A look at Tokyo and its trains
It wasn’t until after I’d arrived in Tokyo that I realized why I’d wanted to go there for so long. It was because I’d read too much science fiction as a teenager.
In the 80s, I’d read a lot of the then-new cyberpunk sci-fi by William Gibson and imitators, where dark fantastic things are happening in Chiba and other mysterious-sounding Tokyo districts – those ideas had remained with me, unreconstructed.
But as I discovered, Tokyo isn’t dark and strange at all. Chiba, for instance, is a pleasant, residential area. There’s a nice café there that does great hot dogs, and a cute primary school.
What Tokyo is, is a really good, well-run city.
And it runs on its trains.
The suburban stations are everywhere; they’re old, and the engineering of the roofs is apparent – big struts lumpy with rivets, painted practical colors – but everything is clean. Not spotless, a little bit aged, but no graffiti, no decades of soot.
Overall, the metro system is ugly but charming and efficient. I kept thinking the word ‘collaborative’ when I saw how people acted at the train stations.
Tokyoites are deeply polite – the true politeness of kindness and helpfulness … not that this is restricted to the train stations, of course.
If you’re a little old Japanese lady walking your dog, and he lifts his leg on a lamppost, well, you wash the lamppost with water you’re carrying for the purpose. If you live in a block of flats and there’s one of those telecom junction boxes on the footpath outside, you go out regularly, followed by your cat, who watches as you clean it.
The railway workers take their jobs very seriously. The guards, for instance, wear immaculate uniforms, and are unfailingly brisk and efficient. Also, they are unwitting DJs, pressing a button on a pole to play music when their train is stopped at a station. Their playlist is limited and chintzy, but I found them pleasant to dance to. My traveling companion seemed embarrassed.
Then there’s the shinkansen – the bullet train. Now, this was science fiction.
I’m not sure if the locals understood my enthusiasm (when I tried to explain to a ticket seller that I wanted to ride on the shinkansen, he kept saying, “Yes, but where you go?”), but it was everything my teenage-self had hoped for… The weird nosecone at the front, the cockpit clearly influenced by 1970s space movies (look at the forward windows of Charlton Heston’s spaceship in the original Planet of the Apes, and compare) – the acceleration, the rush of landscape, the canted rails around corners as on a racing track, the curvaceous modular design of the interiors, including the coffin-sized smokers’ rooms that grace each train (About the smoking rooms: take note, you’re not allowed to smoke on the streets of Tokyo. The designated smoking zones are just about the only grim, sad, mucky places the city has to offer, and there’s an idea for a Japanese horror movie here: a haunted tobacco crop; the already-cadaverous smokers possessed by a spirit of something or other; zombielike, they billow from their rooms and zones on clouds of grey stink, hungry not for brains but for lungs…)
So – the shinkansen didn’t disappoint – but I might have disappointed it.
Let’s just say that if you end up going to the distant city of Nagoya on a ticket meant for a destination one tenth as far, and have to pay $400 to get back, I recommend the Hongo-Tei Ramen King restaurant, Nagoya, for its excellent noodles.
Then there are the major stations of Tokyo. They’re vast. They’re terrifying and complicated – the rail maps are like diagrams. They’re deeply confounding. They reminded me of science fiction, yes, but dystopian science fiction, all underground tunnels and faceless crowds.
In part, it’s because the major stations are also gigantic shopping malls.
The malls are piled on them the way urban settlements gather around rivers.
Which means there’s a conflict: train stations are meant to let you know where you are; shopping malls aren’t. When you enter a shopping mall, you’re subject to the phenomenon called Gruen transfer, made famous by the show on the ABC. It’s a style of design intended to make you forget where you are. In that sense, malls are like casinos – they make you forget there’s an outside world.
No matter how often we went to Shinjuku station, for instance, no matter how many kind people tried to help us, we ended up getting lost. We began using ‘shinjuku’ as a swear word.
The alternative, of course, was walking.
There are stairs everywhere. There are far fewer lifts and escalators than in Australian cities. This is good for fitness, but I did worry about disabled access. If you’re in a wheelchair, there’s not much chance of visiting the Mohumohu Owl Café, for instance, accessible only by a tightly winding staircase.
But the streets – they’re owned by the people. The cars are neat, clean little things that bob their heads at passing pedestrians and cyclists. Our most delightful journeys in Tokyo were on foot, away from the main thoroughfares and into the alleys crammed with old townhouses. There was always something to discover.
There was the Tokyo Sushi College, with students slicing huge slabs of salmon (it made me crave sushi, which surprisingly, was harder to find in Tokyo than in Melbourne). There were the tiny, impossibly cramped machine-shops. There were highly individualized cafés and restaurants – Tea Time, for instance, with its piped muzak, its displays of antique crockery, its big, multi-story primary and secondary schools just like the ones you see in animes.
There are many myths about Japan, and I’d unquestioningly absorbed a lot of these myself.
Here are a few, with notes.
• There are vending machines for everything. False, as far as we saw. We saw lots of vending machines, but they were all for soft drinks (cola, usually, and Asian-type soft drinks: not much sugar, lots of caffeine and taurine). I have to add that these machines were impeccably designed and maintained.
• On rainy days, lots of serious-looking adults wear shiny new gumboots. True, though to be honest it was never really a myth; I just wanted to mention it because it’s adorable.
• The toilets are computerized, and the press of a button will cause an expertly aimed jet of warm water to assist the cleaning-process. True: I felt apologetic subjecting these elegant devices to my big Australian bum.
• Japanese people are unfailingly honest, and if you leave a full wallet somewhere, it’ll still be there when you get back. True. I would advise against buying into any Japanese bike-lock company stocks.
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