Trams in my Australian hometown stopped running the year I was born – suffice to say, a very long time ago! But the wide streets, built to accommodate them remained – a tantalising reminder of the past. So when I saw that Tokyo still had trams, I had to seek them out!
When the Toden Arakawa Line faced closure, local people rallied to save it, raising a massive petition, and coming up with an ingenious plan to attract more customers. I love a good back story! Their novel idea was to plant 13 thousand rose bushes along the tram route, along with hundreds of azalea bushes, and cherry blossom trees! And they renamed the line ‘the Sakura tram’ – (東京さくらトラム), hoping to attract tourists.
You don’t have to go far from the CBD to find the Tokyo Sakura Tram (Toden Arakawa Line). It is the last survivor of Tokyo’s once-extensive Tokyo Toden streetcar system. To fit in with a modern city, today it is a hybrid light rail/tram system, running in north east Tokyo for just over 12 kilometres and stopping at 30 stations from Minowabashi Station to Waseda Station with a lot of very interesting attractions you can stop off to see en route. Toden details them on their website, and they have a brochure in English. There are also announcements on board in English.
Some of the attractions include old shopping arcades, a textile dyeing museum, a planetarium, a cat cafe, a few good shrines, and a studio that creates and sells miniatures. They are all detailed on a brochure you can access at station offices.
I don’t know how many tourists ride the Sakura tram – MJ (the hubby) and I saw no other gaijins when we rode it last November. Admittedly, Japan’s borders had just opened, and there weren’t a lot of tourists about. But it was good to see there were plenty of locals patronising the trams during the day. And lots of little kids – juggling for the best spot behind the driver’s cab – eyes excitedly glued to the rails ahead. The trams come in various colours, making them very attractive to children.
At one stop, a little boy who liked about four years old got on with an older woman I presumed to be his Grandmother. He stubbornly refused to sit down, hovering behind the driver and intently watching the track ahead. I happened to be in a choice seat behind the driver, and I felt compelled to give it up to the child. His grandmother nodded a thank you.
The flowers lining the rail track were not at their best in late November, but still were many flourishing. I could see how magnificent the ride must be in peak flower season. I understand the flowers are mainly maintained by local volunteers.
We bought a day ticket for about just under $5 Australian each, that allowed us to get on and off the tram to explore local attractions and interesting residential areas. Amazing value. It gave us easy entree to areas of Tokyo we hadn’t heard of, and a great day of exploration. It also felt a bit like being invited into someone’s home, instead of admiring their house from the outside. The tram’s leaflet says it’s an opportunity to ‘get close to the daily lives of Tokyo’s people. And it’s true. It is. The trams cross main intersections, but mainly wind their way slowly between people’s backyards and tiny suburban streets.
We were based near Tokyo station, so I came up with a plan to access the Sakura tram about half way along its route by riding the Yamamoto circular line to Otsuka (大塚駅前停留場 Ōtsuka ekimae teiryūjō ). Otsuka is the station between Sugamo and Ikebukuro on the Yamanote line (about 11 stops from Tokyo station). This mean we could reach the tram network on our JR pass, saving money and not having to deal with the subway or another rail company.
My research notes said that underneath Otsuka station is a stop for the tram line. So we descended stairs, only to find ourselves in an underground bicycle park! Up we went again, and immediately spotted the sign for the Sakura train. It was pretty obvious – not sure how we missed it in the first place. Well, now we know what an underground Tokyo bicycle park looks like!
My research notes also said ‘Buy the day pass from the tram driver’. I was a bit concerned about this – would the driver speak english, would the driver stop long enough to us to explain what ticket we wanted using google translator – google searches had come up with the instructions of boarding at the front .. tap on the door .. and alight at the rear. This all might be a bit tricky!
Well, here’s the up to date information for anyone else thinking of the Sakura train – it was all very easy. There is a small office at the Otsuka tram strop, and we found a lovely lady there who gave us a brochure and pointed to the day ticket. She didn’t speak english, but was well prepared to deal with non Japanese speaking tourists. So minutes later a tram came along – they run very regularly – and off we went – tram riding in Tokyo! A lot slower than a shinkansen, but just as much fun!
There are so many interesting stops that I think one day doesn’t do it, especially if you get on and off along the way to explore areas near the Station. You need at least two days, and we plan to take the tram again on a future trip to catch up with places we didn’t get to see.
Some of those include:
Minnow – an old neighbourhood where you can experience a lot of ‘old’ Tokyo, the Sugamo jizo-dori shopping street, and Kishibojinmae Station with the beautiful Kishimojin Temple almost right in front of it.
One of the favourites of our day on the tramswas the Oji-ekimae Stop, where you can access Asukayama park – one of Tokyo’s most celebrated cherry blossom areas. Of course, November is not cherry blossom season, but the park was still packed with other flowers and lovely walk routes.
It is a really lovely quiet oasis, used by people exercising, reading on park benches, or families with children using the park playground. It’s hard to believe this beautiful park is only about 11 kilometres from that famous packed Shibuya pedestrian crossing you see in photos of Tokyo! I think that crossing as a lot to answer for. People who haven’t been to Tokyo think it’s typical of of the city. I say – come out on the Sakura tram and see some of the real Tokyo! In fact, just get out and explore, and I assure you that Tokyo is full of the unexpected! It is a very beautiful and interesting city that frankly, I prefer, to places such as London and Paris.
HOW WE ACCESSED THE PARK
My internet research notes directed us to walk few meters along the tram line after we alighted at Oji-ekimae, turn to the left and and go through the passage under the railroad. It was a little confusing. It meant walk a few metres to the main road, and then turn left for a short distance.
You can’t miss Asukayama park because it’s on a hill, and you don’t even have to climb the hill because there is the Askargo – a chairlift – that is free of charge and takes you in two minutes to the top. As we walked towards it, an elderly attendant greeted us warmly. No english, but he directed us onto the chairlift. I had the impression he was a volunteer. He seemed very excited we were there. It might have been a while since a westerner tourist had turned up!
Asukayama park has been part of the Tokyo scene for centuries. It featured in Edo period (1603-1867) woodblock prints as a famous place for viewing the sakura (cherry blossom). When we visited, there were a few runners exercising, a few people on benches reading books, and in a central playground, families with little children.
The playground included an old Toden 6080 street car that began operations in 1950 and ran until 1979. There was, much to MJ’s delight, a train engine which you could board. It seemed to be getting as much attention from Dads as kids!
I understand that in cherry blossom season the park is packed with people having cherry blossom picnics (Hanami). So maybe a bit busy then!
Lining the park were several museums and other buildings that looked pretty interesting, including the Tokyo paper museum. Unfortunately, it was a MONDAY, and they were closed. It seemed a bit silly to all have the same weekday closing day. But we resolved that we would return to see them when we returned to Japan.
There are no cafes in the park – one would be great. But there are vending machines. My suggestion would be to pack a little lunch to enjoy there. There are, however, plenty of eateries close to the Oji-ekimae tram stop, including MacDonalds. Not for us! We found a great little bakery that had some wonderful soup, and plenty of the usual bakery goods. There were tables inside and out, so that’s where we had lunch.
During the day, the trams run about 6 to 7 minutes apart. I think you need more than a day to enjoy the popular station stops and their attractions. We only managed about half, and plan to return on our next Tokyo visit.
It is such a great idea to plant flowers and trees along the line.
Yes .. it’s a worthwhile ride. So glad they saved the trams.