Defunct elevated roads being transformed into walking trails

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Visitors walk along Umekoji High Line in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, on May 28.

Projects are seen in many parts of the nation to convert disused elevated railways and roads into walking trails, modeled after the High Line in New York, a tourist spot made from a defunct rail line.

These efforts are expected to not only attract visitors because they can gain a new perspective, but also help people rediscover the charms of the area as they walk while looking out over the cityscape.

On a weekend in late May, bouncy music was heard from an elevated road about 7 meters high near Umekoji Park in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto. Food stalls lined the elevated road, which is located about 1.5 kilometers west of JR Kyoto Station, and families surveyed the scenery while eating.

“It feels wonderful to stand in a place where trains used to run,” said Saeko Yaku, 36, who visited with her two children from Kita Ward, Kyoto. “The great view is refreshing.”

The elevated road was formerly a part of Umekoji Tanrakusen, a short connecting line that linked trains bound for Osaka with the Sanin Line and became defunct in 2016 when a new station opened.

Osaka-based architectural design company Replace converted the elevated rail track into an about 80-meter-long recreational trail in cooperation with West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), which owns the elevated structure.

Wooden panels have been put down on the surface of the elevated trail, and local eateries operate eight food stalls. There are also tables and chairs.

Visitors can see 0-series Shinkansen bullet train cars exhibited at the neighboring Kyoto Railway Museum and Kyoto Tower. Some of the train tracks remain on the trail, and people can also experience “rail cycling” in which they ride bicycles on the tracks.

According to Replace officials, there were initially about 600 visitors to the trail daily. This figure had risen to about 1,100 a day in November last year, as the trail became widely known through word of mouth.

“People have gradually realized the fun of viewing Kyoto cityscapes from new angles. We want to hold more and more events from now on,” a company official said.

The Umekoji High Line is modeled after New York’s High Line, formerly an elevated rail track in central Manhattan. Abandoned since the 1980s, it was refurbished little by little starting in 2009. It has now been converted into a 2.3-kilometer-long area of greenery.

Visitors to the High Line can enjoy walking while viewing skyscrapers nearby. About 8 million people a year visit the High Line, and it’s become a tourist spot as famous as the Statue of Liberty.

In the Ginza district of Tokyo, plans are in progress to convert about 2 kilometers of an elevated motorway into a promenade because a replacement road will be constructed. The section of the Tokyo Expressway, to be converted into a recreational trail, will no longer be needed after the connecting section of the Metropolitan Expressway is completed underground.

The plan is to construct a wood deck floor and transparent walls, so that visitors can see cityscapes from the section. The aging of the structure will have to be dealt with, as more than 50 years have passed since its construction in the oldest places.

An official of the Tokyo metropolitan government said, “Visitors will be able to look down on prime locations of the Ginza district. It will be a famous place, equal to [New York’s] High Line.”

“High lines let people look around cityscapes and freely walk in places they couldn’t enter before,” said Masaharu Osawa, a professor at Nihon University and an expert on urban planning. “The key to success is to develop the cityscape in an integrated manner.”