With its high density and scarcity of space, Tokyo was made for the sharing economy. As such, it’s no surprise that bicycle sharing has taken off—despite being dominated by Docomo with their difficult to use system of sometimes functioning bikes.

What exactly is bicycle sharing?

To encourage people out of their cars and to provide a healthy alternative to jumping in a taxi, various cities around the world provide a pool of bikes for communal use. Typically, there are stations or hubs dotted around the place with multiple bikes in docks. Members use a card or smartphone app to check the bike out. You usually have the option to return the bike to any station on the network or just leave them in a random location for someone else to pick-up.

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How do I use Docomo bike sharing?

Photo by Gregory Lane

Docomo Bicycle Sharing currently operates in 10 wards of Tokyo and in a large number of cities throughout the rest of Japan. All of the bikes are “electric assist” bikes. If you switch it on (as long as it’s not flat), it will make pedalling easier, which helps on Tokyo’s many inclines. While you can use the bikes for as long as you like and go wherever you want, when you are finished using them, you MUST return them to a docking station. If you try to end your ride when you’re not at a docking station, it will refuse to end your ride. This can be a problem as docking stations are sometimes difficult to find.

Easier than it looks to use. Just hit the green button at bottom right.
Easier than it looks to use. Just hit the green button at bottom right. | Photo by Gregory Lane

Unless you are planning on getting a 1-day pass, to check out the bikes, you first need to sign up on their website or install their app for iOS or Android (see the plan options below). Sign-up requires a credit card, so make sure you have that handy. The app might reject Credit Cards from outside Japan.

Reserving a bike

  1. Search for a nearby station using the website or the map (under “借りる”) in the app. Docomo will tell you how many bikes are available at the port/station.
  2. Tap on the bike you want to rent (there will be a list of bike registration numbers)
  3. The bike will now be reserved for 20 minutes.
  4. Go to the port, find your bike, press the “start” key (▶) on the control unit under the seat, and enter your PIN. The bike should unlock. You can also register register an IC card to skip the PIN step for subsequent trips (see below)
  5. Ride your bike with gay abandon (while following basic traffic rules)

Locking a bike and not returning it

If you want to park your bike and not give it up, you can just lock it and leave it anywhere. While the bike is locked and not returned, you’re still paying for it (see fees below).

  1. Look for the orange button on the rear wheel mud guard. Push the button in and slide the lock down to lock the bike. Some of the older bikes have a different mechanism which is further back on the rear wheel.
  2. To unlock the bike, press the start key (▶) on the control panel under the seat and enter your PIN. The bike will unlock itself. Alternatively, you can unlock it using an IC card (see below)
Docomo bike lock
The newer style lock with button. | Photo by Gregory Lane

Returning the bike

Returning the bike just requires one additional step to locking.

  1. Look for the orange button on the rear wheel mud guard. Push the button in and slide the lock down to lock the bike.
  2. Wait for confirmation on the LCD panel that the bike is locked. It will flash “LOCKED” as well as the words for locked in Japanese and Korean.
  3. Press the enter key (↵) and wait for the “RETURN” message to flash. If you don’t see this, then your rental hasn’t ended. You will also receive a confirmation email with the time that the bike was returned. No email = not returned and you’re still paying for it

Using an IC card as a key

Entering the PIN each time can be a real drag—especially as the control units are so wonky with barely functioning buttons. Therefore, it’s much easier to use an IC card (such as a SUICA or Pasmo) to unlock the bike. The first time that you borrow a bike and when entering the PIN, the control unit will give you the option to register your card. You do this by resting the card on the card reader area. This may be a little confusing, since you probably use this card for paying for travel and buying things at the convenience store. However, when you use it as a key, it doesn’t take any money from your card balance. It’s just a unique identifier tied to your account.

Another advantage of using an IC card as a key, is that you can grab a bike anytime without even reserving a bike on the app. If the bike hasn’t already been reserved, you can just tap your card on the control unit and ride off on the bike.

The key pad for unlocking and returning your bike
The key pad for unlocking and returning your bike | Photo by Gregory Lane

Coverage Areas

As mentioned previously, you can pick up and drop off bikes at docking stations in 10 Tokyo wards. These wards are Bunkyo, Chiyoda, Chuo, Koto, Meguro, Minato, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Shinjuku and Ota. Nerima ward also offers Docomo cycle sharing, but it is surrounded by wards that aren’t part of the Docomo system, so you can’t return a cycle from one of the main 10 wards or pick up a cycle in Nerima and drop it off elsewhere.

Some notable exceptions in terms of coverage are a few wards with popular attractions such as Taito (including the neighborhoods of Akihabara (Akihabara Station is actually in Chuo ward though—so covered), Asakusa, Ueno and Yanaka), Sumida (Tokyo Sky Tree, Ryogoku), Setagaya (Shimokitazawa, Futakotamagawa), and Toshima (Ikebukuro, Mejiro). Of course you can still ride the bikes into these wards, but you’ll have to return to one of the 10 wards to drop the bike off. Additionally, the same membership can be used to borrow bikes in Kawasaki, Yokohama, Sendai, Hiroshima, Nara, Nagoya, Onomichi, Osaka, Kobe, Oita, and Okinawa, as well as a few smaller towns and villages. Confusingly, each cycle sharing service has a different name and different website. For example, in Chiyoda ward, it’s called “Chiyokuru”, while in Hiroshima it’s known as “Peace-kuru”. However, once you’re signed up through one service, you can use any of the others.

Take note that only the 10 central wards of Tokyo allow for pick up and drop off in the other coverage areas. If you were planning an epic cross country cycling odyssey from Tokyo to Osaka, you won’t be able to drop off your bike when you get there.

Fees and Packages

Docomo Bike Sharing offers three consumer plans. A pay-as-you-go plan, a monthly plan and a 1 day pass (link in Japanese) allowing unlimited usage. The monthly plan makes sense if you plan to use the bike about 3 times per week. If your usage is below that, then the pay-as-you-go plan with no monthly fees makes much more sense. Even the 1 day pass when compared to the pay-as-you-go plan requires you to use the bike for 6 and a half hours continuously before it provides more value. Of course, if you just want the security of having your own bike for the whole day then the 1-day pass will be worth it. Additionally, the app and the website don’t make it easy to sign up as a tourist, so if you’re just visiting Tokyo, the 1-day pass might be the best option.

All the fees in the table below (unlike the ones provided by Docomo) include consumption tax.

Membership PlansOne Trip MemberMonthly MemberOne Day Pass
(flat fee)
Base fees¥0¥2,200¥1,650*
First 30 minutes¥165¥0¥0
Subsequent 30 min intervals¥110¥110¥0
Payment methodsCredit card, Docomo PayCredit card, Docomo PayCash, SUICA/Pasmo, Credit Card

* If you buy from a manned 1-day pass seller, they will also charge you ¥500 for a card with an IC chip in it (similar to SUICA or Pasmo) to unlock the bike.

Where to buy 1-day passes

While the pay-as-you-go and monthly plans are available through the app, 1 day passes can be purchased in convenience stores, at vending machines next to large ports, and also at manned booths.

You can buy the passes at either Family Mart or 7-Eleven convenience stores. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just asking for a pass. You have to create a ticket order using the Fami-port terminal at Family Mart or 7-ticket function on the Multi-copy machine at 7-Eleven. You will need someone who can read Japanese for this. If the convenience store clerks are feeling kind, they may help you.

Manned vending points and automatic vending machines are much rarer than convenience stores, but if you don’t speak and read Japanese, they will be much easier to deal with. You can find these locations in the app (again in Japanese…*sigh*) but some relatively easy-to-find locations include the Sky Bus Ticket Counter near Tokyo Station, Docomo Shop Marunouchi, Ginza Capital Hotel, Docomo Shop Gran Loop, Docomo Shop Akiba, Hotel Sunroute Shimbashi, Hotel Asia Kaikan Akasaka, Hotel Sunlight Shinjuku, Ochanomizu Inn, Hotel MONday Toyosu, Ota City Tourist Information Center, Ratio&C (Shibuya).

Problems with Docomo Cycle

While Docomo Cycle is a useful service, they get a lot of things wrong. Here are some of the problems.

  • The bikes are in poor repair. ALWAYS check the front and rear tires and the electric assist control unit before you take out a bike. Unfortunately you can’t check the brakes until you’ve unlocked it. It’s not unusual for either the front, rear or both brakes to be non functioning.
  • The system is frequently broken. It is not unusual to find a bunch of bikes—none of which are usable as the check-out unit will flash “Maintenance”
  • It’ll probably cost you more than taking the train
  • You can’t rent multiple cycles from a single account. If you’re a group of 4, you all need to go through the sign up and booking procedure
  • Even using the app with built-in map, it’s difficult to find a cycle port when you actually need one. It’s not really their fault, but they tend to be placed in the most obscure nooks and crannies.
  • The control units (used for unlocking, locking and ending the rental) are slow and difficult to see in bright light. If you follow the usual return procedure too quickly, without following the onscreen confirmation, the “Return” will not be registered, so Docomo will keep charging you until they manually check the bike—so you can potentially rack up huge charges
  • Even though the system is objectively rubbish compared to most similar systems around the world, in most areas where they operate, Docomo has a near monopoly, so the bikes are popular and often not available as they are in use
  • The apps, despite being very simple, are still only available in Japanese

Important things to note

Although the bikes have electric assist, they are big and bulky. The rules for use state that the rider needs to be at least 140 cm tall. I’d suggest a child of around that height still might struggle with the bike when they come to a stop so if you’re considering renting a bike with the family, you’ll be out of luck if the smallest member is under 140cm.

Availability can be patchy | Photo by Gregory Lane

Also, you should never make important time bound plans that rely on Docomo share cycles. The availablity and unreliability of the bikes means that you quite often can’t get a bike when you need one.

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