A streetcar named...

Old-time Tram
Photos by Michael Donovan

Streetcar, trolleybus or tram, whatever you call them diminutive densha are the perfect way to explore Tokyo' backwaters. Michael Donovan takes a ride.

San Francisco, Brussels and Lisbon all feature the practical, eco-friendly transport system that doubles as a tourist attraction. But did you know Tokyo has its own working tramline? The Toden Arakawa Line trundles from Waseda via Ikebukuro to Minowabashi in northeast Tokyo.

Through much of the route, many of the stations and even passengers are archaic, making the trip feel like a ride on a small single-gauge railway in the countryside. The entire 12km route is aboveground, the stations are tiny and the trams only seat about 20 people with standing room for as many as can squeeze in during peak hours.

The Toden Arakawa Line
The Toden Arakawa Line trundles from Waseda through northeast Tokyo

The one-way JY160 flat fare takes you through 29 stations in about 48 minutes. Waseda, the southern terminus, is home to Shin Edogawa Park and the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum. Moving along, north bound at Kishibojinmae is a Nichiren Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility and child rearing. In October, a dynamic festival is held, and the surrounding neighborhood comes alive.

As well as the prevalence of temples en route, the tramline also carries a lot of intellectual weight, serving Waseda, one of the top five universities in the country, and Gakushuin, traditionally the school of choice for the aristocracy. Zoshigaya Cemetery is a few stops further on, the end of the line, so to speak, for such notables as Soseki Natsume. His grave usually has a fresh bunch of flowers, even now, over 80 years after his death. Nearby is the oldest Western-style building in the city, once the home of American missionary John Moody McCaleb and now a museum. It is all a throwback to a bygone age that has been largely lost.

The streetcar system began running in Tokyo in 1911. And bus operations were added as an emergency measure due to the extensive damage caused by the 1923 earthquake. In its heyday, there were 41 lines carrying an average of 2 million passengers a day. Decline set in with the arrival of the automobile: In 1947 there were only 40,000 cars registered in the city rising to over 10 million by the 1960s. The trolleys were cramping the streets and inevitably couldn't compete with the traffic. The Olympics of 1964 sounded the death knell for the tram system as the city tried to put on its most modern face for the world and free up as much space as possible. The tram's demise was finally sealed with the removal of 181km of track between 1967 and 1972. The Arakawa line partly survives because of nostalgia, public pressure and the fact that it only partially runs on ordinary streets.

The chin chin densha
The chin chin densha heads for Waseda

It's quite a surprise when the tram suddenly emerges into rush hour traffic on the streets around the Sunshine Building and Otsuka. It bumbles on towards Shin Koshinzuka station at its average speed of 12kmph. Passengers get off here for Sugamo, a bustling town of old folk. Popularly known as "Obasan Harajuku" it's home to Koganji Temple. The Jizo Buddha statue in the temple grounds is a popular attraction for the elderly, who believe cleaning a part of the statue will cure a corresponding ache or pain. The temple holds a fair every 4th, 14th and 24th of each month with a major festival on January, May and September 24.

The trams are known as chin chin densha after the sound they make (not for the willy warmers the drivers use to sheathe their brake handles). Compared to the anonymity of high-speed 15-carriage trains the commute is a cozy one. There is no obsessive split-second timetable that sandwiches passengers in the doors. The driver waits for stragglers, will reopen the door for latecomers and is considerate of the doddering old folks. People dodge in front and behind the tram. Paying a driver instead of automated gates or ticket machines also gives the tram a human touch. Best of all, there are mercifully few recorded nasal announcements on board. It's all rather quaint and perhaps suggestive of a different set of values than the modern overarching dominance of the yen and the obsession with time and motion.

Street car stop
Travel by tram for a relaxed retro view of the city

Moving on, you will find three museums, a park, and a Shinto shrine dedicated to Oji Gongen at Asukayama. The local history museum is joined by the Shibusawa Memorial Museum, featuring exhibitions about renowned economist Eiichi Shibusawa, and a Paper Museum detailing Oji Paper and the company founder's life. The Oji factory feeds the voracious appetite of the Ministry of Finance Printing Bureau nearby. Further on is the Arakawa Yuen Amusement park where you can change to an Arakawa River ferryboat - another antique way of getting about town. If you continue on to the end of line at Minowibashi, there is a good coffee shop next to the station where you can take a break before riding back to the modern world.

Getting there:
The Toden Arakawa Line runs from Waseda stn, a short walk from the Tozai subway stn to Minowabashi.

Further information:
Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum is open 10am-5pm (Tue and Fri 10am-7pm). (Tel: 03-5286-1829)

The Shibusawa Memorial Museum is open 10am-5pm daily (Tel: 03-3910-0005;

The Oji Paper Museum is open Tue-Sun 10am-5pm, admission JY300 (JY150 children). Located near JR Oji Station (Keihin-Tohoku line) and the Oji tram stop. (Tel: 03-3916-2320)

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