Walking the Yamanote Line

On this day (22 April) back in 2016, I ticked another thing off my ‘Japan bucket list’ (things that I want to do in Japan one day)… I walked the Yamanote Line (山手線). As four years have now passed, I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect upon the walk.

For those unfamiliar with the Yamanote Line, this is what I wrote in Japan: The Basics

“For most today, their geographical understanding of Tōkyō is based upon the ‘circular’ Yamanote Line. The Yamanote Line is 34.5km long and the distance between its northern and southern extremes is about 13km, whilst the distance between its western and eastern extremes is about 6km. So the circular nature is more in terms of the train services themselves than the shape of the route, although it is not uncommon for the diagram to be simplified to a more circular or elliptical shape… the significance of the line is that it connects the many hearts of Tōkyō. For Tōkyō does not have a single place from where the life of the city radiates, but multiple ‘centres’ – such as Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku and Shibuya. From many of these ‘centres’ further railway lines radiate out in to the suburbs and off to other cities, meaning that the stations become important hubs for interchange. But they are destinations in their own right too, each with their distinctive atmosphere and offerings, such as the financial district of Marunouchi, which lies between Tōkyō station on the eastern side of the loop and the Imperial Palace only 1km to its west.”

Japan: The Basics

The Yamanote Line stations…

Here is a translation of the Yamanote Line station names…

Source: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10157469042152957&set=a.384741427956

This is what I wrote about the walk on Facebook a few days after completing the trek…

“I finally did something in Japan I’ve been wanting to do for a number of years, but this was the first time I’d found the time to do it and, somewhat by chance, it also tied in with an article I am trying to finish off writing. It was a long day and I won’t be rushing to repeat the exercise, but am pleased to have done it. Given I was feeling rough on Friday morning & was struggling to take even get up off the futon and take one step, I was pretty chuffed to do over 55,000 steps by the end of the day (and burned up somewhere in the region of 5,000 calories apparently) & to have walked the Yamanote Line (or as close as can be done in some areas). In total, by the end of the day, I had walked 30 miles. It took around 8 hours (stopping only for lunch, and did Ueno to Ikebukuro in a clockwise direction without stopping). Now all I need to do is find time to finish writing the article!”


Why did this walk get on my bucket list? It had been there for since about 1997 when I heard about one of my friends doing it, during the night, when they were a university student. Finding a chance to do it was the hardest part in many respects as most of my trips tend to be so short and hectic. In the end it wasn’t until 2016 that I had the chance. As I noted in my Facebook, this was also to tie in with an article I was working on. In the end, that article didn’t evolve as I expected and my main writings about the Yamanote Line and Tokyo’s “empty centre” as Roland Barthes describes it in Empire of Signs have been in my academic book Japan: The Basics and my novel Hijacking Japan, but I may yet still visit the topic in a future publication.

As touched upon in the Facebook post, the day didn’t start off well as I was a bit ill and didn’t even have a proper breakfast before setting off (initially from Naka-Itabashi, but starting the walk itself at Ikebukuro station). I bought a bag of milk rolls and ate this as I walked what I remember. I walked all the way to Ueno before having to take a train to Tokyo station for a pre-arranged meeting related to my research on the flight JL123 crash. After that, I took the train back to Ueno and then walked from there all the way round to Ikebukuro (back past Tokyo station) in one go. The whole thing took about 8 hours.

Recently I have been watching a BBC series ‘Race across the world’ where teams race from one point to another without being able to use planes as planes don’t allow us to properly see what is in between. As much as I love travelling by train (in Japan especially – see my research on the shinkansen), and looking out of the window, there is still so much you miss going this way. Walking the Yamanote Line, rather than taking the train as I do so much when in Tokyo, further underlined this point. I found the variations between each area really interesting. My most memorable parts were the temples close to Nippori, having to hope that police didn’t stop me when I walked through a car-only underpass, and the embassies near Osaki and students around Takadanobaba. But I didn’t take pictures of these things. Although photographs would have been a good way to summarise the day (and there are some below), as I largely allowed my eyes to do the work and largely just took pictures of the stations I passed, many of the shifts are not captured. The shifts have, though, been nicely captured through the comical posts that appeared after the name of a new Yamanote Line station was announced…

Source: https://www.japantrends.com/netizens-jr-yamanote-line-station-name-takanawa-gateway-memes-parody/

Of course, the fact that there is a new station means that I have no longer walked by all of the Yamanote Line stations… though I suspect that the location of the new station could make it difficult to do the walk without going back along any road/path.

Four years ago, I wrote that I could never imagine doing the walk again. Cycling it would be more imaginable (though as I went down some steps, I’d need to alter my route a bit). I’ve also rarely gone back through the walk (‘pilgrimage’?) in the way that I have done with Osutaka-no-One, for example. But recently, I have thought about doing it again one day. Finding the time to do, would still be the biggest challenge. In the meantime I have found other interesting walks to do – such as one along the Meguro River that I did in January 2020. Whether I do it again or not, I’m pleased that I have done it and would certainly recommend it to others.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Like!! I blog frequently and I really thank you for your content. The article has truly peaked my interest.


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