Decoding the Tokyo Metro

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It looked like a multi-coloured version of the squiggle people do when they are trying to get a pen going.

It might have been a wiring diagram for a Toyota Camry had it not been for the words “Subway Map” in the bottom right-hand corner. They were the only words in English: the station and line names were all in Japanese.

I compared it with the subway map which came with my guidebook, but it might as well have been for a different city. Neither seemed to reconcile with the map in the back of the leaflet I had picked up at a station I passed through earlier. It made no sense.

I got off at Shinjuku and went through to the ticket hall to try to find a better map. I remembered then why I had heard of Shinjuku: it is officially the busiest station in the world. Some 3.64 million people pass through it every day, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Los Angeles, or the combined populations of Birmingham and Greater Manchester.

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They all seemed to have arrived at once. I stood, bewildered, with my guidebook in one hand and my baffling map in the other, looking from one bank of searing neon to the next as busy people in suits knocked me this way and that.

There were fifty-one platforms to choose from, and two-hundred exits to leave by if I decided to bugger that and get a taxi. Somewhere amid the mass of humanity, under the kaleidoscope of neon, behind all the cheerful jingles to announce that a train was arriving or leaving, on one or other of the Yamanote Line, Chūō Main Line, Chūō Rapid Line, Chūō Sōbu Line, Shōnan-Shinjuku Line, Saikyō Line, Odakayu Odawara Line, Keio Line, Keio New Line, Maranouchi Line, Toei Shinjuku Line, or Toei Ōedo Line was the train I needed to take. There was only a 50:1 chance of getting it wrong.

I struggled with a combination of maps and signs, got on a train and counted off the stops. Then – to my astonishment – I was back in Ōimachi, right where I had started two hours before. All of the maps agreed that that was impossible. But there I was.

For a good two days, I tried and failed to understand why all the maps seemed so very different, how two stations could be adjacent on one map and have five or six stations between them on another. I followed signs through stations the size of airports, which took me up through three levels of platforms, out through shopping malls and down the street, round the corner, to a different station entirely. It all remained a mystery.

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Then I found out that there are two separate subway networks, the four publicly-owned Toei Lines and the nine privatised Tokyo Metro Lines, and another dozen or so networks of mass-transit railways, some owned by the state, some by private companies, which connect with, run parallel to and operate in much the same way as the subway network but are not technically part of it; then there are a further sixteen suburban lines. There are different maps for different networks.

It all made sense then and, in time, I could use the system without a map and a vacant expression. I thought that I ought to have got a certificate or something.

At rush-hour it hardly matters whether you know where you ought to be going. A Tokyo commuter crowd is like a fast-flowing river. Only the strongest can swim against the tide: the rest are swept along with the current, forced round obstructions and out into the open sea.

If the crowd transfers to the Hibuya Line, then so do you; if it takes Exit A, then you take Exit A as well; and if the crowd stops off at a department store to buy a tie then you need to think quickly what colour would go best with your shirt.

© Richard Senior 2015

Station image: “Rush hour at Shinjuku 02” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02.JPG#/media/File:Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02.JPG

Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

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Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

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The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

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After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

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By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015  

Keeping it Capsule

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An alley led through to the cheaper restaurants, a few hostess bars and the capsule hotel I was looking for.

I took my shoes off at the door and put them in a locker. There was a sign with a tattooed man crossed out. It technically meant what it said: that you were not allowed in if you had tattoos, but what it really meant was that you were not allowed in if you were a gangster. The yakuza famously have full-body tattoos.

I filled out a form at the desk and paid, and they handed me a pair of pyjamas, a towel and a plastic wristband with a locker key folded inside. It looked like something the courts would impose on you for a minor criminal offence.

Capsule hotels are aimed at salarymen who have got too drunk at corporate events to find their way home, or would not be let in by their wives if they did. But they are used, much like hostels, by anyone who wants a cheap place to sleep in the city. The other guests were all Japanese, and sober; but it was still a bit early.

There was a vending machine in the lobby with everything a guest might need in the morning: toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving kit, clean underwear and headache tablets. The inside of the lift was papered with flyers for food – to soak up the drink – coffee – to sober you up – laundry – in case you had made a mess down the front of your suit – and massages – in case you could not make it to the hostess bars round the corner.

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On the upper floors, there were beer vending machines and rows of desks with power sockets and partitions, so that sozzled salarymen could set up their laptops and bash out emails they might suddenly remember in the morning, with a stab of panic, as they open their eyes experimentally and start to work out where, why and how.

I changed into the pyjamas, which were made of brown corduroy and reminded me of the jacket my middle school art teacher wore, and shut my clothes and daybag up in the locker. The backpack had to stay out in the corridor.

There were sinks and toilets on that floor and a communal bath in the basement. It was the usual Japanese set up, with sit-down showers around the wall where you scrubbed yourself up before soaking in the hot tub. There were sauna rooms, too, and because it was all-male they had televisions inside screening football, instead of that soothing music which is supposed to evoke temples and beaches.

The capsules were arranged like train station lockers, stacked two-high in parallel rows with a walkway of perhaps two metres wide between them. Some of the guests had left their screens open and, with the rows of feet, it was hard not to think of a morgue. There were rubberised steps and a chrome grab handle to get to the upper capsules. It was like climbing onto the back of a truck. I would not like to try it if I were in no state to get myself home.

The capsule was much nicer than I had imagined, though. It was more cosy than claustrophobic. There was enough room to sit up and read, and a decent light to read by; and there was a television, in case I wanted to watch people being loud and hysterical in a language I did not understand. It was quiet enough with the screen pulled at the end and the sliding door shut on the communal area; but I wore earplugs anyway. Some of the drunker guests who arrived in the early hours made enough noise to wake me up as they tumbled in, but I slept at least as well as I ever do in hostels.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Two Japans

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Tokyo seems never to end. Even from 200 metres up on the observation deck of the Metropolitan Government Building, all you see stretching out until they blur together are thousands of densely packed office and apartment blocks. Only the nearby National Gardens break the monotony of concrete and glass. Rivers, parks, roads and railways are simply swallowed up.

The city streets are as wide as European motorways; the stations are the size of airports. The crowds expand to fill them. Hurrying salarymen toting briefcases. Bent old ladies with surgical masks and bells on their bags which tinkle like the collars which cats are made to wear to stop them catching birds. Orange-haired teenagers hunched over iPhones as they shuffle down the pavement and into the Metro and onto trains and out at the other end without ever looking up.

When the cherry blossoms come, the crowds descend on the parks and sit in huddles under the trees, laughing and chatting excitedly, or jostle with selfie sticks held at arm’s length. They take the train en masse to Naka-Meguro at the end of the Hibiya Line and clog the streets either side of the canal, stopping for selfies, street snacks, beer or cherry blossom ice cream.

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Searing neon fizzes from every surface. Music explodes from animated billboards. It follows you across the street along overhead wires. More of it pierces out of the sides of trucks as they inch through the middle of town. The noise from  Vegas-scale pachinko parlours deafens as you pass by the door. Digital birdsong plays in the stairwells in stations. Elevators and escalators chatter away to you. The station cleaner’s rig plays Fur Elise to warn you that it is approaching from behind. The Yankee Doodle Boy heralds platform announcements; a jingle celebrates a train’s departure.

Yet even in the middle of Tokyo, there are pockets of perfect tranquility. Just a block or two back from Ueno Park, where shrieking couples lark in swan boats and tightly-packed groups share bentos on mats spread underneath the cherry trees, the scale shrinks and the noise is muted, the crowds vanish and the neon never intrudes. The alleys are lined with old wooden shophouses and discrete galleries, and temples and shrines, gnarled pines and ancient cedars.

Two hours to the north in Nikkō, there are no high-rise blocks; no neon, no gratuitous music, no bustling salarymen, no teenagers with orange hair. There are just quiet restaurants and antique shops and a mineral-green river which hurtles over boulders and flows under a humped-back bridge. In the forests in the hills, there are gilded temples with intricately painted eaves and dragons and grotesques and the original monkeys to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is as beautiful and as peaceful as anywhere I have been in the world.

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To the west, deep in the Japanese Alps, the streets of the old town of Takayama are lined with wooden buildings from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries: inns and craft shops and sake breweries. In the early evening, after the day-trippers have left, an old man potters down the street in pyjamas, and a lady kneels outside her house to pull up weeds, and a couple slowly rolls by on bicycles.

It is hard to comprehend how a single nation can be at once so manic and so sedate, so big, so bright, so loud, yet – at the same time – so quiet and calm; how unspoilt heritage can coexist so closely with ruthless modernity. It is almost as if there are two Japans.

© Richard Senior 2015