Hankai tramways motto is " There is a life. There is a future. There is a trajectory that will continue to live." (Photo: Ogiyoshisan / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Streetcars of Osaka

Journey Into Sakai

Hankai tramways motto is " There is a life. There is a future. There is a trajectory that will continue to live." (Photo: Ogiyoshisan / CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Bonson Lam    - 3 min read

Do you remember your first trip on the tram? What was it you remember? Was the groan as 20 tons of heavy metal awake and pulls from the tram stop, the clicky-clack sound as it rolls, or the feel of the wooden seats?

Taking a tram from Tennoji in Osaka City to Sakai is a great way to go back in time, both physically, as you leave the skyscrapers behind, and meditatively, watching the old men balancing deliveries on their scooters in the cat sized alleyways. Being only a step above the kerb, the streetscapes pass you at a pedestrian level, like the old men the waiting at the level crossings, delivering rough cut timber for the century old workshops. Winter is a great time to people watch, the sunlight is softer, the shadows are longer, and I am mesmerised just watching people’s breath fill the air.

Inside the tram, take in the menagerie of life on the bench seats facing each other. From the toddler playing with his toy car, or the mother coming home from the grocers. Scenes that you would miss on the superfast Shinkansen or bullet train.

Known as the Hankai tramway, it has been running since 1900. Through the great depression and two world wars, some streetcars have been running on this line since 1928. While more modern variants exist, it is the older cars like the Mo-164 that captures our affection, with its metal window shutters and the old handrails.

Travelling south from either Tennoji or Ebisucho, there are a number of old towns and monuments both before and after the moat, or the Yamato river which separates Osaka and Sakai Cities. Of note is the Sumiyoshi Taisha Grand Shrine on the Osaka City side, which was founded in 211.

In fact, Sakai city predates that of Osaka, with its own port that formed a key link in the maritime silk road. The mariners with a Denarii in his pocket could be landing in Sakai on his way to Yamato, now called Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. A.D. Today, Sakai remembers its past with one of the oldest Western-style lighthouses in Japan.

I first made my way on the tram a decade ago, invited to lunch by an obatallion, the famed middle-aged housewives of Osaka, known for their tiger print clothes and fiery manner. But once adopted as part of their family, I grew to see Sakai like a local.

Even if you don’t score a lunch invite, there are many ways to immerse yourself here. Whether you meet the neighbours at a local bath house, join a knife making class, or cycle in the preserved town of Shichido, Sakai has been making friends from around the world since the Eighth century.

Getting there

Tennoji is almost halfway between Kansai Airport and Kyoto on Japan Railway (JR)'s Osaka Loop Line. An one way adult fare anywhere on the Hankai Tramway is ¥230, which takes about 30 minutes to travel from north to south. You can't use the Roman Denarii but are more than are welcome to use any prepaid Kansai travel card, such as the ICOCA.

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Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric lane ways of Kyoto last century. From the skies above Sapporo to the old charm of Naha's alleyways, I have been enchanted by the beauty and variety on every island. I am humbled to have met many distinguished people in my role as Regional Partner, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperial Family. From sushi cooking classes to Ninja training grounds I welcome your ideas on what you like from JapanTravel.com. Please visit us in Kyoto or Osaka and have some green tea or sake with us. 

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Even when trams are not nearly as quick and convenient as subways, they are so much more fun! Just having a tram running around makes every city immediately better. I have seen this one in Osaka but didn't ride it. But similarly to this Hankai tramway, the Toden Arakawa line gives you an unique perspective of Tokyo, far removed from the usual hustle and bustle. And in cities like Hiroshima, Hakodate, Nagasaki, Matsuyama and several others I feel the trams are an essential part of the identity of those cities.
One remarkable thing however with trams is they are only enjoyable during vacations in faraway countries. I mean, it's not just those Japanese trams I like, I also very much enjoyed trams in Boston, Riga and of course the wonderful double-decker trams in Hong Kong. But whenever I have to use trams in Amsterdam or Rotterdam for business or visiting family, I absolutely hate them. Noisy, annoyingly slow, too many stops, still stuck in traffic.....
Bonson Lam Author a year ago
I think so too! When you are on vacation the journey is the destination but if you are in a hurry you can’t wait for the journey to be over. I have been to Tokyo and Hong Kong too, the trams there are just as nostalgic. I haven't been to Riga or Boston yet, hope to go there one day. I have been to Amsterdam and hope to come back one day too.
Gary Luscombe a year ago
The Chin-Chin Densha is a great way to get around Sakai since that main street is so long!
Bonson Lam Author a year ago
Yes I remember those long streets, straight and flat. Come to think of it I saw a video of someone riding besides the tram tracks on a bicycle. It took a very long time to get to Tennoji, but you can really see the going ons on the street, like people watering their gardens or going to the shops.
Kim a year ago
The retro styled trams are my favorite!
Bonson Lam Author a year ago
Yes me too! Like a Haruki Murakami novel, those experiences are burned into my memory. It is always unexpected when these retro trams come up. I particularly remember the time I rode the tram on a wet winter night. The atmospherics in the tram was incredible, it was like I remembered every second.
Elena Lisina a year ago
I like old trams! Also took such a train to get to Sumiyoshi Taisha! Unforgettable memories.
Elena Lisina a year ago
If they don't run every day, then I was lucky to ride on one of those trams, just by chance! Maybe it was a holiday. I travel alone and don't speak Japanese, so I miss some things, of course.