Epic Exploration #01: Cycling the Toden Arakawa Line

Running through inner city streets of northern and eastern Tokyo is the only surviving section of the city’s original tram/streetcar network, the Toden. It’s a lovely reminder of what was once an extensive 213 km system covering the Tokyo metropolitan area, since superceded by the famously efficient, incredibly maintained, comfortable and cheap Japan Rail and Tokyo Metro public transport networks.

background and history

The Tokyo Toden story began in 1903 when one small horse-drawn railway company converted to electricity. Within 3 years two other electric railway companies merged with it to form Tokyo Railways (in Japanese “Tokyo-to Densha”, or Toden for short), and from that point a rapid expansion took place as routes were developed and other companies joined the fold.

In its heyday back in the early 1960’s, 41 separate Toden routes criss-crossed Tokyo, connecting all the main urban centres and some smaller outlying areas.

However, due to a combination of increasing numbers of road users and the ongoing development of the train system, beginning in 1967 a systematic restructuring led to over 200km of tramlines (95% of the network) being shut, and now a mere 12.2km remain.

This small section, renamed the Toden Arakawa Line, comprises parts of 3 original lines. It runs through older, lesser-known neighbourhoods of Tokyo’s north and east and is therefore not used by a particularly large number of passengers. However by the time it reaches its southern end, the line has crossed underneath the Yamanote (Tokyo’s main “loop” line) and entered Tokyo’s crowded centre, passing close to the busy urban neighbourhoods of Ikebukuro and Shinjuku.

Some videos of the Toden in action:

This first one is taken from the front of the moving tram:

And these show the cars running past at various points along the line:

my journey by bicycle

On a recent Saturday afternoon I set off to follow the entire route of the Toden Arakawa Line by bicycle. The length of the line is 12.2km, and I timed my journey to include sunset and dusk transitioning into a warm evening.

I began at the northern end of the line, Minowabashi station

The train sets off through older areas with many small crossings

Schoolgirls on bicycles show the ubiquitous V sign

A long straight stretch alongside Arakawa Natural Park, at Arakawa-Nichome station
Like much of the line, the track runs behind houses and is lined with flowers.

Machiya-Nichome station. After Machiya station roads flank the line.
Note the Toden’s narrow platforms, on most stations less than 2m wide.

Machiya-Nichome station

At Kumanomae, the line passes under the Nippori-Toneri Liner, the fences disappear and Toden tracks merge with the central part of the road.



In suburban residential areas of Tokyo, bicycles are the predominant form of local transport.
Note also the typical narrow apartment block in the background.

The entrance to a small local amusement park at Arakawa-Yuenchimae station

The tram depot at Arakawa-Shakomae

The station next to the depot

A particularly lovely flower-lined section

Sunset near Kajiwara

Kajiwara station

The line takes a bend and we’re back in light-industrial streets, with warehouses and main roads

Overhead the main Japan Rail Keihin-Tohoku line at Oji

The tram tracks merge with the road briefly again on the climb uphill next to Asukayama Park…

…and then once more we enter a zone of small old residential alleyways

Here there are no paths alongside the Toden, which cuts straight between houses, and one must zig-zag back and forth to follow the line.
Note the Kuroneko Yamato delivery van in the distance, as seen in the Cutest Deliveries In Japan blog post

Trams are within touching distance at the small crossings, and with only 5 minute intervals between trams, crossing gates are almost constantly active.

A lovely old sign near Nishigahara-Yonchome

Near Koshinzuka

A strange series of grass-filled boxes between the tracks near Sugamo-Shinden

Finally we approach more central parts of Toyko, as the Toden heads under the Yamanote Line at Otsuka

Otsuka-Ekimae station

Uphill towards Mukohara near the main urban centre of Ikebukuro

Despite it being central Tokyo, there are still wonderful networks of tiny streets. Here again the Toden cuts through small roads which zigzag across the tracks.

Ikebukuro’s Sunshine Building in the background as we begin a downhill run from Zoshigaya

Downhill at dusk – Zoshigaya to Kishimojinmae

The only tunnel under the Toden Arakawa line along its entire 12km length

As night falls, continuing downhill towards the last 3 stations

A rather nondescript main thoroughfare is the setting for the final Toden station

Waseda station, the end of the line

~ by JapanGasm on 16 June, 2010.

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