Tokyo’s future railway lines

In January 2000, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport released a detailed study on how the Tokyo mass transit network could be expanded over the next 15 years. (Japanese text is here.) Many of the ministry’s suggestions have since been fulfilled, including the completion of the Oedo Line, Saitama Rapid Railway, Tsukuba Express, Nippori-Toneri Liner and Fukutoshin Line. But there are still a number of lines which have yet to be finished, and here are the most likely candidates to be built:

  • Narita Airport Railway
    Under construction – opening in 2010

This is probably the best-known railway project under development in the Tokyo area, as it has been on the drawing board for about 25 years (roughly since the cancellation of the planned shinkansen to Narita) and is finally under construction. It provides a more direct route from central Tokyo to Narita Airport by extending the existing Hokuso Railway line through the outskirts of Narita City. The line is expected to make the Skyliner journey about 15 minutes shorter (36 minutes from Nippori as opposed to the current 51 minutes).

  • Tohoku Line (Re-)Extension
    Under construction – opening in 2013

This extends the Takasaki Line and Utsunomiya Line, which currently terminate at Ueno, southward to Tokyo Station. There will be no stops at the stations in between (Okachimachi, Akihabara and Kanda). The main goal is to draw traffic away from the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Lines, which are both really overcrowded in this corridor. (Joban Line communities are also lobbying to extend their service to Tokyo Station, but this would be logistically more difficult.)

This line actually used to exist but was cut off in 1973 so that the Tohoku Shinkansen could be extended to Tokyo Station over the Tohoku Main Line’s right-of-way. Opening the connection again will allow through service with the Tokaido Line, similar to the existing connection between the Sobu and Yokosuka lines. The main obstacle is (as you might expect) local citizens’ groups, who are calling on JR to “stop the heat island” (whatever that means). Despite their protests, JR started construction earlier this summer and plans to build the line over the next five years (i.e., really really slowly).

  • Yurakucho and Hanzomon Line Extensions
    Proposed for construction by 2015

The Yurakucho Line extension would run from Toyosu to Noda City in Chiba Prefecture, following a roughly northward course through Sumiyoshi, Oshiage and Kameari in eastern Tokyo. The Hanzomon Line extension would follow a similar course (perhaps even using the same tracks) up to Yotsugi, but track off toward the east to terminate in Matsudo.

A few bedroom towns in Chiba and Ibaragi are lobbying to have these extensions built, but Tokyo Metro cut off its construction budget with the Fukutoshin Line project and is not officially planning to extend any other lines, at least for now. I really hope they get around to this, though, because the Joban Line is inhumanely overcrowded during rush hour, even with 15-car trains.

  • Sobu-Keiyo-Keisei Connector
    Proposed for construction by 2015

This would be a line from Shin-Urayasu on the Keiyo Line through Funabashi Station on the Sobu Line to Tsudanuma Station on the Keisei Line, hooking up the three main Tokyo-Chiba railway lines. The main purpose is to divert traffic from the overcrowded Sobu Line onto the less popular Keiyo Line; the main carrot for doing this would be through service with the Rinkai Line (and, by extension, the Saikyo Line), allowing direct service from Chiba to the major terminals on the west side of Tokyo.

This plan is apparently still on the drawing board, but sounds pretty promising given all the development going on around the Chiba waterfront. It would probably be good for foreign visitors to Disneyland and Tokyo Big Sight as well.

  • Asakusa Line spur to Tokyo Station
    Proposed for construction by 2015

The Asakusa Line runs parallel to the JR trunk lines that serve Tokyo Station, but stays a few blocks away inside the financial district. The plan is to build a Y-shaped spur off of the west side of the Asakusa Line which would connect the line to an underground platform at Tokyo Station.

Most significantly, this would open up a new direct route from Tokyo Station to both Haneda and Narita Airport, potentially putting Keisei and Keikyu in even more direct competition with JR for airport-bound passengers. There is some speculation (e.g. among Wikipedia) that the Tokyo government may build additional passing tracks on the Asakusa Line to allow for high-speed direct trains between Haneda and Narita, which would likely become more necessary as regional international flights are moved from Narita to Haneda.

  • Kan-nana and Kan-hachi Lines
    Proposed without a deadline

These two lines would go through the outer wards of Tokyo at a radius of about 10km from the city center, roughly following the paths of Kan-nana and Kan-hachi Streets. The major stops along this route would include Haneda Airport, Futako-Tamagawa, Ogikubo, Tobu Nerima, Akabane, Nishi-Arai, Kita-Ayase, Kameari, Aoto and Kasai-Rinkai-Koen.

The lines would provide train service to huge under-served portions of suburban Tokyo, but would likely be difficult and expensive to construct because of their length. There is also doubt regarding how this line would compete with the proposed Yurakucho and Hanzomon extensions, which would follow a similar routing in east Tokyo. I would vote in favor of these lines since I now live near the proposed corridor, but we’ll have to wait and see whether any funding comes out to build them.

Obituary: Mainichi WaiWai

WaiWai is dead. WaiWai, we hardly knew you.

I like Yomiuri’s article on the matter, which says (in part):

The corner reportedly began carrying sensationalized stories on dubious topics containing seriously vulgar expressions over at least the past six years, with headlines such as “Fast food sends schoolgirls into sexual feeding frenzy.”

Yes, WaiWai, you will be missed. I guess us bloggers will have to pick up the slack, but it’ll be hard for us to match the style with which you brought all the crazy stuff from Japan to an international audience.

Muslim cemetery in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong over New Year’s, I hopped on board one of the island’s incredibly cheap streetcars and randomly rode from Central, the bustling business center of the city, to the quieter but still absurdly developed alcove of Happy Valley. The district is best known for its racecourse, which (not being a fan of equestrian sports) I first learned about from James Clavell’s very fun novel Noble House.

The name “Happy Valley” comes from the area’s use as a burial ground during the early days of the colony. As was the case in many tropical colonies (see Guns, Germs and Steel), the hot climate and marshy terrain of the island were quite incompatible with the Europeans moving in, and the resulting waves of diseases made Happy Valley one of the most populous areas of Hong Kong (if you’re counting corpses).

Even today, the cemeteries of Happy Valley are its most prominent and unique feature, next to the famous racecourse which is literally right across the street.

One of the more fascinating parts of the cemetery is the Muslim section, which happened to be open as I walked past. The headstones, dating from throughout Hong Kong’s history, are written in varying combinations of Arabic, Chinese and English.

The Muslim cemetery occupies a number of slopes wrapped around a hill, which makes it an excellent vantage point for viewing the lower, flatter Catholic cemetery below. Another case of awesome real estate wasted on dead people.

Switching to eMobile for handheld broadband in the ‘burbs

UPDATE: I ditched eMobile after about a year; this post explains why.

So I switched my mobile phone service to eMobile. This was really part of a much bigger jump over the weekend: I moved from a tiny furnished apartment in central Tokyo to a larger and very Japanese-style apartment on the edge of the metropolis. So far, I can’t say it’s been a bad change. There’s plenty of sunlight out the window, a proper bathroom (unit baths suck!) and enough room to accommodate my [laughable] writing, studying and musical efforts.

One problem I had to solve was staying connected to the outside world. All I wanted was an internet connection: I don’t need a home phone (Skype has me covered there) and I don’t need TV. My building isn’t wired for DSL, so the cheapness of broadband would be outweighed by the cost and hassle of installation.

After some head-scratching, I recalled that eMobile’s basic data plan offers unlimited use of mobile broadband at slow DSL speeds for about 5,000 yen a month. Then I realized that I could get one of their phones and plug it into my laptop’s USB port for unlimited internet access at slower-than-DSL speeds for about 7,500 yen a month, about the same as my average DoCoMo bill (basic plan plus “pake-hodai” and a couple of network services). So I went with eMobile’s basic “smart phone,” the S11HT “eMonster.” I bought it on Friday and have been using it constantly since then.

I am quite pleased so far. I wanted to get a phone with a keyboard for a while. I eyed Softbank’s offerings with interest last year, but was put off by advice from several people that the software sucked (I even heard this from a Softbank sales lady in Roppongi). A friend of mine then bought Softbank’s “Internet Machine,” which is packed with features (including television and GSM roaming) but costs more than my laptop did and, like most Japanese phones, has a unique operating system. Overall, the eMonster does a good job of balancing the sort of things that a fast-paced international digital individual (like yours truly) really needs in life.

The upsides:

  • Internet is very fast, both on the handset and on a connected PC. I’m not sure whether I’m actually getting the full 3.7 mbps on this thing, but it sure feels responsive; faster, at least, than the heavily firewalled LAN connection at work.
  • Can access any email account with a POP or IMAP server. I now get my Gmail messages straight to my phone. There is also third-party software which allows syncing with Google Calendar (which I also sync to my Outlook calendar at work) and Remember the Milk, meaning that I can have the same calendar and task list on my home computer, work computer and phone. Awesome.
  • There are multiple input methods. In addition to the slide-out keyboard, there is a Palm Pilot/Pocket PC-style touchscreen with stylus (which you can use to handwrite characters or tap an on-screen keyboard), a Blackberry-style clicking scroll wheel in the corner, and a directional pad at the base of the phone. Although this encourages a lot of fiddling to find the easiest way to accomplish any given task, it also makes it easy to find a control method that “feels right.”
  • Media integration is quite straightforward; just drag and drop folders of mp3s from the hard drive to the device, then Windows Media will pick up the files on a simple directory scan and catalog them appropriately.
  • There is a lot of third party software available for Windows Mobile, like Pocket Dictionary and Pocket Mille Bornes (I hadn’t played that game since I was eleven, and I had forgotten how good it is). No more paying monthly fees or signing up to newsletters just to play downloaded games (as DoCoMo generally requires).
  • I can run Skype on my phone to call people overseas for next to nothing, although so far I can’t get it to work through the phone’s earpiece–only through speaker or headset.

The downsides:

  • eMobile’s network is not as strong as any of the big three providers. In Tokyo, the main place you notice this is on the subway and in basements, as there is never any signal underground (although you can get a good signal above ground anywhere in the 23 wards).
  • No RFID chip for mobile payments. I was quite fond of the Suica chip in my DoCoMo phone, as I could charge it with my credit card and roam the city at will. Now I’m back to using a Pasmo card which I have to recharge with cash–bummer.
  • The GPS seems more erratic than my Docomo phone’s. Usually it’s off by several blocks.
  • Battery life isn’t great when the phone is on 3G and syncing data all day. It’s just about enough: I charged the phone overnight on Sunday and was down to my last bar of battery when I got home from work on Monday. If you plan on spending the night in an atypical location, you’ll need to bring a charger with you.
  • Contact management is really complicated in comparison to most mobiles, since Windows Mobile uses a slightly simplified version of Outlook.
  • No international roaming. Not a huge deal for me, since my DoCoMo phone could only roam in Europe and certain developed countries in Asia. The WiFi feature largely makes up for this anyway, especially since my family’s house in South Carolina has a good DSL connection and wireless router.

Mr. Chang – Mr. Oyama

After having my aching knee MRI-ed and examined by a sports medicine specialist at Kyoto University Hospital last week and been told that the problem wasn’t particularly serious and that riding a bicycle should be safe, I decided to finally go and buy one. I asked a Japanese girl I know who is a bit of a bicycle otaku to accompany me on the shopping trip so I would be decently advised in buying something a few times the price of the crappy mama-chari I rode during my previous two periods of residence in Kyoto, and she took me to a shop she likes inside the Sanjo Shotengai. After picking out the bike I wanted and the accessories that needed to be attached, I went out to the east exit of the shotengai to withdraw some cash at the 7-11 and grab something to drink.

With a cold drink in hand (Thursday was a bloody hot afternoon in Kyoto), I sat down on the bench just outside the convenience store next to a middle aged man smoking a cigarette, in the typical fashion of a 50-ish Japanese guy who would be hanging out with a cigarette in front of a 7-11 in the middle of the afternoon, and looking over his envelope of documents. I had my headphones on, listening to some podcast or other, but the man said hello, and having an hour to kill before my bike was ready I took off the headphones and talked to him for a bit.

When I asked his name, instead of just telling me, he reached into his wallet and pulled out, to my mild surprise, an Alien Registration card very much like mine. I say very much, because there were a few important differences. The first being that, as the card of a Korean national permanent resident, the fields for such information as “Landing date” and “Passport number” were filled with asterisks instead of numbers, and the name field contained both his legal Korean family name of Chang (I will leave the personal name out) as well as a Japanese family name of Oyama, in parenthesis and with the same personal name for both.

Mr. Chang was born and raised in the south part of Kyoto, where the so-called Zainichi Koreans are clustered, and described himself as “basically half-Japanese” despite having Korean citizenship and speaking Korean. He is the oldest of three children, at 55, with a younger brother practically half his age at 29 who is currently in graduate school at Kyoto University and a younger sister in the middle, around 40 years old. He mentioned that when he was younger his Korean was good enough to do simultaneous translation, for which he would practice by reading the Japanese newspapers aloud to himself in Korean, but these days he has gotten a bit rusty. Although he was actually born with North Korean (DPRK) citizenship, he changed it to South Korean (ROK) years ago, as traveling abroad is extremely difficult for DPRK citizens. He mentioned having visited New York, which I presume would have been virtually impossible as a North Korean. He also spoke more English long ago, when for a time he lived with an English woman who had no interest in learning to speak Japanese (or, presumably, Korean, although he did not even mention that possibility) but says that these days he would not even be able to string a sentence together.

Now essentially retired, aside from having to take care of certain kinds of corporation registration and tax documents such as the envelope he was holding, he is the owner of three different companies, which include several drinking and eating establishments in Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya. He started with one izakaya 30 years ago out in the “sticks” of southern Kyoto, then opened another in Nagoya, and now at the end of his career has reached a high level of success as owner of a highly priced Gion hostess bar.

He was quite keen to talk about how the hostess club is an important part of Japanese culture, the high pricing of and lack of sexual availibility therein often baffles and angers foreigners. He mentioned that on a few occasions foreigners came to the club, and were then outraged at the final tab, not understanding that this was not the sort of place one goes for a drink if one is the sort of person who worries about the tab. There was a specific anecdote about a Turkish man who, while not outraged about the price per-se, was quite angry that such a sum of money did not allow him to bring one of girls home with him. The problem, Mr. Chang explained, was that in the West there is not such a clear distinction between businesses which provide girls for “fun” (i.e. hostesses) and those which provide girls for sex. In his own country, the Turkish gentleman would be able to take the girl home for a night of what he might consider “fun” but in Japan, there are entirely separate businesses which cater to the physical. This is, he said, the modern version of the Geisha system, which in the past also separated the working girls into those for higher and lower pleasures.

But Mr. Chang does not actually spend time in any of his bars or clubs anymore-not even the hostess bar in Gion. He has cancer, and it has metastized beyond the realm of surgical efficacy, not leaving him long for this world. As owner he takes care of the paperwork, but no longer does anything one might actually call work. The pain of the cancer is often intense, and he has trouble sleeping at night. He is close with a singer in Tokyo, who sings to him over the phone when the cancer pain keeps him up at night, until the gentle voice lulls him to sleep, with the reciever falling off to the side.

He never had any children, but he wanted to do something positive for the world, to “make up for [his] sins.” To that end, he has become the official sponsor of an AIDS hospice in Chiang Mai, Thailand, whose several-dozen residents are all, as he says, his children. Although he is the active sponsor, he was not the sole fundor. To gather funds for the community, building their bungalows, providing their education and health care, he went around to all of the “shady characters” he knew from his business dealings over the years- the fellow bar owners, the real estate people, the local yakuza-and strongarmed donations out of them. “Think about what you did to get that money,” he says he told them, “surely you can spare a few yen for this.” It turned out that they could. Tragically, every time he visists there are “those who are no longer there.” He can afford to make them comfortable and provide some level of treatment, but the drugs cocktail that keeps wealthy first-world AIDS patients alive indefinitely is still too expensive in mass quantities.

And so it was time for Mr. Chang to pick up his laundry and drop his papers off at city hall, and for me to pick up my new bicycle. He asked if I would be willing to give him some English refresher lessons, so he could have some simple exchanges with the foreigners that came into his establishment, despite having said that he no longer spent any time there. While I do not normally have any interest in English conversation tutoring, I gave him my phone number.

Japan’s less-publicized “connection” with African commodities

The Japan-Africa thing might be last week’s news, but better late than never:

This Japan Times feature, ran to coincide with Japan’s hosting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development did a good job of putting an identifiable and good-natured face on the conference’s goals, whatever they might have been. How better to bring the Japanese taxpayers around to supporting aid to Africa than to emphasize the “connections” between Africa’s sweet, sweet resources and Japanese daily life?

Few Japanese may be knowledgeable about far-away Africa, but the continent’s exports affect daily life here.

With the Wednesday start in Yokohama of the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, one should pause and take a quick glance at facts and figures about the continent’s many valuable and necessary commodities.

Here in Japan, you might start the day with a cup of coffee from Ethiopia, the fifth-largest supplier of raw coffee beans to this nation, after Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Uganda and Zambia meanwhile ship cobalt, essential for making batteries that go into computers, mobile telephones and digital cameras.

The off-hand mention of Ugandan cobalt reminded me of a recent NPR report on the world’s largest uranium mine, which is also a significant source of cobalt. The reporter breezily explains, “As mines go, it’s a honey. It has high-quality ore and a history of saving the Allies during World War II.”

Of course, the reporter is referring to the mother of all life-saving American freedom bombs — the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps that’s one connection to Africa the Japanese aren’t so keen on being reminded of.