Trams Through the Blossoms: Discovering Tokyo on the Arakawa Line
(First of Two Parts)
Read Part 2 at this link.
At its peak, Tokyo had an extensive public tram network which covered 213 kilometers of routes and a private tram operation (Tokyu Tamagawa Line) with 18.4 kilometers (km) of routes. Only a fraction — 12.2 km of the public network and a 5 km vestige of the private tram operation — remain in operation today.
Despite their short length, these two tram lines are heavily used and a good way to reach a number of interesting sites in Tokyo, some well known, others in the “hidden gems” category. For young children, just riding the trams can be an adventure.
This two-part report explores the sights and activities available along the two remaining tram lines, beginning with the Arakawa Line.
Along the Arakawa Line
The longer line is the municipal Arakawa Line that I use frequently. It is a pasting together of parts of two separate municipal tram lines that were not strangled by traffic with the coming of mass motorization in the 1960s.
They were preserved because much of their routes were on a dedicated right of way closed to automobiles. As such, the terminal points of the Arakawa Line are neither particularly notable nor are they transfer points to other lines. The eastern terminus at Minowabashi is the entrance to a decaying shopping street. The western terminus at Waseda is in the middle of a busy street where the dedicated right of way ended.
This means that unless you live near the tram line itself, you need to take another line to a point where you can conveniently transfer to the tram (Machiya, Oji, Otsuka). Once you’re on it, though, you can ride in either direction to one of the many points of interest along the line. For this, the ¥400 JPY all-day pass (described below) is both convenient and a bargain.
Tracks Lined by Roses
Recently the Arakawa Line has been nicknamed the “Sakura Tram” by its operators, although it is probably better known for the thriving roses that line the tracks at two locations rather than for cherry blossoms.
Roses were planted along the right of way by a civic group with the cooperation and encouragement of the municipal government at two locations. One starts at the intersect point with the JR rail line at Otsuka to the west, extending as far as the Mukohara stop. The other begins at the Sakae stop (near the Oji, where it intersects with the JR Keihin Tohoku line) and runs east as far as Kumano Jinja Mae.
Arakawa Shako Mae
Midway in the eastern rose planting stretch is the storage yard for the trams currently in use and a small display of tram memorabilia. It includes two trams from the heyday of the metropolitan system.
This display is popular with small children and groups of senior citizens. When I visited in early June, one such group was taking commemorative photographs with one of the trams as a backstop.
Although it is the rose plantings that make the Arakawa Line a seasonal attraction, there is one very well known and popular o-hanami (cherry blossom viewing) site along the tracks: Asuka Yamakoen (Asukayama Park).
Such is the fame of this park that live broadcasts from it are a standard feature of the cherry blossom viewing season in Tokyo. When I visited the park in May, staff from several television outlets and their equipment trucks were in the park.
Arakawa Line trams pass along the north and west sides of the park, providing regular opportunities for tram buffs to take photos with cherry blossoms in the background.
The Asukayama Park also boosts its own transport system, what may be the world’s shortest — and slowest — monorail. However, it saves people the hill climb from the Oji stations (JR line and Tokyo Metro) to the park itself.
The park’s play area for children includes a very popular castle with slides and a decommissioned steam engine. In addition, the park has three museums: the Kita City (Ward) Asukayama Museum, the Paper Museum, and the Shibusawa Memorial Museum. The last of these is dedicated to Eiichi Shibusawa, the Meiji era entrepreneur whose likeness will replace that of Yukichi Fukuzawa on the soon-to-be-issued new ￥10,000 JPY notes.
A short ride from Asukayama Park to the west is the Koshin Zuka stop at the north end of the Jizo Dori shopping street. The street is often styled the Harajuku for Grannies (Fashion Street for Grannies) because of the many shops selling apparel popular with older women including red knickers that are associated with good health and longevity.
Always busy, the shopping street and the trams that bring visitors become very crowded on the 4th, 14th, and 24th of each month, when the regular shops are augmented by street stalls selling used clothing, bric-a-brac, condiments, and traditional and modern street food.
Aside from the shops and stalls, Japanese of all ages are drawn to Koganji Temple where they waft smoke from an enormous incense burner and then ritually wash a statue of Kanon in the hope that their aches and pains will be washed away. [PHOTOS]
Further to the west from Koshinzuka is the Otsuka Ekimae stop, which intersects with the JR Yamanote line. Aside from the roses along the tracks to the west that often bloom well into the autumn, the public area on the south side of the station is the site for various seasonal festivals.
Still further to the west is the Zoshigaya stop close to the municipal Zoshigaya Cemetery that has the graves of a number of noted early 20th century Japanese and foreigners. Its inhabitants include the novelists Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) and Nagai Kafu (1879-1959), the essayist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) (Japanese name Koizumi Yagumo), one of the first Japanese to visit a western country John Manjiro (1827-1898), and Ogino Ginko (1851-1913) the first female physician to practice modern (Western) medicine in Japan.
Unlike some cemeteries in Japan that have foreign graves, those at Zoshigaya are not concentrated in a distinct gaijin bochi (cemetery for foreigners) but rather scattered about. Thus, it is not unusual to find markers with Christian symbols, including crosses of various designs mixed among the more common Japanese designs. Not all of these are foreign graves; many are Japanese.
Near the cemetery is the Zoshigaya Missionary Museum dedicated to the memory of John Moody McCaleb (1861-1953), an American Church of Christ missionary.
At the western terminus (Waseda), it is a short walk to the original and still main campus of Waseda University, one of the two private universities that is included in the top prestige category otherwise dominated by national (originally imperial) universities.
Waseda was founded in 1882 by Okuma Shigenobu (1838-1922), a major figure in the Meiji government. On those days when I could not cycle, I commuted to Waseda to teach courses in Japanese political history using the Koshinzuka stop at the north entrance to the Jizo Dori shopping street.
Attractions for Kids
When my two sons were in the single-digit age cohort, they enjoyed riding the Arakawa Line because the tram design allows you to stand behind the driver and watch him or her driving the tram.
My sons also enjoyed periodic visits to the Arakawa Yuenchi, a short walk from the Arakawa Yuenchi Mae stop. Unfortunately, this very enjoyable and reasonably priced ward-operated facility is being extensively renovated with the reopening scheduled for the summer of 2021.
The ward-operated swimming pool for children located between station and amusement park is open, however, from July 21. (Adults 350 yen, children 150 yen).
Another child-oriented facility that my sons enjoyed was the Arakawa Nature Park built on artificial land above the Tokyo Mikawashima Wastewater Treatment Plant. This facility is next to the Arakawa Nichome tram stop. Only very occasionally are you reminded that you are above a waste water (sewage) treatment facility by a slight odor in the air. The park offers various recreational facilities primarily for children, including a swimming pool and a cycling area with free rental of cycles of various types like bicycles, tricycles, and pedal go-karts. There is also an area for unicyclists.
The Arakawa Line is the subject of numerous videos available on the internet. Most are amateur productions, but there are some professional productions.
Single Ride: An adult single ticket on the Arakawa Line is ￥170 JPY cash, or ￥165 JPY when using an IC card. Children are ￥90 JPY cash, or ￥82 JPY with by IC card.
Day Ride: A day rider ticket is available for ￥400 JPY for adults, ￥200 JPY for children. This may be a physical ticket or an electronic entry on your IC card.
Have a Party: A whole tram may also be rented at a cost of ￥13,820 JPY one way.
Accessibility: There is good wheelchair access with slopes at all stops. The floor height of the trams is the same as the platform height. I frequently see users of powered wheelchairs riding the Arakawa Line and they get on and off without assistance.
Additional Information: Further details may be found at the official web site.
Author’s Suggestion: Because the terminal stations are not transfer points, I recommend using the day rider ticket from one of the transfer stations: Machiya, Oji, or Otsuka.
Author: Dr. Earl H. Kinmonth
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