Embassy, past Hotel Okura and onto the final climb towards the National Diet Building and Kensei Memorial Park. Bikes need to be pushed through here, but the change of pace and scenery is good if you have time to explore before heading toward the Imperial Palace where the end of the Tokyo Tree Trek at Sakuradamon Gate comes into view. The 5km loop around the Palace has trees from all prefectures of Japan, a very popular training spot for runners and cyclists, but for us it’s a short ride downhill with the Palace moat on our left towards the outer garden or gaien with its beautifully manicured 130-year-old Japanese Black Pine among perfect green lawns. The view here is an embodiment of the contrasts found in Tokyo, where history, nature and the strikingly modern exist in some kind of harmony.
If you feel like ending the ride with a meal under a 400 year old tree, a little down the road is Matsumotoro, one of Japan’s most historic restaurants, located at the center of Hibiya Koen, Japan’s first Western style park, here since 1903 when the park first opened. You can eat the same simple and inexpensive yōshoku that made it famous over 100 years ago.
The ride took place early this spring before the state of emergency was issued in Tokyo. When going out, make sure follow local regulations and guidance for the safety of yourself and others. We ask that all Strava athletes follow our Community Standard.