JULY, 2007

Walking the entire 40km circular route of the Yamanote Railway Line, Tokyo

The Yamanote Line is an urban railway line which loops around Tokyo. Unlike the subterranean Tokyo Metro, the Japan Rail (“JR”) Yamanote is often elevated on stilts or simply sits above ground, and does a full lap of the greater metropolitan area. All in all, it takes in the dizzying views of Tokyo’s city centre, all the way out to the slow murmur of its northern suburbs. The distance, accounting for the fact you cannot walk exactly beside it all of the time, is as near-as-damn-it 40km long, and the trains will rush past about every 3-4 minutes. Interested in unusual journeys, and feeling that the looping line through Tokyo’s main districts and suburbs would offer a distinctive, comprehensive, and authentic viewpoint, I wanted to do the whole thing by foot.

I had a very good friend here in Tokyo, Craig, and when we met every few weeks, we would catch up, discuss and walk around the park and Down-town Tokyo’s streets – complete with beer in hand.  It was a pleasure I enjoyed; being rarely content to sit still at the best of times, and this way it was social, it was exercise, it was discussion; and it was unconventional. ‘Beer-walking’ as we jokingly called it, was also entirely possible due to the law in Japan that stipulated opened containers of alcohol could be consumed in plain sight on city streets, with no penalty.

Craig and I liked ‘beer-walking’ so much, on one occasion we endeavoured to take on this very walk, to trek around the loop of the 40 kilometre Yamanote railway line in one day. The Yamanote line snakes and swerves its way around and through central Tokyo in an ellipse, from an egg-shaped point in Shinagawa in the south to the northern suburbs of Nippori and Sugamo. It is basically Tokyo’s equivalent of London’s circle line. It was summer at the time, and it was excruciatingly humid, so to escape the heat (as if we weren’t gluttons for punishment enough) we departed at around five in the evening, aiming to be finished in the small hours of the morning. I recommend this rather strange walk to anyone – it is long, and it is arduous, yet from street level upwards it gives a satisfyingly intimate portrait of the districts of Tokyo, from the well visited to the hardly bothered-with-at-all. I have done it twice now: both clockwise and anti-clockwise, by day and by night. On this particular occasion we started our metropolitan hike from the hubbub of the Starbucks coffee at the foot of Shibuya crossing in Central Tokyo, meandering South through the clean streets of Ebisu and Meguro. The trendy haze of Shibuya gave way to the slightly more upmarket and bohemian Ebisu, as departo department stores that catered for the masses turned into the unique boutiques Tokyo is renowned for. The modernity and hygienic front of this city are complimented by the litter and traffic fumes of every other major conurbation in the world, and as it grew dark the city became slightly more characterless than usual.

As we sauntered the day became dusk, normally a pleasant time in Tokyo as the orange haze of the sky meets the subdued streetlights. Every two minutes, like clockwork, the green logo of a Yamanote line train swished by. As we walked we saw the districts of Tokyo and its suburbs rise and fall, the streets of the city giving way to us, all merging into one. The Southerly tip of the Yamanote line lay in Shinagawa, a fairly bland and conservative business district where insipid and instantly forgettable buildings line streets filled with the dark suits and coats of Japanese salarymen. We stopped to eat at an Indian; the restaurant was ideally placed between the railway line and the street running parallel to it. A selection of delicately curried meats and naan bread was the ideal fuel as we turned the southern-most corner of the line and proceeded almost due north towards the giddy lights of Shinbashi, Tokyo, and Yurakucho. These areas are the downtown financial and business areas of the city, but being so central they still house karaoke bars and restaurants, and are busy even in the late evening.

As we walked through Shinbashi, under one of the Yamanote railway line arches lay ‘The Bud Bar’, a place where the tables are the cheap plastic beach type and the music is suitably cheesy. The gimmick is that busty women serve you large jugs of ice cold Budweiser (no pun intended?). This night was no exception and the sounds of a busy bar could be heard as we passed on by. I went there on two occasions, and although it was basic, the girls were great and the beer tasted sweeter for all the fun. Japanese culture, being as orderly and proper as is imaginable, meant even here the sleaze was kept largely to a minimum with the girls dealing with any rowdy customers swiftly and politely.

This blog article is an edited extract from my book about the adventure crossing Asia from Tokyo to Moscow overland, titled “The Slow Boat to China”, coming soon.

The vibrant air of Tokyo remains long into the night, and it is truly a city that never sleeps. To the East is the Imperial Palace, a Mecca for city joggers and tourists, and Hibiya-Koen, a wonderfully Western-influenced park which sports fountains and European gardens alongside a smaller area of tranquil Japanese gardens and rock pools. During the summer, the park also plays host to a German beer event with beer tasting and sausages on the menu. I have fond memories of the park and know it well, as on many occasions I used to eat my lunch there, it being only a block from my office.

Passing further north, our route alongside the Yamanote tracks took us past Ueno Park, and Japan’s most famous zoo of the same name. I hadn’t spent much time there in the past, just a couple of sakura celebrations (tea parties under the cherry blossoms – very civilised!), and now was no exception – we had some miles yet to walk. From Ueno all that remained was to get round the northern suburbs, the commuter belt, if you like, before we swung south into Ikebukuro and its towering city lights. The terrain here was undulating, but being around 3am, was comfortable and quiet. The main difference was that we were able to walk through deserted residential alleys which didn’t always run parallel to the tracks. The walk also became noticeably hillier in nature as we neared Ikebukuro. Ikebukuro, although pre-dawn, was nonetheless alive and kicking and we strode back into the city confident of making our goal before dawn, although by now the miles had taken their toll. It was the small hours of the morning, and we ached as our lead-like legs trudged past the station’s North exit. This northern part of the city loomed high like a real-life Gotham, modern and faceless like much of Tokyo but still with cosmopolitan clout.

For now, though, the end was in sight. Craig and I passed through Shinjuku’s more questionable areas, and continued through the back streets and into funky Harajuku without incident. Testament to the safety and low crime rate of Japan, not once did Craig or I feel uncomfortable. Strolling through a hushed, subdued Yoyogi Park, we finally limped back to Shibuya Starbucks around 4am. Only then did I realise that due to train timings, I was going to have to walk home to Ikejiriohashi, another two miles. Our goodbyes were brief, for now there was only one thing on both our minds. Sleep.