Venerable Ueno Zoo monorail, loved by kids, marks 60 years

JIJI

While giant panda cub Xiang Xiang has been attracting crowds since her birth in June at Ueno Zoo, kids are also being drawn to a tiny monorail that marked its 60th anniversary last month.

The 330-meter monorail has only two stations, linking the zoo’s east and west gardens. Launched on Dec. 17, 1957, it is the oldest monorail in the country.

The Ueno Zoo monorail was built as an experiment by the transportation bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which had been exploring new transport systems in the wake of World War II.

The two-car train links the stations in 90 seconds. A one-way trip is ¥80 for those 2 and over, and ¥150 for junior high students and above.

The cars, smaller than those used by other monorails in the country, carry about 50 people at a time. It usually travels at about 13 kph but slows when it goes by Shinobazunoike Pond in Ueno Park.

“We want to see smiling children get off the train saying, ‘I enjoyed the monorail ride,’ ” said 62-year-old Kazuhide Nagata, the 25th stationmaster.

Plans to scrap the monorail have surfaced twice in the past due to its aging facilities and financial difficulties. But the support of young fans has kept it alive.

About a million people use the line each year, and many often have to wait in line on holidays. The line has seen a recent pickup in foreign riders as well.

“I can feel the history of the monorail when I hear visitors say ‘I had a date here once’ or ‘I came here on a school trip,’ ” Nagata said.

Mitsuki Hamamatsu, 9, and her brother Itsuki, 4, came to the zoo recently as part of a family trip from Higashikagawa, Kagawa Prefecture. They said riding the monorail was fun because it looks as if it is floating in the air.

Their father, Naoki Hamamatsu, 35, said “the monorail ride left my children with a good memory that makes them want to come here again.” Although the family got to ride the train, they failed to win the lottery for viewing Xiang Xiang.

Nagata and other staffers wave to the passengers each time the train departs.

“This is a custom handed down from stationmaster to stationmaster,” Nagata said.