Arriving underground, the subway doors open and I step out onto the platform. It’s filled with orderly lines of commuters waiting for their turn to wedge themselves into my train. “Tokyo Station,” the electronic voice announces over the PA system. Half a million people come through this singular hub every day and, due to jet lag, I have made the wise choice of acquainting myself with the city’s subway system at rush hour on a Friday night.
Stopping would hinder the current of people around me, and so I move with the group towards an exit to…somewhere that’s not here. Stepping through the turnstile lands me in an unending underground corridor. Rivers of people are heading in both directions, with occasional rivulets branching off into the shops lining the perimeter. Bewildered, and worse, hungry, I step into the flow and follow my nose to a hall lined with noodle shops - ooh, Ramen Street! I grab a meal ticket by placing an order at a vending machine and tuck myself into a corner.
The huge bowl of noodles is a delicious salve, and after slurping it all down I am fortified - a good thing, since rush hour seems to be lasting longer than an hour. I consult Google Maps: ah, there’s my goal - if I can make it to the west side of the complex, I might be able to emerge from this underground maze. I funnel through another turnstile with my subway card. Did I just pay another fare? A small price for a shortcut to cross the tracks - and lo, is that a breeze of fresh air that I feel? A woman with a yoga mat cuts through a sea of suits as we march up crowded stairs together, orderly until we all emerge into a gigantic open square and scatter. I spin to survey the cityscape, relieved that I have managed to reach the Earth’s surface. I look around for Yoga Mat Woman; poetically, she has disappeared into the sunset.
This city is built for walking and public transportation. Sure it’s a tad chaotic for a prairie boy like me who’s used to open spaces, but it is also simultaneously the busiest and most organized place I’ve ever been - two things that don’t often go together.
To understand Tokyo, you need to look at the landscape that surrounds it. The archipelago of Japan juts up from the earth’s crust in the Ring of Fire. 75% of the country is made up of steep mountains, forcing 93% of the population to live densely in the cities. Tokyo is situated on the most expansive plain in the country, which is why I find myself here with some 37 million other people in the largest city in the world.
And yet, it’s organized. Homes are small by western standards, but embody efficiency and affordability. Gardens dot apartment balconies and house fronts, while public greenery surrounds old shrines and new transportation routes alike. People are polite in their movements amongst their neighbours on the street, even talking in quiet voices so that amidst a crowd it is quite the opposite of what usually defaults to escalating cacophony.
This improbable union of chaos and order spawns partly out of a culture of careful etiquette and respect (i.e. doing one’s duty to share space well with your extremely close neighbours). But another driving force is the need to rebuild.
Japan is one of the most seismically active places in the world, experiencing around 1500 earthquakes each year. The shocks usually just jostle your tea as if a train were passing by on nearby tracks, but they do spark eruptions, trigger tsunamis, and tumble infrastructure regularly.
And then there’s the human history of destruction: on March 9th, 1945, the United States levelled a huge swath of Tokyo, committing the single most devastating bombing raid in human history. And of course, one can’t forget the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Like I said, there is a need to rebuild here.
But every time something is destroyed, there is an opportunity for iterative improvement. Tokyo as it is today is an answer to the questions, “What worked? And what could have been done better?” The result only continues to refine itself.
Listening to the subway trains rumbling in the distance, I drop my gaze. The last cherry blossoms have fallen, winking at me from a reflecting pool before disappearing for yet another year. But other plants are taking the seasonal baton and blooming in their own radiance (though, admittedly, to less fanfare).
The sun continues its orbit below the horizon. In less than an hour, the subway train will complete a new circuit. It’s time for me to head back to my hotel and complete my own daily circle.