The Toden-Arakawa Line is a hybrid light rail and tram line in Tokyo connecting the terminal stations of Waseda, close to the major commercial districts of Ikebukuro and Shinjuku, with suburban Minowa approximately 12 km to the northeast. Branded as the Tokyo Sakura Tram, the Line is the only remaining section of the capital’s old streetcar network. The single cars that pootle along the tracks still share the road with automobiles on the cherry-tree-lined stretch between Oji and Asukayama.
Thirty stations in all are served on the Line, each just 400 meters or so apart. The trams set off from the street-side platforms with a bright “ding ding,” and passengers wishing to disembark at the next stop are advised to buzz the driver back. The journey from end to end takes 50 minutes, but you’ll want to be getting off along the way. A one-day pass for unlimited use of the tram costs just 400 yen.
The terminal station of Waseda is the closest station to the main campus of present-day Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious schools. The narrow streets leading up to and around the campus are lined with little restaurants, and at lunchtime the most popular eateries have long queues of students lingering outside. Stately trees indicate the university’s early-Meiji vintage while the manicured lawn of Okuma Garden offers a cool place to sprawl. Lofty and leafy, and quiet despite the student crowds, Waseda is an atmospheric world unto itself.
Three stops up the Line is Kishibojimmae, named for the temple of the deity (normally rendered as Kishimojin) which the station stands before (mae). A narrow avenue lined with old zelkova trees leads to Kishimojin-do hall, where Kishimojin, the goddess of childbirth, has been worshipped since 1578. The present building was constructed in 1664. Though ornate with many fine carvings, the hall, its grounds and the splendid approach have a warm and welcoming ambience.
It’s a ten-minute walk from here to Zoshigaya Reien, one of Tokyo’s oldest public cemeteries. Established by the new Meiji Government in 1874 on what was formerly the site of the shogun’s falconry, the vast Zoshigaya Reien is the final resting place of many famous names in modern Japanese history. Maps pinpointing the location of significant graves are available at the cemetery’s administration office. The graves are arranged in numbered grids and rows, making the graves easy to find, but the cemetery nevertheless has a disorganized, natural feel that is enhanced by the grounds’ many old trees and the varied designs of the tombstones. Novelist Nagai Kafu’s simple gravestone is partly hidden behind a hedge; writer Lafcadio Hearn’s family stones can be found plunged into rocks; pioneering female doctor Ginko Ogino gets a pretty impressive statue. Natsume Soseki, many people’s favorite Japanese writer, has a large gravestone at the end of a grid on Ginkgo Road. During my visit, a young man on a bicycle pulled up sharply before the tomb and offered a quick-fire prayer.
Ding Ding. Our next stop is Koshinzuka. The tram has taken us out of the woody, laid back Zoshigaya district into the inner suburbs. Koshinzuka is the location of numerous shrines and temples, most notably Kougan-ji temple with its popular pain-healing Kannon. Kougan-ji is located half-way down the equally famous Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street, where you can find shops specializing in everything from garlic, rock candy and freshly shaved katsuobushi to kimonos, red underpants and umbrellas. Local craftspeople set up shop on dates that end in a 4. Cheap, cheerful and unabashedly quirky, Sugamo Jizo-dori is downtown Tokyo at its weird and wonderful best.
A little further up the Line between Asukayama and Oji-ekimae Stations is Asukayama Park. A magnet in the spring during cherry blossom season, the Park is home to the Asukayama Museum, the Paper Museum and the Shibusawa Memorial Museum.
Arakawa-yuenchimae is named for the amusement park to which the station provides easy access. This old-fashioned amusement park, said to be Tokyo’s first, is home to Japan’s “slowest family coaster,” a quaint merry-go-round and a small ferris wheel which affords a great view from the top over the neighborhood with Tokyo Skytree prominent in the near distance. The park borders a stretch of the broad Sumida-gawa river, the course of which the Toden-Arakawa Line closely follows.
If Arakawa-yuenchimae may be said to mark the entrance to the downtown district of Arakawa then Minowabashi Station at the end of the line most certainly marks its deepest point. Located close to the former Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, Minowa is best known today for its long, covered shopping arcade. To walk down “Joyful Minowa” is to step back, and yet further back, into the Showa period (1926–1989). The shops here appear not to have changed hands in decades. Butchers, greengrocers, florists, miso and tea specialists, boozers and coffee shops, deep-fried-food vendors… There’s something here for everyone, and—apart from that delicious downtown staple, grilled unagi (eel)—it’s all going remarkably cheap.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal
Note: This story updated April 27, 2021 with additional photos