Many cities around the world are fortunate enough to be equipped with a subway system. The smallest city with a subway system is Rennes in France, but the largest is Tokyo. In fact, we have two subway systems here! The biggest of the two is Tokyo Metro with 9 lines and 176 station, a private company owned by the Tokyo government and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The smaller company with only 4 lines and 99 stations is the Toei Subway, owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation. Both systems cover most of Tokyo with the notable exception of the two southernmost wards, Ota and Setagaya which relies almost only on the Toei Subway lines.
The latest addition to the Toei Subway lines was the 2000 Toei Oedo Line that runs almost in a circular loop (with a long tail), completely underground and also the deepest of all Tokyo subway lines: it is 48 meters underground at some points, and tunnels under large rivers three times. When the line was constructed in the 1990s it was decided that all the stations would have an architect and an artist responsible for the look and feel of each station. Although quite toned down, some stations do indeed feel a little “wacky modern”, like the Oedo line Iidabashi station which has a biological theme. Kachidoki Station is the most heavily trafficked single line station in Tokyo with over 82 000 passengers per day. The number has grown so rapidly that new exits has been added and there are plans to extend the Yurikamome line to Kachidoki to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics 2020. The artistic theme of the station was decided by the architect to be “out of the ocean”, to keep with the artificial island nature of Kachidoki itself and the colors of the station and the platform is a green-blue palette. I recently passed the station and had my camera with to take a photo of the rather unusual art piece decorating the ticket gate hall, a huge mural in the style of a classic Italian painting! A rich underground world inhabited by mythical mermaids and Gods looking up at the high-rise buildings towering above the water.
I have always loved this mural and I recognized the style from somewhere, the soft colors, the near perfect representation of an italian tromp Trompe-l’œil renaissance work of art, reminding me of Giulio Quaglio or Andrea Pozzo or even Michelangelo. So I finally checked who the artist was and found it was none other than the famous mural painter Masao Hanawa (塙雅夫)! One of the most famous window dressers in Japan he has won many awards for his work he is also the creator of several murals in everything from museums to hotels both in Japan and abroad, churces and even Disney Sea here in Japan! It is funny how your eyes and heart knows art that your mind can’t even remember sometimes.
I talked to the station manager for a bit and it seems I am not the only one stop and wonder about this mural. He told me it is the most talked about artwork in all the Toei Oedo Line stations. No wonder, it is easily the best, despite the humbleness and “not quite so modern” theme. It also seems like Mr. Hanawa is a graduate of the fantastic Zokei University of Arts (that I have blogged many times about before).
One of my favorite places in Tokyo was always the Manseibashi Station platform that spent a large chunk of both the last and this century in slumber – one of Tokyo’s few remaining ghost stations. Last year however it was finally revived with a great looking shopping arcade, balcony overlooking a canal and a fantastic cafe up on top between the tracks of the central Chuou Line train. I blogged about it last year after the renovation was complete and I still love going here every now and then, although I am not the only one – that cafe I mentioned earlier actually sells out of food most nights! Last time I went there they said the only thing we have left is black coffee, so if you go, go early!
A few days ago I passed the station just after the sun had set and the last light of the day was almost gone. The old platform looks even better at night. There is something special about red bricks that you just can’t translate into concrete. They feel alive, and their strength and longevity means that they can last for hundreds of years, accumulating raw history – the wrinkles and spotches of red bricks in old Tokyo buildings have everything from bomb shrapnel holes to modern signs. The special look and feel of red brick, or akarenga, as they are known in Japan, gets even further enhanced because there are so few of them. Red brick walls are incredibly difficult to earthquake proof and even the ancient romans solved the problem by adding copious amounts of reinforced concrete to the core of their brick structures (I am sure the Manseibashi platform also has a concrete heart but at least the cladding is the original red bricks). In fact the first architect to finally solve the problem of building with red brick walls in earthquake countries was Josiah Conder (1852-1920) by using reinforced metal bands embedded in the mortar between the bricks, effectively tying the walls together. You can see an example of this in the fantastic Mitsubishi Ichigokan building in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. The Manseibashi station platform building is a perfect example of a building that is valuable, lovable and useful, so much that it survived Earthquakes, bombing raids, urban development and modernist architectural fads. It is not a mere space to which people adapt but an organically and historically evolved living building. I am sure it will be around for the future generations to come many centuries from now.
As a contrast, the last photo shows the totally utalitarian and disposable modern Akihabara on the other side of the canal, that represents a different form of beauty, where the brutalist architecture of concrete were unable to withstand the pure commercial and creative onslaught of unabashed humanity. You can see the signs of human activity literally crowding out every inch of ugly bare concrete helplessly drowned in a sea of humanity.
Sorry for this public love letter to a city – I just had to get it out!
Most people who visit the beautiful city of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture on the north coast of Japan make sure to check out the famous Matsue Castle. The castle is one of the more beautiful wood and stone castles in Japan and the black building contrasts beautifully with the green of the garden and the blue sky. It also contrasts beautifully with another of Matsue’s famous buildings, the splendid white Kounkaku (興雲閣), also knowns by the locals as the Russian Palace when it was built in 1903. Local business worked together to raise money for the building, which in those days cost 13 489 yen, or 10 million yen in today’s value which must be exceptionally good value. The hope was to have a building grand enough to welcome the Emperor during his visit to Matsue but unfortunately his visit was stopped due to the outbreak of the war with Russia in 1905. However the locals got nearly the same honor in 1907 when the then Crown Prince Yoshihito visited (the soon to be Emperor Taisho).
The building itself is an important example of the uniquely Japanese style of architecture called Gyofu Architecture, that was common in Japan between 1869 and 1905. It is in essence buildings made by Japanese carpenters to imitate the style of western buildings they had only seen in drawings, plans and photographs. Many of the layouts, details and all the construction techniques are made in pure Japanese style, but in a way that looks foreign. The term Gyofu is today considered very negative and many architects prefer to call it Early Meiji Period Style, not as descriptive but more neutral. For a long time these buildings were considered naive and embarrassing even though they were usually very popular with locals who saw them as a sign of modernity and prosperity. Many government offices, police stations, hospitals and schools were built in this style until the early 20th century when western and western trained architects and engineers started constructing properly western buildings in the western manner. Personally though I love this style of architecture, it is informed, it is local, it is vernacular and a very attractive combination between east and west. Although proper western architecture also has some shining examples in Japan (like the Mitsubishi Ichigokan in Tokyo), these Gyofu buildings have so much more heart. And above all, they are in every case deeply loved by the people who live near them, and that is one of the pillars of an ethical and ecological society. Here is another example of perhaps the most famous Gyoufu building in Japan, the Kaichi Gakkou in Nagano Prefecture’s Matsumoto City.
Inside the building there are a few modern pieces of artwork reflecting the history of Matsue City, for example the grand portrait of the Daimyo (lord of a province) Horio Yoshiharu (堀尾吉晴 1542–1611) who was one of the most famous Samurai in Japanese history. You can’t tell from the portrait but he had quite a life! As a young man he caught a wild boar with his bare hands and this brought him to the attention of the most powerful lord in Japan who was interested in what the young warrior would become. In battle after battle he proved his strength and cunning both as a warrior and as a leader. In 1599, at just the perfect moment, he switches sides in the great civil war that was raging in Japan at that time, to the side of the eventual winner, Tokuhawa Ieayasu (the first Shogun ruler of Japan). As a reward he was appointed the first head of the noble family that would rule modern day Shimane prefecture.
Tokyo is really the urban explorer’s dream city. It is such a layered city, starting with the tiny agricultural villages before the 17th century, then growing, adding, fixing, layering new things, all the while keeping some of the old, replacing a lot and creating new systems to interact with the old. One of the most visible aspects of this is the transportation network inside the city, and especially the old abandoned or disused train stations, ghost stations. I have blogged about ghost stations before, but here is one that I have always wanted to write about.
The Hakubutsukan-Dobutsuen station (博物館動物園駅) in Ueno was in daily use as late as 1997, and closed permanently on the first of April that year. I am betting there are readers of this blog that remembers using this station. It opened in 1933 as the second stop on the Keisei Honsen-line, operating between Ueno station and Narita airport in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. The station is named after its proximity to the museums and the zoos in the Ueno park area. The station was the last station in central Tokyo to still use wooden turnstiles right up to the last day of operation, giving the station a very old time feeling even when it was in operation. The bare soot stained concrete walls of the underground platform contributed to the run down look, even when it was fairly new. Students from the nearby Tokyo University of the Arts tried to liven it up a little by two murals of an elephant and a few penguins, still surviving in the old station. The station was never refurbished during its use.
There are several reasons why the station was closed. Firstly the station platform only allowed the very shortest of the trains running the line to stop there, the four car trains. As more and more trains grew longer there were serious safety and scheduling concerns over the operation of the station. The relative closeness to the starting station of Ueno, only 900m away also played a role, as did economics. In the end the station was manned by only one person and had limited opening hours.
Today the main exit of the station remains just like it did while in operation. The secondary exit is unmarked and completely shut up but still used as a storage facility for the nearby university. The building itself was designed by the architect Shunji Nakagawa in the same style as the parliament building, in a greek-roman revival style. Closed up like it is today, the worn concrete makes it look more like a mausoleum. It is fronted by two plain un-fluted tuscan columns, with a prominent parapet decorated sparingly by a balustrade screening. The parapet is lined with antefixes of acroteria, giving it a strangely greco-buddhist look.
If you travel from Ueno you can spot the station platform as you run through it not even a minute after start. It is almost pitch black though, so you’ll have to concentrate to spot it in the tunnel. The only remaining function of the station today is as an emergency exit for the tunnel, but I have been told it looks like it was abandoned only yesterday. I would love to go inside someday! Please let me know in the comments if you ever used it back in the good old days!