The Subject was Streetcars

A local community center in Tokyo’ s Arakawa Ward recently held an unusual art exhibit. The subject was streetcars.

Specifically, the subject was the streetcars of the Arakawa Line, which runs right past the center. All day long, boxy little khaki-colored one-car trains come and go at Machiya Ekimae Station, located on a traffic island in the middle of the street out front. They coast into the station with a quiet hum, and power out of it with a slightly louder one. Because they have to wait for traffic lights and try not to hit whatever pedestrians, cyclists, or cars happen to cross their path, the drivers frequently resort to ringing a high-pitched bell. This has given the streetcars their nickname: the Chin Chin Densha, or Ding Ding Train.

It’ s hard not to like these little trains, and the people who live nearby seem to be just as crazy about them as anyone. Dozens of local residents participated in the streetcar art show, most of them contributing photos. These included a streetcar in springtime passing beneath a branch of cherry blossoms, a streetcar in winter doggedly creeping through the snow, and a streetcar at night blurring along between neon-lit buildings. One participant contributed intricate cut-paper artwork depicting large and exquisitely detailed streetcar scenes that must each have taken weeks to execute.

“Sure,” I hear you say, “Trolleys are cute to look at and probably even fun to ride, but do they actually GO anywhere worthwhile?” To find out, I recently went on an expedition along the Arakawa Line. It primarily services residential areas that rarely attract tourists, but getting off the beaten path often yields surprises. As I explored I encountered sacred trees, famous wigs, giant living fish heads, and a whole lot more.

WASEDA STATION: Masks and Wigs

I began my tour of the Arakawa Line at its western terminus, two blocks north of Waseda University. At first glance, the Waseda campus looks like the grounds of any urban college in any big city. The outdoor bulletin boards that line the pedestrian thoroughfares are covered with multicolored fliers stapled there by various student groups. These provide the only contrast to the drab and square institutional buildings that loom on both sides.

However, if you enter the campus by the north gate and take the first two right turns, you’ ll suddenly be confronted by a four-story white plaster building crisscrossed with heavy black external beams. It looks like the stage set from a Shakespearean play, and the effect is completely intentional. It’ s the Waseda University Theater Museum, and William Shakespeare is one of only two people to have entire rooms devoted to them.

Of course, Japan has rich theatrical traditions of its own. The interior of the museum, unlike the facade, is dedicated entirely to them (except for the Shakespeare room). The other person to have a room of his own is Nakamura Utaemon VI, a noted modern oyama (or onnagata), a kabuki actor who plays female roles. Several of his wigs and other accouterments were on display. These included a heavy looking quilted kimono that had a larger-than-life peacock on the back. Each individual feather had been painstakingly embroidered in a variety of colors.

Very few of the exhibits are explained in English, but it is possible to learn from some of them just by looking. For example, there were several bunraku puppets on display, and I was surprised to note that one of them had moveable eyebrows. The scale models of various theaters, complete with cutaway sections for inside views, showed that kabuki and noh require distinctly different forms of architecture. In the museum’ s only interactive exhibit, visitors can try on a noh mask and shuffle across a small piece of noh stage. A large mirror is thoughtfully provided.

There was even a small exhibit on Japanese burlesque shows from the 1960s. There was very little accompanying text, even in Japanese. Then again, photos of topless dancing women in Carmen Miranda headgear really don’ t require very much explanation. For some reason, the strip shows of 1990s Japan were not mentioned. I simply can’ t imagine why not.

Once you’ ve had your fill of art you can get some fresh air along the Kanda River, one block north of Waseda Station. There’ s a good chance you’ ll encounter wild ducks and giant carp. At times the water is so shallow that the carps’ dorsal fins glide back and forth above the water, sinister and sharklike, as the fish search for food. The river is flanked by an ornamental brick pathway lined with shrubs and trees. If you follow this path for a few blocks you’ ll find yourself standing in front of Omokagebashi Station, the next stop on the Arakawa Line.

Shortly after trains leave this station, they make an abrupt 90-degree turn to the right, crossing the river and heading uphill toward Ikebukuro. If you happen to be sitting or standing right behind the driver and looking over his shoulder — yes, it is allowed — these sudden turns can be kind of fun.

KISHIBOJIMAE STATION: Stone Owls and a Sacred Tree

Before reaching Ikebukuro you might want to disembark at Kishibojimae Station for a dose of Japanese religion. There is a large bilingual neighborhood map posted in each station, and Kishimojin-do Temple is highlighted as a local point of interest here. It’ s actually fairly ordinary as Buddhist temples go, but it does share its grounds with a small Shinto shrine apparently dedicated to the spirit of a great tree. The tree, gnarled and gray, doesn’ t seem to have as much spirit as it might once have had, but even as it slowly dies it remains impressive. It is truly enormous, with a trunk nearly two meters thick. The tree is girt with ropes and ribbons and enclosed by two pathways to the little shrine behind it. One path passes beneath 17 bright red torii gates, and the other has 19. Kishimojin-do also boasts four stone owls, each the size and shape of a beer keg. Ironically, Otori Jinja two blocks away — a place whose name literally means Big Bird Shrine — has no avian imagery at all.


Higashi-Ikebukuro Station is just a few blocks from Sunshine City, a mind-boggling commercial complex. From a distance it appears to be four separate buildings — the tallest of which is 60 stories — but all of them are joined at their base by an enormous multistory shopping mall. In addition to the countless shops and restaurants one might expect to find in such a complex, there is also a theater, a museum, an indoor theme park, a large hotel, a planetarium, and even an aquarium. The aquarium has an impressive array of ocean creatures, especially when one considers that all of them are now living on the roof of a ten-story building in the heart of a major city. There are jellyfish, penguins, crabs, and trained seals. There are tropical fish, eels, and octopi. The most famous of all, though, is the ocean sunfish. The mambou.

Maybe this fish is popular because its name is so fun to say in Japanese. Mambooooooooooou. On the other hand, it may be popular because its head is the size of a large sofa cushion, and it has no body.

That’ s right, this fish has no body. It doesn’ t even have much of a neck. I’ m sure that there are hearts and intestines and ovaries inside those fish somewhere, but they are probably tucked away where you or I would have sinuses. Gill-breathers presumably don’ t need sinuses.

The mambou must be viewed through a sheet of plastic, like a thick transparent shower curtain, that keeps them from touching the glass walls of their tank. This is because the mambou are creatures of the open sea. Their natural habitat is hundreds of kilometers from land and thousands of meters above the ocean floor. They live in a universe completely devoid of solid objects. They could unwittingly kill themselves by bumping into the glass too often. I’ m told they dine on jellyfish.

Think about it. A population of giant living heads, every one of them a goggle-eyed gourmet, spend their entire lives floating softly in unlimited space. On this very planet!

The same planet is also home to giant frogs from the Amazon. They are about the size of large housecats and thrive on a similar diet. Mice.

I had been looking forward to the spectacle of giant frogs zapping mice from across the room with tongues the size of anchor ropes, but I was disappointed. The frogs, ever catlike, were all asleep. Fortunately, the aquarium shows a short video of the amphibians feeding. Tongue-zapping is apparently not an effective way to catch mice, so a giant frog does something that is both less spectacular and more horrific. It leaps into the air with its jaws spread wide and lands on the hapless rodent mouth-first. No more mouse.

If you find yourself shaken by such unexpected forms of life and death — or just by the rampant commercialism of Sunshine City as a whole — then head back toward Higashi-Ikebukuro Station. Don’ t get back on the trolley, though. Continue walking for another two blocks until you hit Zoshigaya Cemetery. Like Tokyo itself, the cemetery is vast and densely populated. Unlike most of Tokyo, it is serenely quiet. The roar of traffic on a nearby freeway fades to a hum, and it is actually possible to hear birds twittering softly in the ornamental trees that shelter many of the graves. Covering several city blocks, it’ s a lovely place to unwind with a leisurely afternoon stroll, during which you may contemplate your own mortality. As you do, it may be consoling to reflect that whatever is going to put you in your grave some day, it probably won’ t be a colossal frog.


Back on the trolley, be sure to position yourself behind the driver for the really nifty downhill S-curve that leads into Otsuka Ekimae Station. Heading out of this station, the trolley sails down a very long straightaway through an ordinary residential neighborhood. Houses and ramen shops back up almost onto the tracks, providing a view of Tokyo that won’ t be on the cover of Travel? any time soon. Narrow roads squeeze between the closely packed buildings, and even tiny, meter-wide alleys have tiny, meter-long crossing arms that come down as the trams roll by. Most of the buildings in this area are less than three stories tall, and every now and then the soot-streaked smokestack of a neighborhood bath rises above it all. Get out at any of the next several stops for a soak or a stroll. You’ ll find yourself in an area where futons are draped from every window in sunny weather and laundry flaps from poles virtually every day. In residential Tokyo cottage industries still exist, so don’ t be surprised if you happen by an open-fronted workshop where people are weaving tatami, or if you stumble upon a shop that sells nothing but lanterns.

ASUKAYAMA STATION: A Mountain in the City

The last stop on the straightaway is Asukayama, named for the large hill that prevents the tracks from going straight any farther. From here they curve down and around the northern flank of the hill to get to Oji Station at the bottom of the other side. In making this descent, the trolley drives onto the pavement of a major street and shares the road with automotive traffic for about two blocks. It is brief segments such as this that earn the Arakawa Line its bragging rights at the last “streetcar” in Tokyo. The Setagaya Line, located elsewhere in the city, keeps the Arakawa Line from being Tokyo’ s only “trolley.”

Across the street from Asukayama Station is Asukayama Park, which occupies the upper half of the hill. There, you can enjoy long views of Tokyo stretching west toward Ikebukuro, where Sunshine City dominates the skyline, or east toward Chiba, where the horizon is nearly flat. The top of the hill is thinly forested with small trees and scattered statues. There is also a large playground that features a decommissioned streetcar and a gigantic old steam locomotive. The centerpiece of the playground is a two-story high cement castle where kinds can play a real-life game of Chutes and Ladders. It has eight slides and even more ladders.

Slightly downhill and to the south, there is a trio of museums: the Paper Museum, the Shibusawa Memorial Museum, and a local historical museum. All are housed in very large and modern-looking buildings, and all of them were closed for the evening when I arrived.

The park itself may even have been (officially) closed by the time I arrived, but I was not alone in the gathering darkness. A middle-aged woman in a surgical mask was practicing tai-chi beneath a stand of pine trees that whispered in the evening breeze. A solitary young man seemed to be cruising, which I found mildly exciting and poignantly sad. A straight couple was making out in the cab of the cold black locomotive. It was time for me to go home.


As I stood on the hilltop I could see the lights of a trolley far below heading east without me, east toward the yellow moon that was rising slowly above the city haze. The stops still ahead of it included Machiya Ekimae, where the trolley itself was star of the community art show. Also ahead was Kodai Station, where one may leave the trolley and transfer to the “Water Bus” which docks three blocks north on a side channel of the Ara River.

According to my maps, the Water Bus service extends both upriver and down, including stops in seven different Tokyo wards. Even when compared to streetcars, a boat line is a pretty distinctive form of urban transportation. So, the next time I notice a community art exhibit in Tokyo, I’ m definitely going to pop in for a look.
The subject may be boats.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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