13 Fun Facts About the Yamanote Line, the Beating Heart of Tokyo

The Yamanote Line is the backbone of Tokyo’s mammoth transportation network, the aorta of its circulatory system. It runs a circular path through most of the city’s business and entertainment districts, so every visitor will come across it numerous times. Every resident puts it at the center of the mental map of Tokyo, as the line that separates inner Tokyo from outer Tokyo. And any business flaunts being on or near the Line, since that is the height of accessibility. Here are 13 fun facts to help you better understand this line, and Tokyo by extension!

Tokyo

Japanese Culture

1. A Circular Line With 30 Stations

The Yamanote Line runs a circular route every 64 minutes on average, stopping at 30 stations. The line is 35.9km long.

Because it's a loop line, people can't refer to the two directions by their destinations. Instead, people refer to the clockwise direction as sotomawari (外回り; "outer circle") and the counter-clockwise direction as uchimawari (内回り; "inner circle").

It is operated by JR East (East Japan Railway), meaning that you can use your JR Pass and Tokyo Wide Pass, but not Tokyo Metro passes.

You'll come across the line because it runs through such important districts as Ueno, Akihabara, Tokyo Station (the downtown), Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. But the northern stretch of this line runs through quieter, residential neighborhoods with smaller stations. Up between Komagome and Tabata Stations, you can even find a level crossing: streets that you can only cross when no trains are passing by. Given how busy the Yamanote Line can be, you might find yourself waiting quite a while!

2. What Does "Yamanote" Mean?

You might have heard the term "shitamachi": literally meaning “lower town,” it referred to the busy areas of eastern Tokyo where the common people lived and traded. The popular tourist spot Asakusa, for example, overflows with shitamachi energy, as do Nihombashi and Ningyocho. The opposite of shitamachi is "yamanote" ("direction of the hills"), which referred to the upper-scale neighborhoods to the west of the Imperial Palace where samurai and later intellectuals tended to reside.

The Yamanote Line was originally constructed in 1885 as a frieght line, intended to connect destinations north of Tokyo to the port of Yokohama in the south. The line was deliberately run through the less-populous Yamanote side in the west because it was easier to construct there.

However, in the century since, the city’s west side has abandoned its role as a tony residential area and become the bright-lights commercial and tourist hotspot it is today (particularly Shibuya and Shinjuku). Indeed, the distinction between Shitamachi and Yamanote has generally been blurred after decades of modern commercial development.

3. It Wasn’t Always the Yamanote Line

Those who have dabbled in reading kanji would know that 山 (“mountain”) is “yama” and 手 (“hand,” though in this case something like "direction") is “te”. Shouldn't it be the “Yamate Line,” then? Not quite. In centuries past, it was common for kanji to just represent the main ideas of a word while skipping over the connectors (in this case, "no" = of).

Tokyo's Yamanote Line actually was the Yamate Line for a bit, though: as romaji (i.e. writing Japanese using Roman letters) caught on in the postwar years, the line was mistakenly labeled Yamate, and the name stuck for a while in common parlance. However, the national railway made an effort to revert this in the 1970s to avoid confusion with Yamate Station in nearby Yokohama.

4. It Wasn’t Always Circular, Either!

As mentioned, the Yamanote Line initially referred to a vertical line running west of downtown, and it was many years before it would be connected with other lines on the east side to form a circle.

And even after these lines were connected, there remained a gap between Ueno and Kanda that wouldn't be filled until 1925, a full 40 years after the Yamanote Line first appeared. Until then, the line ran in a figure-six pattern: running a near-circle from Ueno to Kanda, then turning west and merging into the Chuo Line. This meant that every train stopped at Shinjuku twice!

Tokyo wasn't built in a day, or even in a decade.

5. Keihin-Tohoku, Ueno-Tokyo, Shonan-Shinjuku... What Are All These Names?

Because the Yamanote Line runs such an important route - so important that much of the city has consciously been developed around it - the crush of commuters is also without parallel. JR has periodically added tracks to alleviate congestion.

The east side of the line has six tracks, not counting the Shinkansen: two for the Yamanote Line, two for the Keihin-Tohoku Line (a local line that runs north to Saitama and south to Yokohama), and two for the Ueno-Tokyo Line (an express line, connecting three commuter lines to the north with one commuter line to the south). South of Tokyo Station, there are two additional express tracks underground.

The west side of the line has four tracks: two for the Yamanote Line, and two tracks that are shared by the Shonan-Shinjuku Line and Saikyo Line (both express lines that connect to commuter lines).

It’s a lot of confusing, hyphenated names! So many that you could easily get confused when you show up at a major station and find there are 8, 12, or even more tracks. The above diagram will hopefully help you know which line to get on.

6. … Yet Congestion Is Still Awful

Every year, the government publishes the “congestion rate” for major train lines. A 100% congestion rate represents a relatively comfortable ride, where some people are standing but have plenty of leg space.

The Yamanote Line’s congestion rate maxes out at 158% despite running every two and a half minutes. As awful as this sounds, this actually makes it one of the least congested lines in Tokyo (32nd place out of 41).

However, in 2014, the congestion rate stood at a whopping 199%, because the Ueno-Tokyo Line hadn’t yet been constructed. This meant that passengers from three different commuter rail lines had to all get off at Ueno and transfer to the Yamanote Line to reach their destinations. Thankfully, this is no longer necessary.

The Ueno-Tokyo Line also cost 40 billion yen to construct, or about $354m in current US dollars. So if you find yourself smushed in the corner of a rush-hour Yamanote Line train, you might find yourself wishing for another pair of tracks - but alas, this is unlikely to ever happen.

7. It Once Literally Defined Central Tokyo

"The next station is Shinjuku. The doors on the left side will open. Please change here for the Chuo Line, the Shonan-Shinjuku Line, the Saikyo Line, the Odakyu Line, the Keio Line, the Marunouchi Subway Line, the Shinjuku Subway Line, and the Oedo Subway Line."

With this many different lines all converging on one spot, it's no wonder that Shinjuku carries more passengers than any other station in the world, 3.64 million per day. But how did this happen?

The early 20th century saw a scramble of private companies building lines to conect the rapidly expanding suburbs to the city center. These railways often stopped building when they hit the already existing Yamanote Line: building tracks downtown was very expensive, so it was cheaper and easier to let customers transfer here instead. This is why the Odakyu, Keio, and Seibu railways all terminate at Shinjuku, and why other railways terminate at such stations as Ikebukuro and Shibuya.

Later, after the war, the city government rushed to fill in the city centre with subway lines, and they planned many lines to go through Shinjuku as well, to allow commuters to transfer. This is why so many lines and passengers go through Shinjuku every day.

In total, 12 commuter lines stop at the Yamanote Line's various stations, and all 13 subway lines connect to it.

8. Cutting-Edge Train Cars

Board the Yamanote Line today, and you'll find yourself aboard an E235 model car, which were first introduced in 2015. It's very visually striking and distinct from every other JR train car.

For one, this model has screens above passenger seats that show a mix of JR announcements and advertisements. (Previous cars only have screens above doors and paper advertisements above seats.) Each car also now has a "free space" in one corner that is perfect for wheelchairs, strollers, or heavy luggage. The door control system and ventilation system got subtle but important upgrades as well.

Because of how important the Yamanote Line is, it naturally gets the fanciest technology before any other line. Only last year did this model begin to be introduced to other lines.

9. Say Goodbye to the Old Harajuku Station

Harajuku (that mecca of kawaii culture) used to be known for its traditional station building with wood paneling. Completed in 1924, it was the oldest wooden station building in Tokyo. However, a new station building was unveiled in March 2020, as the old building did not meet the most stringent fire-safety standards.

This iconic building has begun to be demolished, although a replica of the facade will remain for old times’ sake. And thank goodness - beyond Harajuku and the famous red-brick facade of Tokyo Station, there aren't many iconic station buildings in the metropolis.

10. And Say Hello to Takanawa Gateway

In March of 2020, Takanawa Gateway station opened north of Shinagawa, the first new station since 1971. The station was designed by famed architect Kuma Kengo (who also built the National Stadium and Suntory Museum) and features a very sleek glass-based design, a very open mezzanine that overlooks the platforms, as well as new technology such as an automated, unmanned convenience store.

What's the Japanese name for the station? you may wonder. And what is it a "gateway" to? There is no Japanese name (it's just "gateway" written in katakana, for aesthetic reasons), and it's not clear what it's a gateway to, either. For these reasons, the name caused quite a stir on social media when it was first unveiled, especially since JR had conducted a public vote where "Takanawa" came in 1st and "Takanawa Gateway" lagged far behind.

The station might seem needlessly extravagant, considering how difficult it is to access and how little there is to do in the area. But the project makes sense if you think of what's coming in the future; the entire Takanawa-Shinagawa area is slated for massive development by JR over the coming decade. What is currently an empty lot will be replaced by the massive complex depicted in the picture above by 2024, and the Chuo Shinkansen project will connect Shinagawa to Nagoya in 2027. Maybe someday, we'll interpret this station as a "gateway" to the future!

No further stations are planned at this time. The oldest station, incidentally, is next-door neighbor Shinagawa, built in 1872.

11. A Direct Ride To Haneda Airport?

Haneda Airport transformed into an international airport at the turn of the millennium and has undergone impressive renovation and expansion. And yet, travelers can only head downtown through the Tokyo Monorail (which entails a convoluted transfer at Hamamatsucho) or the Keikyu Line (a privately-owned railroad where the JR PASS does not apply).

This will only be a problem for 10 more years, as JR is finally constructing a direct rail link to the airport. While it won’t run directly onto the Yamanote Line - which will still be running around in its familiar circles - it will run onto the express lines running alongside, i.e. the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to the west and Ueno-Tokyo line to the east.

12. Sing the Yamanote Line

Music has been closely tied with Japan's railways ever since 1900, when poet and teacher Takeki Owada wrote 374 verses of railway songs. Together, the verses tell the tale of traveling across the country by rail and describing the various sights that pass by. Most famous is the first volume, 66 verses long, which describes a trip on the Tokaido Line from Shimbashi to Kobe and is set to a now-famous melody by Umewaka Ono, a musician and music teacher.

Fast forward to a century later, when the NHK children's program "Yugata Quintet" took this same melody and sang the names of the Yamanote Line's 29 stations, in order, in both directions, creating a mnemonic device. This version became an immediate hit, and as a result, this melody has become inseparable with the Yamanote Line in people's minds!

The real test is reciting all the stations in the right order when tipsy! This is a common Japanese drinking game.

13. Draw the Yamanote Line

YamanoteYamanote is a project by two Swiss graphic designers based in Tokyo, Julien Mercier and Julien Wulff. They've designed two posters for each of the Yamanote Line's stations that seek to depict their spirit and individuality. They also held events near each station showcasing that station's posters.

The designs incorporate motifs that are closely associated with each station, like the light tower located close to Yoyogi, or Yebisu Beer, whose factory is located near Ebisu Station. Hip, individualistic Shibuya is depicted with a pair of sneakers, while Ueno, famous for its park and museums, gets a floral design.

If you're looking to see all of the city of Tokyo's faces and personalities, getting off at each of the Yamanote Line's stations is an excellent way to go about it. Hopefully this article provided you with the context to see how this line became so important, and gave you a few things to look out for when you're visiting!

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Thumbnail: Nut Vasinyont / Shutterstock.com

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.


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