Tokyo escalators are stairways to heaven

We ride them every day but do we ever take much notice?

Well, Miha Tamura is one person who is paying attention to escalators and that’s why she started Tokyo Escalator, an online collection of images of the moving staircases that we take for granted in our daily lives.

PingMag spoke to her about the unusual project.

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Escalator at Iidabashi Station’s Toei Oedo Line

Why did you start Tokyo Escalator?

I started Tokyo Escalator because I wanted to do something that no one else was doing. There are many websites by people for railways, but I started it because there weren’t any cyclopedic websites collecting together escalators.

But why escalators? What’s the appeal?

Compared with simple means of transport like elevators, escalators are vehicles made by advanced technology invented in the twentieth century. They are not suitable as barrier-free transport, as elevators are for wheelchairs, but rather are facilities installed mainly just when it is necessary intermittently to transport a large amount of people quickly and smoothly.

To be precise, they are suitable for department stores and subway stations, and are concentrated in large cities. In this way, escalators are luxurious and special, but Tokyo is a city where there is the opportunity to ride them almost every day. This felt very fresh to me and so am anthologizing escalator landscapes.

Normally we don’t really appreciate or think about escalators. But actually their design is sometimes amazing, even beautiful. For example, on your website there are some great pictures of the escalators at Tenmaya’s Tsuyama branch or Lloyd’s of London.

Yes, I don’t publish pictures of escalators that are just “average”, like the ones that are installed in stations. A really nice escalator, like the one by Richard Rogers at Lloyd’s of London, means to really understand the appeal of escalators and then take advantage of that to the maximum in the design.

This is a bit different but I am also paying attention to escalators which ended up in their present design due to the circumstances. For example, in Shimbashi Station on the JR Yamanote Line, there is an escalator where just the middle one is thin.

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Shimbashi Station on the JR Yamanote Line, with its thin middle escalator

Aren’t escalators a bit scary sometimes?

Well, I’m not scared at all by high places. I rather get excited. But the super long escalator that used to be in the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre was renovated because it was seen as “scary”.

tokyo escalator tokyo metropolitan theatre ikebukuro

The old “scary” escalator at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro before it was renovated

Is there an escalator you thought was the most amazing?

The most amazing is the spiral escalator made by Mitsubishi Electric. Curving escalators were conceived from early on when escalators were invented, but they are very difficult and even today Mitsubishi Electric is the only one in the world who can make them. If I hadn’t come across this spiral escalator in Yokohama I don’t think I would have committed myself to escalators as much as I have.

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Spiral escalator made by Mitsubishi Electric at the Landmark Plaza in Yokohama

Do escalators in Japan have special attributes?

Japanese escalators often have colorful handrails but overseas they are almost all black. Retro escalators in particular are often red but this is also only Japan.

tokyo escalator red handrail

Red escalators at Hollywood Beauty Plaza in Roppongi Hills

Also, overseas manufacturer rarely make the escalators with a curved glass body that are said to have come about at the request of Japanese department stores, and are almost only in Japan.

Yes, the designs are different! What about people? Are attitudes also different?

There is a system of courtesy with Japanese escalators, especially in Tokyo and Osaka, that you leave one side clear for walking. However, with the recently increase in escalator accidents among the elderly, the Japan Elevator Association has in principle prohibited walking on escalators. On the other hand, in subway stations in London, China and so on there are posters advising people to leave one side of the escalator clear for people who are in a hurry.

Are there any escalators you would recommend?

Yes, all of the escalators on my website! I’d recommend the Yurakucho Marion for escalator beginners. There are hardly any people so you can just keep riding to your heart’s content.

tokyo escalator yurakucho marion

The escalators at Yurakucho Marion are recommended for escalator novices

Could we call the photographs on Tokyo Escalator artworks? Or are the escalators themselves artworks?

Escalators are not artworks because there is no artist. For example, with a staircase, you can have something made by a famous architect. Escalators are used in architecture but there is no architect’s design in the escalator itself. In this way, I tend to be attracted to things that are “not artworks”. For example, I am also collecting images of bridge supports for elevated highways.

More than artworks, it feels better to call my photography “data” or a “collection”. I don’t have any interest in using photography to express something, since I don’t make any issue out of whether the photograph excels as a photographic artwork. In order to preserve the scene, I choose the photographs where you can best understand the whole picture and what is special about the escalator, and then publish them on my website.

I guess it is possible to call the act itself of continuing to take escalator photos and make a collection an “artwork”. But I think that is reliant on a market value in the art market, and I don’t think it has as much value as that, nor do I have interest in that. More than that, I have some interest in developing the project culturally, like in music and escalator collaborations, or novel and escalator collaborations. Oh, by the way, my friend made me a song called ‘Escalator Disco’.

How many escalators do you go to every year?

I have no real idea but it must be at least a hundred, including the escalators I just come across by chance (and this encounter is the kind I actually value more).

Have you ever held an exhibition or event?

I’ve never held an exhibition but I did publish a rather odd booklet, a kind of photography-escalator novel. You can .

Thank you, Miha Tamura!

Tokyo Escalator: www.tokyo-esca.com/eesca

Twitter: twitter.com/tokyoesca

Facebook: www.facebook.com/tokyoesca