Yamanote line

Just back from … the Yamanote Line

The constant racket is the first thing that hits you when you travel by subway in Tokyo. Anything that can possibly be automated has been and then it constantly sings to you or talks to you wherever you go. An escalator will be silent until you walk up to it and then will chirrup with the sound of a blackbird as it starts up and the song gets faster as you get to the top. On the Yamanote Line which is the circular line in the middle of the complex Tokyo train system all the stations have their own tunes for when the trains are approaching and they are perfectly timed so that the last note is hit when the incoming train comes to a stop. Some stations go one step further; Harajuku station has different tunes for clockwise and anti-clockwise trains.

The first lines were built in 1885 and the whole loop circuit was closed in 1925 and now all but 2 of the 29 stations connect with other lines. At Shinjuku you can connect with 10 other rail and subway lines on over 40 platforms and I have been lost in there for as long as 20 minutes trying to find a way out never mind trying to find the next connection. Trains run from 4am to 1am and are every 2 minutes at busy times as over 3.5 million passengers ride on the line each day. So on a typical station there might be 6 or 8 platforms each with a tune every time a train arrives or departs accompanied by a handful of singing escalators and talking lifts. Not a place to come and find a quiet corner for a few minutes.

I travelled on the Yamanote at least 6 times a day for a week and completed 3 complete circuits as I made my way around. Shinbashi is one of the more interesting hubs; you can change here for the monorail which will take you out suspended in space over the Rainbow Bridge and you can get out at Tokyo DiverCity and watch the 50-foot high Gundam figure lit up at night. I came back through Shinbashi at 8:45pm on the way to my hotel and had to stand for all 14 stops because the train was rammed full of salarymen on their way home from work.

Outside Shinbashi is an old steam train on the site of the old station while in the air above the bullet trains seem to fly past. Shinbashi is also where you can change for suburban lines and I took a day trip out beyond Yokohama to Mukugaoka Yuen where I wandered around 16th century Buddhist temples tucked away behind convenience stores and motorcycle workshops. I was too late for the teahouse in the bamboo grove at the end of the valley but I wandered through the bamboos in the drizzle listening to the bush warblers safely at the top of the trees and far from sight.

Ebisu was formerly the site of a brewery and now their station theme tune is one of the old beer advert jingles; here you can visit a shopping centre built in the style of Versailles and hidden behind there is the Tokyo Photography Museum. Changing for the Odeo line at Yoyogi you can pop out of the station for a kebab from the man in his van before diving back down 5 levels of escalators for the last stage of the journey. On the Odeo Line each station has 3 guards for each direction on each platform and a spotless toilet at each station.

Clockwise from Yoyogi takes you up to Otsuka where, after a couple of rice balls and a cold tea in the cafe across the road, you can take the single-car tram on the Arakawa line that snakes through tiny backstreets close enough to the houses that you could reach out and touch their walls. My only companions were schoolchildren who were happy to practice their English with me. At Asukayama you can hop off the tram and walk through a lovely park where there were still some cherry trees in blossom although the effect was offset by the Disney-style pink and red towers of the play area. The park was a rare moment of peace and quiet in Tokyo although you could still hear the trains down below but on a warm afternoon the only people in the park were mums and grandparents with their toddlers and a lady feeding the stray cats.

I took the tram back down to Otsuka and then further clockwise round the Yamanote Line to Akihabara and dodged a short downpour by wandering around the electronics markets which are buried away under the 6-floor electronics superstores. In here you can find any microscopic component imaginable or buy a CCTV unit in the shape of a piece of sushi or perhaps 30 metres of copper cable to wind your own power supply.