With a population of over 700,000, Kumamoto is a small city with a limited number of foreigners. Getting around in Tokyo is easy enough – signs and timetables are often displayed in English, and if you get stuck you can probably find an English-speaking attendant to help you. But in a small city like Kumamoto (where bus timetables are difficult to understand and most taxi drivers only speak Japanese) how easy is it to navigate the local tram line?
As it’s almost impossible for a non-Japanese speaking gaijin to take a bus in Kumamoto without getting lost, and frequently taking taxi’s is a pricey affair, the city tram is by far the best public transportation option. At just 170 Yen for adults and 90 Yen for children under 12, it’s the most affordable way to get around. One price for any destination, and for tourists wanting to get the most out of their travel, there is a one-day pass (available at the Kotsu Centre) for 500 Yen which gives unlimited travel on all Kumamoto trams, or a 900 yen pass which covers trams and also all buses.
When boarding the train, there are two important things to remember – get the tram going in the right direction, and get the correct line for your destination. There are two lines – the A line (red) and the B line (blue). The A line goes from Tasakibashi to Kengunmachi, and the B line goes from Kamikumamoto station to Kengunmachi (or the other way around, depending on which end you get on from.) Sometimes, trams do not run for the full length of the line and will terminate before the last stop. If you get on one of these by accident, you can ask for a transfer ticket so that you don’t have to pay twice to complete your journey.
Most of the stops on the A line and B line are the same. Popular stops that both lines go to include Suizenji Park, Kumamoto Castle and the Kumamoto Kotsu Centre Bus Station. As for extra stops, the A line goes down to the city train station, whereas the B line goes up towards Honmiyoji Temple. If you get on the wrong line, you can transfer at Karashima-Cho; just ask the driver for a transfer ticket.
The trams are all different styles, but regardless of which tram comes to your stop, you will need to board at the middle doors – not the doors at the front. All journey’s cost the same, so you don’t need to take a ticket.
There are different seating arrangements depending on the style of tram. During the daytime, you will usually be able to have a seat – it is rarely crowded during the day, but of course it is busier on the weekends. During rush hours, many people have to stand, but the tram is never as packed and crowded as you may have experienced on the Tokyo subway.
The tram will normally stop automatically at each station, but you should remember to press the ‘Stop’ button to let the driver know you wish to get off.
You should pay when you get off the tram. The money collection box is at the front of the tram, next to the driver. You cannot receive change while travelling on the tram, so try to have the correct money available. If you don’t have the correct coins, you can use the change machines which are located at the front and back of the tram. If you need to change money, try to do this as soon as you get on, so that the tram is not made late while it waits for you to change your money.
Disembark at the front of the tram, after you have paid the driver. Wait on the pavement until the lights turn green – the tram stations are located in the middle of the road, so do not attempt to cross until the lights are green, and always check for moving trams if you need to cross the tram line.
If you are into the Studio Ghibli movies, you won’t fail to be reminded of the cute tram in Spirited Away when you take the Kumamoto tram. The tram is famous in Japan – it’s cute and stylish, and a great way for tourists to get around – not just for the ease of transport, but for the sheer pleasure of taking a traditional method of transportation. I had never taken a tram before, and now I look for any excuse to ride it. The only downside is that the travel destinations are quite limited – if the tram doesn’t go where you want to visit, you need to find another method of transportation. The tram stations are cute too – the ‘green carpet’ project is seeing lawns of grass laid between the track lines, which adds a natural feel to the stations, even in the centre of the city. The tram cars are beautifully decorated – some are colourful with characters and local advertisements, and others are sleek and modern looking. Take a tram from one end of the line to the other and you’re sure to see an eager photographer along the way, snapping away at the picturesque and charming mode of transport.