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Toden-Arakawa: The Narrow Road to Tokyo’s Deep North

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.

A typical scene on the Toden-Arakawa Line as a tram waits to pull into the platform.

 

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.

Okuma Auditorium on the main Waseda University campus in Waseda, an Important Cultural Property. The building opened in 1927 in honor of the University’s founder, statesman Okuma Shigenobu (1838–1922). Okuma’s residence was located here in a large garden of his own design, the present-day Okuma Garden. Okuma purchased the neighboring land on which the main Waseda University campus now stands in 1882, when he established the school as Tokyo Senmon Gakko.

 

 

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.

The end of the long zelkova-lined approach to Kishimojin-do hall in Zoshigaya. Kishimojin is one of Japan’s many deities of children and motherhood, making Kishimojin-do a popular place of prayer for childless couples, expecting mothers, parents and children alike.
THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

The towering 600-year-old ginkgo on the grounds of Kishimojin-do hall. The “child-rearing ginkgo” predates the construction of the hall (1578) by around 150 years, having been planted around the turn of the fifteenth century. The tree is a Natural Monument of Tokyo.
THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

The final approach to Kishimojin-do Hall, an Important Cultural Property THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

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.

Gingko and zelkova are among the trees offering shade in this section of the expansive Zoshigaya Cemetery. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

The formidable grave of Natsume Soseki (1867–1916) with offerings of beer and flowers  THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

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 freelance garbage collector passes in front of the Koshinzuka Station-side entrance to Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

District mascot Sugamon poses for photographs with locals outside one of the numerous cheap-and-cheerful sundries stores on Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

A visitor to Kougan-ji temple asks for relief from pain from the “Arai Kannon” (washing deity) at Kougan-ji temple in Sugamo. Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street is so named for the Togenuki (needle-removing) Jizo enshrined at the temple, which is located halfway down the street. Streams of very old people visit the temple every day, specifically the Arai Kannon, hoping to ease discomfort by washing the part of the statue that ails them.  THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

A shichimi spice vendor mixes to order on the street in front of Kougan-ji temple. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

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.

A tram on the Toden-Arakawa Line passes in front of Asukayama Park, known for its cherry blossoms and museums  THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

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.

The small retro ferris wheel at Arakawa Amusement Park  THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

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

This shop on the Joyful Minowa shopping street specializes in miso soybean paste.  THE JAPAN JOURNAL

Delicious miso variants kinzanji (left) and moromi THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

Pickles, vegetables, flowers, keys… All sorts on sale on the Joyful Minowa covered shopping arcade  THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

Rose trellis entrance to the charming Minowabashi Station at the eastern terminus of the Toden-Arakawa Line THE JAPAN JOURNAL

 

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