By Akemi Miura
First off, my aplogies if you clicked on this article thinking Japan has started a new dating trend using rental bikes. This is far from the case (unfortunately). Instead, Date Bike (pronounced Dah-tei) is named after the Date Clan which ruled the Sendai area for over a dozen generations. Modern Sendai is full of nature, a deep history, and a rich culture. This compact city is built for walking, but nothing beats a leisurely journey of exploration around its streets, parks, and rivers. You'll definitely see more and feel less tired after a half or full day of travel with this unique rental bike service.
Date Bike is part of Docomo-Cycle, a project run by the well-known phone company, to place community bicycles around cities across Japan. The service came about several years ago in Sendai, and continues to have mixed results due its convenience for locals and headaches for tourists. Perhaps its mediocre success is due to few people trying the service. To be fair, it is an awesome idea and implemented well, but you won't get the most out of it until you know the ins-and-outs of how to use the bikes and a few secrets not even advertised on the official website.
Scattered throughout the city center are 38 docking stations with red bicycles. The concept is you can pick up these bikes then drop them off at another place. Several tourist locations, such as in front of Sendai City Museum across from the international center, and business areas have docking stations. Some locals use these bikes for commuting or even when running late for a meeting across town instead of waiting for a bus or subway train. Looking at the website and confirming with my own experience through store staff members, it is clear you need a credit card to enjoy the most Date Bike has to offer. Then you need to register that card online, which is another issue as Wi-Fi and computer use at hotels is not yet common place in most of Japan yet. Plus, some people are just not comfortable using their cards overseas or a public hotel computer to register their private information. To complete the process, view the full directions and information in English and Japanese can be found on the website. But thankfully the story does not end there.
Across from the West side of JR Sendai Station on the first floor of a corner building (pinned on the map) is the Date Bike Service Center. Here is where tourists are going to experience great hospitality. Staff are super friendly, you are shown in person how to use the bicycles and their passcode system, and you are given maps of the area, including docking station information. Families or groups will appreciate there are double bikes for an adult and child, and lockers and helmets onsite. Best of all is you can rent bicycles here in cash!! This is not advertised at all on the website, which is a real missed opportunity for tourists. I was told this is because few staff speak English. If for example, there is a bike accident or problem to be fixed the staff may not be able to communicate during a phone call. There is Sendai City interpreter hotline, so this is not really justified. I am sure it must be some liability issues. In any case, it seems you need a Japanese language speaker to help set up the process in person. When renting bicycles in cash, you can still return the bicycle to any docking port across the city when finished.
The bikes parked here may look a little small at first, but are actually very easy to ride because they are well maintained, have comfy seats, and are equipped with an electric pedal-assist motor. This last point is most certainly the best part of the ride as one charged up bike can last all day, allowing you to scale slopes and accelerate with ease. Bicycles can be used daily from 7:00-22:00 and cost about 1000 yen per day, with discounts for students or limited use in the later part of the day. Date Bike is basically the only rental bike service in the city. Follow these tips to enjoy a fun ride.
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Justin Velgus (ジャスティン ベルガス) is a long-term resident and promoter in the Tohoku region. He has been a content producer for JapanTravel.com since 2012 and was the Miyagi Prefecture Regional Partner 2013-2015. Justin’s over 300 published travel and culture articles come from a background of studying in Akita, teaching English in Miyagi through the JET Program, and working for the government in Fukushima. He lives in the gyutan capital of the world, Sendai. Justin is an expert in local culture and history. He was the first foreign volunteer at Sendai City Museum and regularly advises the local volunteer guide group GOZAIN , which he is a veteran member, on guiding techniques and hidden locations in the city even locals don't know about. In his free time he enjoys delivering original walking tours, such as his Dark Sendai Tour (ghost tour) or Kokubuncho Mystery Tour (redlight district tour). Justin is also a Certified Sake Professional.