Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Chin chin densha

Today the warm weather is coming back so I planned a tram trip (yes Tram not train!) on the Toden Arakawa line. The line was originally constructed by the Oji Electric Tram Company with the oldest section still operating today opened in 1913. The streetcar system began running in Tokyo in 1911 with bus operations added as an emergency measure due to the extensive damage caused by the 1923 earthquake.
In its heyday, there were 41 lines carrying an average of 2 million passengers a day. Decline set in with the arrival of the automobile and by the 1960s the trams were cramping the streets and inevitably couldn't compete with the traffic. The Olympics of 1964 sounded the death knell as the city tried to put on its most modern face for the world and free up as much space as possible. The tram's demise was finally sealed with the removal of 181km of track between 1967 and 1972.
The Arakawa line partly survives because of nostalgia, public pressure and the fact that it only partially runs on ordinary streets.
The entire 12km route is aboveground, the stations are tiny and the trams only seat about 20 people with standing room for as many as can squeeze in during peak hours.
I traveled from Machiya and its
quite a surprise when the tram suddenly emerges from its own tracks behind houses and other small buildings, into heavy traffic on the streets around the Sunshine Building and Otsuka, trundling along at an average speed of 12kmph. A lot of passengers got off here for Sugamo, a bustling town of old folk. Popularly known as "Obasan Harajuku" a place I visited on my last visit; a street of shops selling everything from dried fish to winter long johns.(red)
There is no obsessive split-second timetable that sandwiches passengers in the doors. The driver waits for stragglers, will reopen the door for latecomers and is considerate of the doddering old folks. People dodge in front and behind the tram. Paying a driver instead of automated gates or ticket machines also gives the tram a human touch. Best of all, there are mercifully few recorded nasal announcements on board. It's all rather quaint and perhaps suggestive of a different set of values, or maybe its just cute in this high tech city!
The name is taken from the sound of the bell, and the noise they make, not unfamiliar to this little tram-city-dwelling duck!

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