If ‘three’s a crowd’ then the the word ‘crowded’ doesn’t even begin to describe Tokyo and it’s 11 million inhabitants, (35 million in the greater metropolitan area). It’s fascinatingly congested, in a ‘wow, how are they going to manage to squeeze that overweight tourist and his overstuffed suitcases into this already jam-packed train?’ sort of way. Until, that is, you get swept into the the thick of it. Then, it’s no longer a fascinating spectacle but rather, just plain frightening.
The worst part was the lazy river pool. You had to wait in line just to enter the pool and then once you were in, it was like being in a massive human traffic jam. Kids in giant plastic tubes and oily, speedo-wearing old men all fought for a space in the five-foot-wide pool as the quick-moving water jostled everyone into one-another. It was like human bumper cars. The water would push you for a max of two feet before you inevitably crashed into the person in front you. And the peculiar thing was, that no one seemed to mind. This, apparently, was fun.
A Picture I took of the crowds at the Edogawa Garden Pool
Swimming in Human Miso Soup, A Day at the Beach
Last weekend I went to a beach near Tokyo and what I found most bizarre, wasn’t that it was crowded (that was to be expected on a Sunday during summer vacation) but that it didn’t have to be! There was plenty of space. But curiously, everyone opted to swim in the small stretch of beach that had been roped off by the lifeguards. If you could call ‘bobbing up and down’ swimming, because swimming in that small space was impossible. There was literally not enough room to swim horizontally, without kicking someone in the face.
Stranger still, was that the roped off section of the beach not only determined where people swam, but also where they sat. They could have set-up camp anywhere on the mostly deserted beach, (as my friends and I did) but they all decided to squish together in front of the lifeguard shacks and food booths.
My friend compared swimming at that beach, to floating in a giant bowl of human miso soup. It was warm, cloudy, full of seaweed and floating pale-as-tofu humans.
Cattle Cars, A Day on the Train
If you want to experience first-hand extreme crowds that rival the likes of those seen at Disney World on the 4th of July, visit a Tokyo train station between the hours of 7 and 9:30 on a weekday. It’s like watching 100 circus clowns all pile into a tiny clown car; an extraordinary feat.
I take the train during rush hour, but I’m usually headed in the opposite direction, (away from downtown Tokyo) so the closest I get from the mobs of people is across the train station platform. Every morning, I sit in awe and watch it all transpire in front of me. It’s better than television. It’s unbelievable, (or the way it’s pronounced in Japanese, “un-be-li-be-ba-lu”, which, by the way, is my new favorite word).
How it works is this:
An already full train will pull up to the station. Whistles and horns will sound. Men on microphones will yell (in very courteous Japanese) something like:
“Step inside, please. The doors will be closing, be careful, please. The doors are about to close, please! Watch out, please! The doors are closing now, please. Thank you very much.”
While this is being said, immaculately dressed, white-gloved guards are pushing people into the train car, like they are cattle.
What’s even more un-be-li-be-ba-lu is that in the 20 short seconds it takes for all of the people on the platform to be shoved, pushed, squeezed and smashed into the train, and for the train to pull away, the platform is already teeming with people again. A continuous stream of dark-haired, dark-suited professionals flow out of the station stairwell, sort of like ants out of an anthill.
And the whole process is done with such factory-assembly line precision. From the way the people all line up in perfect lines awaiting their turn to board the train, to the exact seven second interval between when one train departs and the next arrives. It’s truly amazing to watch.
But being an active participant is another story. The other day I was unfortunate enough to be on a morning rush-hour train when the air-conditioning was broken. The weather outside of the train was a balmy 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. Inside the train, it was like being in a rice cooker. I was lucky enough to be wedged against the window (better view than the sweaty armpit or greasy head of a balding business man, which were my other options). The man sharing the view next to me was sweating profusely…and all over the window. It ran down the glass like raindrops. Totally gross. It was my personal version of Hell…and it’s just a typical morning for most commuters.
Tokyo-ites are ingrained from birth with the remarkable ability to share their personal space with thousands of strangers, day in and out, and not be upset by it. They instinctively take up as little space as possible. In crowded trains, they fold themselves up into origami pretzels to make room for other passengers or their belongings. Incredibly, they’re also able to sleep this way, (collapsed like rag dolls with their heads in their laps). One of my talents is being able to fall asleep pretty much anywhere, if I’m tired enough, but my skill in that area doesn’t even come close to the Japanese. The cramped positions that I see them sleeping in sometimes, it’s astounding!
I don’t think that I’ll ever get used to the sheer volume of people here…or the fact that I’m never alone. There’s no such thing as a deserted street here. Even in the middle of the night, there are people, people everywhere. It seriously irks me. I get so irritated that sometimes I find myself taking up as much space as possible, out of spite, (I know, I know, not the most mature way to handle the stress, but I can’t help it).
“It’s not fun. It’s just–It’s just very, very different.”
— Bill Murray’s Character’s answer to “Well, I’m glad your having fun in Japan”. From the movie ‘Lost in Translation’