Tuesday, 10 May 2016

JAPAN - Tokyo Part 2.3 (feat. Yokohama)

 Center-Minami, looking north towards Center-Kita: Blue Line (left) and Green Line side by side

Day 3 (4 May 2016)

On my third day in Tokyo, Wednesday, it was supposed to rain after a stormy night, but already after breakfast, the wind had blown away all the clouds and it was a clear and sunny day. As I had already decided to spend the day mostly underground on the Yokohama Subway, I didn't change my plan, but went much more to the surface, which means that the entire exploration took much longer than initially planned.

To get to Yokohama, I took advantage of the through-running trains, i.e. theoretically you can stay on the same Tokyo Subway train from Iidabashi to Hiyoshi, the northeastern terminus of Yokohama's Green Line. As this implies, however, Tokyo Metro as well as private operator Tokyu, I entered the system with my PASMO card. The first Namboku train I jumped on, terminated at Shirokane-takanawa, so I changed to the other side of the platform to continue on a Toei Mita train. But like most people I quickly got off this one again two stops later at Musashi-Koyama to take the Tokyu express or semi-express or whatever (maybe limited express?), which brings us to advantages and disadvantages of express trains in Japan. While express trains certainly speed up the journey for many passengers, it excessively extends travel times for others who have to get off at a stop only served by 'local' trains. These have to wait again and again at certain stations to let expresses overtake, and although Japanese railways in general are extremely punctual, this break can be 5 minutes; sometimes even 2 expresses pass first before the local train can proceed. The same problem can be found on the Shinkansen network. Although all trains travel at the same high speed, some take significantly longer because they spend a lot of time pausing in stations to be overtaken. So on suburban (and even some metro) services, you should always be aware of this option and change to a faster train. But generally I have observed that local trains are less crowded!

Mitsuzawa-Kamicho station reminds me of Madrid's L6

What I liked about the Yokohama Subway, even before riding it, are the simple names they have chosen for their two lines, the Blue Line and the Green Line, but again, like in Fukuoka or Kobe, despite being a small network, the two lines are technically incompatible. While the Blue Line is more of a standard metro, even with third-rail power supply, and 6-car trains, the Green Line is another of those linear-motor metros and trains consist of just 4 cars, although platforms are laid out for longer cars. In Yokohama, I didn't find them so noisy, just when running over the switches at the end of the line, they rattled like cheap low-floor trams. The stations on the Green Line seem to be colour-coded, with different colours around the top of the otherwise white columns, and the same colour in some different areas, but much too decent to be perceived as something distinctive.

The biggest flaw of the 2-line system is the lack of cross-platform interchange at Center-Kita and/or Center-Minami. Ideally, the two lines, which run on two parallel viaducts, should have been arranged in a Stockholm fashion (T-Centralen and Gamla Stan/Slussen), that in one station you can easily change trains in opposite directions, and in the other in the same direction, whatever the major journey directions are. Interchange between the two lines is not too bad, though, and their solution was certainly much cheaper, especially as the Blue Line is much older. But given the rather brutal construction of elevated motorways and railways all over Japan, the visual impact of such a structure would have been limited, although during construction certainly the existing Blue Line would have suffered a lengthy disruption. The Green Line in its present form is a mere feeder to the Blue Line, as well as the Tokyu route and JR's Yokohama Line. Earlier projects to create a kind of semi-circular line seem to be on hold.

Hiyoshi - this would be the red station on the decently colour-coded Green Line

During off-peak hours, the Blue Line has express trains twice an hour. In this case, I would consider it full nonsense. Certainly, express passengers save a few minutes to get from the suburbs into the city centre, but I suppose no one would choose a metro train that only runs every half hour to be a few minutes faster, when the big advantage of a metro system is that you don't really look at timetables. On the other hand, as said before, passengers on local trains have to wait these extra minutes to let the hurried ones pass. And at local-only stops, headways suddenly get much longer and irregular.

Despite being "Golden Week" with many people on holiday I was surprised how quiet the most central station Kannai was. I was expecting it to be the busiest at any time. Having spent a lot of time on the northern section, there was not much time left to do the southern section in detail, but I rode it to the end anyway, as from there, I had the option to return on a Sotetsu train. Sotetsu operates a dense suburban service with trains linking Shonandai, the southwestern terminus of the Blue Line, with Yokohama station via a different route. Some of their trains run express on the inner section, so that is a good alternative for some areas. Their trains consist of 10 cars.

Shonandai - pleasant underground terminus for the Sotetsu suburban railway

At Yokohama station I changed to the Minatomirai Line, one of those weird urban rail lines in Japan. Getting down to their platform from +1 to something like -5 was quite a long and slow tour as suddenly lots of people had appeared and they all wanted to go my way. The Minatomirai Line, now 12 years old, was publicised as a sort of metro when it was built, although it is actually just an underground extension of the busy Tokyu Toyoko Line. But typically Japanese, they had to do it separately, with all the consequences, for passenger information and fares. 

 Yokohama - crowds queuing orderly at the joint Tokyu/Minatomirai station

The Yokohama Subway day pass is not valid, of course, but for the six stations which the line comprises, you can buy a separate day pass for 460 Yen, which I did to be able to get in and out of the stations as often as I wanted. Unfortunately it was already getting dark, so there was not much to take pictures of outside anyway. I interrupted this nice but busy day only for a short break to go up the Yokohama Landmark Tower next to Minatomirai station, from where you get excellent views of Tokyo Bay, and if you're lucky (which I wasn't that day) of Mt. Fuji.

Mapwise, Yokohama is a sad place, I mean for map collectors, because inside the Subway stations, they actually have quite a nice system diagram, which includes the Subway lines as thick lines, but also the other numerous rail services in the city. I understand that all these different rail companies have no interest in a joint presentation of their services, but the city administration should take on this role of coordinator and publish proper material for visitors. Apparently, since the Minatomirai redevelopment area was finished they have lots of visitors. And actually they do publish quite a good map of the 'Bay City' covering the central area and with all necessary transport options. When I asked for Subway maps in various places, they gave me a photocopied A5-size paper, and on some they had even manually added the colour to the Subway lines with a page-marker! Very cute indeed.

Minatomirai Line: Bashimichi station with an impressive dome-like vestibule

The Minatomirai stations are not as functional and monotonous as most metro stations in Japan. Each is different and, mostly on mezzanine level, has some interesting mural or art object or old images of this former port area. Again I took loads of pictures which I will hopefully put together into a gallery on UrbanRail.Net one day.

Minatomirai Line: Nihon-odori station

Minatomirai Line: Nihon-odori station, wall reliefs of historic surroundings in mezzanine

Minatomirai Line: Motomachi-Chukagai station, also with historic images on vault panels

From Yokohama I finally returned to Tokyo using JR with my JR Rail Pass. But with a total of six "lines" linking the two cities, I found it rather confusing to pick the best train. And most of these lines have their own platform, so you can't just go to the Tokyo platform and see what's coming along. I decided for the Ueno-Tokyo Line, but was confused that all trains were shown as 'Local', although then the train actually only stopped in Kawasaki and Shinagawa. Later I realised that this purple line doesn't include any intermediate stops on this route anyway, and therefore it is a 'Local', whereas the real local stops would be served by trains labelled Keihin-Tohoku Line for example. The JR Tokyo Region maps are posted in some places, but not too often either, and they are not as easily available to take away as Tokyo Subway maps. But it is very advisable to have such a map with you when travelling on JR. Once inside the trains, it is normally no problem to find stopping patterns, and also the information screen show the stops properly (on new screens, the skipped stops are shown in a faded grey, though, and scheduled stops in black!).

JR East will soon be introducing a system of line coding and station numbering, like on the Subway and private railways. The Yamanote Line, for example, will carry a JY code. So I wonder what the new map will look like and whether it is getting even more confusing.

Go back to Tokyo Part 2.2 | Continue to Tokyo Part 2.4


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