NORTHEAST (Sugamo to Akihabara)
15. Uyghur Restaurant
Sugamo is quite famous for being a shopping area that is popular with the older generation. In fact it is sometimes referred to as a kind of silver-haired version of Harajuku. This is all down to Jizo-dori, a street just to the north of the station which is said to have just the kind of shops that attract the older person. I don’t have time to visit the street today but I smile as I walk past the station and spy a succession of older women coming out.
After Sugamo I continue to walk east alongside the tracks just outside the loop. The street I am walking down is residential and very quiet.
There are still a few things of interest down here though; I see a little shrine nestling between the residential tower blocks, I go past a large baseball field and then finally I come across an Uyghur restaurant.
Quite why there is a restaurant of this little central Asian nation in this quiet residential Tokyo street, I have no idea, but there it is. There is an amazing range of different cuisines available in Tokyo and when we lived here in the 90s we would challenge ourselves to visit as many restaurants as we could.
After another two hundred metres the quiet residential street turns into a narrow pedestrian passage way lined on both sides with restaurants and shops.
Then, after a few more minutes, Komagome station is visible on the right.
16. Hurray for Azalea Street
From Komagome I go back inside the loop to head southeast. Once again, I am cutting a corner off as the railway makes a big arc around to the next station.
Immediately south of the station I head into a narrow shopping street known as “Komagome Azalea Shopping Street”. It is an absolute delight to walk down as it is full of the type of old-style shops that I remember from the areas I used to live in Ikebukuro and Shinjuku 30 years ago. It is really nice to find areas like this still in existence.
I walk past an assortment of businesses ranging from grocers, tofu sellers and lunch cafes to dry cleaners and printers. The little street is bustling with customers and, judging by the clientele, it is well supported by the locals.
Eventually, I head off through a residential area which also seems to have escaped redevelopment. If I ever had to come back to live in Tokyo, I think I would like to live at least for a little while in an area like this.
Sadly this all ends as I emerge onto a wide modern street that looks suspiciously like the kind of street that has now been laid over the area where our little flat used to be in Shinjuku. I guess houses must have been sacrificed to create this street too. I really hope that Azalea street can survive the onslaught of the developers.
As I pass a shrine at the end of the road I see a sign that tells me this area is famous for Japanese writers. There is a museum dedicated to them nearby and the sign depicts who they all were and where in the area they lived.
I walk a little further and reach Tabata Station.
17. Fast Trains and Sky Trees
I stand in front of Tabata Station. I have now pretty much completed my easterly wandering and the rest of my journey all the way down to Shinagawa will take me roughly in a southerly direction.
Now, looking south and with the station to my left, I head off once more. I climb a small staircase that takes me up a few floors at the side of a building to connect with higher ground above. I then walk south along a little path high up above the station.
The bullet train tracks carrying trains in from the north are visible here and behind them a great vista of eastern Tokyo has opened up before me. In the distance to the southeast Tokyo’s newest tall structure “Sky Tree” can clearly be seen.
After a short walk I descend a little and come to the entrance of Nishi Nippori Station.
18. Three Temples and a Shrine
Keeping on the inside of the Yamanote loop, I climb up once again and pass through tiny Nishi Nippori Park to come to a picturesque little lane that is almost rural in nature. I look at a map display by the side of the road and see that my whole route to the next station takes me past a succession of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples.
First up on the left hand side is Suwa Shrine. It was famous in the Edo period as a place to view Mount Fuji from. I stop to have a little wander around.
I continue along and come to Jokoji Temple with its little cemetery at the front. A little bit further along is a charming little Swiss chalet style café. It looks quite inviting but I decide to leave it for another time and carry on towards my next station.
Yet another temple, Yofukuji, is a little further along and I have a quick look in there too.
Finally there is Kyooji. It is probably the most impressive of the four and there is a sign explaining that the main gate still has the bullet holes from the Battle of Ueno in 1868.
I come to the end of the little lane. A right turn here will take me up to Yanaka Ginza, a retro-shopping street popular with tourists. I have visited it before but I don’t have time to see it today.
Instead, I turn left and come quickly to Nippori Station.
19. Short Time or Stay?
I cross the Yamanote tracks on a bridge in front of Nippori Station (I am outside of the loop once more) and then skirt around past the eastern exit. I walk past Zenshoji temple and stop for a short while to admire its plum blossoms.
I then head into an area that is synonymous with love hotels. It is an interesting walk and I zigzag back towards the tracks through street after street of these garish hotels that are designed primarily for having sex in. There are lots of them and they all have names like P-Door, Sugar, Sweet and Augusta Duo.
This is one of the three largest (the others are Shibuya and Shinjuku) areas of such hotels and it owes its existence to the nearby red light district of Yoshiwara, one of the most extensive, historic and famous in Japan.
The area is not crowded at all at this time in the afternoon and it feels a bit weird; not least because there are elderly people and school children walking through the area too. Right in the middle of all this there is a shrine that seems to have some early flowering cherry blossom trees.
There is also a little park and some people are playing gateball whilst others are just standing around talking. I notice a few are smoking. This doesn’t seem to be a smoking area either.
Towards the edge of the area there is a little akachochin (red lantern pub) that is offering sticks of motsuyaki (grilled offal) for 80 yen a shot. I am really tempted but press on.
Finally I come to Uguisidani Station which is sitting in the middle of a little plaza atop of the tracks. I cross the plaza and I am inside the loop once more.
20. Preparing for Blossoms
The atmosphere changes as soon as I leave Uguisidani. I walk past a long line of taxis in an organised holding area and I assume they are waiting to go down to Ueno Station. Opposite is a large sign board with election posters. It is election time and the tradition in Japan is to present all the candidate posters together on one large board. I guess it puts them all on an equal footing.
From here it is a brief walk to the northern entrance of Ueno Park. I enter the park and then walk through the part of it that has Tokyo’s largest concentration of museums. I go past the science museum with its giant plastic whale and D51 steam locomotive outside and then spend a few moments sat on one of the benches nearby admiring the plum blossoms.
Ueno Park is pretty much how I always remember it, although they seemed to have spruced it up a bit. There is a branch of Starbucks and a pleasant-looking Parkside café which looks like an inviting place to sit and relax.
Pretty as the plum blossoms are, Ueno is more famous for its cherry blossoms and preparations are being made for the hanami viewing season which will begin in a few weeks. Families and companies will bring tarpaulins and lay them on the ground under the trees. They will then drink and party under the blossoms until the early evening. In preparation, rubbish bins have already been positioned and posters with sets of rules governing exactly what you can and can’t do whilst viewing have already been posted.
It seems that one family can’t wait and they have already found one early flowering tree and are celebrating already.
I exit the park and find myself high above Ueno Station and on the top of a large shopping centre. I then descend down through the shopping centre via a series of escalators until I am level with the station entrance.
Ueno Station is famous for being the traditional departure point of long distance trains serving destinations in the north of Japan. Although its role as a terminus has been diminished recently with the extension of the bullet train to Tokyo, it is still an important commuter station.
It is 5:35pm and the first homeward bound commuters are already starting to pour into the station.
The next part of the Yamanote line, stretching down from Ueno to Shimbashi, was the last bit to be completed. As a result the tracks sit on top of a viaduct for the next 6km or so. For most of this distance there is an alleyway or a road running parallel to the railway making navigation straightforward.
The first part of this alleyway is occupied by the famous Ameyayokocho open air market. The market is home to almost 200 shops and stretches all the way down to the next station.
The market is full of boisterous traders and sells everything from fresh fish to clothes, bags and cosmetics. The prices are quite keen and it is one of the few places in Tokyo where it is okay to bargain a little. There are a lot of little cheap places to eat as well.
It is quite a special atmosphere and it is one of the first places I used to bring new visitors to Tokyo to see.
It is not a bad time of the day to visit. It is starting to get a little dark and the place definitely looks better lit up. I walk quickly through the market stopping only occasionally to watch people making purchases.
Before long I have completed the stretch and I am standing in front of Okachimachi Station.
22. Electric District
I cross the road still heading south and still with the elevated tracks to my left. The atmosphere has suddenly changed though. All the crowds have gone and the way ahead looks quite deserted and dark. I find this one of the most curious parts to walking around Tokyo; one minute you can be in crowds of people and the next in totally deserted streets.
Eventually I take a right and head west towards Suehirocho Metro Station and then on to the main street that heads down from Ueno towards Akihabara. It is much busier here.
This part of the street is filled with costume girls dressed up as their favourite characters standing on the pavement handing out leaflets. The area is, along with Ikebukuro, one of the main centres for anime fans and in the surrounding area there are specialist cafes and shops catering to them.
Further down I come to what Akihabara is most famous for all around the world: masses of brightly-lit shops selling electrical and electronic goods. Desperate for the toilet, I dive into Bic Camera, one of the largest stores. There are 6 or 7 floors of everything electrical here and, luckily, there is also a toilet on the 4th floor.
Emerging from the shop I pass through the electrical market under the railway tracks. I have been in this place many times. It is a maze of little stalls selling tiny components like switches, plugs and radio spares. It is totally fascinating.
As I come out of the market the southern entrance of Akihabara Station is right in front of me.