Eating in Transit

[In keeping with the current theme of transit and travel, I thought a post on Japan’s version of fast food meals would be appropriate. Alas, I don’t have any photos of the meals I’m about to discuss, so you’ll have to use your imagination.]

To me, food eaten “on the go” generally has a negative connotation, conjuring up images of wan French fries, prepackaged sandwiches composed of a slice of ham and an inordinate amount of mayonnaise, and mealy apples purchased in an attempt to be healthy. However, fast food here in Japan is quite a different story.

Early in my stay here, Steven and I were at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and needed to grab a bite of lunch before a flight. He suggested that we eat before going through security, because the food options would be better. I found myself wondering, “how much better could it really be?  It’s an airport, right?”  After browsing a number of takeaway shops, we settled in the food court, which was populated by about five restaurants, each serving a different specialty. None of the offerings were particularly fancy – there was katsudon (a bowl of rice topped with a fried pork cutlet and egg), karē raisu (curry rice), soba, and that famous Japanese fast food, ramen. When I peeked behind the counters of each shop to take a closer look at the food, I was amazed by what I saw.

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Two short videos

As a follow-up to my previous post, I thought I’d post a couple videos that relate to both transit and density.  The first one was taken while walking through Shibuya on a Friday night at 11:55 – exactly five minutes before the last train out of Tokyo departed.  I was in a rush to catch the train, as was seemingly every other person in the neighborhood!  It was quite a sight.  I shot the second video while riding the Nozomi (lit. “hope” or “wish”) Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto (en route to Nara) in June.  It gives you a good idea of just how fast the Shinkanesen goes as well as what a typical Japanese landscape looks like.  Enjoy!

Density in Transit

[Note: this post is not about food.  Instead, I’m letting my inner art historian/cultural critic come out!]

Lest you think all I do is think about food, I thought I’d take some time to write about another subject that is close to my heart: public transit. A few months ago, I came across this fascinating series by the photographer Michael Wolf. The theme of urban density recurs throughout his work, but he often photographs the buildings and streets of a particular city rather than the people who inhabit it. These photos, which depict Japanese workers packed into trains during rush hour, break that pattern.

Tokyo’s trains are notorious for being crammed to the gills during peak commuting hours, something which I’ve only experienced once or twice during my time here. (Yes, there actually are white-gloved “pushers” who ensure that no stray clothing or body parts are closed in the train doors.) Wolf’s photos do a great job of depicting this phenomenon, but they do so in a way that distances us from the subjects. In the most literal sense, Wolf creates this sense of distance by photographing riders who are already on the train and thus behind glass. In these images, the glass’s presence is constantly reinforced by a number of devices: water droplets, reflections of lights and buildings, condensation, or a hand pushed against the glass like a fish’s mouth, or a suction cup. Through these photos we gain access to a secret underground world, one many have heard but few have seen (or, which few have photographed in detail). In essence, Wolf captures two liminal moments: before the train pulls away from the station, or just before the doors open to release a human flood. In doing so, he materializes the balance between inside and outside, thereby heightening the voyeuristic nature of these images.

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong street

I am and probably always will be a city person.  When I was five, I had the great fortune of going to Paris.  Upon setting foot in the city for the first time, I declared, “I love it here – it’s even louder and dirtier than New York!”  (Perhaps Paris seemed dirtier because at that moment I was surrounded by hundreds of pigeons.  Or perhaps it was because of the cigarette smoke that hung in the air no matter where we went.  Looking back, it seems inconceivable that Paris could actually be that dirty, but it felt so then…)  Now, Paris and New York don’t make the most likely comparison – one is known for its beauty and charm, the other for its grit and cutthroat, fast-paced lifestyle – but my five-year-old self thought it completely natural.

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