「山手線で新宿駅に到着する」Arriving at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station on the Yamanote Line

I’ve been revisiting videos that I took of Tokyo before I departed in the fall of 2013. This was one of the most exhilarating moments on the Yamanote Line as the Shinjuku-bound train hurtles along the elevated rail line from Shin Okubo Station, past the vertical neon billboards of the red-light district in Kabukicho and the cacophony of Shinjuku Station’s East Exit. Before arriving at Shinjuku, one has this sense of being compressed in the density of Shin-Okubo’s Koreatown, as buildings whip by just a few meters from the tracks, and then suddenly Yasukuni Dori (formerly known as Taisho Dori) comes into view. The six-lane boulevard is a stark contrast to the tightly built-up neighbourhoods of central Tokyo, a kind of Haussmanian intervention which was carved out of the city to create a fire break and evacuation route after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of the city.

When I first took the JR Yamanote Line into Shinjuku Station, I felt instantly transported to scenes out of Bladerunner with the massive video-screen billboards glowing in the rainy evening. While Bladerunner portrayed the future city in a dystopian light, Tokyo for me was its antithesis as a vibrant and bustling urban spectacle. Right after Meiji Dori, a piazza-like square opens up outside Shinjuku Station’s East Exit, framed by a wall of buildings topped with cubic billboards and filled with throngs of people. The intensity of Shinjuku is perhaps only comparable to Shibuya a few stops to the south, but by numbers Shinjuku is the busiest station on earth (early 4 million people pass through its bowels everyday, transferring from commuter lines to the inner-city subway lines on 36 separate platforms or being channeled out from one of its 200 or so exits).

This video by Adam Magyar focuses more on the crowds waiting on the platform at Shinjuku Station, which at high speed captures the movement of individuals in incredible detail. Idiosyncrasies, stolen glances, and expressions of boredom make up the vital backdrop of this cross-section of Shinjuku.


in search of urban intensities


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Tokyo Dérive: In Search of Urban Intensities 「東京漂流ー都市の強度を探して」 My research on Yanagihara published in the Mn’M Workbook 2, following the Situationist-style dérive fieldwork at the ‘Measuring the Non-Measurable’ Symposium, held in November 2012 at the International Keio Institute for Architecture … Continue reading

tokyo skytree 東京スカイツリー


This gallery contains 3 photos.

Tokyo Tower

The view from the tallest free-standing structure in the world, Tokyo Skytree: The Marunouchi CBD framing the Tokyo Tower

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tokyo in retrospect

Sakura in full bloom at Shinjuku Gyoen Imperial Park

As I write this, I have been in Tokyo, Japan for just under a year. I’ve been living in my research, so to speak, exploring the megalopolis of Tokyo on a daily basis and trying to understand how this city came to be in the form that it has taken. I actually began researching Japanese urbanism while pursuing a post-professional Master in Design Studies at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, looking specifically at Imperial City Planning in Heian-kyo (modern day Kyoto) and Edo-Tokyo. My research on grid systems led me to apply for the MEXT Scholarship so that I could continue a tangent of this exploration related to Tokyo specifically. I joined Professor Ito Takeshi’s laboratory at Tokyo University in April 2010, starting as a research student initially, and then six months later, entering the Doctoral program after the requisite entrance exams, interview, thesis presentation and intensive Japanese language course.

It’s been a challenge to shift gears out of a professional career in architecture, having worked in Toronto and New York for nearly six years, designing educational facilities and private residences. The shift has been a welcome change, however, as I was craving the intellectually stimulating environment that a University offers. Being immersed in a new cultural setting has made this change even more dramatic and rewarding (honestly it has been frustrating at times too, as my Japanese ability is slowly improving, but I’ve welcomed the opportunity to learn a new language). I’ve gained a wealth of experience and skills, understanding how both cities and architecture are made in Japan and specifically within the urban environment of Tokyo.

It’s hard to believe a year has already gone by, but it’s once again Spring in Tokyo and my walk to the train station is fragrant with the blossoms of Plum trees. One thing that I’ve taken note of here is the extent to which nature and the city are intertwined, both physically and within the collective unconscious of the Japanese. As each season passes, with amazing accuracy (within one or two days in fact) the weather predictably changes and the rites of the new season are well underway.

The Spring is heralded by the blossoming of trees, Plum followed by the spectacle of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), the city parks crowded with revellers under canopies of white and pink. I was confronted by nature even in the densely built up area surrounding Hongo Campus in Bunkyo-ku (where I study in Central Tokyo). While large urban parks are a relatively new concept for Japanese cities post-Meji era, private postage stamp gardens and linear potted-plant gardens lining the roji (laneways) of Bunkyo-ku are more common. The Japanese notion of interior and exterior is blurred and fluid, with gardens spilling into cramped roji and interior spaces opening out onto the street to ventilate homes in the shoulder seasons (Spring and Fall). Despite the sheer density and lack of privacy, the city neighbourhoods open to reveal a soft and pliable inner space, which the Japanese call oku. This type of space is particular to Japanese cities and characteristic of the type of spaces one discovers deep within Tokyo’s neighbourhoods when the first signs of Spring arrive.

The Summer brings with it humid and often hot temperatures, the trees filled with the resonant sounds of early summer cicada (the late-summer cicada takes it’s place in August, singing a slightly different tune). Summer also enlivens the streets with matsuri (village festivals), each district celebrating its respective deity with the fanfare of parades, fireworks, music and shrine-decorating. At times one really feels transported back to the Edo-period, the crowds wearing yukatas (summer kimonos), and the chō (city district) transformed with lanterns, banners and road-side vendors. The cohesiveness and village-like atmosphere of Tokyo’s urban districts is apparent at this time of year, and it’s easy to see why the city functions so well. These chō are the basis of the city’s organization, built upon the intimate, closely-knit relationships of its residents, owners of local establishments and the regular visitors who frequent them. It’s been endlessly fascinating exploring these neighbourhoods, which exist in their village-like atmosphere, framed by a chaotic and crowded network of avenues. One quickly leaves behind the bustle and speed of the modern city as soon as one enters the enclosed world of the chō.

It was with a sense of relief and nostalgia that I welcomed the Fall and Winter, after a series of gusty and suddenly cold evenings. The city braced itself against the cold and steaming hot o-den (boiled vegetables and meat in a thin broth) became the meal of choice. A conflagration of colour filled the trees and Hongo campus became a tourist hot-spot for it’s spectacular, bright yellow Ginko foliage.

At the end of the fall I had the opportunity to intern at Ando Tadao’s office in Osaka through a recommendation from Ito sensei. I participated on an art gallery and hotel project, my contribution being an iterative series of model studies. My stay was for only a short period, after which I traveled to Kyoto to visit the temples and take in the breathtaking scenery of the city. The daily temperatures in the city swung quite dramatically with warm, comfortable days and frigid November evenings spent walking along the grand, linear avenues. The axial, gridded, imperial city Kyoto put into strong relief the differences between it and the more organic, radial city of Tokyo. Tokyo is a haptic, sensorial and experiential city which slowly reveals itrself to you. I reflected on this difference and began to appreciate the informal, complex and layered construction that is Tokyo.

As an architect and urbanist it has been a real privilege to be in Tokyo as a kind of observer and researcher. My sense of the city has been completely altered since my experience of living and studying this past year in Japan. It has shifted my perception and given me a new perspective on urbanism and architecture. It’s my hope that I will also contribute to a greater understanding between our two countries through intellectual and cultural exchange. Over the past six months I have been participating in a research group entitled, “Comparative Housing in the 60’s in Japan and the US / Canada” with two Assistant Professors and a Master’s student. I’ve offered my own perspective on Canadian and American cities and the types of issues we are facing in the Planning and Design fields. Our monthly meetings have also helped me move beyond a more superficial reading of the Japanese city and overcome some of the preconceptions I’ve had about urbanism here.

I’ve come to the realization that the Japanese city is an open-ended and continuous narrative that is constantly being edited, re-written and composed by both the powerful and those with whatever means they have to effect change. With this new sensibility, my approach to design and planning has been tempered by the knowledge that the city and nature are not necessarily polar opposites or in conflict with each other. The delicate interweaving I’ve found in Tokyo has helped me re-frame this seeming dichotomy as a continuous interface. I hope to continue to delve deeper into this great culture of city-building over the next two and a half-years of my scholarship, and formulate my own narrative about the intermingling of nature and artifice which comprises the hybrid Japanese city.

Copyright © 2010 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.

the kanto-tohoku earthquake

Commuters outside Yotsuya-3-chome station after the earthquake.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I’ve been here in Tokyo for about a year on a Monbukagakusho Scholarship funded by the Japanese Government. I’m researching Japanese urbanization and architecture for my Doctoral degree at Tokyo University, a tangent of the research I had started at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard two years ago. I have written an account of my experience of the earthquake below, which I have also spoken about in several telephone and Skype interviews with the American and Canadian media over the past week (I’ve included links to the interviews at the end of this message):

I started my day at home in Setagaya (Western Tokyo), working on a letter for the Japanese Consulate in Toronto about my year so far in Tokyo, so I didn’t get on the train as early as I normally do. I boarded the commuter train at my local station and headed to Shinjuku at about 2:15pm. I have two transfers and about an 1 hour and 15 minute commute as I live in the West end of the city and Tokyo University is in Central Tokyo. I boarded the Marunochi line on the Tokyo Metro at about 2:35pm and we headed towards Yotsuya where I would be transferring to the Namboku line. About three-quarters of the way through the commute, an alarm went off in the train and everything came to a very abrupt stop. Announcements in Japanese reported a major earthquake was underway and all service had to be halted. What I thought to be the train swaying from the intertia of stopping so quickly was actually the 7.2 earthquake, gradually getting stronger and stronger. People began yelling and a child crying as the train rocked violently in the tunnel – everyone held on to whatever they could as it seemed as though we were loosing our footing beneath us. It felt as though the tunnel was going to collapse about us as a groaning sound mixed in with the sound of metal clanging,….it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life with thoughts of being buried alive going through my head. We lurched forward and side to side but everyone seemed relatively calm now, just concerned faces and a sense that the worst was over.

Thankfully the shaking subsided to a gentler roll and then finally about 4-5 minutes later the shaking subsided. We were stuck in the tunnel for what felt like hours but was actually only about 15 minutes. They announced again that there was a significant delay but we may be able to move forward to Yotsuya 3-chome station, which was only a little bit further ahead. Another announcement urged everyone to leave the train immediately when we arrived, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and calmly exited the train. The area around the turnstiles was already filled with people trying to make phone calls and make their way out of the station. It was all very orderly and polite, with guards pointing people to exits and people apologizing as they had to squeeze by with larger parcels or bags.

I made it to the surface as thousands of other commuters poured out into the streets. Traffic was at a standstill in one direction but moving smoothly the other way for some reason. Most people were looking at their phones or trying to make desperate calls to no avail, as service was disrupted all over the city already. I was able to write an email and send it to my family over the data network which was still up and running, somehow. I leaned up against a handrail at the station exit and decided to get my bearings before continuing on foot. After a few minutes I could feel the handrail moving against my back, slowly at first and then faster in a nauseating roll. I pulled away and then the big earthquake hit, much stronger and sustained than the first one in the train. I could feel the ground give beneath me and actually start to push me upwards…..I thought that beneath me were layers of underground city and tunnels which could easily collapse, so I rushed away from the station exit. Many others ran towards the street and began looking upwards at buildings that were around 7-10 storeys high.

I got to a road guardrail and held on, looking at the buildings sway like palm trees in the wind. It was a completely surreal experience, watching as buildings leaned into the street and then back, as if made of rubber or some strange pliable material. Everyone in the shadow of the buildings quickly retreated back from the sidewalks and poured into the busy avenue, where cars were still driving by at high speed. I jumped to the other side of the guardrail and then windows began flinging open and light fixtures swung crashing into walls and unopened windows. I looked back to the street and saw the traffic lights swinging as well, large utility poles as well bobbing back and forth.

I stood there for quite a while, I can’t remember how long as the realization of what had happened began to sink in. I decided to get out of the crowded Yotsuya area and find shelter at Tokyo University which was about a 2 hour walk from where I was at that moment. Throngs of people crowded the sidewalks from Yotsuya to Iidabashi, an endless parade of humanity trying to find their way home or to some kind of shelter. A cold wind whipped through the streets and clouds moved in, threatening rain. I walked brusquely and made it to Iidabashi, then Ichigaya and then Korakuen stations, each station crowded with thousands of people lining the streets, bridges and entrances. People looked back at their office buildings with amazement and fear, probably wondering how on earth their building had survived such a severe earthquake. I couldn’t believe it either – most of the city seemed intact but there were certainly injuries and probably damage somewhere. I could hear the drone of helicopters overhead surveying the city and there seemed to be sirens at every street corner.

When I arrived at the Tokyo Dome, there was garbage littered everywhere on the streets. I ascended the stairs to the upper plaza, which was a shortcut to my University, looking down at the entrances to the auditorium. Paper and garbage were strewn everywhere with workers cleaning up the mess. Garbage cans had been tossed around by the earthquake and apparently all the ticketing booths had spewed out paper. In the plaza above, images of the tsunami were already being broadcast on a big screen TV, cars, trucks, and ships floating around in a mass of water like so much debris. I stood there for a few minutes, watching the devastation and then continued on my walk towards school. There were long lines at every pay phone and people crowded outside stations waiting for word on the train service. All trains were stopped for the evening, leaving millions of people stranded (apparently, almost 10 million people use the Tokyo Metro and commuter lines to get to and from work everyday).

On my walk through Korakuen, there was one building with enormous cracks in it’s facade, the sidewalk cordoned off with yellow tape. I took many photos of the aftermath with my phone and kept walking as the temperature was dropping and rain falling intermittently. I finally arrived at my University, made it to the ATM and then tried to buy food at the local convenience store. Long lines and bare shelves awaited me as almost everything was already cleaned out. I grabbed a yogurt, sliced apple, a brownie and two drinks and hoped for the best. On campus people were walking around dazed, inspecting the buildings and huddling together against the cold wind. I got into my building to hear an emergency announcement saying that the worst was over, but the government had ordered everyone to stay indoors as they expected strong aftershocks and possibly another big earthquake in the evening. I stayed in my laboratory with my colleagues all evening, with the ground shaking at various levels of intensity throughout. We experienced aftershocks as large as full-fledged earthquakes which shook the building and the bookshelves, light fixtures and computers.

It was difficult to sleep but at least I was safer in that big bunker of a concrete building rather than outside. Many commuters trekked back to far-flung places around greater Tokyo, but I think it would be nearly impossible for me to get home as I have a 5 hour walk to Setagaya from Hongo in Central Tokyo. I hoped the aftershocks would stop soon and that the Metro service would resume in the morning.

I’m very concerned about the situation and had a difficult weekend after the quake as the situation in Fukushima continues to spiral out of control. I haven’t been able to sleep well because of the aftershocks, and my days have been spent watching the news and reading conflicting reports from the Japanese, American and British media.

I left Tokyo on Tuesday night and I’m now in the Kansai area (in Nara now) watching events unfold from afar. I am near the Kansai Airport and will depart by the weekend if things don’t improve by then. I sincerely hope this disaster is averted and we can all return to our daily lives soon.

When I left on the Shinkansen from Tokyo, there were many families with children leaving (I’m assuming they are especially concerned as children are most susceptible to radiation). There is also widespread panic as people have started stockpiling food, toilet paper, batteries and other essentials within the Tokyo area – I had to visit many grocery stores to get enough items to make dinner as the shelves were already bare.

In the meantime, Nara is peaceful and serene. It has been a nice mini-vacation away from the chaos ensuing further north. I’m more concerned about the people north of Tokyo who have borne the brunt of the earthquake and tsunami – I hope that there are many survivors.


Links to interviews with the American and Canadian media:

CTV News: Interview with Shabbar Sagarwala, Canadian Resident of Tokyo, March 11, 2011

CTV News: Eyewitness Accounts of Quake and Tsunami in Japan, March 11, 2011

Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters: Harvard Alumni in Japan – Eyewitness Account, January 17, 2012

Copyright © 2011 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.