I used to ride the Osaka subways to and from work every day and after a while you either get really good at blocking things out – crazy subway people, inane station announcements repeated twice in the key of nasal, irritating advertisements, the sharp tang of body odor, a full spectrum of distractions that bombard your already dulled senses – or you slowly become insane.
This is especially clear to me now, living out on Awajishima, which I like to describe as “a floating retirement community off the coast of Kobe.” Moving out to the country after living in Osaka for a couple years was a real relief, and I am reminded of this when I ride the subway a few times every year on business trips.
Yesterday I walked to my hotel through the underground area between the Osaka Hilton and Izumi-no-hiroba (directly under the Sonezaki East intersection up top) a couple times, once after my daytime meeting finished and once after dinner with clients. For those who have never been, it is an underground labyrinth of rundown shops, bank machines, and restaurants, all but a few of which are at varying levels of bankruptcy and disrepair. During rush hour, the passages are choked with rivers of people flowing in opposing directions and branching off into various pools and creeks, eventually seeping above ground or into the subway stations. It is a claustrophobic and unpleasant experience for most people, even for those who experience it every day, and everyone copes with it in different ways.
On the trains, some people use visual distractions like books or keitais, others escape to their own little worlds via headphone, and many simply adopt the “thousand yard stare” and can remain in a numbed stasis for their duration underground. On the early morning trains, most people usually try to sleep, especially if they are lucky enough to get a seat. Experienced riders learn to sleep while standing up, and subconciously monitor the station announcements for their stop.
But the grind of rush hour in the vast underground stations is an ultimate lesson in chaos and human endurance. Last night I found myself wondering, for the five thousandth time, why people choose to live like this – what compels people to shun the world above ground, the sunlight, the weather, the outside? The fluorescent lighting of the underground made everbody’s face look sallow and greasy, diseased even. Everybody’s eyes were just… dead. I began to think it would really be best for everyone if the city burned down once every 50 years, just so things could be started anew. Because the underground is undeniable proof that something is wrong, and wrong in a way that can never be fixed. Wouldn’t it be great if the city, as a whole, could simply cut its losses and start over.
Come to think of it, it’s happened before, hasn’t it?