“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
– Winston Churchill
It’s true – as we go through life, opportunities arise every day (although they can often be disguised as adversity, setbacks, or failure.) Our perception of those opportunities will often drive what we do with them. Do we forge ahead, throwing caution to the wind? Do we turn down the opportunity for reasons of comfort, convenience or conviction? Or do we miss seeing the opportunity in the first place because of bitterness, anger, and resentment?
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) everyday.
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.
Eleven days ago, I landed in Japan for what is my second visit to the country. And on this trip – more than the last one – I am getting a better sense of day-to-day life. (Maybe it’s because I got many of the tourist-y things out of the way last time around!)
Here are some random highlights from the trip.
Dreamliner Takes Flight
I’m a bit of an air travel geek. Getting somewhere can be as exciting of an experience as actually arriving and being on the ground. And I’ve never been more excited to get on a plane as I was to board the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner which United uses for its non-stop service from Denver to Tokyo Narita.
The Dreamliner has been in the news quite a bit over the last two years – often for all the wrong reasons. Early problems with batteries caused a number of early flights to land prematurely, and the entire series of aircraft was grounded for a while as engineers tweaked the jet. But now, the Dreamliner is up and in the air (with Air Canada announcing today it will be acquiring a number of the shiny new aircraft.)
But for the early foibles of the Dreamliner, there are so many technological advancements that makes it a next-generation aircraft. The lighter body of the plane makes it more fuel efficient. The cabin is pressurized to make it feel like you’re flying at a lower altitude than on most airplanes. And windows can be dimmed at the touch of a button – just like an LCD screen.
Boarding the Dreamliner, you could still smell that “new car smell” onboard. There’s no mistaking this is a newer aircraft.
United has configured the Dreamliner to be nine seats across per row in economy, and being a shorter person, I have to admit that there was ample leg room where I was sitting. (Protip : window seats are nice in theory, but the aisle seat lets you get up and stretch your legs way more easily during a flight like the eleven hours I spent in the sky from Denver to Tokyo!)
Service on the flight was great – they pumped us full of food and drink for about the first three hours up in the air. Unlike Air Canada, wine and beer is not free, but I still whipped out my credit card to get a bottle of vino to start the flight.
If there’s any complaint about the plane, it’s that the lumbar part of the seat isn’t very padded. This means e-v-e-r-y time the person behind you reaches in to their seat pocket, you feel what they’re doing in the small of your back. If you have a child or fidgety adult sitting behind you, this can make for a bit of an uncomfortable experience. But it’s a minor inconvenience.
And even though I was stoked to get on board the plane when I was in Denver, I was even more happy to get off of it when I landed in Tokyo. Not because it was a bad flight, but it was time for my real vacation to begin!
Working hard is a big part of Japanese culture. Long hours, stressful days, never a minute wasted – especially in companies with a more traditional mentality, the work just never seems to be done. But everyone needs balance, and that can come from something as simple as a day at the spa.
Spa La Qua is located in Tokyo Dome City (next to the huge stadium where the Yomiuri Giants play baseball) and is a facility dedicated to “affordable luxury.”
For roughly C$30, you gain access to a massive complex with multiple traditional baths (yes, the type I’ve talked about before), saunas, and a huge “relaxation room” with reclining seats that can stretch out in to full beds. For an additional C$7, you get access to two more floors of saunas. There are also pay-as-you-go massage and spa services throughout the facility.
There is no time limit, and in fact you can stay overnight if you really want to for an additional C$20.
After a week of pounding the pavement around Tokyo, getting a few hours to relax and soak was a welcomed treat. And while Spa La Qua isn’t so much a traditional “onsen,” it is a unique – and affordable – way to chill out, right in the heart of the city.
Be a geek – loud and proud
One part of Japanese culture Chris admires (and so do I) is the fact that it embraces the idea of being a dedicated fan or supporter of something, even if it’s a little different.
Tokyo’s a place where cosplay fans gathering in Harajuku on a Sunday to mingle in full costume is no different than baseball fans getting dressed in their team colours to head off to the stadium on gameday.
This is in sharp contrast to North America where wearing your allegiance to things outside the mainstream can sometimes/often be looked down upon, and mocked.
And with such a massive population (metro Tokyo’s population is roughly the same as all of Canada), there is a base to support businesses that are a little outside the mainstream.
One of my favourite places we stopped to grab drinks at over the past week has been at the SF Flux bar in Kanda.
As it’s name implies, SF Flux is dedicated to geekery – complete with an impressive collection of memorabilia from Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel comics, and pretty much any form of North American science fiction and fantasy franchise you can think of.
There are bars like SF Flux all over Tokyo – tiny places where you can get a drink and experience a unique environment. It was a great little experience that is most definitely not in any guidebooks.
That’s all for now. There’s so much more to share, but it’ll come once I get back to Canada and have some time to reflect on the experience. But needless to say, this is a great break in a country with so much to explore and discover!