Streets of Tokyo – Wide, green but mostly empty

Tokyo has a lot of people. Apparently some 35 million of them commuting on the trains and subways, riding the elevators, drinking in its bars and driving their cars on its wide streets. But where is the noise? I’ve lived in cities with only 0.2% of the population of this metropolis and not been able to hear the voices in my head talking to me. It’s like some guy up above has turned the volume down to just above the mute setting.

The second to last train wasn’t as crowded as the one we took

Tokyo, like London, is one of those crazy cities where public transportation seems to ground to a halt after the big hand and little hand reach 12 at night. Why is this? Had the fortune (or misfortune) to take the last train home the other night. Morning and evening rush hour trains have a world wide reputation for being rather overcrowded but they don’t compare in any way to the LAST TRAIN. It’s like a war. Everybody knows that if they don’t force themselves into this sardine tin then they’ll be spending the next 4 hours walking the streets of Akihabara, slouched over a computer in a cyber cafe or drunkenly climbing into a 3rd story pod in a capsule hotel. Japanese people are known for their politeness and helpfulness. The assistants in stores from McDonald’s to Gucci will greet and bow to you as you enter and unfailingly thank you for your visit when you exit. Little coffee shops and family restaurants will refill your plate with whatever they think you might want to try and parking attendents, police officers in a Koban, builders on the construction site and anyone else in a shiny uniform will take the time to bow and say hello as you pass. However, the last train is rather different. Unlike in London there are no apologies as somebody forces you further into the carriage. They just keep pushing. I don’t know how they do it nor how they tolerate this madness. I survived only because I was taller so able to stand on tip-toes in order to breathe and carry on with my life. Others probably held their breathe for the 20 minute ride. But how do they tolerate it day after day? Nobody complained! Had this been London, Paris or New York the passengers would have risen up, strung up the train company officials and demanded extra trains put on.

100,000 people use Shibuya crossing every hour

To witness the huge numbers of people take a trip to Shibuja where over 100,000 people cross a single junction every hour, head to Shinjuku and arrive at the world’s busiest train station with some 4 million passengers per day and around 100 exits (best not to say to someone that you’ll meet them simply “at Shinjuku station”). The best part about these huge numbers is that everybody seems content, almost everybody has a job and everything works like clockwork. Observe the construction sites which always have several people at the main gate even though all they do is occasionally stop the traffic to let construction trucks in and out, wash the outer walls of the building area (so it looks clean like the rest of Tokyo) and turn on the digital displays outside which tell people nearby how many decibals of noise the site is making (generally fewer than a small Italian town). As you walk around areas like Ginza and Ikebukuroyou’ll see street cleaners traipsing the streets looking for trash even though there isn’t any. I kind of feel sorry for them that one day I might throw some trash in front of them just so they can pick it up and feel useful!

A man walks through Ueno Park wearing a surgical mask to avoid spreading his cough or cold

With this many people you might expect dirt, pests and diseases to feel at home here but as I said before, the dirt must have been shipped off to Europe to brighten up its streets. Often cities are clean because the municipal government have cleverly placed bins everywhere while others are filthy because there are no bins. Well, in Tokyo it’s spotless yet you’ll carry your trash around for ages always on the look out for a bin! And with no trash, rather clean air and a population which wash the walls of construction sites every day there are no pests either. People get sick in Tokyo as anywhere else but good manners mean that many of those with coughs and colds walk around with surgical face masks all day lest their fellow commuters or colleagues catch something from them. Others wear the masks to protect themselves from other people’s cooties. After witnessing the last train of the day I’m surprised that everybody isn’t wearing them!