Hiroshima: Streetcar system like taking a step back in time

HIROSHIMA, Japan – My friends and I walked to the streetcar terminus, certain of which trolley to board. An agent approached us to help; he didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Japanese.

So, we reverted to the international language: We pointed to our destination on the map. Once he realized that the trolley we needed to take was boarding and about to depart, he began excitedly gesturing for us to board. We did, and the streetcar soon pulled away from the station.

The streetcar rumbled through the city’s streets, completing the scene of a modern Japanese city. Over the past 60 years, Hiroshima has rebuilt itself as a modern, cosmopolitan city. Though it’s nowhere near as large as Tokyo, Hiroshima has all the amenities of a large city, though it’s retained one element that most Japanese cities have done away with: its streetcar system.

The Hiroshima Electric Railway, of Hiroden as it’s known in Japan, only carries a small percentage of the city’s 1.1 million residents, but it is a great way to travel around the city. Hiroshima is the last major Japanese city with a functioning streetcar system; the city’s streetcar system dates to June 18, 1910, replacing horse-drawn carriages.

While a number of other Japanese cities with streetcar systems eventually replaced them with a subway system, Hiroshima did not. Although, the Hiroshima Electric Railway has over the years modernized its streetcar fleet, there are still a number of older trolleys, prompting railfans to dub the streetcar system a “Moving Museum.” Interestingly, in the 1960s, the city started buying streetcars from other cities. So, the older streetcars that operate over the Hiroshima Electric Railway today once carried passengers in any number of cities throughout Japan.

Following the atomic bombing of the city on Aug. 6, 1945, the streetcar system was among the first of the city’s services to be restored. Service between two stations – Koi and Nishi-tenma-cho – restarted just three days after the bombing, returning some semblance of normalcy – albeit a small one – to the city. The system’s main lines were operational within about two months of the bombing.

A total of four streetcars survived the blast, and two of those street cars – Nos. 651 and 652 – still operated until recently.

Today, the Hiroshima Electric Railway operates seven streetcar lines. Frankly, the Hiroden may not be the fastest mode of transportation. It takes about an hour to travel the roughly 10-mile-long Hiroden Miyajima Line, which is classified as a railroad, not a streetcar line, because of government regulations. But, considering a majority of the streetcar lines begin and end at the JR Hiroshima station, the city’s major sites are easily accessible from almost anywhere in Japan.

But, even more important, given the fact that there aren’t a lot of streetcar lines in the world, you would be remiss to miss out on this unique experience. In many ways, it’s like taking a step back in time.

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