CNN Go: All aboard Tokyo’s last city streetcar.

A CNN Go feature pays tribute to Tokyo's last surviving city streetcar route, the Toden Arakawa line. Two of its diminutive cars are seen in this remarkable tilt shift view by Flickr user urawa. Used via Creative Commons license; click for photostream.

Check out this beguiling CNN Go.com travelogue dedicated to Tokyo’s “last surviving city streetcar,” the quirky Toden Arakawa line.

Even if I weren’t interested in streetcars, you have to admire writer Gianni Simone’s fun, engaging prose,  serving up a colorful description of this holdover from Tokyo’s original tramway era and the quaint backstreets through which the cars wend their way over their 12.2-kilometer, 50-minute trips:

“Would you think we were stretching a point if we said that it’s possible to travel through space and time in Tokyo for just a few hundred yen? Probably, but that’s the tingly feeling we got last time we climbed aboard the city’s only surviving streetcar.”

Simone goes on to describe, in crisp detail, sights such as the charming Zoshigaya cemetery, a half-hidden Buddhist temple, a shop that sells tram-shaped little cakes, ancient cherry trees and cascading waterfalls.

“Walking the maze of backstreets and alleys that comprise these supposedly  unappealing neighborhoods is a refreshing experience after the usual hustle of  the business and entertainment districts,” Simone writes.

OK. I’m sold.

Which is interesting, because Simone suggests that “streetcar lovers — a very demanding breed of transportation otaku — are likely to be a little disappointed when visiting Tokyo,” given that the glory days of its tram system are in the past, having been whittled down to this one picturesque remnant.

Oh, and otaku? Think anorak (UK) or geek (US). Guilty as charged, though I think this charming little line would keep me occupied for plenty of time — and that’s to say nothing of the array of tram systems old and new across Japan, the dense thicket of commuter railway lines and the city’s legendary subway system.

Speaking from the otaku perspective,  there is an important asterisk hanging over this subject: Arakawa is not Tokyo’s last tramway. There is, in fact, another: The Tōkyū Setagaya Line. The distinction is this: Setagaya is a fully grade-separated light rail line, while Arakawa, despite minimal street running, is very much a low-tech traditional neighborhood trolley — not unlike some of the Pittsburgh lines which threaded through back yards and narrow rights-of-way. In that spirit, the Arakawa trams are lovingly known by the sobriquet “chin-chin densha” (チンチン電車) or roughly, “ding-ding trolleys,” in a nod to their classic sounds and traditional character.

Tokyo’s trams past and present have been a popular subject with modellers, as evidenced by numerous Toden cars produced in N scale (as well as a few in HO) and running on layouts all over the world; I have one of them myself. In fact, my first thought when I saw the tilt shift image that accompanied the CNN Go article (reproduced above via its original Flickr page) was that I was looking at an exceptionally realistic model tram layout.

For more on the Arakawa line and Tokyo’s trams, see:

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One Response to CNN Go: All aboard Tokyo’s last city streetcar.

  1. Christine says:

    Great post and I always appreciate new vocabulary words. Anorak? really? I had to look up the word on Wikipedia and it has a very interesting background. My trivia for the day.

    P.S. That picture top left was idea for tilt shift.

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