Celebrating 150 years of railroads in Japan

On October 14, 1872, Japan’s first passenger rail service opened, running between Yokohama (near modern-day Sakuragicho Station) and Tokyo (near modern-day Shimbashi Station). Such a milestone deserves celebration, especially one observing a service that has, in large degree, molded a nation. Certainly JR East agrees, so that Tokyo, at least, is widely decorated with posters and signboards commemorating the occasion.

But there are various places around Tokyo and elsewhere to find more authentic remnants of those early days of Japan’s railroad, too.

One such fun and interesting spot provides a modern, fusion atmosphere. It is Hibiya Okuroji (okuroji means “inner passage”), a relatively recent development of shops and restaurants in the brick archways built for elevated tracks from Shimbashi to Tokyo in a turn-of-the-century shift of the center of rail travel to closer to the Imperial Palace. These archways still serve as the foundation of the rails carrying the Yamanote, Keihin Tohoku and Tokaido train lines as well as the westbound Shinkansen. Beneath the rails, the archways have long held warehouses and other storage facilities as well as casual bars and restaurants popular with office workers employed nearby.

There was talk, just after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, of replacing the brick archways with more modern and robust structures less likely to crumble when/if “the big one” hits Tokyo, but local patrons are so attached to the brick aesthetic that an opposition movement convinced JR East to instead strengthen the arches with reinforced concrete, keeping the look but ensuring safety. In fact, the archways have become so iconic that they feature prominently in JR East’s posters celebrating the sesquicentenary.

Near Yurakucho Station, one section of the area “underneath the train tracks” is known as “Yakitori Alley”. It has been made popular among foreign tourists thanks to the friendly, casual atmosphere and frequent mention in guidebooks and even YouTube videos. So, it seems, local patrons are not the only ones to enjoy this area.

Hibiya Okuroji is a 300 meter long refurbished section of the archways just south of the Yakitori Alley section, stretching in the direction of Shimbashi Station with some archways open onto the street alongside the arches. It feels new and modern, while at the same time retaining much of the rustic feel of the brick archways. Thanks to the extra reinforcement, it is quiet. One rarely hears the trains frequently passing overhead.

There is even a bit of artwork celebrating the much-loved proletariat vibe of the past. From time to time temporary art exhibitions are also offered throughout the passageway.

Pillars at the southern end of the mall sport vintage photos of the brick arches and the overall early history of rail through this area.

Decor aside, there are more than 50 shops and restaurants in this fascinating space. Visitors will find a wide variety of specialty shops and boutiques to entice them to browse.

And, of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants. Some offer simple menus so good that people are willing to queue for it, while others are more up-market yet equally popular. The variety of cuisines and styles is surprising for such relatively compact space.

Hibiya Okuroji is a worthwhile walk through for anyone in the Yurakucho-Shimbashi vicinity, whether there on business or for pleasure. Just allow enough time to explore thoroughly and maybe have a bite to eat.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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