The Odyssey

Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Tokyo.

Tokyo is big and full of people, a lot of people. This is hardly a staggering revelation and probably won't win me a Nobel Prize, though it'd be nice to be nominated, but it is a fact of life any Tokyoite, whether native or imported, must sooner rather than later come to terms with. Like London the city has bands with populations ranging from "a writhing mass" in inner Tokyo to "a fuckload" if you include greater Tokyo. Apparently, if you count the whole metropolitan area Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, with 35.2 million people living in 13,500 square kilometers*. Footage of famous Hachiko square's crowded zebra crossing and trains being crammed full by station attendants are staple fare for exploitative and often sensationalist programs on life in Japan, but they are true, this kind of malarkey does actually happen, daily.

Luckily, yet strangely, Japan's infrastructure is a well-oiled machine. Investigating the intricate network of delivery, consumption, garbage hauling, water supply, electricity and public transport would probably be not unlike a short stint in the Total Perspective Vortex. If you thought mankind's place in the Universe is insignificantly tiny in the face of infinite space, try looking at Tokyo. But the system is not infallible, and when even tiny things go wrong the whole tower block of cards comes tumbling down.

Forgive me for yet another train post, but you have to appreciate that when I spend a good two hours a day on one, the experiences make up a large proportion of my day to day life and following the “write what you know” rule it’s only natural the subject will crop up regularly. The train line I am forced to take daily happens to be one of Tokyo’s busiest and, it would seem, most fallible. It’s bad enough when you walk to your station in the morning and are greeted with a milling crowd of people, some in groups surrounding station attendants who give out free tickets and alternate route information. When the train ends up working again they will be slow and stuffed so full of people they are in danger of imploding. The platform is usually overcrowded and you may have to wait as several trains chug by, letting on a small handful of people. My hour-long commute can easily stretch to two or more on these occasions making me late for work and forcing me to do overtime to make up for the delays. This happens at least a couple of times a month.

What’s worse is when it happens in the evening. Just the other day I managed to leave work right on time only to be confronted by the aforementioned crowds though, it being central Tokyo, worse by a multiple of tens, hundreds. My only alternative was a massive detour, taking me well past my station in a different direction and then using a combination of busses and local trains and, eventually, a taxi I would manage to get home. The problem, they said, was a “human accident”. This may have been a suicide, as they never come right out and say that, but seeing as the station in question wasn’t an express stop it may well have been a poor soul dragged to death in the slipstream of a fast train running through the station. In these situations it’s of course callous to get angry, so I thought I’d do a little shopping and see if the situation developed.

After informing several colleagues and friends who use the same line, a mere half hour later things appeared to be up and running again. I made my way onto the crowded platform and luckily managed to squeeze onto a carriage quickly. However, a few stops down the line, in an already slow moving journey, we had stopped for a good forty minutes inside a tunnel. A new problem had occurred, a broken cable, which allowed me to get upset and angry without any moral implications. After a good while we were asked to walk through the train to the front carriages which had reached the platform already and get off. Now I was stranded at a local station with no alternate routes available to me.

The evening was cold and harsh winds chilled you to the bone. There was some talk of busses but the chaos outside the station didn’t bode well, so I made my way to a local family restaurant to have a quick dinner and see what happened. Of course I was not the only one with this great idea and queues had formed everywhere. Luckily, as a smoker, my seat became available early, so I wasted some time with a beer, coffee and shitty meat platter with rice. Every other customer there was in the same boat and the staff looked surprised and overworked. Everybody was checking their mobile phones for further information, but it took a good hour and a half before there was any change. At least I was warm here.

When the news came the trains were back up and running I wasn’t convinced. The possibility of further problems and longer delays seemed real, as I had been burnt by that earlier in the evening, but begrudgingly I made my way outside. On the way back to the station however I noticed a man getting out of a taxi, so I jumped the bushes and got in before anyone else in the crowd could. This was, in retrospect, a mistake. The roads were crowded and progress was slow. Eventually, despite some quiet detours, the taxi ride took about twice as long as the train would have, which I heard later ran smoothly for the rest of the evening, even if they were somewhat crowded.

In the end, all said and done, my usual one hour trip back home took four and a half.

Whenever small problems like the above crop up it’s a little scary to see how much chaos is created. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are stranded and need to use facilities unable to cope with the strain. Busses are stuffed beyond capacity, taxis are making a mint, roads are gridlocked, family restaurants run out of steak and yours truly has a wasted evening. It’s almost as bad as the company running out of coffee the next day, forcing me to survive on a mere two mugs until lunchtime. In a microcosm like Tokyo I’s a little scary to realize how fragile things can be and though a single train line conking out is bad enough one shudders to think what a real earthquake would do or a massive power outage.

* Source: “QI: The Book of General Ignorance” by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

8 comments:

  1. And I thought I had it bad when university sports traffic slowed me down on my drive home.

    My sympathies, sir.

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  2. Busiest line in Tokyo ? which one wold that be ?
    I take the Denentoshi line every day and I have a hard time imagining anything busier. Toyoko-sen might have higher volume but probably not higher density.

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  3. I can feel your frustration. When I visited Tokyo, I had a similar situation happen to me. It was annoying enough having it ruin half of my day as a tourist, but I can't imagine going through that weekly or bi-monthly before and after work. Maybe if/when you move jobs, you should look in a slightly less populated area like Yokohama. Or buy a personal jetpack ;)

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  4. @ian maclean
    Chuo-honsen maybe?
    It leads directly from the Greater Tokyo area to the metro area.

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  5. And to think I thought the saikyo-sen was bad!

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