It has now been a little over one month since my study abroad experience began here in Japan. Already I have visited many areas of the country and had a chance to speak with many locals. But one thing that continues to amaze me is the ability for Japanese society to exist in a region such as it does. This was most evident when I visited Osaka, one of the biggest cities in Japan, and the biggest in the current region in which I reside (Kansai).
To begin with, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Miabara to Osaka main train station. This is a truly impressive transportation mechanism. Generally a trip from Hikone, which is a station toward Osaka from Miabara, to Osaka takes roughly 1.25 hours. Using the Shinkansen we made the trip n 35 minutes. These trains are enormous and fully equipped. Its a lot like riding first class on an airline, except with more leg room and nicer seats. These trains have become an integral part of Japanese life for travel as, despite its size, it takes roughly 8 – 10 hours to go side to side on the main island, due to the mountains in the center. This is also why most Japanese cities are near the cost, there is simply nowhere to live inland, except in the mountains.
As any person can gather, this clearly creates problems for society. Where do you put new residences, and how do you lay roads to move between the residencies without taking too much space away from where people can live. These are common engineering problems facing Japanese Civil Engineers every day. Their answer is quite amazing, they build up and down. While visiting Osaka I found parts of the city underground to be larger then many of the smaller cities in Michigan. For example, getting off the train in Osaka we spent 4 hours shopping without once going outside. When we did finally go above ground it was in an 8 story mall!!! The mall was built nearly straight upwards so as to reduce its footprint. And to top it off, their was a Ferris wheel on top (see picture). This afforded a very nice view of Osaka at night. Clearly the biggest city I have ever been in, or at least the nicest big city I have ever been in (I have been to New York, but it was nothing like this).
However, while this is all amazing, the Japanese admit that most of the infrastructure is at its limit. For example, my Economics professor from Tokyo told us in class that congestion level in Tokyo are around 300%. Also, the population density is out of control, 1500 person / km^2, compare that to the US which is around 50. Absurd. And yet, the Japanese dont complain, dont get angry when they are squished into train cars. This is part of their life, they have learned to live with it. We, as Americans, really take our abundance of real estate for granted. In Japan, its very rare to drive a car in the bigger cities. This sounds inconvenient, and it was for me at first, but the train and subway systems are very well placed and walking can be reduced heavily through smart decisions. Bike riding is the norm of travel for a lot of Japanese citizens, and the roads are constructed to accommodate this.
It really is amazing, and I am thrilled each time I tour the various cities, just how compact everything is. I remember my Father talking about houses being right on top of each other when we were looking for a suitable area to build our new house. I laugh when I look at some of the houses here, where there is literally no room at all to walk between the houses. In fact, while visiting Kyoto, I made the comment that its like people just drop houses wherever there is the slightest bit of land, cause neighborhoods like similar to the building blocks I played with as a kid.
But, getting back to the topic at hand, I was told by our guide that all the shopping we had done in Osaka was at 4 different malls, all built between the train tracks and subway tracks. This is just one of many examples, as is the Supermarket store with a parking garage built on top of it. But one thing to remember is that while all these innovations the Japanese have made to make life in a hard region easier, it is not without a price. Everywhere I go their are signs of the stresses on both the environment and the infrastructure. But we cannot take away from the awesome display of engineering that allow the Japanese to thrive in such an environment.