If you’re even remotely interested in trains, Tokyo is the place to be. With a massive network of tracks criss-crossing the prefecture, it’s a trainspotter’s dream. You’ve likely seen camera-toting people huddled on the ends of platforms—these are tori-tetsu, train fans who like to photograph the objects of their passion. Joining them in Japan’s million-strong base of train enthusiasts are nori-tetsu (fans who like to ride trains), oto-tetsu (those who are all about the sounds trains make) and various other sub-types. Here, we provide an introduction to Tokyo trainspotting, so that you can see for yourself what it’s all about, and why it’s so popular.
First off, a few statistics to blow your mind. Japan has more than 27,000km of rail, with train services provided by 100+ companies. In total, the country’s trains ferry over 7 billion passengers every year. That’s pretty much the earth’s entire population, so it should be no surprise that Japan has some of the busiest stations in the world. Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station gets first place, with an estimated 3.6 million people passing through its gates daily. Shibuya and Ikebukuro rank second and third respectively.
It’s not just the numbers that are impressive, though. Japan’s trains are clean, reliable and cool to look at. You’ll see a huge range of designs, from old-school streetcars (more on those later) to the sheeny-shiny shinkansen. Special trains get rolled out from time to time, like this Pokemon train in the Tohoku region, and stations get jazzed up too—take the Hello Kitty decor at Tama Center Station (in West Tokyo), for example.
Whether you’re a densha otaku (dedicated train geek) or a regular rider, trains can be a cheap source of fun. Pack a camera and head to these stations to try your hand at a spot of train photography in Tokyo. At the bottom of the list, you’ll find ideas for other (slightly less niche) ways to enjoy trains in the capital.
Five places to try Tokyo trainspotting
1. Shinagawa Station
Down in the south part of Tokyo, Shinagawa Station is a massive two-floor affair that links the Tokaido Shinkansen, airport express trains, and other lines with the rest of Tokyo. Representing JR, you’ll find the Keihin-Tohoku, Tokaido Main, Yamanote and Yokosuka Lines. You’ll also see the Keikyu Main Line. The platforms number into the twenties, adding up to lots of photo opportunities. If you’re hungry after your trainspotting mission, Shinatatsu Ramen Street, a stone’s throw from the station, will fill you up. You can also find some awesome inner-station eateries.
2. Yurakucho Station
This station gives you access to trains from the Keihin-Tohoku Line and Yamanote Line (both JR), as well as the Yurakucho Line (part of the Tokyo Metro subway network). Linked to Yurakucho by underground passages is Hibiya Station, which is served by the Chiyoda and Hibiya Lines (both subways), and the Toei Mita Line too. Trainspotters dig Yurakucho Station not only for its multitude of trains, but because the Kotsu Kaikan building next door features an elevated outdoor terrace (on the third floor), which makes for an excellent viewing point for shinkansen.
3. Osaki Station
Also written as Oosaki Station, and just one stop over from Shinagawa, this place gives you photographic access to the Saikyo, Shonan-Shinjuku and Yamanote Lines (all JR), as well as the Rinkai Line that connects to Aomi and Odaiba. Fun fact: Osaki is the southernmost stop on the Yamanote Line. It’s also a nice place to walk along the Meguro River, if you get tired of taking photos of moving technology.
4. Ochanomizu Station
Train fans like Ochanomizu Station because the backdrop is one where new city meets old (ish) water. Back in the Edo days, water from the Kanda River (which was rerouted through the area) was apparently good for brewing tea (Ochanomizu literally translates to “tea water”), or a shogun had tea made from local spring water and the name was fixed—it depends who you ask. History aside, you can see the JR Chuo, Sobu and Chuo-Sobu Lines, as well as the Marunouchi Line as it pops out from its underground lair. The Chiyoda Line can also be found at the nearby Shin-Ochanomizu Station. On another note, if you’re in the market for a musical instrument, Ochanomizu is the place to go.
5. Nippori Station
Last but certainly not least is the major rail hub that is Nippori Station. Here, you’ll be able to glimpse the Joban Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line and Yamanote Line (all JR), as well as the Keisei Main Line (including Narita Airport express trains) and the Toei Nippori-Toneri Liner. You can also see non-stop trains on the Takasaki and Utsunomiya Lines zooming through. On the north-west side of the station is Shimogoinden Bridge, famed among trainspotters. The bridge, which has a safe observation area, gives you a bird’s-eye view over 10+ train tracks. ±2,500 trains are said to pass under the bridge daily, earning the spot the title of “unofficial railway museum”.
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Other noteworthy trainspotting, er, spots, include Wakoshi Station in Saitama Prefecture (where you can see the Tobu-Tojo, Fukutoshin and Yurakucho Lines), Ichigaya Station (where you can snap pictures of the JR Chuo-Sobu Line, as well as the Yurakucho, Namboku and Toei Shinjuku Lines), and Kita-Senju Station (served by the JR Joban, Tobu Skytree, Chiyoda, Hibiya and Tsukuba Express Lines). Big hubs like Tokyo Station and Shinjuku are also good places to see multiple train lines, but their crowds make them less than feasible when it comes to taking photos, unless you get there at dawn.
You should also find (and ride) Tokyo’s last-remaining streetcars. First off, seek out the Toden Arakawa Line. Running between Minowabashi and Waseda, the little tram serves 30 stops and a surprising number of commuters. Contrary to popular belief, this is not Tokyo’s only streetcar; the Tokyo Setagaya Line does a 10-stop trip between Sangenjaya and Shimo-Tokaido and is a hit among local train fans. Another type of train to keep an eye out for is the freight fleet—double points if you can score a pic of one of these runners.
Before you roll off
Note: To avoid being scolded by railway staff, make sure that you a) don’t cross the yellow line on the platform in your photographic endeavors, b) don’t lean over the barriers, and c) don’t get in the way of passengers. If you’re not taking the train yourself, check the ticket vending machine to see if there is a platform entry ticket (nyuujouken, 入場券)—this works out cheaper than the lowest-fare passenger ticket. This 140-yen train hack is also a money-saver.
Tokyo offers several other ways of nerding out about trains. For a start, you could chug along to the Tokyo Metro Museum to learn all about the city’s subways, or roll on over to the Railway Museum in Saitama. You can also enjoy a beer at this random train carriage in Roppongi, or try a train-themed cocktail while model sets whiz past you at Bar Ginza Panorama in Shibuya. Oh, and if you’ve ever wanted to see a moving map of trains in Tokyo, this website is the place to go.