SOUTHEAST (Akihabara to Shinagawa)
23. Book Town
As I emerge from Akihabara station the yellow Chuo line train rumbles across the viaduct overhead on its way towards Shinjuku. I am reminded that I used to use this station and this train when I worked nearby in the final three years I lived in Tokyo.
Directly ahead of me are the ornate lights of the road bridge across the river and in the background, with its distinctive cow logo, is the famous Manse steak restaurant. This was one of my frequent haunts when I worked in the area.
After crossing the bridge I divert left and thread through a few dark streets before coming to Kanda. Kanda is famous for having the biggest concentration of old book shops in the city but this area around the railway tracks is more of a drinking district.
The little street on my right is already full of people out enjoying themselves and the pachinko parlour at the end of it is already full of people playing.
Opposite the pachinko parlour is Kanda Station.
24. Great White Way
As I leave Kanda behind I stay with the elevated tracks on my left. I pass through a series of very dark passages and eventually emerge into a wider lane. There are various businesses occupying the arches under the railway tracks to my left here.
Most are closed at this hour but I pass one that is still open; it is a little warehouse full of liquor. A man is working outside loading up his truck with bottles and I presume that he is getting ready to go out and supply people around the city.
I emerge out of the darkness onto Sotobori Dori. There is a busy petrol station to my left and the intra-urban motorway is above me. Directly ahead is a beautifully-lit pedestrian walkway. It is covered in brilliant white tiles and it looks almost surreal. The skyscrapers of the Marunouchi commercial district, where Japan’s main banks have their headquarters, are also visible in the distance.
I walk along the white walkway almost until I reach Tokyo station square. The beautiful old station (1914) is very familiar but I still take a few minutes to walk around the square to photograph it and then I pop in one of the entrances and admire the interior.
25. Underneath the Arches
The next part of the walk down from Tokyo station is probably the one I am most familiar with. I have walked it many times over the years.
I keep the elevated tracks on the left as I walk. On my right is the place where the Hato (Hato means pigeon in Japanese) tourist buses depart from. These sightseeing buses make circular trips around the capital showing tourists all the main sights. As I walk by they are just announcing the beginning of a Tokyo-by-night tour and the bus is there waiting to depart.
On my left there is a series of bars and restaurants occupying the space underneath the arches of the railway viaduct. In my time I have visited many of these places.
I particularly remember one Japanese pub that used to be run by a British guy and his Japanese wife. It was popular back in the late 80s both for the authentic food and its helpful English menu.
Most of the places are displaying the traditional akachochin (red lantern) outside and all of them are already full of customers. Most are serving yakitori (grilled chicken) but a few are specialising in oden (a kind of hot pot dish popular in winter).
The sight and smell of these places creates a wonderful atmosphere and it is one of the things I love most about food in Japan.
I arrive at Yurakucho Station feeling more than a little hungry.
26. Bread and Pearls
Now I make a bit of a diversion. Instead of continuing straight along the side of the tracks, I deviate left, outside the loop once more, towards Ginza.
There is an important reason for this; I am after souvenirs for my wife and under strict instructions not to fail.
I cut through an up-market shopping arcade filled with after-work shoppers and then I go east a few blocks. I emerge on the main street of what is perhaps Tokyo’s most famous shopping district. The department store “Matsuya Ginza” is directly ahead of me but it is just one of the several internationally-renowned shops lining the avenue. Gathered here are some of the most expensive and elegant shops in Japan. I turn right and head south.
Before long I come to the Mikimoto pearl shop. I stop to admire the window display. It is decorated, like much in the city at the moment, in pink to celebrate the imminent arrival of the cherry blossoms. I am thankful that my wife has not requested pearls and I continue a few doors down to the Kimuraya Bakery.
The bakery claims to be the pioneer of western bakeries in Japan and dates from 1869. It is a Ginza institution. Its speciality is the anpan: little bread buns filled with sweet anko red bean paste. My wife adores them.
I check out the window display, it is also decorated with cherry blossom petals, and then dive in. The shop is quite busy and has that wonderful freshly-baked bread aroma. I queue and eventually manage to purchase an assortment of 10 buns chosen from the large wooden trays perched on the counter.
I set off again. I head south over the famous Ginza 4-chome crossing, where department stores Wako and Mitsukoshi face each other, and then make my way zigzagging through the area south of here: Ginza 6-chome.
The atmosphere here is slightly different from that north of the crossing. The shops, still exclusive and expensive, tend to be smaller and there are more entertainment venues too. Many of the buildings are adorned with the multi-coloured signs that indicate luxurious drinking establishments located on their upper floors.
I can almost smell “money” walking through these streets. Once or twice I witness very well-dressed people being helped out of expensive cars and then being ushered into exclusive clubs. It feels like a totally different world and one that I think I am not really supposed to be able to touch.
Eventually I emerge close to Shimbashi Station. I cross the road, go back under the Yamanote tracks to find myself back inside the loop (for good this time) and then go around to the west exit.
27. From Steam Engine to Monorail
I pause in the SL square and take in the atmosphere. The square has a real steam locomotive (SL) in the centre; it is there to commemorate Shimbashi’s role as the departure point of the Japan’s first railway.
The area next to the locomotive is used as a meeting point and I stand and watch for a while as people emerge from the station, link up with their waiting friends and then head off together towards the little lanes opposite that contain a myriad of pubs and bars.
I never came to Shimbashi much when I lived in Tokyo, but recently I have had more chance to discover it. I must admit that I am growing to like it. It is known as the “salaryman’s town” and it seems to offer a much more honest and reasonably priced night out than some of the more expensive areas close by.
I set off again heading south through streets filled with more brightly-coloured bars full of people enjoying themselves. Some of the establishments have seating outside and despite the fact it is getting colder people are sitting around drinking, chatting and eating.
I get to Route 15, cross it and then once more I am amazed at how quickly things change. I am now in a semi-deserted area. I weave my way through quiet streets. There has been a lot of redevelopment here too; the roads are lined with trees, the buildings are mostly new and the cobbled-style pavement looks very attractive.
I pass a Mitsui Garden Hotel that looks brand new and then, in total contrast to the more raucous drinking establishments of Shimbashi, I spot a quiet little Italian-style bar on a corner. The sign advertises wine, beer, whisky and cocktails all priced at 700 yen. It is almost empty.
I walk on and eventually come to the large complex that houses the Tokyo Monorail station. Opened in 1964, as the world’s first commercial monorail, it links Hamamatsucho with Haneda airport.
Hamamatsucho’s Yamanote line station is also located in the complex.
28. Fish and Boats
I haven’t eaten since Takadanobaba. I am hungry but I am anxious not to relax too much before I complete the walk. A hot can of onion gratin soup in a vending machine near the station exit catches my eye and I decide to go for it. It is surprisingly delicious and it gives me just about enough energy to continue to my last two stations.
The area south of Hammatsucho is the closest the Yamanote line comes to Tokyo bay. So, it is perhaps fitting that just after leaving the station I come across a large fish restaurant specialising in Tuna. I stand outside reading the explanations they have about how the fish is caught and gazing at the illustrations that show the different parts of the tuna. The pictures of the sashimi look wonderful too.
A short while later I come across a plaque on the side of the road which explains a little about the area I am walking through and its historical connection with the fishing industry and the bay. As I walk under another motorway viaduct I spot several fishing boats moored in the canal below.
I am now back on the Route 15 road that I started on at the beginning of my trip, and I will now follow it all the way back to Shinagawa. It is quite a soulless four-lane road and it is pretty deserted too. I find it odd that the traffic in central Tokyo always seems so light compared with London. I guess it is down to the lack of parking spaces in the centre and the fact that the vast majority of people use the train.
As I cross a footbridge I glance back and I can see Tokyo tower in the distance. It is floodlight and even at a distance it looks impressive in its orange and white colour scheme. The tower was opened in 1958 and was one of the first major symbols of Japan’s post-war regeneration. At 333m it is a little taller than the Eifel tower (320m) and before newer skyscrapers got in the way it used to be visible from much more of the city.
A short walk further on, just off Route 15, is Tamachi Station.
29. Closing the circle
There is a little square in front of Tamachi Station and in one corner of it some salarymen are enjoying drinks at a tachinomi bar. Tachinomi translates as “drinking whilst standing” and these cheap bars (they don’t have seats for customers) became popular in the economic recession around 20 years ago and remain so today.
Opposite the station there is a branch of Tsutaya: Japan’s impressive book store chain. In the last 30 years these attractive multi-floored stores, which also feature music and film, have blossomed all over Japan. Many, like this one, are open until 2am.
I leave Tamachi to continue south along Route 15. I am on the final stretch now but it is also the longest. It is about 2.5km to the end of the walk and my legs are starting to hurt just a bit.
Tamachi to Shinagawa is also the longest stretch of the Yamanote line without a station, but it won’t be for much longer. Work is progressing on a new station, “Takanawa Gateway” (the first for 50 years), which will help with access to the 2020 Olympic Games venues. I have already spotted the construction a few days earlier and from afar it looks as if it will be a very impressive structure.
I am still amazed at how quiet Route 15 is. It is 8pm on a weekday night but there is hardly any traffic on the road. The walk is pretty unexciting and, apart from several car dealerships (Toyota, BMW and Lexus) and numerous convenience stores, there is little to alleviate the boredom.
As I get closer to Shinagawa the vast railway freight yards are visible on the left and I can see the Yamanote line trains passing by again.
In the Edo period Shinagawa was the first of 53 “post towns” on the way to Kyoto and offered lodging and services to travellers making the journey west. It actually fulfills a similar role today; the fact that it has a bullet train station and is close to Haneda Airport mean that it is home to many hotels.
These hotels now start to appear along both sides of the road. First there is the APA, next the Grand Prince, then the Keikyu Stay and then finally the vast Shinagawa Prince opposite the station square comes into view.
As I approach the station I get that final burst of energy and it doesn’t take much effort to walk briskly up to the west entrance to take my 29th and final photograph. I feel surprisingly okay considering I have walked 40km. I also feel very glad that I chose to do the walk and really satisfied at finishing it.
And finally…. a beer !
My early plans had me jumping on the Yamanote line at this point and riding round for a celebratory loop. Now though, to be honest, I am a little tired of the whole thing and a beer seems like a much better idea.
I walk away from the station and soon stumble on one of the retro-pubs that started to appear about 20 years ago and seem to have remained popular since. The bars are decorated with old signs from the 1950s and 60s and recall the days when life in Japan was a bit simpler, and possibly a bit happier, than today.
As I sit there with an ice cold beer and some delicious yakitori I wonder what it would have been like to have done exactly the same walk when I first arrived in Tokyo in 1987. It would be fascinating to compare photographs from then and see what exactly had changed and what had remained the same.
Then some old Asahi Beer posters on the wall catch my eye. They seem to date from before the war and they get me thinking; what must it have been like to have done the walk just after the line was completed? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to go back to 1925 for just one day and walk the whole loop again?