Alamon: Tokyo dispatch #1

I AM barely 24 hours in Tokyo, Japan and the clean lines and orderliness of one of the world’s megacities is already apparent. It was already way past midnight when I exited Haneda airport and right there, at the appointed time to the minute, was the bus service ready to take me to a station a few minute walk to my hotel.

Before I could even embark on that adventure, navigating the Roponggi district with just a printed map on my hand at one a.m., a classic Japanese taxi beckoned. These vehicles are a throwback to the Toyota Crowns that lorded over Forbes Park and Dasmariñas village during the Marcos era and the automatically opening doors was a Japanese hospitality that was hard to resist.

The long whole day of travel from the boondocks of Mindanao to the first world metropolis of Japan was already taking its toll on the ageing body and the prospect of a warm bed indoors given the three degree Celsius temperature outside won over what was a promising early morning urban adventure race.

Transportation, the convenient and private kind, is notoriously expensive here if one has the unfortunate proclivity to always convert expenses to the local currency. For instance, the flag down rate for these taxis is four times more expensive than in the Philippines and the increments per kilometer would give you a final fare running into the thousands for a ride across the city.

For reference, a fifteen peso drink costs somewhere around fifty to seventy pesos here, which can be had virtually at any street corner where there is the ubiquitous vending machine. If we have a sari-sari store or two tended to by bored househusbands and wives in every Filipino neighborhood, the Japanese have done away with manpower and replaced them with more efficient and presumably less costly machines.

In general, it takes a while to get adjusted to the higher costs of living that first world city inhabitants do not mind or have gotten used to in exchange for the privilege and convenience of living in one of the world’s renowned cities and its given perks.

For Tokyo, my impression is that there is order and predictability to the mass transportation system despite catering to millions of commuters every day. The complex rail system is comprised of various crisscrossing lines of subways, monorails, and bullet trains, serve a population as large as Metro Manila and ferry more than 13 billion people around the megalopolis annually.

So far, I have not encountered Tokyo vehicular traffic but it's probably because I have not gone around that much as of yet. Their roads here are multistorey, some stacked three road networks high, one on top of another. But it is really a question of space. Cramped in Metro Manila are 13 million of its inhabitants occupying only about 613 square kilometers. Compare this population density to Tokyo which has the same number of people distributed to an area four times larger or 2188 square kilometers.

The efficient mass transport system that bring people from point to point in the wide metropolis of Tokyo and the large commuter population explain the famous phenomenon that takes place at Shibuya crossing where an unbelievable mass of people converge. The area is one of the city’s major shopping districts and it is known for its extraordinary volume of pedestrian traffic.

I witnessed this on rush hour period one evening. There was an air of excitement right before the lights turned green and on cue, the multitude crosses from multiple points to momentarily occupy Shibuya’s streets as if it were an organized flash dance. The question on my mind was where did this many people numbering in the thousands come from? There was hardly any vehicular traffic. Vehicles who traverse its roads were only backed three and four cars behind at the stops. And the answer is, the multitude, indeed, came from the bowels of the earth.

Shibuya is also a major train station where various lines converge and the participants of this social dance of pedestrians come to the area to shop and dine in its many stores and restaurants. They are churned out into Shibuya’s pedestrian lanes with regularity by the thousands creating the only tourist spectacle that one can actually participate in together with others.

The Shibuya crossing phenomenon indicates the strong social solidarity of Japanese society complemented by an efficient mass transport infrastructure that supports their mobility around a large city. I wonder what went wrong with Metro Manila's story along the way.