Epic Exploration #03: 77 Station Stamp Pilgrimmage
It was an unusual occurrence – a delay on the Yamanote Line. The reason for the delay? Being a windy day, a plastic bag had blown on to the track and had to be cleared. Such is the dedication to cleanliness in Tokyo.
Anyhow, it turned out to be a very fortunate delay. As I waited at Otsuka Station for a friend to arrive I noticed a poster displaying a series of “Eki no stampu” (“station stamps”), one of which could be collected at each of 77 different stations on the JR network.
I had found my early springtime mission: a pilgrimmage by bicycle around Tokyo taking in all 77 stations. As it was cherry-blossom season, this was obviously a great framework for a journey to never-before-visited locations and sakura-viewing.
And of course, the real aim was not to visit the stations themselves, but to discover spots Between Stations.
This is the true joy of living in a big city. Almost everyone travels by train and of course knows the locations in and around the stations they visit. But most people never see the areas between stations, the very places where discovery occurs and unique character lies.
So here is the map of the 77 stations as displayed on the poster:
The main 34.5km loop of the Yamanote Line, with a few small offshoots.
So far so good, I thought.
However, I had failed to take into account one of the fundamental and immutable truths about Japan, which is this:
A map is never a reflection of reality.
This is what the map of those stations really looks like:
What I thought would be a leisurely day or two cycling in the sunshine was actually going to be a mammoth journey covering more than 235km.
Unlike many previous journeys, this was not intended to be a photographic documentation. It was undertaken purely for the pleasure of the ride. But, of course, many cool things were seen and snapped along the way.
There are many famous or significant sights near the stations themselves, but they’re not included here. These are just a few of the many fascinating, quirky, beautiful and cool things that lie between the 77 stations.
The initial impetus for the journey was to see sakura. I was amazed at how many small, out of the way places had incredible displays. Not only larger rows of trees like those shown here, but also hundreds of single trees dotted around small residential areas.
Countless times I was bathed in a beautiful and delicate shower of petals as I cycled underneath the blossoms, one of the most delightful lingering memories of the journey.
While on the subject, are these meant to be flowers? Or fried eggs?
Some meticulously arranged wires supplying the rail network and forming a lovely bridge across the road.
One of the coolest spots in Tokyo to watch interpenetrating rail lines and tunnels.
In the middle of a nondescript zone beyond Kameari, a local enthusiast’s antenna (far taller than it looks here) towers above the surroundings. I wondered to where he speaks or to what distant places he listens late at night on his kit…
No shortage of narrow buildings were encountered on the pilgrimmage. From those squeezed into the gaps next to canals…
An outstandingly small house on the way to Abiko.
I stumbled completely unexpectedly upon a dinosaur park, filled with a wide variety of life-sized and miniature beasts…
…and an absolutely extraordinary piece of fake woodery.
Another fake wooden masterpiece – a double-sided drinking fountain. This one was found by the side of the road in a tiny corner under a bridge in the northern reaches of the line to Akabane.
Wires, wires everywhere!
Rows of huge pylons cut through residential areas, towering above homes, majestic and beautifully minimal. And at street level, the networks of wires form their intricate patterns against the sky.
Next to a river, swans swimming peacefully, gracefully…
A stunning triple-pipe building!
And another pipe-centric building. This one leapt out suddenly in front of me as I made haste around the back alleys in the Nakano area.
Note the impressive example of “トマソン” (Thomasson) – a door to nowhere on the second floor.
Later the same evening I passed by this mushroom house.
A quite bizarre small, narrow “park” consisting of little but raised slabs of concrete.
Out at Shin-Matsudo, an entire hillside has been cut away and terraced.
It makes for an idyllic little agricultural country scene, nestled between train lines, tall buildings and houses. Oh, and bicycle parking.
A tunnel under the Yamanote Line which has undoubtedly the lowest ceiling of any in Tokyo. Note the people ducking their heads, and the incredibly narrow gap between the top of the taxi’s roof light and the concrete.
What were they thinking?
A tasteful pastel apartment block.
There’s a beautiful village-like atmosphere in a small pocket east of Abiko, where I found blossoming pink sakura, children playing in a park filled with sunshine, small wiggly alleyways and cute little houses. Running through it, this open-topped ribbed canal.
No Tokyo exploration would be complete without Pointless People. Here’s one near Shin-Okubo, inexplicably guarding a pole.
And this is what I was seeking out at each station of the journey – the stamp spot!
The aerial view
Here it is, the map of the entire trip.
Hundreds of memories.
Interestingly, of the many station staff I met as I claimed my rubber stamps, every one seemed genuinely surprised to hear I was doing the trip by bike. They explained that many people (almost exclusively either train-maniacs or small boys with their mothers) visit all 77 stations, but they invariably do the trip entirely by train.
I must admit I therefore felt quite a sense of achievement at having completed it under my own power, but more than anything I hope simply that it inspires others to do the same!