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Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007

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Your not-so-intrepid reporter (right) is lowered off the top of 54-story Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills with a team of high-rise squeegee stars. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTOS

Polishing a paradox high up in the sky


Staff writer

In the 1987 Japanese film "Gondola," a lonely window cleaner — mid-wipe, no less, and maneuvering high up on the side of an apartment building — catches sight of a young woman inside. She returns his glance and, with the sun's rays sparkling on the freshly cleaned pane of glass between them, a deep and curious relationship begins.

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Window cleaner Katsuhiko Yamamoto hooks his safety harness to the gondola hanging off the Mori Tower.

What is it about high-rise window cleaners that inspires such romantic fantasies? Is it the danger? Or is it the paradox of personal distance (between total strangers) and physical proximity (they're only a pane apart)? Perhaps it's simple sympathy stemming from any normal person's reaction to seeing them dangling on high: They must be mad!

"No, I've never fallen in love with a woman on the inside," said 28-year-old professional window cleaner of five years, Mr. Masumoto (who'd prefer to be known by his last name only). He even managed to animate his answer by throwing back his head and letting out a hearty chuckle — something that I found particularly surprising, considering we were dangling 250 meters above terra very firma in a window-cleaning gondola hanging off the side of the 54-story Mori Tower in Tokyo's swank Roppongi Hills district.

The business of cleaning skyscraper windows is generally handled in one of three ways. One is with automated window-cleaning machines affixed to either the windows themselves or the buildings. For a few years now these have been touted as the way of the future, but they are yet to really catch on. The second — only suitable for buildings up to about 100 meters high — sees window cleaners in harnesses shimmying down commando-style on ropes, buckets and squeegees in hand. The third method is the gondola, or suspended window-cleaning platform, which is lowered down the side of tall buildings loaded with three or four cleaners who wipe and swipe as they go.

Mori Tower is fitted with a gondola system. The tower's roof, as I discovered when I visited one pleasant fall morning, resembles something out of "Star Wars," with four low-crouching steel cranes emerging from a complex jumble of walkways, pipes and cables. Each crane is capable of lowering a custom-made gondola to any point across 90 degrees of the building's circumference.

Preparations for our day's cleaning proceeded not unlike those for a space shuttle liftoff. From the moment I entered the building through a service door, people seemed to be waiting at every turn, ready to laden me with my mission essentials: a pair of bright blue overalls, a construction-worker's jacket, a helmet. The last man helped my overall-bloated legs into the waist harness that would later tie me to the gondola.

As we rode in the elevator, Masumoto's boss, Katsuhiko Yamamoto — 37 years old and a window cleaner of 10 years' experience — briefed me on the most important rule of high-altitude pane polishing. "If the wind is over 7 meters per second, or if it is raining, we will call it off," he said.

Soon the 54th story was reached, doors were unlocked, stairs were climbed, more doors were held open and suddenly we were bathed in sunshine on the roof. There were other stairs to negotiate, bits of overhanging steel to duck under and, somewhere along the way, someone said, "Northerly wind at 1 to 2 meters per second. Clear skies. Nineteen degrees." We were good to go.

I learned later that strong winds make operating the crane risky, while rain is a problem not because it dirties the windows (which it doesn't), but because it makes the metal surfaces on the roof and in the gondola slippery. Rain also brings with it the chance of lightning, which, when you're stuck in a metal crate on top of the city, is best avoided.

Temperature, I was told, is less of an issue — unless it's so cold that the water for cleaning the windows freezes. It's usually about 2 or 3 degrees colder at the top of the tower than at the bottom, but, in terms of comfort, summer is often worse than the colder months, because the sun reflecting off the windows turns the gondola into an open-air tanning machine.

For all the NASA-like preparation and futuristic cranes, the window cleaner's most important tools are of course incredibly simple. When I first caught sight of the brush and squeegee dunked in a nondescript bucket of soapy water, my first reaction was that the cleaner had forgotten to put them away. Cleaner? Right! That would be us! And those modest tools — just a little bigger than the ones I use at home — were the whole reason we were here.

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A window-cleaning gondola descends the side of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills from 250 meters up.

Once I was in position in the 4-meter-long, meter-wide and waist-high gondola, Masumoto handed me our precious tools and then he, Yamamoto and one other cleaner jumped in to join me.

Usually three of four people ride in the Mori Tower gondolas, each cleaning one column of windows. The guy (or girl, because in this business about 10 percent of the cleaners are women) in the middle also looks after the crane's remote controls, with which he or she can stop, lower or raise the gondola. (They can also be controlled from above.)

Without further ado, we were slowly hoisted off the roof, and the crane arm was extended and rotated so that we were soon edging out over the side of the building.

Chatting and leaning on the edge of the gondola like it was a bar, Masumoto and Yamamoto thought this was the most normal thing in the world. I, meanwhile, was gawping at the view of Shinjuku in the distance and (gulp) of Roppongi far, very far, below.

I should explain that I've been to the observation deck atop the Mori Tower on many occasions, but I tell you, it was not until I was strung, white-knuckled, from the side of the building that I realized just how many graveyards there are in Roppongi. I'm not talking about the obvious, sprawling Aoyama Cemetery, but all the dozens of little ones dotted here and there. And, I kid you not, they were calling out to me, nay taunting me, and saying things like: "Come on down to us!" Some even helpfully pointed out that "Nothing stands between us but a metal box and four wires!"

And toward them we went — but not quite as precariously as I'd feared. When we drew level with the top of the building, Yamamoto halted our descent and carefully slotted into place two wheeled legs protruding sideways from our gondola into two vertical tracks running from top to bottom of the building. Once those legs were in the grooves we were unable to sway sideways, regardless of sudden gusts of wind. All that remained was to winch us down using the crane's remote-control panel — and that we did with surprising speed.

Holding one flat-faced brush, about 40 cm in width, in their left hand, and a similarly wide squeegee in their right, the window cleaners wiped and removed water from the windows in a graceful, double-handed and constantly backtracking sweep.

"The trip to the bottom and back up again takes about 90 minutes," explained Yamamoto. "So we can usually do three or four runs a day, and that means it takes about a month to go around the building — and by then it's time to start again."

Perhaps amused by the novelty of having a passenger on board, the cleaners were happy to chat as they worked.

Masumoto, I discovered, is a dedicated rock climber.

"I went to Peru this summer, and climbed a few peaks," he said.

How does window-cleaning compare to scaling snow-capped peaks?

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Katsuhiko Yamamoto and colleagues clean windows at the Mori Tower (top and above left); Yamamoto displays some of the gear used in the gondola (above right); and a crane atop the tower dangles the gondola's occupants over oblivion.
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"Climbing is a challenge, an adventure, so sometimes there is an element of danger, and that's a part of the fun. Here, no degree of danger is acceptable. It has to be 100 percent safe."

I see. So, perhaps he finds this whole window-cleaning caper a little ho-hum? A tad lacking in the back-to-nature, thrills-and-spills department? Maybe he doesn't hear the siren voices of the countless graveyards beckoning from below?

"It's completely safe. But it's still fun, because we use a lot of the same equipment as in rock climbing — ropes, D-rings, harnesses."

Of course, window cleaners have more to worry about than their own safety. A squeegee dropped from such a height could rapidly turn lethal. Hence everything inside the gondola — people included — must be securely tied to it with ropes. This can make for some mid-air Twister-like fun, especially when positions must be swapped. Each worker has two short ropes attached to their harnesses, and at least one must be anchored to the gondola at all times. When you move you must first attach the free rope to the place you want to go, and then unclip the original tie.

So don't go and get the wrong idea the next time you see your window cleaners caught in what looks like a rope-tangled embrace.

Suspicious still that Masumoto was in this game for more than just the gear — and the average daily pay of about ¥9,000 — I suggested gingerly that they must see a lot of interesting goings-on inside the offices.

But boss Yamamoto was quick to step in with the parry: "We don't look inside, and if we do see something, we don't talk about it."

Darn! So much for the direct approach.

OK, so if love at first sight hasn't figured among their through-the-window dealings, then what other reactions have they had, elsewhere maybe? Surprise? Hand-waving?

"One woman fell over backward," Masumoto revealed. "Out of surprise," he added.

"Lots of people wave," Yamamoto said. And do they wave back?

"If people wave at us, we wave back. Otherwise we don't look at what's happening inside."

Now they were warming up a little I tried asking again — this time about things they've seen inside other buildings.

"We've seen things that it wouldn't be appropriate to say," said Yamamoto, tantalizingly. Alas, he would be drawn no further.

I got my own chance for some pane-defying communication on the way up. Passing by the observation deck we found ourselves unwittingly outshining the awesome view of Shinjuku's range of mountainous towers. A dozen people must have stopped to wave and take our photo.

And what a picture we would have made. Big open sky, towers in the background, and in the foreground four overall- and helmet-clad men standing in a five-sided metal coffin waving squeegees.

And yes, if you look closely at the bottom of the photo, you should be able to make out hundreds of little graveyards. No? What? What do you mean you can't see them? I swear, they were there. They were everywhere, beckoning — and for a little while, I was that close to them!



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