Yamanote-sen (the High City Line)
After my Ōedo Line Extravaganza back in June 2015, I got a few requests to do a Yamanote Line Extravaganza. One message was hilarious and too long to quote in its entireity here, but the author said (and I quote):
How could you do the Oedo Line before the Yamanote?
He ended the email with:
You are dead to me, sir. Dead.
I don’t get a ton of mail, but gems like that keep me going. If you’re that on board with my JapanThis! style, then by all means, send emails! Well, it’s actually better to leave a comment. I take back the email thing. Leave comments for the sake of my inboxes. But either way, let’s be friends! Also, bonus points for spelling poseur correctly.
Anyhoo, the reason I started with the 大江戸線 Ōedo-sen Ōedo Line is because I’d already covered a lot of the areas it services and because the name 大江戸 Ōedo literally means the Greater Edo Area and was a nice way to wrap up some articles I had written previously to that series. Also, just including the word 江戸 Edo in the name was enough to make it first. Furthermore, I hadn’t re-written my looooong reference page about Yamanote vs. Shitamachi. I couldn’t very well write about the Yamanote Line without first exploring what those loaded terms meant, could I?
So What is the Yamanote Line?
The Yamanote Line has been described as Tōkyō’s most important train. It’s just a train line that runs in a circle around some prominent neighborhoods in Tōkyō. And just like the 大江戸線Ōedo-sen Ōedo Line, it runs in a loop around much of the old Edo city limits. However, unlike the Ōedo Line, it is in fact a true loop line that runs in an uninterrupted circle around the city center.
The word 山手 yamanote high city is the opposite of 下町 shitamachi low city. In the Edo Period, it referred to the secure high ground upon which the 大名 daimyō feudal lords and the 武家 buke samurai families lived. These days, residential addresses inside the Yamanote Line loop are seen as prestigious because they lie in the true center of Tōkyō. Owning or renting an apartment within the “Yamanote Line Loop” is generally expensive, but owning actual real estate[i] puts you into a unique segment of the city’s population. Sometimes you’ll see very old wooden houses within the loop that look run down and often decrepit. The owners may not have a lot of money and their houses may not look like much, but they’re the owners of a small plot of ancestral land that is literally worth a fortune. These families try to keep their land and live traditionally, passing on the plot to the next generation. Sometimes some son or daughter gets rich and knocks down the house and builds a modern domicile, but there are a few who resist and try to maintain this disappearing style of home – the idea being that if the head of the family falls into financial ruin, they could sell the ancestral plot for a huge sum of a money and recover the family’s inheritance.
The train line currently services 29 stations and in terms of passengers per day it puts most cities’ entire public transit systems to shame[ii]. A new, 30th station and business center will be added between 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station and 田町駅 Tamachi Eki Tamachi Station before the 2020 Tōkyō Olympics. This is the first route update to the Yamanote Line since 1971 and it will make use of an old trainyard and maintenance center that is being phased out by JR East, the company that operates the Yamanote Line. Incidentally, it will also give quick access to the 高輪大木戸 Takanawa Ōkido, one of the three original access points to the shōguns’ capital of 江戸 Edo.
The Original Route
The predecessor of the modern loop line was built in 1885 (Meiji 18) and started in 品川 Shinagawa (a seaside port area important for distribution, but relatively rural), then continued to 目黒 Meguro, then 渋谷 Shibuya, then 新宿 Shinjuku, then 目白 Mejiro, then 板橋 Itabashi, and terminated at 赤羽 Akabane (on the border of present day 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture, at the time a rural area near a river begging for industrial revolution pollution). This was the beginning of a new definition of 山手 yamanote high city. This was when the suburban and rural areas west of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle (then 東京城 Tōkyō-jō) came to be called “yamanote.” Of these stations, none qualified by Edo Period standards as yamanote. Sections of those towns were indeed home to a handful of daimyō, but for the most part they were the outermost suburbs of the shōgun’s capital.
The train line was eventually connected to form its present day loop in 1925 when Akabane was dropped from Yamanote Line service. Like most loop trains in major cities, the Yamanote Line had come to be one of the most efficient ways to get around the city. It united business centers, cultural centers, and the associated red light districts[iii] for maximum economic impact. Tourists tend to find themselves on the Yamanote all the time given the train’s access to major hub stations and hotel districts. Think of a major destination in Tōkyō, it’s probably on the Yamanote Line: 渋谷 Shibuya, 新宿 Shinjuku, 原宿 Harajuku, 代々木 Yoyogi, 上野 Ueno, 秋葉原 Akihabara, 東京駅 Tōkyō Eki Tōkyō Station, and 有楽町・新橋 Yūraku-chō/Shinbashi. For residents of the city, almost every station is necessary throughout the year.
I hope you’re excited about this series, because I am. Keep reading and keep watching this spot because I have a special announcement coming up very soon!
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[i] In terms of housing, this generally means the plot of land has been passed down the family for generations.
[ii] Yes, you heard me. This single line does more business than most cities’ entire transit systems.
[iii] For, as long time readers know, drinking & whoring.