Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Trains to Nowhere: The Mystery of Kita-Ayase / どこへも行かない電車:不思議な北綾瀬

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film Cafe Lumiere features a character who records Tokyo trains, riding inside cars and standing on platforms with a microphone. For those who just want to enjoy the various arrival / departure melodies of the trains, there’s a CD available. Alisa Freedman’s recent Tokyo in Transit chronicles the development of mass transportation in Japan and its influence on, among other things, gender roles. Salon recently ran a slide show of some of the greatest movie train scenes and naturally included Spirited Away‘s quiet journey on a ghost-train that runs on tracks submerged in water.  Something about that scene–the shadow-people getting off the train and waving from the platform, the endless expanse of ocean, the gradually fading daylight–still moves me to tears.

These days Japan’s century-long love affair with trains usually takes the form of furusato tzukuri (“hometown-making”), creating nostalgia for a past that never really existed, mostly through tourism posters and campaigns.  Hakone, a tourist destination popular for its hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji, is also known as a spot where you can ride several different kinds of trains in a day (a funicular, a trolley, a steam train, and a “toy” train that zigzags up a mountain).  Rural areas often tout their “authentic” old-style train cars or streetcars, and “ekiben” (station lunch boxes) are a regional delicacy.

Like most people who’ve lived in Tokyo for some time, I have a love-hate relationship with the actual trains that I ride almost every day. I love their efficiency, their cleanliness, and the fact that they can take me pretty much anywhere I need to go. I hate the crowds and the cacophony of endless announcements (yes, I know there are priority seats for elderly and disabled passengers, you don’t have to tell me every thirty f–king seconds).

My main train these days is the Chiyoda Line, which I learn from Wikipedia is the second most crowded train line in Tokyo, running at 181% capacity during peak periods (at 11 pm on a Friday it can feel more like 250%).  For part of my journey the train is technically the above-ground JR Joban line, but it becomes a subway after just one station, emerging from the tunnels again after about twenty stations to become the Odakyu-Odawara line heading into the suburbs. (It’s confusing–but think of it as similar to the way that street names change, Hillhurst to Virgil to [sort of] Hoover).  It’s the same train–just a different name depending on where it’s at. And a different fee. In my case, unfortunately, traveling for one station on the Joban Line before entering the subway means that I have to pay an extra 150 yen every time I travel, since fees for subways and above-ground trains are separate.

After a few weeks of riding the Chiyoda Line, I noticed something odd. At Ayase, the station just before my home station of Kameari, passengers had the option of changing to another train for Kita-Ayase (North Ayase). But no trains beginning in western Tokyo were ever bound for Kita-Ayase, and as far as I could tell no trains that originated at Kita-Ayase ever went further than Ayase, just one station away.  Here’s a picture of what I mean:

That green line is the Chiyoda Line. To the west it continues as the Odakyu-Odawara Line, and to the east it becomes the JR Joban Line.  In other words, every train that originates at Yoyogi-Uehara ends either at Ayase or some point to the west of Ayase–but not at Kita-Ayase.  There’s just one train for that. One train, moving back and forth between two stations that are approximately 2 km from each other.

The more I thought about it, the odder this seemed. Seriously, can you imagine an L.A. bus or train that only moved back and forth between two stops? Why in the world would a railway company build a train line that only operated between two stations? And who would want to live near a station that automatically required you to transfer trains (adding a good ten-fifteen minutes to your commute) if you wanted to go any further than Ayase?  I’m guessing the rent in Kita-Ayase is a lot cheaper, but still.

My basic Google searches in Japanese and English turned up nothing. I learned that the Ayase-Kita-Ayase section of the Chiyoda Line opened in 1979, but there was no explanation for why. I wondered if there might have been political corruption involved, as with the infamous Joetsu shinkansen from Tokyo to Niigata, built by a prime minister who basically just wanted to satisfy a small group of cronies (and have an easy way to get back to Niigata, his hometown). Maybe some city councilman wanted his own little train to his own little Kita-Ayase apartment.

Over time I started to think of Kita-Ayase and its train as a sort of liminal space–kind of like Shell Beach in Dark City, the place that everybody’s been to but no one can remember how to get to. Or Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.  Or the ghost-train in Miyazawa Kenji’s Night of the Milky Way Railroad. Every day when my train passed by the tiny platform next to Ayase station and made the announcement about trains to Kita-Ayase, I wondered whether that train was real, or if its passengers weren’t simply ghosts like the shadow-people in Miyazaki’s famous train scene.

Kita-Ayase is, of course, real. Here’s a picture.

Nothing unusual going on here. A Google street view shows a quiet shopping street and a small park with a fountain. Maybe at some point the area got built up enough to warrant a train station, but not built up enough to actually re-direct existing trains to a new station terminus. If I took the train there (which I’ve thought of doing), I doubt I’d feel anything unusual.

For now, though, I’ll keep thinking of Kita-Ayase and its lonely two-station train line as a mystery, a sort of alternate dimension of Tokyo. Maybe instead of tracks submerged in water, the Kita-Ayase line trains float through the air. Maybe my fictional version of Kita-Ayase is inhabited by shadow-people and forgotten gods. Maybe the people who board the Kita-Ayase-bound trains never come back, or come back changed.

It makes the commute more interesting.


3 comments on “Trains to Nowhere: The Mystery of Kita-Ayase / どこへも行かない電車:不思議な北綾瀬

  1. toranosuke
    March 15, 2011

    Reminds me of the so-called Dinky Train which connects Princeton campus to Princeton Junction, which is on the actual line that goes north to New York and south to Philly. I’ve never attended Princeton – only took the train there once or twice to visit a friend – but I get the impression that it’s just this one-stop weird branch extension off of the main line, kind of like what kita-ayase sounds like it’s all about.

  2. Anonymous
    June 14, 2011

    Also interesting the fact that trains from Ayase to Kita Ayase depart from platform ‘0’.

  3. gradland
    June 14, 2011

    Yes, platform “0” buses and trains always make me do a double-take…I wonder if they go somewhere special, or if they just ran out of numbers on the platforms.

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2011 by in Japan and tagged , , , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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