One of the pleasures of big city travel is the opportunity to explore areas that are beyond the usual tourist circles. Tokyo’s Toden Arakawa streetcar is a hidden gem that lets you experience an entirely different side of this Japanese metropolis.
One of only two remaining streetcar lines in the city (the other being the privately run Tokyu Setagaya line), the Toden Arakawa line (都電荒川線) is operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation, or Toei. The single-car 12-km long tram line runs through the northern and eastern ends of the city, away from the commonly visited tourist areas.
With some sections over a century old, concerted efforts of local residents saved the line from extinction in the 1960s, when most of Tokyo’s extensive streetcar network was shut down and replaced by subways and buses. Today, a leisurely ride on the line is like a trip back in time, passing through quiet neighborhoods and mingling with local residents, with nary a tourist in sight.
The Toden Arakawa line has 30 stations and takes under an hour to ride end-to-end. Armed with a 400-yen day pass, hopping on and off and exploring the areas around some of the stations is a great way to spend an afternoon and a unique way to experience a different side of Tokyo.
The line’s eastern terminus is Minowabashi station. Here you will find the Joyful Minowa Shotengai (covered shopping arcade) packed with family-run businesses and discount shops, and a distinctly local atmosphere. Find yourself a small coffeeshop and relax before heading out on your adventure.
At Arakawa-Nichome, alight to take a stroll through Arakawa Shizen park. We were lucky to see a few cherry blossoms, as most of the sakura in the city was over due to rough weather the previous week. The park is adjacent to the Mikawashima Water Reclamation Center. Walking the length of the park will take you to the far exit where you can wander through a quiet neighbourhood and rejoin the track at the next station, Arawaka-Nanachome.
Attractions around this station seem to be geared towards children of all ages. A short walk past a sports complex and kids’s playground brings you to the Arakawa Amusement Park, opened in 1950. This is a great place for families to spend a few hours. Inside is a petting zoo, fish pond, and lots of cheap rides.
At this quiet station, a small plaza commemorates past Toden streetcars and tram lines. Toden Omoide no Hiroba is only open on the weekends, though you can see the two retired trams through the gates. Next to the plaza is a streetcar depot and service centre.
At the following stop, Kajiwara, a small and quaint shopping street highlights the local streetcar line. At a sweets shop you can buy red bean cakes shaped like the trams. Further down the lane, a small toy shop specializes in model streetcars and other nostalgic toys.
At Asukayama the streetcar finally leaves its dedicated lane and merges with local car traffic, if only for a moment. Here you can head up the small hill and visit Asukayama Park and some of its small local museums.
This was the last stop for me, as it was getting dark and more importantly, right in front of my hotel! The trams were also getting crowded from rush hour commuters. Continuing on the line would bring you through the more commercial district of Ikebukuro and Sunshine City, a huge entertainment and shopping complex. The line terminates at Waseda station, near Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University campus.