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

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, Okuma Shigenobu (1838–1922). Okuma was an active figure in the events leading to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and served numerous ministerial roles in the new Meiji Government. (Okuma served briefly as prime minister in 1898 and again from April 1914 to October 1916.) Okuma’s residence was located immediately next to the present Auditorium in a large horticultural and recreational 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. Waseda remains one of Japan’s most prestigious universities. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

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 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, and the single cars that pootle along it still share the road with automobiles on the cherry-tree-lined stretch between Oji and Asukayama.

Thirty stations in all are served, 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 location of 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 have long queues 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 exists in a world of its own.

Three stops up the Line is Kishibojimmae, named for the deity which the station stands before (mae), normally rendered with an “m” and an “n,” Kishimojin. A narrow avenue lined with old zelkova trees leads to Kishimojin-do hall, where 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, welcoming, unpretentious 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, one 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. Novelist Natsume Soseki has a large tomb at the end of a grid on Ginkgo Road. When this writer was visiting, a young man on a bicycle pulled up sharply and mumbled a quick-fire prayer.

A tram on the Toden-Arakawa Line passes in front of Asukayama Park

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

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, this is not your everyday high street.

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.

The ferris wheel at Arakawa Amusement Park viewed through autumn leaves 

Arakawa-yuenchimae is named for the amusement park to which the station provides easy access. This old-fashioned amusement park stars Japan’s “slowest family coaster” and a ferris wheel which, while small, affords a great view of the neighborhood and 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 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 unagi (eel), it’s going cheap.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

An elderly cyclist passes in front of a fruit, veg, flowers and homemade pickles shop on the Joyful Minowa shopping street at the end of the Toden-Arakawa Line in Arakawa, Tokyo.

This shop on the Joyful Minowa shopping street in Arakawa specializes in miso soybean paste.

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

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 mostly very old people visit the temple, specifically the Arai Kannon, hoping to ease discomfort by washing the part of the statue that ails them.

District mascot Sugamon poses for photographs with locals outside one of numerous cheap-and-cheerful Maruji clothing outlets on Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street.

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

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