When architecture and travel photographer Ben Richards first relocated to Tokyo, he immediately fell in love with the visual richness of his new home. And choosing to navigate the city by bike has allowed him to discover a different side to Japan that many visitors might easily miss. A ‘slow’ style of riding where every turn offers the unexpected.
When I was living in London my riding style was fixed gear. I rode a Cinelli track bike with the seat high and my shoulders down. For me and my friends, it was all about speed. Getting around quicker than anyone else. But even then it was a way to discover the city. On a bike, you have options to chop and change. To react and respond. And I guess my approach to Tokyo is the same but with a very different attitude to pace.
I’d already been introduced to tokyobike in London. Based on that connection, when I first arrived in Tokyo I met up with some of the team including Ichiro Kanai, the company’s owner. We went for a ride and then a coffee at the brand’s home in Yanaka. They wanted me to experience the city as a local so very kindly offered me a bike to use and my rides have just evolved from there. An ongoing project for both of us.
This is a city full of contradictions and there’s a common misconception that riding in Tokyo is all neon lights and incredibly fast paced. It can be but when you actually live here you soon discover that the neighborhoods are very calm and peaceful. Full of everyday details that when I walk out of my front door never cease to surprise and delight me.
And that’s basically the concept behind the Tokyo Slow rides. All about experiencing a different side of the city that people don’t necessarily see or even know exists. Challenging your perception by taking enough time to observe things at a slower pace. And the bike is the perfect tool to just see what happens. More of a focus on the journey than the destination.
As I shoot a lot of architecture and lifestyle images, I’m always interested in how people interact with the urban environment. I usually pick an anchor point for my rides – an interesting building or an area I want to investigate – but I’ll meander there and back. Following my nose and making turns as the mood takes me.
Coffee stops always feature in these wanderings. The classically traditional not-really-trying-too-hard or the aesthetically contemporary shops that are very considered in their architectural design. But common to both is a meticulous approach to their craft. Maybe a smaller range of drinks on offer compared to European coffee culture but still the same focus on the origin of the beans and the roasting. And very often it’s the space outside that makes your visit so special. Where there’s room to park your bike, order your coffee and watch the world go by.
Whenever I go out it’s with my bike and camera. Never just the one. Whichever is leading, the other will follow. Because on every ride you’ll encounter something new and exciting. The city rewards an open mind with these random happenings.
When I first visited on a two week trip, it was almost a case of sensory overload. Which is why I strive to maintain that same sense of wonder from when I first stepped off the plane. Challenging myself to see everything anew with a fresh pair of eyes.
Tokyo is by nature a very graphic city with the road markings forming patterns and the tops of the cars often displaying letters and numbers. It’s a city of vertically-spaced layers; partly a density thing which in turn forces the architecture to respond. The restrictions inspiring creativity.
But even the everyday aspects of life are surprising and I guess that’s why I fell in love with it all. The subtle differences that make you wonder how many hidden gems there are waiting to be discovered. And my bike rides play into that. Offering me the freedom to slow down and see what’s around the next corner.
Images with kind permission of Ben Richards
A version of this feature was first published by Far Ride magazine