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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007

WEEK 3

TREKKING TOKYO'S UNDERWORLD

Tunnel visions


Staff writer

I don't know about you, but when I'm walking along train tracks and I hear a train approaching, my instincts tell me to get out of the way, fast. So, last month, when I was strolling along the sleepers of one of Tokyo's underground lines and I detected a distant rumbling, that's exactly what I did.

News photo
News photo
Subterranean strollers taking part in the Tokyo Metro Tunnel Walk (top) prepare to enter the Fukutoshin Line tunnel, where they have the rare experience of being able to walk along the new train tracks as other subway lines rumble above them (above and below). YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
News photo

Not so the children who were with me; they just kept on walking. Perhaps they had more faith in Tokyo Metro than me. After all, the Tunnel Walk event in which we were participating was organized by Tokyo's biggest subway operator — and, come to think of it, no trains are scheduled to run on these rails until next June, when Tokyo's 13th subway line, the Fukutoshin Line, opens.

We were among the 160 lucky people selected by lottery to walk along Tokyo's "secondary city center" line (as Fukutoshin could be translated), a subterranean artery that will eventually connect Shibuya and Ikebukuro stations (and continue on a track now called the Yurakucho Line [New Line] to Kotake- mukaihara Station just northwest of Ikebukuro).

"Those trains you can hear would be either on the Marunouchi Line, which passes above the Fukutoshin Line around here, or on the Toei Oedo Line, which passes below," explained one of the dozens of Tokyo Metro staffers who had turned out to ensure our jaunt was both pleasant and informative.

Later in the day, when I checked out the snazzily named No. 13 Line Exhibition Center near Shinjuku 3-chome Station, I saw clearly what he meant. They have a wonderful diorama there displaying a cross section of Tokyo where the new line runs. And really, quite amazingly, it resembled one of those ant colonies in a glass tank that you might see in a zoo, or one of those documentary films about moles burrowing away under your granny's flower beds.

Unpiqued peregrinators

Certainly, from where I stood, it was remarkable to be shown this Tokyo with moley Marunouchi Line tunnels twisting here and there, the new Oedo Line burrowing deep under the rest and these upstart Fukutoshin Line tunnels weaving up, down, hither and thither, in and around the rest.

Of course, when you're actually walking along these tunnels they all appear rather long, straight and flat. But even that was enough to pique my fellow peregrinators.

"It's really cool," said 7-year-old Maho, who was thrilled to be able to see where the trains usually run. "He likes trains," explained his dad, Norisato, age 46.

We walked from Shinjuku 3-chome Station to Higashi-Shinjuku Station, a stretch of track that had been selected for its abundance of exciting paraphernalia. In addition to an "extra" stretch of track, where trains can wait, there was a "point," or railroad switch, whose workings an agreeable member of staff was happy to demonstrate to us all. Kneeling beside the lines he spun a keylike tool that moved the short, curved linking tracks one way or the other. "It's normally automated," he said, prompting compassionate sighs of relief from those of us who had, for a moment, imagined he might have one of the worst jobs in Tokyo.

Fire hydrants were placed every 200 meters along the tunnel, and another constant presence was the overhead conductor rail. Unfortunately none of my fellow walkers was 5 meters tall, meaning I was unable to verify my long-held hypothesis that, juiced on 1,500 volts, a human being too would start tooting, running at 75 kph and picking up passengers at every platform along the way.

Meanwhile, for the dirty minded, the highlight of the day was the automatic lubricating device, which, we were told, secretes a short squirt of oil on the tracks after a set number of trains have passed — to protect both the rails and the trains' wheels in the heat of their tight and grinding embrace. Perhaps out of deference to younger participants, this device was not demonstrated.

Still, one young girl, aged 9, was undeterred. "It's fun," she said of the walk. "To think that this is happening below the streets is surprising," commented her father, age 39.

Groundbreaking ceremony

Also among our number were a fair number of train otaku (obsessives). Junji, 36, and Toshiyuki, 34, for instance, had come because "usually you can't get access to this sort of place." They said the tunnel — with a diameter of about 6 meters for a single track — was "a lot bigger than we expected."

Being otaku, they didn't need reminding that the Fukutoshin Line had been in the works since 1985, that its groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2001, or that — after it opens next year — construction at its Tadao Ando-designed Shibuya Station will continue until 2012, when the new line is scheduled to join up with the Toyoko Line.

Those wishing to attain otaku status are advised to head to the Exhibition Center at Shinjuku 3-chome Station, where, in addition to the mole-colony diorama, there is also a fascinating exhibit detailing the process of subway construction. It covers everything from the large-scale "cut and cover" excavation employed in making subway stations, to the burrowing out of tunnels using so-called "shield tunneling" machines — giant circular graters that grind their way through Tokyo's alluvial soils at the brisk pace of about 10 meters per day.

News photo
Visitors to the No. 13 Line Exhibition Center, near Shinjuku 3-chome Station in central Tokyo, examine a diorama showing the city's astonishing maze of subway tunnels.

Visitors also learn that the slurry from these tunnels is given to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which uses it for many purposes, including land reclamation.

Some of my fellow walkers were surprised to find how clean the train tunnels were — fresh concrete without those layers of sooty grime that gives older lines their dark hues.

Others found aesthetic pleasure in this concrete world. "I've always liked anything that is underground," said Takeo, 21. "I like looking at photos of the underground too," he said, casting an excited eye back down the tunnel we'd just walked and up into the concrete maze of platforms, stairwells and elevator shafts that next year would become the Fukutoshin Line's Higashi-Shinjuku Station.

I wanted to ask him if it didn't all make him feel like some kind of mutated, concrete-loving mole. But he was off, ducking his helmeted head under some scaffolding and scampering off to join the rest of our group as they filed through yet another stretch of long, gray tunnel.

The No. 13 Line Exhibition Center (Jusan-go Sen Tenjishitsu) is at 5-18-21 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, near Shinjuku 3-chome Station on the Marunouchi Line; tel. (03) 5155-4691.


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