As one of only two remaining streetcar lines operating in Tokyo, the Toden Arakawa Line (都電荒川線) is a literal journey back in time. Almost all of Tokyo’s old streetcar network was closed in the 1960s but concerned residents successfully campaigned to save what is now the Toden Arakawa Line, and the affection that motivated the campaign to save the original Arakawa Line is still obvious today.
The streetcar itself is only two cars long and will inevitably have a number of old Japanese grandmothers and grandfathers carrying on jovial conversation punctuated by laughter – a rare thing to see on public transport in Tokyo.
Connecting Waseda in Shinjuku Ward with Minowabashi in Arakawa Ward, the Arakawa Line takes you through the backyards of local residents in the sleepier suburbs of Old Tokyo. The narrow tracks and minimal clearance with some of the neighbourhood houses really makes you feel like you have stumbled across a local secret.
It’s not uncommon to see small children waving to the streetcar as it passes or to look back along the tracks and see a neighbourhood cat lazily trotting across from one side to the other. Additionally, many of the stations have local specialty shops, cafes and restaurants warmly waiting for you as you step off the platform. There is something distinctly ‘old world’ about the Arakawa Line that is a welcome change to the hyperactivity of some of the areas of Tokyo.
Among many, some of the local highlights to be found along the Arakawa Line include the Joyful Minowa shopping street at the Minowabashi terminus station, the Arakawa Amusement Park at Arakawa Yuenchi Mae station, Asukayama Park at Asukayama station, and strolling along the Kanda River from the Waseda terminus station.
In contrast to the rapidity of the JR and Metro trains, the Arakawa Line meanders its way along curved pathways at a relaxed speed, allowing you to take in and savour not only the sights but the atmosphere of slow Tokyo. There are currently five series of streetcar in operation on the Arakawa Line with some looking decidedly modern and others more fitting with the age of the line itself. However, in true Japanese style, the streetcars are often decorated to match with the seasons of the year.
The Arakawa Line spans a relatively short 12.2km and takes 50 minutes from start to finish. A great way to experience the Arakawa Line and see some lesser visited suburbs of Tokyo is to buy an all-day pass, which allows you to hop on and off as you like, and make the journey from one end to the other, all the while stopping to see the quaint personalities of each station. After a day on the Arakawa Line, it’s easy to see why the local residents campaigned to keep it in operation.