A little bit of Shinkansen magic

all pictures copyright of Charli James (where stated) and Maryam Mokhtar

It is 2.24pm on a weekday afternoon and passengers at Tokyo Station’s train platform are milling about, earphones plugged in, eyes glued to the brightly lit screens of their gadgets, as the iconic Shinkansen bullet train pulls in.

Commuters glance briefly at the incoming vehicle, and then nonchalantly return to their phones and tablets. In the background, seven unassuming women and men in navy pants and pin-striped collared shirts take their places, one at each entrance of each passenger compartment along the train.

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A worker preparing for her duties as the bullet-nosed Shinkansen rolls in (photo by Charli James)

They enter the train at precisely 2.27pm.

From then on, it’s a clockwork process of cleaning and sprucing up the train carriage in a span of exactly seven minutes. There is little room for anything less than preciseness; each train that returns to Tokyo Station has a turnaround time of 12 minutes before it sets off again.

It is a renowned routine rehearsed to perfection and executed without hitch every few minutes, when a train departs from one of the several platforms headed to the various cities down south of Tokyo. In this realm, numbers are rounded off to the nearest second, at most, to the nearest minute.

There is no longer much fuss nor fanfare about this remarkable process that has now become very much an ordinary part of the Shinkansen ride. It is the first-timer (this writer) who is left gaping at the sheer perfection of it all.

The meticulous process begins away from these platforms, in the workers’ labyrinth – a network of offices, pantries and lockers located underground.

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The doors to many of these rooms bear a sign that reads Otsukaresama deshita – ‘you must’ve worked hard and are tired, thank you for the effort’.

Three workers enter the main office of the Tokyo Service Centre within the station, get their timesheets stamped and then prepare for work. Every day at the Tessei headquarters, the cleaning company contracted by Japan Railway (JR), some 240 to 280 workers rotate through three cleaning shifts on the JR East trains that depart from the station.

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The three workers spotted earlier pick up a red pouch and a blue or black bag, both filled with cleaning essentials – cloth, trash bags, cleaning sprays, gloves and even a remarkable coagulating powder that solidifies vomit so it can be quickly cleared off the floors or chairs.

Drinking, a strong component of Japanese culture, happens frequently on the evening trains returning to Tokyo from Osaka, when salarymen use the three-hour trip to unwind after a day’s work.

Just before workers head out to begin their shifts, each clips on a flower to the left side of their newsboy caps – today they are wearing cosmos to represent the start of autumn.

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Above and below: The amount of detail extends to even the small accessories adorned by Tessei workers – here two employees wear the cosmos flower on the left side of their caps to symbolise the start of autumn (photos by Charli James)

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In spring, they don a plastic replica of the blooming sakura; summer sees them in straw hats and Hawaiian-esque shirts. In winter, they carry some of the Christmas magic with a tiny snowman tucked behind the ears. Crew leaders put on a friendly Santa hat.

Pouches strapped securely across the waists, bags slung over their shoulders, it is time for work to begin. The stopwatch starts.

It’s almost as if one has entered a time warp and hit the fast-forward button, though all of this is playing out in real time.

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Above and below: a worker whizzes in and out of rows of seats, picking litter and wiping tables before mopping the floors – all in the span of seven minutes (photos by Charli James)

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Trash is picked up, seats wiped down, floors mopped, window screens pulled up and chairs automatically swivelled with such an efficacy of speed that the motions are a blur. The hand gestures and movements of these workers seem methodical, even mechanical, no extra steps wasted, no additional wipes than necessary.

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Chairs are swivelled around with the push of an automatic button, so they face the correct direction when the train sets off from Tokyo. (photo by Charli James)

Supervisor Watariya Takuya explains that a typical row of five chairs in a train car should take an average of 12 seconds to be cleaned, before the whole carriage is complete in the stipulated seven minutes. But he stresses that it’s not all about time, cleanliness is as important a part of the process as speed.

I check my watch: the carriage I’m on is complete with about half a minute to spare – no litter in sight, plastic head covers on the seats perfectly in place, chairs turned around in the right direction.

As if on cue, once the cleaning is over and done with, the workers exit the train compartment. Like performers on a stage, they take a collective bow. Their audience ambles onto their respective compartments, largely unaware, perhaps even unbothered by the magic of the seven minutes that have passed.

They have places to go to, work to be done, just as these workers have more shifts awaiting them, more chairs to be spun. This is not a show, it is a job.

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Workers take a collective bow, their seven-minute cleaning turnaround time successfully complete (photo by Charli James)

Watariya-san plays down any of the hype, often from foreigners, surrounding the cleaning process: “No one sets out to be a cleaner. No one has this as their dream. But these workers find a way to have pride in their jobs, to feel like they have somehow contributed to society.”

That an individual can place such dedication to his job, regardless of rank or recognition, should say something about the environment through which this attitude has been instilled.

Seven minutes should be just about enough time to ponder over this.

Downtown girl

It’s nearing the end of my second week here in Tokyo – time sure flies. It’s been quite a scramble this week so I couldn’t be happier when Ayaka, our extremely adept intern at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, took me and my colleague Charli away from the office today.

We headed to Yanesen, a part of what the folks here refer to as “downtown Tokyo” or shitamatchi. The word has taken on differing meanings over the many ages, but Ayaka tells me shitamatchi essentially refers to what one would call the real, traditional Tokyo. Old school, in my books.

Yanesen itself is actually an abbreviation of three neighbourhoods that are all within walking distance of each other – Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. They all possess a similarly rustic, traditional feel and hearken back to the days of a much older, quieter Tokyo; one that is quaint, uncrowded and authentic. After facing the massive sardine fest in trains and along major streets on a regular basis, this was a much-welcomed respite. I’ll let some of the pictures do the talking.

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The Yanesen area is a dotted with shrines and temples – this particular shrine had an adjacent cemetery right in front of it.

A majority of the buildings in and around Yanesen largely escaped unscathed during the incessant bombing of Tokyo in the second world war, which explains why a lot of the area feels distinctively well-preserved.

Most of it never had to be recreated or rebuilt in the first place, unlike many other parts of the city. You notice these nuances in the rusted and peeling metal gates and when you walk past rain-beaten wooden doors and walls.

Some of the structures here have been around for more than a century, and the shitamatchi area was once regarded as the heart of Edo (Tokyo as it was known during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate between the 17th and 19th centuries).

Yanesen has an eclectic mix of traditional snack stores, tea and craft shops, artisan cafes, souvenir stalls and narrow alleys with hidden restaurants serving up a bowl of soba – hot or cold.

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The entrance of this antiquated sushi shop gives you a pretty detailed idea of what you’re in for.

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Yanesen is abound with little craft shops like these peddling handmade ceramic creations

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The eclectic mix of goods at this one particular store also provides the perfect pair of traditional shoes – extra large available if you need more space for those toes

Many of these spaces have retained their traditional wooden facade, just like this restaurant right here.

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What I really like about the Yanesen is how removed it is, or feels at least, from the hustle and bustle of the rest of this metropolitan city. There weren’t even many tourists, which was a nice change from the more popular spots like Ginza, Shinjuku, Asakusa or Shibuya.

You get the sense that time has stopped for a moment, and while you’re there, it’s easy to soak in the atmosphere and boy was I soaking and dipping and rolling in it.

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A traditional snack shop selling an assortment of coated biscuits, crackers and the likes

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There’s a lot to snack on in this part of town, and as part of an overarching attempt to immerse myself in all things Tokyo during this trip, I had to forcefully (read: wilfully) indulge, starting off with a traditional 100yen ($1.16) sweet white bean snack, with the paste sandwiched between two generous pancake layers.

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For some reason, Yanaka Ginza, probably the most popular street in the Yanesen neighbourhood, is filled with cat-related souvenirs and crafts, which are supposedly a harbinger of good fortune. There’s a lot of cute to be had.

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Entrance to Yanaka Ginza

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Just before heading off, I stopped to have a chat with 66-year-old cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa, who gamely sat me down to explain the charms of Yanesen.

The area, he said, was in the past a thriving mecca for both craftsmen and artists as well as regular folks to gather, and that old-school suburban ambience can still be keenly felt today, a century on.

The spritely-looking sexagenarian is himself a true shitamatchi native who has lived and worked in the surrounding neighbourhood for most of his life.

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Cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa

I liked the one phrase he left me with: “You can feel it right? The old Tokyo, all you need to do is walk through here and you can even smell it.”

I could, I really could.

Graphic design and the ’64 Tokyo Olympics – just look!

Next week, Tokyo celebrates 50 years since it hosted the summer Olympics in 1964. You see reminders of this historic year most everywhere you go these days, plastered on pillars in subways and printed on free plastic fans at museums as you try to generate a hint of a breeze on a sunny afternoon.

There has already been so much written on Tokyo’s next chance to take the global stage in 2020, when it becomes the first Asian city to host the summer Games for a second time. Naturally, comparisons, questions and criticisms of hosting the Games are abound this year, as the city celebrates the memory of a successful and momentous first Games while bracing itself for a bumpy six years ahead.

In the spirit of commemoration, I thought I’d forego the comparisons (for today, at least) and instead highlight one of the most ingenious facets of the ’64 Olympics: its unparalleled use of graphic design.

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Tokyo ’64 revolutionised the role of design in communicating messages to both an international and linguistically diverse group of elite athletes and a global audience spanning the many far-flung corners of the globe. Its sheer simplicity and accessibility was, and is, utter brilliance.

The gear that set these wheels in motion had actually been oiled four years earlier in 1960, at the World Design Conference which was also held in Tokyo. There, top minds from the design world at the time – including Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, Italian designer and artist Bruno Munari and Swiss graphic designer Max Huber, discussed why and how contemporary graphic design could and should be made useful for the masses.

Recognising the need for a basal, common understanding that could cut across languages and cultural barriers at such an international event, Tokyo ’64’s Olympic design team, led by design critic Masaru Katsumi alongside graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura, did away with the use of words, opting instead for pictograms. This was the first time ever that graphics were being systematically used. The result? Just look!

The pictograms you see here were pioneering work at the time and paved the way for similar symbols to be used at subsequent Games. The work of Tokyo’s Olympic design team would also influence the use of signages and pictograms globally. Sugoi-ne (amazing!). It’s hard to imagine a time before they became such a natural and familiar part of the Olympics.

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The Tokyo ’64 Olympic pictograms depicting various sports

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Above and below: another set of pictograms was also developed to provide service-related information – familiar toilet sign anyone?

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A culture magazine I picked up here earlier last week featured a short commentary by local design director Koichi Yanagimoto, who touched on how the use of these pictograms in the ’64 Games permanently changed the development and prevalence of contemporary graphic design.

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When modern design first emerged in the later half of the 19th century it was used only by a select few, but the ’64 Olympics, he wrote, “brought it to the masses and the concept went on to permeate the daily lives of the public.”

Today – be it in Tokyo, Singapore or Seoul, I can’t imagine getting around bus stations, airports, shopping malls or hotels without the use of pictograms. That must be testament enough to the legacy left by Katsumi-san and his team.

The dateline for submitting emblem designs for Tokyo 2020 opened earlier this month and will close next Friday.

There will be undoubtedly intense pressure on Tokyo to set the bar even higher than it did in ’64.

But if Japan could, half a century ago, be so forward-thinking as to completely revolutionise the way in which design could be universally understood, I wouldn’t bet against the Land of the Rising Sun’s ability to impress again, more than half a century later.