Ground Level Tokyo

Posted: July 31, 2008 in Uncategorized

Came across this today on boingboing: a short film of a shantytown in Shibuya, Tokyo, intended to give a resident’s perspective feel. It didn’t really click until after I’d started the video that I’d actually been to this place during my 2006 trip, and in fact tried weed for the first time there, and yet I never posted about it.

During my stay, Mike, a former Oregon native who had moved to Japan some years ago, took it upon himself to act as ambassador for myself and my teammate, and took us on several “insider’s” tours of the area. Among these was a short walk one evening to the park shown in the video, near the train tracks on the edge of the hyper-glitzy neighborhood of Shibuya. The park itself is a long, narrow stretch filled with abandoned basketball courts, broken swingsets and jungle gyms, and empty trash bin frames. With the park long given up by the city, it’s now filled with makeshift apartments, discreetly lining the edges, maintaining open courtyards in the middle. The care with which this place is set up is remarkable; an urban planning commission could do little better, and the structures themselves are carefully constructed from salvaged plywood, tarps, duct tape, and whatever else can be used. They have lockable doors, windows, dining rooms with various mismatching lawn chairs and short crate tables; they are clearly homes, rather than just a place to sleep. Our guide Mike told us that he has seen people coming out of these makeshift shacks in full business suits. This place is such a fact of life that the city has apparently even set aside this strip of land for the squatters to occupy, spurning development projects that want to swallow it.

It was nighttime, so the place was quiet and undisturbed, like the once-abandoned park had again been abandoned by its new tenants. The whole area was dark, with barely even a streetlight, and it occurred to me that there was actually less light pollution and more trees here than around most of the local apartment complexes. What few people there were in this area passed through quietly; there was little graffiti, nobody was here to make trouble. The place, like the people, was simply… set aside. We wandered quietly along the length of it, pointing out the various structures made from anything and everything, then paused in a dark spot for a few moments to partake of the local greenery from a glass mock-cigarette. Since I’d never used one, I wound up burning my throat on the scalding smoke, which chafed like an impending cold for the next few days. After that pause, we headed back to the hotel, leaving the strange, dark island in the sea of lights and its stranded residents.

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