Despite the fact that I don’t speak or read Japanese, I find Tokyo to be a very easy city to get around. That’s largely due to the efficient train service provided by its network of trains and subways. One line in particular does a great job of taking tourists and residents around the city – because it literally goes around the city. In this post we’ll take a look at the Yamanote Line, and get a feel for some of my favorite neighborhoods along the line.
What Is the Yamanote Line?
The Yamanote Line (山手線 or Yamanote-sen in Japanese) runs through the heart of Tokyo. It is a railway loop line operated by JR East (the East Japan Railway Company). At over one million passengers every day, it is one of Tokyo’s busiest lines. The line has 29 stops along its loop and connects to major subway lines and intra-city rail stations around the heart of Tokyo. Railway lines in Tokyo are typically color-coded for easy reference, and the Yamanote Line is the “green line.”
As a first-time visitor to Tokyo years ago, I found the Yamanote Line to be my “go-to” train for getting around the city. Even if I missed a particular stop, it was easy to get off and catch a return train going back the opposite direction. Since the line runs in a continual loop starting and ending at the Shinagawa station, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The line also connects with the Chuo and Sobu lines, which allow you to visit other parts of the city as well.
I also liked the fact that the line was the easiest way to get to some of the neighborhoods I wanted to visit and spend time in. Below are my reflections on just a few of the neighborhoods around some of the major stations on the line…my personal favorites.
Around Ueno Station
Ueno Station (上野駅, Ueno-eki) one of the main railway stations in the Taitō district of Tokyo, located in the northeast part of the city. It’s home to Ueno Park, Ueno Zoo as well as many cultural facilities and museums. The train station is also surrounded by many extensive shopping arcades. For Americans who are longing for a little slice of home, there’s even a Hard Rock Café near the station.
I first visited Ueno about 9 years ago, and found my way unintentionally to Ueno Park. The park was founded on the former grounds of a Buddhist temple, and many of the artifacts from this era are still visible. It was one of the first public parks in Tokyo, created specifically to give city dwellers a quiet place to enjoy nature and to reflect on life. Much like the Meiji Shrine, Ueno Park is a peaceful respite in the middle of a city that hustles and bustles 24 hours a day.
Inside Ueno Park
Around Tokyo Station
Tokyo Station (東京駅, Tōkyō-eki) is the busiest station in Japan with more than 3,000 trains entering and departing the station. If you’re visiting the city and traveling via intra-city rail or commuter train or subway, chances are you will transit through Tokyo Station at some point on your journey.
The station is located in the Marunouchi business district in the east part of the city. Marunouchi is the home to three of Japan’s largest banks and is the heart of its financial and trading center. Japan’s Imperial Palace, as well as the high-end Ginza shopping district, are also a short walk away from Tokyo Station.
The Imperial Palace is probably my most favorite place to visit in this part of Tokyo. It’s a huge and sprawling complex but is designed to be aesthetically pleasing and in harmony with nature. It’s the home of the Emperor, but the majority of the grounds are open even when he is in residence.
The Imperial Palace
Around Shibuya Station
Shibuya Station (渋谷駅 Shibuya-eki) is the gateway to one of Tokyo’s most active shopping, business and nightlife districts. The station is the fourth-busiest in Japan and in the world, carrying an average 2.4 million passengers per day.
As you exit the station, head towards the famous Hachikō Exit (ハチ公口 Hachikō-guchi). The exit is named for Hachikō, arguably Japan’s most famous dog. Hachikō waited for his master faithfully every day at the west exit of the Shibuya station. When his master passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, Hachikō still returned to the spot daily to wait. The Japanese people see his life as a metaphor for loyalty, tradition and perseverance – three traits that are extremely important to the Japanese national identity.
A statue of the dog is located just outside the west exit.
To me, Shibuya is the quintessential representation of modern Tokyo. It’s the home of the 109 department store, a popular place for the young, hip residents of the area to shop and to be seen. It’s also filled with lots of big shopping areas, and quaint smaller shops and restaurants on the side streets. These side streets are the stereotypical representation of Tokyo – crowded, loud, lots of neon, and always buzzing with activity. Shibuya is also filled with many higher-end hotels, which draw a lot of foreign visitors. The large presence of foreign visitors in this area also means that there’s a wide variety of restaurants available – not only Japanese, but Indian, Italian, Mexican, American, and many other cuisines from all over the world. These restaurants are often staffed by people who are native to those countries, so the foods have a very authentic feel to them.
Believe it or not, one of the most interesting things to see in Shibuya isn’t a building…it’s an intersection. Shibuya crossing is a scramble crossing…a spot where multiple streets meet, and where traffic periodically stops to let pedestrians cross in pretty much any direction. It really has to be seen to be believed. You’ve likely seen the crossing on TV shows or movies like Lost In Translation. Large TVs and advertising screens surround the crossing, blaring out advertising 24×7 – adding to the frenetic pace. There is also a Starbucks store overlooking the crossing, and it’s a great place to relax with a cup of coffee and a sweet treat, and watch the craziness below you. Be forewarned, though – the Starbucks above the crossing is officially the busiest store in the entire chain, and the window seats are always taken first…so you may have to wait a while for a good view!
While Shibuya is ultra-modern, it also contains reminders of Japan’s history, including Meiji Shrine. It also contains part of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (which stretches through both Shibuya and Shinjuku). The Garden was originally part of the Imperial gardens, and now is open to the public.
Around Akihabara Station
If you love the ultra-modern, high-tech side of Japan, Akihabara is the place to visit. Akihabara Station (秋葉原駅 Akihabara-eki) is right in the middle of the area, making it a great place to stop for a visit.
Akihabara is the favored place in Tokyo for electronics shopping, manga/anime fans, and video game parlors. The area got started as a hub for electronics sales in the post WW II era, when vendors began selling home appliances and black-market electronics items. Around this time it acquired the moniker Akihabara Electric Town (秋葉原電気街 Akihabara Denki Gai), and it’s still commonly referred to by this name.
It’s also a favored spot for those who are part of the otaku subculture – people with obsessive interests, particularly in manga and anime. One other unique feature of Akihabara is its many maid cafes. The first maid cafe was established in Akihabara in 2001, and many have sprung up since that time. Patrons of these cafes are treated like masters or mistresses in a private home, rather than customers of a business. It’s definitely one of the most interesting aspects of the area’s unique culture.
Tips for Photography
Each stop along the Yamanote Line has its own culture and points of interest. There are some things you should keep in mind if you’re doing photography in or around the neighborhoods the line crosses through:
- The Line is busiest during the morning and afternoon rush hours (6:30-9:00AM and 4:00-7:00PM, respectively). If you’re a first time rider on Tokyo trains, it’s probably best to avoid these times. If you must travel during these times, try to avoid carrying lots of gear or baggage, because people are stuffed into railway cars like sardines during these hours.
- There’s a lot of motion and frenetic activity in the stations, so consider using slow shutter speeds to capture the sense of motion. If you use a tripod to steady your camera while taking these shots, be extremely careful and courteous of the commuters around you. Otherwise, use a wall or a pillar to steady your camera for the long shot.
- Since the Line’s official color is green, look for green (in all its various shades) in the neighborhoods you visit, to visually tie your photos together.
- As in most cities, people in Tokyo aren’t very receptive to having their photos taken without permission. If you see someone that you’d like to capture, get permission first. Walk up to them, bow slightly, hold up your camera and say “doozo” (DOE-zoe), which means please. If the person says “no”, move on. Don’t try to capture a candid shot of them later, as that will be a sign of extreme disrespect.
- A good middle-length lens (something like a 28-70mm lens) should suffice for most of your photography needs for the day.
- Leave the flash at home – it’s disruptive and obnoxious in the stations, and generally isn’t needed outside. If you’re shooting at night, use a tripod or a steady object to brace your camera.
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