Archive for the ‘Trains and subways’ Category

Pool review: Amusing art near the Shinjuku Sports Center

July 5, 2017


Getting off the subway at Nishi Waseda Station on the Fukutoshin Line last month, I intended to go directly to the Shinjuku Sports Center for a swim.

IMG_7138But as soon as I reached the ticket gate on my way to Exit 3, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a large stained glass window that was clearly the work of one of my favorite Japanese artists, Akira Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi’s art is fantastic – in every sense of that word. He combines traditional Japanese styles and subject matter with intricate renderings of fantasy machines, often in panoramic murals of mind-boggling detail and complexity. His cutaway views of urban infrastructure, like the one in this window, call to mind the work of David Macaulay, even while those views are often framed or divided by drifting clouds in a technique borrowed from Japanese art of centuries past. You could call his work steampunk or Nihonga or both, but Yamaguchi has a surreal imagination and sense of humor that is all his own.

IMG_7137The stained glass window, for example, features a cutaway view of a triple-decker subway train that has a communal bath on its lowest level. That’s the kind of silliness I love about his pictures.

Another little detail worth noting is the woman standing on a platform in front of a sign that identifies the station as 西早稲田, Nishi Waseda.

Continuing out Exit 3 of Nishi Waseda Station, you’ll find a tree-filled park. In the middle of the park stands the Shinjuku Sports Center. The trees make the building difficult to photograph, but the pool is behind these foggy windows:


Admission is 400 yen, and you’ll need a 100 yen coin to use as a deposit for a locker in the rather Spartan locker room. (It has benches and a spin drier, but not much else in the way of amenities.) The locker keys are attached to wristbands you can wear while you swim, but the first locker I put my clothes into turned out to have a broken wristband. So, I moved my stuff to a different locker and headed out to the pool.

The pool is 25 meters long and six lanes wide. One lane appeared to be permanently set aside for walking, and a swimming lesson began in one of the other lanes while I was there, which left the remaining four lanes slightly crowded. There is also a large shallow kiddy pool. Between the two pools, on the side opposite the locker rooms, there is a warming room where you can sit when the lifeguards call a break from swimming, as they seem to do every hour at most public pools in the Tokyo area.

One wall of the pool area is adorned with a large tile mosaic of a rainbow. Part of my mind recognized this as an effort to create a cheerful atmosphere, while another part – which I tried to suppress – found it a bit dasai. This uncharitable thought may have been influenced by the dim lighting at the time of my visit. It was a weekday morning, and most of the light came from outside, muffled by tree branches and foggy glass. It might be brighter inside at night.

But dim lighting or not, I had to admit that the place was immaculately clean and – aside from one broken wrist strap – very well maintained. Also, each of the staff members I briefly dealt with was very pleasant and helpful. This included a guy who came pushing a broom through the locker room as I was getting dressed to leave. When I pointed out the broken wrist strap, he ran out and came back a moment later with a roll of heavy tape that he used to seal the locker shut so no one else would try to use it.

By the time you read this, I am sure it will have been repaired.

Baby on board

October 19, 2013

Common courtesy, like common sense, isn’t quite as common as it should be. For example, some people can see a pregnant woman standing on a bus or a train and not think to offer her their seat.

At the same time, some people are so polite that they might hesitate to send the message, “You look pregnant,” to someone who might not be.

Luckily, there is a Japanese solution to both of these problems: the “maternity mark,” a pendant that pregnant women can use to identify themselves on public transit.


Available at almost any train station in the greater Tokyo area, the pendant can be attached to the strap of a handbag or otherwise displayed to subtly alert seat-holders to the fact that the bearer is, well, a bearer.

The words in the design’s heart-shaped area say, “There’s a baby inside me.” The works on the bottom of the pendant say, “Please protect from tobacco smoke.”

On a recent stop at a highway rest area near the border of Tokyo and Yamanashi Prefecture (part of a trip on which I bought some Yamanashi fruit curry), I saw a sign giving pregnant women with the badge preferential treatment in parking, too.


Signs and pendants notwithstanding, some people still don’t get the message. A friend told me that when she was pregnant and carrying the pendant, the people least likely to offer her their seats on trains were young women.

I’m tempted to describe this phenomenon as strange yet unsurprising, but the little evidence I have is admittedly anecdotal.

So, if you’ve ever used such a pendant, please feel free to share how people reacted in the comments section.

End of the line for Narita’s hovershuttle

September 18, 2013

AAAAA hovershuttle

If ever you’ve flown to or from Japan via Narita Airport’s Terminal 2, you may have had the chance to ride on the shuttle seen in this photo. But you probably won’t get that chance again. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports via The Japan News that this connection between the main and satellite buildings will be shut down this month, after 20 years of operation. (Read the story here.)

I always enjoyed riding it. It operates something like a funicular railway in that its two separate cars are attached to a loop of cable that shuffles them back and forth between the endpoints of its very short route. But I was amazed to learn from the article that the cars have no wheels. They hover on a cushion of air!

Moreover, according to Wikipedia, “The system is made by Nippon Otis Elevator…It is technically (and legally) not a railway, but a horizontal elevator.”

I’ve gone from thinking of the shuttle as cute to thinking of it as totally awesome. But I have no business at the airport this month, so I’ll never see it again.

This used to be a grungy little curry shop

July 1, 2012

Planted in the center of an underground corridor in Ginza subway station, at the bottom of a flight of stairs from the street, and one flight up from the Marunouchi Line train platform, there used to be a grungy little curry shop where the customers sat elbow to elbow on tall stools and hunched over plates of curry teetering on the edge of a very narrow counter that separated them from the nearly-as-narrow kitchen.

I always meant to eat there one day. I never actually got around to doing so, but I loved that little shop nonetheless.

The Japanese curry they served was of an especially odorous type, and the entire west end of the station was often filled with its earthy perfume. I don’t know how old the shop was, but it looked as if it had been around for decades, and whenever I got a whiff of it as I hurried to change trains, I always felt a gratifying connection to history, imagining that I was inhaling the very same aroma that millions of other people from all walks of life had smelled over the decades since back around the middle of the Showa era.

I didn’t even have to step off the train to enjoy such a moment. On at least one occasion, I was riding the Marunouchi Line with my nose in a book when the train paused at Ginza en route to somewhere else. As the doors opened and closed, an invisible cloud of curry vapor flowed into the car. Without even needing to look up, I said to myself, “Ah. Ginza.”

Becoming a person who knew that smell was a minor accomplishment. Inhaling deeply, I could puff myself up and think, “What a seasoned Tokyoite I am! I can find my way around by smell!”

That may have been silly, but it is true that accumulating the experience to recognize the tiny and unique details of a place, especially the odd bits of reliable coziness hidden away in a big concrete city, really does help turn that place into home.

One day, perhaps about two years ago, the grungy little curry shop was dark. The doors were closed. The smell had dissipated. A paper on the wall announced that the shop had reached the end of the line, and thanked its customers.

I had never been one of them.

Shortly thereafter, a floor-to-ceiling plywood barrier went up all the way around the shop, and also around a little sushi place that had been its close-quarters neighbor. I passed through Ginza Station countless times after that, but I never saw or smelled the grungy little curry shop again.

Then, yesterday afternoon I did a double take at the sight – one flight of stairs down from the street, and one up from the Marunouchi Line platform – of a brand-new, brightly lit, boutiquey gift and clothing store right in the spot where the curry shop had once stood. (It’s in the photo at the top of this entry.)

It’s part of the latest Echika underground shopping mall, following the ones that already exist in Ikebukuro and Omotesando subway stations. Not only is there a boutique where the curry shop used to be, but there are other new stores where nothing used to be, stretching up and down a long underground corridor. It’s all very shiny and new and brand-name, and nothing like the grungy little curry shop.

There are a couple of places that serve food in the new mall, including a nice-looking gourmet deli I’m sure I’ll try before long, and an outlet of the Auntie Annie’s soft pretzel chain where I already bought a snack on the way home last night.

But I wish I had eaten some of that aromatic curry.

Railway safety in Tokyo (a lesson for New York)

August 21, 2011

A great thing about living in Tokyo is that trains can take you anywhere, quickly and conveniently.

A bad thing about living in Tokyo is that if you fall off the station platform, a train can kill you.

Those two statements may sound like a pair of eternal truths, but the second one is gradually becoming less true as safety barriers are installed along platforms in more and more stations.

Earlier this year, a good friend of mine was hit by a train in New York. Fortunately, he survived. When I went to visit him, I read in the New York Daily News that the Big Apple was considering installing its own safety barriers. But there was some resistance to the idea, not the least of which came from the Daily News itself.

Resistance to the idea of safety barriers seems unfounded. It reminds me of the resistance that once existed to the idea of wearing seatbelts in cars, and I’m sure that in the future people will look back on it as being just as silly.

I made the video at the top of this post in an effort to shed some light on the issue. I start by visiting the sites of a few notable accidents in Tokyo, and then demonstrate how the safety barriers operate.

Production note: A couple of scenes shot at train stations include background noise, so I added subtitles. In future efforts, I’ll either look for quieter spots or buy a quality microphone.