Seeing Tokyo along the Yamanote Line
Tokyo’s Yamanote Line is the city's most iconic, with silver carriages striped an unforgettable lime green. (Rachel Lewis/LPI)
Many Tokyoites will tell you that the best way to get to know their city is to travel station by station on the Yamanote Line. This commuter rail loop is one of Tokyo's original train lines -- it has been circling the city centre on raised tracks since 1925, and parts of the line are decades older. It is also the city's most iconic, with a long chain of silver carriages striped an unforgettable lime green. Millions of people ride the Yamanote Line every day. At peak hours, trains run every two minutes.
However, the Yamanote Line is more than just a train line; it effectively divides the city in two. What is inside the loop is downtown and what is outside is residential. What falls on the line serves as a gateway to both. As a result, the neighbourhoods along the loop count among the city's most developed. They also include many of Tokyo's famous sights: The Ueno neighbourhood, which is full of national museums; Akihabara, a favourite haunt of anime fans and gadget collectors; the youthful shopping districts of Shibuya and Harajuku; and Shinjuku, where the neon-lit nightlife strips are peopled until dawn.
The circuit also takes in some lesser-known areas. This is evident at street level: in the brand of convenience store, in the merchandise for sale and whether or not the telephone lines are buried underground. When Tokyoites tell you to get off at every stop, they are pointing you towards these in-between spots, where the tell-tale signs of daily life are not overshadowed by crowds, tourists, skyscrapers and beguiling lights. It is an invitation to look below the surface.
Examined up close, Tokyo is dramatically different north to south, east to west and even from station to station. Make the rounds of all 29 stations on the Yamanote Line and Tokyo no longer appears a cohesive city. It is a collection of self-contained towns, each with a train station instead of a town square.
Nippori, in the city's northeast corner, for example, is synonymous with old Tokyo. It has a classic, pre-WWII main street that, too narrow for cars, favours pedestrians, cyclists and, above all, shop owners, whose wares spill onto the street. Move a station or two beyond, heading counter-clockwise, and the scale of the streets becomes grander, the high-rise apartments more numerous. Go from east to west along the northern fringe of the line and Tokyo transitions gradually from the old city to the new, through squarely, sleepy middle-class neighbourhoods that are coloured by their proximity to the sprawling northern suburbs.
Due north, Sugamo, nicknamed the “Harajuku for grannies”, is something else entirely. While it does not have the tightly wound alleys and low wooden buildings of the old city, its heart is very traditional. Like Harajuku, Sugamo has a famous pedestrian shopping street, but its shops are popular with seniors instead of teens. There are old-fashioned Chinese medicine herbalists, traditional foodstuff vendors selling seaweed and glazed crickets by the handful, and more than a few shops hawking aka-pantsu -- bright red, high-waisted underwear believed to ward off evil and bring the wearer strength and vitality. Kōgan-ji, a local temple, has long been believed to lessen the physical pains of those who pay their respects. Naturally it draws an elderly crowd (though not, of course, exclusively), and the shops simply followed.
As the train rounds the northwest corner, it passes the large transit hub of Ikebukuro, comparatively quiet Meijiro and the student haunt of Takadanobaba. “Baba” is home to Waseda University (one of Tokyo's best) and the requisite stew of cheap eateries, dive bars and used bookstores. It also lays claim to a particularly high concentration of ramen (noodle soup) shops; none of which offer a taste of student life better than Benten (3-10-21 Takada, Toshima-ku), where a “large” order gets you one kilogram of noodles.
Just one stop away to the west, the neighbourhood of Shin-Okubo shows off Tokyo’s rarely seen multicultural side. This is the city's “Little Korea”, where you can get hot tteokbokki (pounded rice cakes in chilli sauce) from the takeaway counter at supermarket Seoul Ichiba. Thai and Malaysian restaurants and shops can be found here too.