A Streetcar Named Chin Chin

02/01/2011
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TOKYO (majirox news) – It’s called Tokyo’s Chin Chin Densha, chugging down the tracks with its bells ringing.

The Toden Arakawa Line streetcars celebrated its 100-year-old birthday on January 31. It’s the last remaining one. Since the 1960s the other Toden lines have gradually disappeared from Tokyo’s streets. The only reason this one survived was because local residents opposed demolishing it.

And for the last 10 years the Arakawa Line has gained ridership as more and more people discover how cheap and convenient it is. At 160 yen it’s 40 yen cheaper than the bus, and is one of the most consistently profitable lines in the entire Tokyo area. It has never run in the red once, and for the last 10 -15 years revenues have increased steadily as new riders discover it.

One of the most unique features of the Arakawa Line is its “retro” streetcar,” which runs regularly with the other streetcars throughout the week.

The inside and outside are reminiscent of the streetcars when the Arakawa Line started in 1911. The inside is wood paneled with seats of plush velvet, done in the Victorian style. A skylight runs the length of the train completing the retro design. Like all other streetcars on the Arakawa line, it can be rented for parties and excursions, and occasionally you will see it pull past a station packed with partygoers having a good time.

This streetcar runs regularly with the other streetcars throughout the week, and if you are lucky you can catch a ride on it.

The streetcar is a treasure trove for knowledgeable tourists and sightseers. “I’ve been riding the Arakawa line for over 20 year,” says Tomohiko Yamada. “It’s also a great way to take people on tours of lesser known parts of Tokyo. Day long passes are sold, and almost every stop has something worth seeing.”

There’s the stop at Waseda a few meters walk from one of the best bird watching sites in Tokyo in the shallow riverbed of the Kanda River where migrating flocks from Siberia touch down on their way to South East Asia and Indonesia.

Another stop up from there is the Kansen Koen Park and the immaculately preserved Japanese garden that was once the private garden of a Hatamoto, one of the high Daimyo (feudal lord) of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Right across the street is the Tokyo cloth-dying museum, where you can try your hand at dying cloth in the traditional manner. Then, a few stops up is Higashi Ikebukuro, where you can go to the Mint, and watch coins made and yen printed.

Riding a few more stops up the line takes you to Koshinzuka, “Tokyo’s Grannies,” which centers on a temple with an image that supposedly cures rheumatism.

Long famous for the hundreds of shops that cluster around it that cater to Tokyo’s grannies, including one that sells nothing but bright red ladies bloomers and said to bring good luck. It has recently been expanding into all sorts of shops selling craft and handmade items. The area is well worth a visit whether you are over 60 or not.

At another stop you can eat “dojo” (loach) a favorite Edo era snack, which has all but disappeared elsewhere. And if you are really lazy, you can literally step from the tram right into a coffee house that somehow managed to get itself built into the platform at one stop.

The Arakawa Line is also the favorite of Tokyo’s legion of train photographers. It may be the most widely photographed in all of Japan. At times it seems that there are more photographers on the platforms trying to get that perfect shot than there are passengers waiting to board it.

Kenji Arai, a Tokyo resident, says riding the streetcar is still one of his favorite things to do. “It’s a friendly place and doesn’t feel like public transportation or getting on a bus at all,” he says. “Every stop, each one of them is utterly unique.

The streetcar is operated by Tokyo’s Bureau of Transportation. Happily for its many fans and passengers there haven’t been any plans to take the Arawakawa Line out of service.

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