This article is a companion piece to my previous post, “Planning a Trip to Tokyo – Understanding the Yamanote Line”. The Yamanote line (山手線) is a bi-directional loop train line by JR (Japan Railways) in central Tokyo which can be used as a reference point whenever you travel around Tokyo. If you are an independent traveler, or a first time traveler in Tokyo, I highly recommend starting out your trip using the Yamanote line to get comfortable with the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. You can branch out to outskirts or subway/metro access only locations when you get your bearing in the city.
In this article, I am going to introduce the major Yamanote line stations for attractions or transferring to other lines. The order of stations is from the top right of the Yamanote line map above (Ueno) in the clock wise direction of the line. Please refer to the Yamanote line map for the location of each station.
Ueno is famous for Ueno Park which is right next to the JR station. Ueno Park is a large urban park and houses many attractions on its ground. The park is a museum fan’s delight including Tokyo National Museum, National Museum and Nature and Science and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum on the park ground. There is Ueno Zoo with popular Giant Panda exhibit for animal lovers. For Japanese temple enthusiasts, there are Kaneiji Temple (寛永寺), Kiyomizu Kannon Temple ( 清水観音寺), and Bentendo Temple (弁天堂). Shinobazu Pond has swan boats to rent for leisurely ride in the afternoon.
Ueno Park is the most popular spot for cherry blossom viewing (hanami – 花見) in April. Hanami picnic is a Japanese tradition, and you can see crowd of people picnicking and celebrating the season. Public alcoholic consumption is strictly frowned upon in Japan, but not in Hanami picnic. Good time with food, drinks and even impromptu Japanese style dancing.
South side of Ueno station is an area called Ameyoko (Ameyayokocho) with densely populated small shops with deals in clothing, souvenirs and food. You can find bargains, and I heard you can even haggle the price here, although I have never tried it myself.
From Ueno Station, the next stop is the world famous Akihabara (Akiba), home to electronics, anime, and Otaku subculture. There are so many electronics and anime/manga related shops in this town, and I get dizzy just looking at the stores. The electronics are mostly for Japanese consumption due to the voltage difference and limited warranty in Japan, but it sure is fun to look around. For anime/manga fans, this place is a shrine with so many anime merchandise available in numerous shops.
Tokyo Station is one of the main hub stations in Japan, serving many regional lines of Japan Railways including Shinkansens (Bullet trains), and Tokyo Metro (subway). The station itself offers a number of tourist attractions such as a luxurious hotel and department stores, art gallery and numerous restaurants. Tokyo Kitchen Street is the area with various popular restaurants where you can find anything from fast food to gourmet food. Tokyo Ramen Street is also very famous with 8 ramen restaurants that are considered best operating next to each other. Some stores have lines with hours to wait at peak time. I heard that you can’t possibly go wrong with any of the ramen restaurants here, so you may as well find a shop with a shorter line to enjoy your ramen. Another unique feature of Tokyo station is Tokyo Character Street which delights the fans of “Hello Kitty” and other Japanese adorable characters.
On the West side of Tokyo station, you can enter the Imperial Palace ground. The outer ground of the palace is open to public and has gorgeous gardens. However inner ground of the palace is accessible only if you book a tour.
Hamamtsucho station is a smaller station on the east side of Yamanote line loop, but it’s worthwhile noting if you are traveling domestically by air. Haneda airport is the biggest domestic airline hub and it takes only 18 minutes travel time by Tokyo Monorail from Hamamatsucho. The access to Haneda is much more convenient than Narita airport which is located in Chiba prefecture, approximately 1 hour away from Tokyo. Please see my article, “Flying to Japan – Useful Tips” for more information on Haneda airport.
Shinagawa is a major transfer station in the southern tip of the Yamanote loop. If you are heading to Kamakura (鎌倉) or Yokohama (横浜), you need to get off the Yamanote line and transfer to another line here.
Streets of Shibuya credit:Michael Philip Atkins
When you visit Shibuya, don’t miss Hachiko statue which is a very popular meetup place in Tokyo. Look for Hachiko exit when you land in JR Shibuya station. Hachiko is the most famous dog in Japan. Hachiko waited for his beloved master to return at Shibuya station for years after his passing. In front of Hachiko statue, you will see the Shibuya scramble crossing where thousands of people cross the street in all directions every 5 minutes. It is quite a sight to watch the crossing in action. My blog’s home page has an interesting video of Shibuya crossing. Please check it out!
Shibuya is a nice town mainly targeted to younger generation and is great for shopping and people watching. It’s my favorite town in Tokyo to walk around to take in the atmosphere.
Takeshita Dori (left) and Harajuku Fashion (right) credit:Michael Philip Atkins
Harajuku is the capital of young people’s street fashion. You will see teenagers and young adults in creative costumes ranging from Lolita to Goth fashion. The Japanese people in general dress conservatively in neutral colors such as black, navy or beige. Not in Harajuku. You see elaborate costumes in bright colors on the street of Harajuku. The main color scheme of Harajuku is pink.
The best day to visit Harajuku is Sunday when the costumed young people come out to see and be seen. Takeshita Dori (Street) is a narrow street crowded with boutiques and unique shops targeting to young shoppers. Omotesando is the tree lined wide street with more expensive established brand shops, and is called Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees.
Shinjuku station is so large and complex that I often find myself lost. It’s constantly adding more train and subway lines, platforms and exits. Shinjuku station has over 35 platforms, 200 exits and 3 million commuters per day, and it’s the busiest train station in the world. You should research where you need to go within the station beforehand to reach your intended destination, or you may end up walking miles from one end to another.
West of the station is Shinjuku’s skyscraper district, home to many of Tokyo’s tallest buildings. Tokyo City Hall building offers view to the visitors from the observation deck free of charge!
East of the station is Kabukicho district. It used to be a large red light district, but recently experienced resurgence as a major foreign tourist area. During day, it looks like a huge restaurant area, and at night it comes alive with nightlife. It has many bars and clubs, and there are hasslers who try to entice you to patronize their premise (Make sure to say no!). This is the seedy area of Tokyo, so just be more mindful walking here at night. If you stick with major streets with lots of people, you should be safe.
Ikebukuro is the second busiest station in the world with many lines to transfer to the north and east suburbs of Tokyo. The station has 2 large scale department stores (Tobu and Seibu). Also, Sunshine City, a large shopping and entertainment complex, is not far from the station on the east side. The complex contains shops and restaurants, an aquarium, planetarium, museum, indoor theme parks, as well as the Sunshine Prince Hotel and offices.
In the early 80s, I had my first real job after graduating from college in the 35th floor of Sunshine 60 office building. I have fond memory of this area. I find Ikebukuro to be much easier to navigate than Shinjuku station.
A few blocks away from the west exit of the station, there is a large red light district. If you are venturing out especially at night, just be mindful!
For first time visitors and independent travelers to Tokyo, the Yamanote Line is a great introduction to experience the city. I only covered 8 out of the 29 stations of the Yamanote Line, and there is so much more to explore!
Our fellow blogger, Michael Philip Atkins, generously offered the usages of many of the photographs in this article. Special thanks to Michael!