U is for Underground

Have you ever read/watched  ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman?  It’s a neat little fantasy novel/TV series, but the thing that really stuck with me through all these years was the setting: of this dark underbelly of London, of the infinite layers of a city through the ages, all occupied by it’s own colourful cast and surroundings.  I just really loved the idea that a city could be stacked like layers of rock like those diagrams you pretended to study in geography.

Well, it turns out it can.  In Japan.

As hinted at in the ‘C is for Conbini‘ article, Japan is a pretty packed country.  And it shouldn’t be surprising: it is a nation of some 130 million people, after all.  Think about that for a second: 130,000,000 people.  That’s twice the population of the UK, and just less than half the population of the US, all on a thin streak on an archipelago.  Still not convinced?  The next most populous country in the world, just ahead with 140 million, is some little place called RUSSIA.

And you thought your SimCity was a planning nightmare.

Those people gotta go somewhere, as well as all the places where they shop, work, learn and furtively find an alley to answer the call of nature.  And most of Japan is uninhabitable anyway thanks to those big chunky things called mountains, so that squeezes things even further.  Now, I’m not saying that people are literally clambering over one another to avoid falling off a cliff, but where it counts, the cities in Japan closely resemble an ant’s nest (oh boy: those who live in Japan will know just how far that metaphor can carry).

You see, there are big cities the world over, but none are like Tokyo.  Because…well, yeah, it really is like an ant’s nest.  It is cramped, layered and endlessly intricate, and you can even tell that even as you come in for a landing on a plane: it looks like a motherboard.

Things that you wouldn’t dream of having rubbing shoulders in your home country not only do so in Japan, they often co-habilitate the same darn airspace.  In my neighborhood, there is a kindergarten school under a Shinkansen track.  The larger train stations tumble over into shopping malls, delving deep into the ground like the manmade roots of a tree.  These are called ‘Chikagai’ (地下街), literally ‘underground street’.  Under Tokyo Station, the Yaesu Chikagai stretches out over the size of 10 football pitches.  The Umeda area in Osaka has a sprawling web of over one-thousand shops and restaurants all tucked away under the tarmac.  And as you near the centre of a major city, these subterranean retail wonderlands actually link up the stations.  Yep,  you can see, do and shop in city and not once touch street level.  From the second you alight you are bombarded by a labyrinth of shopping precincts located downstairs, in case you didn’t want to bother with pesky fresh air or sunshine.

The size and sheer ‘concentration’ of this web of retail and debauchery can be a stimulating, adrenaline-pumping experience, but it can quickly burn you out, as you long for a nice quiet park or beer garden brawl or something.  But alas, the park you were heading for is at Exit 32b, and on the way through the tunnels under the city, the Exit is lost in a brand new sprawl of coffee shops that you swear weren’t there before – and that’s because they weren’t.  That’s how quickly these cities change and rebuild.

So yes, the urban dream can easily turn into a nightmare if you don’t have your wits about you.  Oh, and read ‘Neverwhere’!


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