The doors open, and a torrent of people flood out of the train. I am among them, having just endured yet another 30 minute train ride with no personal space, no room to plant my feet, and not even a single straphanger to steady myself.
Men in business suits and women in dresses jockey for position to mount the stairs near the doors of the train. They – along with hundreds of others who’ve just completed the same journey – will soon emerge at the surface, heading off to destinations far and wide.
Normally, I’ll join the hordes trying to rush up the stairs. But today, as I cross the threshold of the automatically opened doors, I walk past all the people who are in a hurry and continue to a far-flung end of the train platform.
As I look back and take in just how massive a ten-car train looks at its terminus, a young woman in heels and a smart black dress breezes past me and rounds the corner. Except for a security guard, she is the only other person I see at this end of the platform. I stand still for another half-a-minute taking in the sight of the trains before I follow in her footsteps, up a narrow flight of stairs.
I pause as a reach a landing in the stairwell. I look up the next flight of stairs, and back down at the stairs behind me. It is in this instant I realize there is no one else around.
Let that sink in.
36 train platforms, nine distinct commuter train lines, three subway lines, six department stores, two underground shopping arcades, and over 200 exits make up Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. This massive transportation hub is used by 3.5 million people (or 10% of the population of greater Tokyo) every day.
And for a brief moment, I am alone. In a stairwell. It’s a rare moment of privacy in what is arguably one of the busiest places in the world. I smile and carry on.
This is Shinjuku Station’s South Gate. And in my eyes, it is as beautiful as it is functional.
Plain grey floors and white walls are periodically interrupted by flashes of colour – a blue sign directing people to the Odakyu train line; red walls surrounding the lift to reach the dining floors of the Mylord department store; vivid green facia and signage encompass the JR Rail travel service centre. Bright lights give the space an institutional feel. The wide corridors – big as they are – can still seem tiny at the height of rush hour.
And yet… of all the entryways in to Shinjuku Station, this is my favourite. It is my most romantic. Because of the people.
In the morning, office workers flood through the turnstiles to head off in to the city to go earn their paycheques. It’s not a matter of whether they want to go to work – it is their duty. Even if they are having a “case of the Mondays.”
Confused foreign tourists loiter around the edges of the gate. Some are trying to figure out which direction to go to leave the station. Many others are simply unsure of how to buy a train ticket at the automated machines, and are too embarrassed to ask for help. (Protip : buy the cheapest fare, and then adjust it at your destination. The locals will thank you for your efficiency.)
In the heat of the daytime sun on the black tarmac sidewalk just outside the gate, political protestors hand out pamphlets while unintelligibly shouting messages using a bullhorn. Sometimes, volunteers with non-profits are passing the hat to raise money for their cause. Even marketing squads assemble here, handing out plastic-wrapped packages of tissue emblazoned with the logo of a brand they’re promoting. Nobody turns them down – they’re handy for hayfever season, or if one encounters a squat toilet in their travels.
When the sky opens up and the rain begins to pummel the city, it’s the South Gate where everyone can easily take refuge. Shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, everyone watches as the torrential downpour turns the front sidewalk in to a dark black pond.
Night falls, and musicians set up instruments, battery-powered speakers and microphones along a barrier opposite the gate. They belt out songs as passers by stop to form an audience. Polite applause accompanies the end of every song. Some people even get in to the groove, shaking their stuff to the tunes.
The South Gate is a meeting place as friends gather for a night on the town and locals wait to pick up family and friends who’ve flown in Tokyo and are taking an express train to Shinjuku.
As the night draws to a close, salarymen stumble through the gate after an evening of drinking at nearby izakayas and pubs. Those living on the fringes of Tokyo pile through the gate. Exhausted as they may be, they need to hustle if they hope of making it on the last trains out.
Stand here long enough, and you’ll see it all – hellos, goodbyes, long-time-no-sees, hurry-ups, gotta-gos, you’re-the-one-who-got-us-losts, and almost every other moment of humanity you can think of.
It is Friday night in Tokyo. More accurately, my last Friday night in Tokyo. Chris is just getting off work and should be arriving at Shinjuku Station within the next 45 minutes. I arrive early and wait for him outside the East Gate.
As much as the South Gate is a meeting place for family and friends, for those who are looking to party, East Gate is the preferred exit point. Every two to three minutes, a new swarm of people pushes out these doors. Young and old – although mostly young – emerge from the industrial lighting of the train station to a block illuminated by the bright jumbo video screen above the legendary Studio Alta TV soundstage located across the street.
Behind Studio Alta is Kabukichō – Tokyo’s “entertainment” district. Restaurants, bars, and the more risqué edges of Tokyo’s hospitality fill the neighbourhood. If you’re looking for bizarre, this is the neighbourhood. As reserved as the Japanese are, they are known for sometimes letting their hair down in peculiar ways. Most of those ways can be found here.
As I hang back against a metal railing waiting for Chris to arrive, I people watch. It’s a great activity in a city with so many people.
A group of Japanese teenage boys next to me are dressed in what is a loose Tokyo interpretation of “urban” clothing. (In fact, the Japanese interpretation of American culture is worthy of a blog post all on its own. It is fascinating.) The teens spend the better part of 40 minutes hanging around, pounding out messages on their smartphones, laughing, joking, and seemingly waiting for a buddy who never arrives. The group eventually agrees it’s time to take on the town, and they depart.
In front of me is a guy in his mid 20s. He’s American, but has clearly lived in Japan for a little while as his style is more like the locals – fitted chinos, a small messenger bag, a smart cardigan for this cool night. He waits around as slowly – one by one – his group of friends assemble for the night. It’s a mix of Japanese and gaijin (foreigners.) What becomes evident with the numerous introductions is this is in fact two or three groups of friends which are intersecting for the first time on this night. The missing link – a tall, lanky, and boisterous young Japanese guy shows up. He’s the one they’ve been waiting about ten minutes for. They celebrate his arrival, and head off in to the night.
A little later than he planned, Chris emerges from the train station and we too head off in to the neon light of the shadiest part of Tokyo. Not for a night of debauchery, but rather to get some ramen. In fact, probably one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had.
The stories of Shinjuku Station are many. If people watching is your thing, you could easily spend the better part of a day here observing. But the perpetual motion of the station will eventually get to you… you’ll feel compelled to move. Because that’s what this place is – a place to move through. And does it ever move people through.
To learn more about the world’s busiest train station, check out this documentary from the UK broadcaster Channel 5.