Dacian Groza

Walking the Yamanote Line

Map of the Yamanote Line, showing the location of each photo. 

The Yamanote Line is the overground train line that runs in a loop around central Tokyo. A friend told me that it’s possible to follow the train tracks on the streets that run along them, circle central Tokyo and end back where you started. The entire walking route is over 40 Kilometres long. So on our last day in Tokyo in 2015, my girlfriend Daria (now my wife) and I decided to walk the line, as our last experience in the city. 
We started at Ueno Station and went counter-clockwise. The route takes you through many traffic nodes like the famous Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo Stations, or hot spots like Yoyogi Park, Harajuku ori Akihabara. But what we liked the most were the random encounters in the back-alleys that happen to be closest to the tracks. These streets are very quiet, and usualy quite empty. Impromptu flea markets, second hand shops, tiny restaurants: if only we had time to stop at all of them. But if you want to finish the trek in under 12 hours, which gives you the bragging rights that you completed the walk, you have to choose carefully. It’s easy to lose your way, stray from the tracks and have to backtrack, especially if you go completely unprepared like we did. We had no idea of the routes ahead of time. Sometimes you have to cross bridges from one side of the Line to the other, go through private areas like temples or cemeteries, or around blocks of buildings and circle back to the tracks. We started at 8AM sharp and by 8PM we were back at Ueno station, with our phones’, and physical batteries drained. The next morning we got on a plane and left Japan.
The impression left by our trip was so strong that I thought about it for years and decided to make a photo series on the Walk. So 4 years later, in 2019 we embarked on a trip to Tokyo again, with the plan to document the Yamanote Walk. This time we travelled with our 1-year-old daughter Nora, so I would have to walk alone. And I couldn’t travel the entire route in one day, and take compelling photos at the same time. So I split the route in parts, a few stations per day. 
As soon as we landed, we were hit by the scorching heat Tokyo has even in September. Every day the temperature was over 30°C. The route itself had also changed, in the four years that passed since our last visit. Entire areas were closed off in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics that were planned for next year. New buildings popped up on the line, others were gone. This city changes fast. My plans and expectations formed over the previous four years were out the window. This project was driving itself, out of my control. I felt strangely liberated. So I started walking, and shooting, over 14 hot, hot nights, sticking to the streets closest to the tracks, but not focusing on the stations. I was after those fleeting, serendipitous moments, in the quiet of the night, shared with only a handful of people going home after the rush of the happy hour. The sound of the trains always whooshing close by. I completed the entire route just in time, as the Faxai typhoon started pummelling Tokyo. The next day we were gone again.