The first glance at Tokyo’s subway map is always a source of despair because of the system’s complexity; despair turns to terror with the realization that the map is not complete since it only includes the two basic networks (Tokyo Metro and Toei) with their 13 lines and their 290 stations. Transportation in the broader Tokyo area also utilizes JR East’s 32 lines and one of them stands out, both because of its shape (it is circular) and because it goes through almost all areas we usually call “Tokyo”. Its 21.5 miles connect everything –Tokyo station itself, Sinjuku, Ueno, Shibuya, Harajuku, Sinagawa, Ikebukuro and Akihabara are perhaps the most recognizable among its 29 stations- while anything famous and not included in it is probably a few minutes away on foot or by metro since many of the stations coincide.
Its functionality is not the reason I’m writing about this line; what I find exciting is hidden within its name: It is called “Yamanote” (山手) and the name is inextricably tied to Tokyo’s history and its development from its ancestor, Edo. When the Tokugawa shoguns made Edo Japan’s real capital the north and western part, the Musashino terrace with its cool hills between Tama and Arakawa rivers was given to the daimyo feudal lords and their retinues so they could built their mansions there: to be able to have stricter control over their hitherto enemies and make harder the rekindling of the bellicose atmosphere of the five previous centuries, the Tokugawa made the daimyo spend half of their time in Edo and, in essence, held their families hostages. The area those mansions were built was called “Yamanote” i.e. “the side of the mountain”.
In the Edo period, the lively part of the city was Yamanote’s eastern antipodal, Shitamachi, the “lower city” but with time, and especially in the post-war years western Tokyo was greatly upgraded to the extent that today this side is considered the “good” part of the city, the one with the most expensive residencies and the most lively (both in the sense of commercial activity and in the sense of young people’s presence) neighborhoods. And although the Yamanote line does not pass only from the western side of Tokyo (one could say that it is a yin-yang symbol, half Yamanote and half Shitamachi) its name remains and reminds the times when the samurai roamed the streets but also Tokyo’s growth; its creation took 47 years, from 1885 until 1932, the years that coincide with the full passage from Edo to Tokyo. Although the metro has one line called “Oedo”, that is “Great Edo”, the line going through the city’s history has the light green color of Yamanote.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.