Sunday, June 12, 2016

50 Hours in Tokyo: Hopping On and Off

"I sat in the last seat and watched the ancient houses passing close to the window. The tram almost touched the overhanging eaves. The laundry deck of one house had ten potted tomato plants, next to which a big black cat lay stretched out in the sun. In the garden of another house, a little girl was blowing soap bubbles. I heard an Ayumi Ishida song coming from somewhere, and could even catch the smell of curry cooking. The streetcar snaked its way through this private back-alley world."

I felt I almost re-lived the same streetcar journey described by novelist Haruki Murakami in his most popular work Norwegian Wood as I sat in the last seat inside this modernized yet vintage-looking streetcar, glancing outside with intent as the car slowly moved along the Arakawa Line (荒川線). This is one of the two remaining streetcar lines in Metropolitan Tokyo, running between Minowa-bashi (三ノ輪橋) and Waseda (早稲田), stretching over 12 km in the northern part of the city with 30 stations along this 50-minute ride end-to-end.

I wanted to spend the afternoon exploring this part of town along the train line, and I began at Minowa-bashi Station, hidden away from the main street and next to a quiet shopping arcade. With a rose garden planted right along the track, it's no surprise that the station was voted one of the most beautiful in this country.

I patiently waited on the narrow platform, along with scores of passengers, some families with toddlers on strollers, some old residents holding their walking sticks, some students from the nearby university, or some weekend visitors like myself, all in line for the next train to move slowly into the station, which came around every 5 minutes. The ride cost 160 yen for single journey, or 400 yen for the day-pass, allowing one to hop on and off as they please the entire day, along with other perks.

Armed with the day-pass, I basically just got on and off whenever and wherever I felt like, walking along rather aimlessly on the streets along the track, enjoying the wonderful weather and the much slower pace of life, away from the busy-ness of the city. Except for a few segments where the streetcar ran on tracks laid on dedicated path, most of the time the train just shared the street with other cars and pedestrians, pretty much like our own tram line back at home. Part of the tracks just built literally by the backyard of the residential houses, "almost touch the overhanging eaves", just as Mr. Murakami precisely described.

I dropped by Arakawa-yuen (荒川遊園), a retro-style amusement park right off the Asakasa-yuenchimae (荒川遊園地前駅) stop, built in 1950 and was in operation since. Admission was low (200 yen for adult, 100 yen for children and free for train day-pass visitors) and rides and attractions were charged per use. In today's standard, the "attractions" are basic at best, with Ferris Wheel, vintage merry-go-around, bumper car ride, a petting zoo, plus a water park not far away from the main park entrance. This is no Disneyland with fancy, high-tech attractions or cartoon characters walking around, but the park was charming in its own unique way, with that nostalgia feel and everyone - whether that be kids or adults - seemed to enjoy it.

A few stations away at Arakawa Shako-mae (荒川車庫前駅), amateur and professional photographers waited outside the train depot, trying to catch a glimpse of different models of trains coming out, including some of the vintage models still in service. Next to it was Toden Omoide no Hiroba (都電おもいで広場), a small "memory" plaza next to the depot where a few retired car models were on display, along with an exhibition about this historical train line.

At Koshinzuka Station (庚申塚駅), I sat down at Ippuku-tei, a small cafe right by the platform. One of their signature dishes is Ohagi, a Japanese sweet sticky rice balls with red bean filling. It’s a perfect place just to rest with a perfect view to watch the trains sliding by outside. Not far away from the station, the Sugamo Jizo-dori (巣鴨地蔵通り商店街) is a 800m shopping street known as "Grandma's Harajuku", with shops catered more to the elderly. It’s quite a contrast to the shopping district in Tokyo that most of us were more familiar with.

I wished I could make more stops along this interesting train line – I am sure there were so much more to see. But I stopped at Otsuka (大塚駅), a bit more than half way through, then hopped onto the train on Yamanote Line and 15 minutes and 5 stations later, back to Shinjuku, standing in the midst of large department stores, surrounded by LED advertising panels and  people pacing fast across the street junction, as if I was in an entirely different world.

What a pleasant surprise to be able to see another side of Tokyo this time around. As I was riding in the slow-moving car, I couldn't hear any "Ayumi Ishida song coming from somewhere" but instead in my head was this familiar tunes that sang

"I see trees of green, red roses too; 
I see them bloom for me and you; 
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world...". 

It was like I just traveled in a time machine.

More pictures in my Flickr album:
Or follow the rest of the series on 50 Hours in Tokyo

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