It is easy to photograph buildings in Tokyo, there are a lot of them after all. And though there are few great architectural wonders (except the Skytree) the massive urbanity of the place is a visual treat in itself. To me though one construction above all others labels any image as Tokyo and that has to be the raised expressways that run through the city. Funny choice for sure as they are basically horrible great lumps of concrete: blocking out the sun with their broad, black canopies and massive legs centipeding down among the submerged streets and rivers courses, through which they tip-toe, making real life Lilliputian as it meanders around their inconveniences.
It is not great architecture, not at all: it is ugly and noisy, dark and even a little scary but where different roads converge the criss-crossing can be abstractly beautiful and the sheer scale of the thing is undoubtedly impressive.
And there is a surprising amount of life around it or under it, Though the roads were mostly constructed over river courses because the land there is useless and cheap. Many of Tokyo’s rivers are drain-like concreted channels. Any charm that could still be found in them is invariably killed with the rumbling lid of the expressway above. But despite that, there are parks and playgrounds, shops, businesses and homes squeezed in under the overhangs and between the legs. Like the picture above of a lovely lady called Ohira San who lives in a small house under the expressway within sight of the upmarket Roppongi Hills complex. She has lived there about 11 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else. A neighbour has been there thirty! Asked if it was noisy, she said no. Indeed she loved living there was disarmingly positive about a situation that would in other places border on shantiness. But then a lot of housing in Japan is more pragmatic than comfortable and her advantages were truly envy-inducing. For starters, she had a view; it was warm all year and typhoon rains never troubled her. It was cheap certainly for the size of the house and though there were no windows in the place apart from the one at the front the interior of her house was quite spacious too and no darker than many ordinary Japanese apartments. In fact the sun spent the whole day, from early morning to late evening, streaming in that front window, drying the washing and feeding the plants in her extensive potted, road garden at the same time. The paper-screens inside her living room where covered in childish manga where her grandchildren’s had drawn in an attempt to lighten-up the place. Not that it needed it really, it was a nice place to live.
Of course since March 11th 2011 we have all taken the threats of earthquakes a bit more seriously and when I asked her about any worries she had regarding the heavy concrete slabs and rattling traffic above her head she was fatalistic.
“Who can tell what will kill you in an earthquake. Here is as good as anywhere.”
Amazing lady and amazing structure that I am working on a story for. More encounters like the one with Ohira San will add nicely to the collection though.