oh no, there goes Tokyo…

Monday morning was blessedly much cooler and there was even an occasional drop of rain against our window. We woke up and bid a sad farewell to the glass-walled shower, the electronic toilet seat, the king-sized bed and most of all the astonishing view of our room in Shibuya. Quickly repacking our bags, we found that we actually had a little time to kill before grabbing the train up to Nikko, so we decided to do something a little shameful. We’d noticed that there was a coffee counter overlooking Shibuya crossing from the second floor of one of the facing department store buildings. The only problem was that it was… a Starbucks.

Quick digression: a lot of people have a (to my mind) slightly weird anti-Starbucks obsession. Me, I don’t get it: sure, the coffee is a little over-roasted to my taste (although not by much: back when I drank coffee I always liked it a little on the heavy side), and sure their omnipresence is a little creepy sometimes, but as a former resident of Manhattan, I have to appreciate the fact that Starbucks has become the de facto clean attended public restroom system that New York City so desperately needed, and whatever one’s qualms with their coffee there’s no denying that the average quality of New York coffee was substantially worse before their arrival. Plus they offer health insurance to food service workers and pay them above minimum wage, and if you think that’s small change you can have my old shift at the Great Barrington Burger King. So no, I don’t fear the green…

…but going into an American chain restaurant while in a foreign country has always struck me as an admission of defeat. Still: location, location, location — they had the space we wanted to be in, so we bought a latte, a tea, a muffin and a scone, and walked up the stairs to watch the flow of people. Interestingly, Shibuya crossing during rush hour on a Monday morning wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it had been on the weekend. I can only assume that most of Tokyo’s schools and office jobs are elsewhere, and the department stores and boutiques of Shibuya are really more of a weekend destination:

Finishing our food (and sadly I have to note that the pre-made food in the Japanese Starbucks are substantially worse than their emrican brethern: given the astounding average quality of just about every bit of baked goods we’ve so far had anywhere else in Japan, I’m a little puzzled as to how they managed this), we returned to the hotel, checked out, and took the metro over to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Utsonomiya, and from there the JR line to Nikko.

I’ve already rhapsodized about the Shinkansen, so permit me to ramble a bit about the Tokyo Metro system. The question, with apologies to Stephen Colbert, is simple: is it merely a great metro, or is it the greatest metro? And I’m honestly not sure. There are a few crazy-making things about it: it’s comprised of multiple interlocking independent systems, and tickets for the Tokyo lines aren’t valid on the Toei lines, nor on the in-city JR lines nor vice-versa. It doesn’t run for 24 hours, which is a little surprising in a city of Tokyo’s size. During rush hour, it’s unbelievably crowded.

…but those are all complaints that really can only be made inside the context of the system itself. It’s not perfect, but is any other metro system better? Certainly none of them are bigger: by the number of passengers, stations and lines, Tokyo outclasses even New York and London. And even holding aside the incredible density and coverage, it simply works astonishingly well: the trains and stations are spotlessly clean, and the trains arrive at an astounding pace. Except for the time that we tried to take a train at 5am, I don’t think we ever waited more than three minutes for a subway. And nothing ever seems to break down. New York has the advantage of being 24-hours, the Paris Metro is perhaps prettier (Moscow’s certainly is), but mechanical failures are a frequent thing in both systems, and if you asked either of them to carry the same number of passengers at the same speed as Tokyo’s commuters are used to, they would shatter into a million pieces.

And for a metro system in a country with a language spoken and written basically nowhere else on earth, they’ve made it incredibly easy for tourists to navigate: stations are numbered as well as named, and the signs in the stations make use of that to make it visually obvious in what direction each track leads. Plus there are overhead signs that alternate between Japanese and English, and most of the train lines have crystal-clear audible announcements in both languages. I tried to think of what it might be like for a Japanese tourist to navigate San Francisco’s transit system, and nearly died of embarrassment.

Yeah, actually, maybe the greatest.

Oh god, I just spent four paragraphs talking about trains again. Right, on to Nikko.

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