Posts Tagged ‘Shinjuku’

Found Object: A Mad Tea Party

February 4, 2011

Here’s a Train Story from many years ago.  Sitting across from me on the Tozai subway line were an elderly couple who, judging from their rustic dress and sun-beaten complexions, were probably visiting Tokyo from the countryside.  The man was peering at a map of the Tokyo subway system.  I had one of those, too.  The complexity of the system for newcomers was bad enough, but even worse, the names of the stations, in tinily printed Chinese characters, even if you could understand them all, were nearly impossible to make out with the naked eye.

It was a warm summer day, and all the windows of the car were open because even though we were now underground, the Tozai line travels above ground at either end, and this must have been in the days before the trains were air-conditioned.  The man turned the map this way and that, mumbled something to his wife and then letting out a loud “humph!” tossed the map out of the window behind him.

So much for maps and directions in Tokyo.  And it’s not only the train system that can be so challenging.  Often while wandering the streets or the underground passageways of the subway stations, I’m reminded of a scene in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice, coming upon a crossroad of sorts, is confronted with a profusion of conflicting arrows, pointing every which way—including up.

There’s a spot in the Shinjuku San-chome subway station that illustrates this analogy well.  Six passageways converge here, and signs point the way not only to the three subway lines that run through the station (the Shinjuku, the Fukutoshin, and the Marunouchi), but also to the numerous exits (30 of them from A1 to E10) and to the entrances to Isetan Department Store, which occupies the space just above this spot.

The other day when I passed through here, I was surprised to find something new:  a mural depicting the Mad Tea Party from (this time) Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Close inspection revealed it to be an artwork by Yoko Yamamoto,  a mosaic constructed of tesserae of what looks like painted pottery.   The posting of the wall art is sponsored by Isetan Department Store, but there is no mention from either sponsor or artist of the relevance of the location to the theme of the art.  Is it possible that they did not notice the connection between the tea party scene and all the arrows around it, pointing every which way including up?

The artist’s message to those who view the mural says that she imagined traveling light years away to another dimension when she made this illustration of Carroll’s tea party, and she hopes we who view the mural imagine this, too.  But I don’t see any need for one’s imagination to go into warp speed; all one need do is turn around.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

"I don't much care where..."

"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

"...so long as I get somewhere."

"Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."

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TRAIN STORIES

November 2, 2010

8:45 PM. Monday, October 18, Chuo Line, Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station is the terminal for the Chuo Line, so the train is sitting at the platform with its doors open as people come floating up the escalators and hurry on to the train, hoping to find a seat for the long commute home before the cars fill up.  I bounce into the car and find a seat at one end.  Diagonally across from me a man is stretched out asleep on four seats.  A young uniformed station attendant comes along and tries to wake him up, gently shaking his shoulder.  The sleeping man waves the attendant off and turns to face the other way.  The attendant’s voice grows impatient and louder as he makes another futile attempt to wake him.  Then he abruptly walks off the train.  I thought he might be going to get help, but he doesn’t come back before the doors close and the train leaves.

We continue our way westward across the center of Tokyo, stopping at Kanda, Ochanomizu, Yotsuya.  The sleeping man continues to hog the four seats as more and more people get on at each station.  We arrive at Shinjuku, the busiest station in the world (if not the entire universe), and here too the train waits a few minutes at the platform.  Now two uniformed station attendants board the train and proceed to rouse the sleeping man, who ignores them.  But two heads are better than one, and they persist in prodding him and calling out to him to wake up and get off the train.  Just before the doors close, the man gets up and stumbles out the door, where he stands unsteadily amid the milling crowd.  He blinks a few times as if to clear his vision and figure out where he is.  The train pulls out, leaving him behind and leaning against a vending machine for support.

Thursday afternoon, October 28, Seibu Kokubunji Line, Kokubunji Station. I’ve written before about people who hold things up when other passengers are trying to board or get off the train:  young women who stand in passive aggressive immobility in front of the door like a rock in midstream when you want to get off, or the growing number of people of any age or gender who are too busy staring at cell phone screens to make their way quickly onto the train when the doors open.  But not all slow pokes are holding things up for selfish reasons.

Kokubunji Station is the terminal for the Seibu Kokubunji line.  The train pulls in, lets off arriving passengers and sits at the platform for five minutes or so before setting off again in the other direction.  When I start to board, a clean-cut young man in a business suit pauses at the door as he is getting off, blocking my way for a few seconds.  He looks to his left, as if checking to see that he has not forgotten anything, and then gets off and goes away.  But a few minutes later he is back.  Now he is speaking to an ancient lady sitting to the left of the door.  “It’s the last stop,” he says to her gently, and as soon as he is sure she has heard him and has begun her slow, halting rise to standing position, he goes away again.  The elderly person, looking as unsure as the man who had been asleep on the Chuo line train, looks all around as if trying to figure out where she is, then creaks off the train and heads toward the stairs.