JR Yamanote Line: Tokyo's Circular Cruise
29 Stops, 29 Sights
The JR (Japan Rail) Yamanote Line (山手線) is a rail loop located in the heart of Tokyo and one of the busiest in the world. Its 29 stations offer access to most of Japan's famous neighborhoods, including Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Tokyo (proper) and Ueno, although every stop has its charms and sights to behold.
In June of 2009 I made it a mission to stop at every station on the Yamanote Line and take some photos. This hub is thus part photo-journal, part quick and dirty guidebook of things to do and see within walking distance of Yamanote's 29 stations.
(Heads up, there's a quiz at the end!)
#1 - Shinagawa (品川駅)
Shinagawa Station is the official terminus station (in both directions) of the Yamanote Line. It's one of Japan's oldest stations, originally opening in 1872, and offers services to seven separate lines, including a planned Shinkansen terminus.
Technically Shinagawa Station is not located in Shinagawa Ward, but in Minato Ward. Surrounding the station is Japan's financial and political centers. About five minutes from the station is an aquarium beneath the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Shinagawa Station's main attractions are the abundance of hotels that offer quick access to the station at any time for massive travel within Tokyo and beyond.
#2 - Osaki (大崎駅)
The first stop after the terminus is Osaki, a station that gets most of its use from being the main depot center for Yamanote trains.
The Osaki area is mainly comprised of business towers and a lot, and that's a lot of "gated community" apartments and quite a few pricey private houses. It's a great place to go for a walk and "experience" life in Tokyo, since it's a veritable hodgepodge of old and new all within blocks of one another.
#3 - Gotanda (五反田駅)
Gotanda is another heavy business and residential district, but with some outlying gems. Perhaps ones of the most unique and intriguing things about the area is a Peruvian consulate office that has inspired Peruvian shops and restaurants to flourish around it. There is also a theater called "Shiki Theater" that promotes all Japanese casts of popular Broadway shows within walking distance of the station.
#4 - Meguro (目黒駅)
The biggest attraction of the Meguro area is by far the Meguro River, which is usually quite mundane and "oh, hey" on any given day, but in the early springtime turns into a haven for those wishing to get a good view of the blooming cherry blossoms. Otherwise Meguro is yet another residential center that offers some pleasant walks and "slice of life" from Japan.
However, if you're looking for something a little...different, and maybe even gross, then the "Meguro Parasitological Museum" is the place for you! For the price of FREE you too can see a nine meter long tapeworm! In fact, take your date! It's a super popular place to go dating. No, seriously. It is.
#5 - Ebisu (恵比寿駅)
Finally getting into the more popular tourist neighborhoods, Ebisu Station has an interesting history. It was originally named after the Yebisu (pronounced the same way) Beer which used to have its breweries and headquarters in the area, and was in turn named after a Japanese God. The silliest thing about the station is that the old commercial jingle for Yebisu Beer plays every time a train is about to depart.
The Ebisu neighborhood is also quite unique. Just outside the station is a "moving walkway" that transports pedestrians around from the Ebisu Garden Palace. Of course, the most popular destination in Ebisu is the Beer Museum that chronicles the process of creating Sapporo beers. And yes, there are samples at the end.
#6 - Shibuya (渋谷駅)
As the fourth busiest station in Japan (and third busiest on Yamanote), Shibuya Station lives up to its reputation as being in the fashion and youth center of Japan. Its biggest feature is just outside its main exit: an innocuous statue of a small dog named "Hachiko". (Compacted story: Hachiko was a dog that would wait for his master every day until he died and never came back. Hachiko waited until he died as well over a decade later.) The statue is a popular landmark for friends to meet up at.
There is no lack of things to see and do in Shibuya. Just beyond Hachiko is "scramble crossing", a highly congested intersection linking the shopping buildings of PARCO, Shibuya 109, the Q-FRONT video screen and Shibuya station. Many of Japan's most infamous trends were born in this small area. Anime and manga fans will be happy to know that this is the next best place after Akihabara to find goods. Shibuya is also home to a lot of Japan's most famous (straight) nightclubs, including "Womb" and "Camelot". One can spend an entire day doing just about anything in Shibuya.
#7 - Harajuku (原宿駅)
Perhaps the Yamanote's quaintest and "cutest" station, Harajuku Station harkens back to an older era while summoning the images that surrounds it. Albeit a small station with only two exits - and the busiest one being the smallest central one, of course - Harajuku Station is still a must-see on the Yamanote loop. If you're really lucky, you may even get to see the Imperial train making a loop on the other side of the main platform.
There is so much to do and see around Harajuku Station that you could fill an entire day with activities: thus if you are pressed for time, it's important to determine if you're more interested in modern pop culture or traditional lifestyle. For the modern enthusiast, Takeshita Dori just outside the central exit is the place to start. Here you will find all sorts of goods, including fandom and fashion related. On Sundays Tokyo's youth come out in full force to dress up in "cosplay" that includes anime and "lolita" inspirations.
For the traditionally minded, out of the south exit you will find Meiji Shrine, the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Nearby is Yoyogi park and the Yoyogi gyms and stadiums that were a part of the 1964 Olympics.
#8 - Yoyogi (代々木駅)
Yoyogi Station is mostly a hub for various lines conveniently located between Harajuku and Shinjuku Stations. However, it is much closer to Shinjuku (only about 0.7 kilometers) than it is to Harajuku, so if you plan on visiting any sites with "Yoyogi" in it, go to Harajuku Station. To experience Shinjuku, head on further to the station.
#9 - Shinjuku (新宿駅)
Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world with a daily use of over three million people. Just visiting Shinjuku alone during rush hour should be all the experience of Tokyo you could ever ask for. But don't worry, Shinjuku Station is meant to hold all that foot traffic - there are over 200 exits.
During the day Shinjuku is a hub-bub of bureaucracy and business dealings. For building buffs, head out the west side and check out the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Center, a duo of government buildings wiith nice viewing decks at the top. But at night is when the reputation of Shinjuku comes out in full force: between Kabukicho, Japan's infamous red light district, and Ni-chome, the largest concentration of LGBT clubs and bars in the world, there's a lot of night life to be had depending on your preferences.
#10 - Shin-Okubo (新大久保駅)
Conversely, Shin-Okubo is one of only two stations on the Yamanote Line to have no other line running through it - it also only has one exit. But just because Shin-Okubo is tiny, doesn't mean there isn't much to see around it. Shin-Okubo station is conveniently located near the heart of Tokyo's sprawling Korea Town, full of Korean bars, restaurants, shops, and festivals. Also, if your heart is set on visiting Kabukicho, Shin-Okubo Station is actually closer than Shinjuku Station.
#11 - Takadanobaba (高田馬場駅)
Takadanobaba Station is often bursting at the seams come commute time, but not with the usual salarymen that can be found in neighboring Shinjuku; instead, Takadanobaba is known as a "college town" with Waseda University and a plethora of vocational schools in the nearby area. Takadanobaba is also the claimed birthplace of Japan's legendary "Astro Boy' character, and not only can images of the character be seen everywhere, but the theme song from the anime plays for all departing trains.
Due to its student-oriented nature, Takadanobaba neighborhood is a good place for cheap eats and drinks. There is also a "Big Box" mall nearby that carries inexpensive household supplies and clothing.
#12 - Mejiro (目白駅)
Mejiro is a quiet station with only one platform and one exit, making it the other Yamanote station with no other lines cutting through it. The area is home to Gakushuin University and many upscale neighborhoods and shops. From the station one can see the massive buildings of Ikebukuro, the next stop.
#13 - Ikebukuro (池袋駅)
Ikebukuro Station is the second busiest in the world, only behind its sibling Shinjuku Station. It's the central hub linking the Tokyo metro area with the northwest suburbs leading into Saitama Prefecture. A fun oddity is that two of the department stores attached to the station, Seibu and Tobu, are on the "wrong side" of the station. Seibu, which has the kanji for "west" is on the eastern side of the station, and Tobu, which has the kanji for "east" is on the western side of the station.
The station is centrally located in the Ikebukuro area, which has lots of cheap and upscale shopping and a satisfactory nightlife. Like Harajuku, one could plan an entire day around things to do in Ikebukuro. One popular site is the Sunshine 60 building which was the tallest in Tokyo upon its original completion.
#14 - Otsuka (大塚駅)
Otsuka Station is as small and generally "uninteresting" as the area surrounding it until you get to Ikebukuro. However, for something totally different in Tokyo, go downstairs and stop in on the Toden Arakawa Line, the last streetcar in Japan. You can ride all the way to Waseda University (near Takadanobaba Station) and back for a bit of an old style feel.
#15 - Sugamo (巣鴨駅)
If traveling by streetcar wasn't "old" enough for you, stop by Sugamo Station and get ready to adopt a new grandparent. Sugamo is known as the "Harajuku for Grandmothers", with multiple shops and street fairs aimed at those looking to dress like the most fashionable Japanese elder. Of course, this also means cheap kitchen goods and tea for those interested. If you're really daring, check out the "Maruji" store, which sells red underwear. Seriously.
Nearby is Koganji Temple, which houses two health related statues: Togenuki Jizou will heal afflicted children, and Kannon asks you to wash the part of him that is bothering you. Or you can ask him to kill you. Either is fine.
#16 - Komagome (駒込駅)
The most exciting thing happening in or around Komagome Station is by far Rikugien Garden. As one of Tokyo's most peaceful destinations (for a price of 300 yen), visitors can picnic and enjoy nature in the middle of a bustling city. If you're still not interested, there's a very famous and tourist friendly Japanese garden in its midst as well.
#17 - Tabata (田端駅)
Although it's hard to tell now, the Tabata area was once a hub for writers and artists aspiring to make it big in Tokyo. But after they began to dwindle in the 30s and the air raids of the 40s, Tabata was forced to rebuild in more modern elements. Today all that remains of the artistic era is the Tabata Memorial Museum of Writers and Artists right next to Tabata station.
#18 - Nishi-Nippori (西日暮里駅)
The Nippori area was mostly unaffected in the Tokyo bombings of World War II, making it a great place to get off and walk around if you want to enjoy old buildings, cemeteries, temples, and shrines. In fact, there is no lack of cemeteries in the Nippori area. Get off at Nishi-Nippori and keep walking towards Nippori to get in touch with some dead people.
#19 - Nippori (日暮里駅)
Nippori Station will probably become a bit familiar to those flying into Tokyo via Narita. It's a major station for the Keisei Line with services to Narita, which is one of the cheapest ways to travel in and out of the airport.
Sewing and craft enthusiasts will be excited to know that "Fabric Town" is only a few steps away from Nippori Station. Although just a street, Fabric Town boasts cheap bolts of fabric and various crafting supplies. Also, if you're not sick of dead people yet, check out Yanaka Cemetery which is the final resting place for a variety of artists and politicians.
#20 - Uguisudani (鶯谷駅)
Uguisudani Station brings us into "old town" Japan of the Taito Ward. Also untouched by the war, the area is very traditional for those looking to walk amongst an older style Japan. There are various wooden houses, shrines, temples, etc lending an old-fashioned charm to this stop. Of course, Uguisudani is mostly a Love Hotel hub now, so don't be surprised if on your return walk to the station you're suddenly surrounded by twitter-pated couples.
#21 - Ueno (上野駅)
Once upon a time Ueno Station was nothing more than the starting (or ending) point for a chilly jaunt up into northern Japan. Today it's one of Tokyo's busiest hubs that even includes a large Shinkansen stop. But most people who are not just passing through or making a connection are here for what's outside Ueno Station.
Ueno Park is perhaps the most famous park in Tokyo, if not Japan. Only a few steps away from the station, tourists and city-dwellers alike can absorb a picturesque country feeling that only gets better in the springtime. Ueno Park is THE place to go "hanami", or, flower watching during the peak cherry blossom blooming times. But if you plan on going, start camping out a day before or heck, even a week in advance. It's gonna be a bit crowded.
For the rest of the year, Ueno is still a great place to go visit. Just on the other side of the park is the Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Western Art, the National Science Museum, and the very famous Ueno Zoo. Each place charges admission but are completely worth the small splurge to check out genuine artifacts of Japan's history and even some original works of world-famous artists. It's a historian's dream.
#22 - Okachimachi (御徒町駅)
Okachimachi Station is a very convenient little hub for transferring between lines. Most passengers are able to just walk across the tracks to their next platform, and many subways and other train lines have stations within brief walking distance.
Of course, the main appeal of this small area is the shopping. Okachimachi Station is in the midst of a busy shopping district, including the infamous Ameyoko bazaar. If "old fashioned" Asian bargaining is your thing, then Ameyoko is the place to go. Okachimachi is also home to Takeya, Tokyo's oldest discount store.
#23 - Akihabara (秋葉原駅)
To say that Akihabara is a "mecca" for the modern person is an understatement. The Akihabara area grew so exponentially during the post-war era that the station had to be remodified multiple times to cope with the congestion until it became the massive, imposing hunk of building that it is now - visitors sometimes mistaken the station building for being a government building.
The Akihabara district is as famous as it is infamous - with hundreds upon hundreds of electronic stores and dealers, one can literally find "anything" that requires power of any kind. The general rule of thumb is that the further you stray from the main street the cheaper items get, but the less foreigner friendly staff may be. Fans of anime and manga will rejoice to find everything fandom related they ever wanted for sale here. On Sundays the main street closes to host a weekly market festival.
Recently the big attraction in Akihabara has become "maid cafes", where visitors are doted on by women dressed in French maid costumes. Be prepared to pay through the nose for goods, however. If you're having trouble locating a cafe, just look up and down the street until you find some women handing out fliers for their locations.
#24 - Kanda (神田駅)
Kanda Station is crammed between the electronic hub-bub of Akihabara and the government metropolis of Tokyo, and reflects this via its fusion of the old and the new. The neighborhood is full of famous shrines, temples, and yearly festivals, the most famous of which is probably the Kanda Myojin Shrine.
On the flip side, Kanda is home to Tokyo University and is either the current or former home of publishing headquarters. Therefore the area hosts a plethora of bookstores, both new and used.
#25 - Tokyo (東京駅)
Tokyo Station is one of Tokyo's oldest and most unique and beloved stations. Through the decades it has undergone massive destructions and subsequent refurbishings, but still maintains its old rustic, western-centric charm. Tokyo Station is also the site of many historical events, such as the assassination of a former prime minister. It's the terminus to almost all Shinkansen lines.
The Tokyo Station area is home to all things governmental and bureaucratic. For tourists (and even residents), the main attraction is the Imperial Palace and Gardens. Most of the gardens are open for free to the public, and tours are held for the inner gardens and the outer area around the palace. During the Christmas and New Year's days you may even catch a glimpse of the Imperial family making their scheduled appearances.
Another place of note in the area is the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the souls of many convicted war criminals. Admission is free to anyone, but be wary, especially if you are foreign, of xenophobic political groups camping out around the shrine.
#26 - Yurakucho (有楽町駅)
Squashed amongst the downtown Tokyo and Ginza areas, Yurakucho is a great place to stop and look around if you're in a huge hurry. With the extravagances of Ginza on hand and also some cheap department stores such as Bic Camera nearby, Yurakucho can be a shopper's dream if they can't make it to Shibuya or Akihabara. For a bit of business culture, head downstairs in the station to sample some old-fashioned yakitori chicken and beer, a dinner staple of all those salarymen heading home from Tokyo.
#27 - Shimbashi (新橋駅)
Shimbashi Station has moved around over the years and has held many different names. Today it's a convenient 10 minute walk from the Ginza district. In Ginza you can find almost every upscale retailer available willing to sell you exorbitantly priced goods, as well as many of the national theaters. It's worth a jaunt through Ginza just to see how the 1% of Japan live.
#28 - Hamamatsucho (浜松町駅)
There's a lot going on in the Hamamatsucho Station area. The most obvious of which, when you step out, is the huge red tower standing a few minutes' walk away. Tokyo Tower is located next to the Zojoji Temple, a very old Buddhist temple that is the final resting place of six Shoguns. These two sites together bring in the greatest contrast of new and old Japan and are a photographic opportunity not to be missed.
If shopping is more your thing, check out the Tokyo Pokémon Center right next to the station. Fifteen minutes from the station will take you to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale fish vending site in the world and one of the biggest for any market.
#29 - Tamachi (田町駅)
Tamachi is a smaller station conveniently located near Tokyo's famous Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo Institute of Technology. As the last stop on this circular cruise, Tamachi Station brings us full circle into a quieter respite before heading back to the great hustle and bustle of Shinagawa Station.
Coming Full Circle
With over 29 stops to choose from, it's easy to still get lost on even a circular route like the Yamanote Line. And while many stations may seem not as exciting or important as the massive record-breaking ones, it's still worth checking them all out as they all offer different aspects of Japan's history and culture. It's possible to ride the entire Yamanote line in less than two hours, and trains usually come every two minutes at every station. So start off early, draw up some plans, and be prepared to throw the list out the window once you actually get on board and begin to "experience Tokyo".