Tokyo Overground Infrastructure: A World Above Your Head

Do you pay attention to the “stuff” over your head?

Regular readers will know we like to talk about this kind of thing, from the forgotten underground rivers of Shibuya to photographer Ken Ohyama’s pursuit of “cute” government housing complexes.

I used to live in Ikejiri, just west of Shibuya, and over the months I watched a slightly peculiar concrete monolith taking shape. For ages I wasn’t sure what it was but then I found out it was a giant entrance to the Yamate Tunnel that takes you under the ground towards north Tokyo.

ikejiri ohashi junction yamate tunnel C2 ikejiri ohashi junction yamate tunnel C2

While earlier this year Tokyu finally took its beloved Toyoko Line Shibuya Station underground, there is still a lot of infrastructure flowing above the heads of Tokyoites, from highways to bridges, trains and more.

Sure, everyone knows if you want to get a good view of the city you can head up to Tokyo Tower, the Skytree, or any of the other viewing platforms in hotels and major buildings. But we don’t want to look down. We want to look up.

Highways

What is the most important transportation network in Tokyo? The Metro subway system? Not really. The JR railway lines, especially the Yamanote Line? Perhaps. But the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway (known locally as Shutoku) must also surely be a strong competitor.

This constantly throbbing, humming matrix of raised highways takes traffic all around the capital and out into Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, and even across the bay over those massive bridges. It is epic, heroic and, in its way, beautiful. There are plenty of fans of this “ugly” system of tentacles — Ken Ohyama for one, who organizes bus tours so people can get a closer look at the belly of the amazing junctions where expressways cross over with other roads.

expressway shutoku tokyo

The Shutoku has replaced the rivers and canals that once served the citizens of Edo so well. It literally seems to make the roads 3D by adding new layers and levels, not to mention at times resembling a kind of mad rollercoaster snaking between the office blocks and along the hilly boulevards.

The first section of the Shutoku was built for the 1964 Olympics and opened in 1962. It now covers more than 180 miles, helping over 1 million vehicles per day get where they want to go. The columns that hold up the roads are giant, perhaps as tall as forty meters in places. Although the noise and the shadows cast on people below can be oppressive, they also feel like great cyberpunk city walls

tokyo shutoku expressway

The Nishi-Shinjuku junction (SJ32) at Hatsudai is one of the best places to marvel at the glory of the infrastructure, all steel and concrete and curving forms. At ground level you have Yamate-dori and Koshu-kaido, and above you there is a double-layered raised expressway connection.

Meguro Sky Garden

The Ohashi Junction opened in 2010, connecting with the Central Circular Route (C2) and Yamate Tunnel with another expressway. Another part of the C2 and the tunnel, taking cars down to Shinagawa, will open in 2014.

Yamate Tunnel itself took over 15 years to finish and you can see some amazing underground images of the tunnel being built in our 2006 interview with photographer Joe Nishizawa.

The doughnut-shaped Meguro Sky Garden is an accident of infrastructure, caused by the architecture of the entrance of the highways that need to feed slowly into the tunnel. The curving causeway functions as a public garden — and attempt to combat the heat island effect — and the looping O-Path Meguro-ohashi connection between Cross Air Tower, where a library is now located.

You go up a footbridge and can then see the arteries of the expressway feeding into the junction.

meguro sky garden

Greenery is flourishing above the asphalt!

meguro sky garden meguro sky garden

There is even a little visitors’ center.

meguro sky garden meguro sky garden

You will find office workers there at lunchtimes.

meguro sky garden

You climb higher and higher as you curve round. It’s noisy from the traffic and the wind, though on a clear day you can see Mt Fuji. The odd space in the middle is not a scary bottomless pit but halfway down is a sports facility.

meguro sky garden meguro sky garden

Here you get a view of the tunnel and expressway connection from above.

meguro sky garden

The library is actually inside a condo tower.

meguro sky garden

Well, it’s hardly the New York Highline but is a great example of how the Shutoku sprawls and conquors, yet leaves spaces for people to exist.

Footbridges

Pedestrians are traffic in Tokyo.

Shiodome’s pedestrian decks are particularly impressive, as are Shibuya’s on the south side of the station. It has been said that no two are the same in Tokyo. Built during the height of economic high growth in the 1960′s, they are now like stilts to be climbed and crossed like ants, though technically they are public spaces. The citizens “own” them.

Here’s a great multi-pronged one from Shibuya with an expressway running overhead.

shibuya pedestrian footbridge walkway shibuya pedestrian footbridge walkway

Railways

Tokyo can be a deep place. The Oedo Line’s Roppongi Station on the subway is 42-meters down and you really feel every one as you head down to the platforms.

But there’s also a lot of trains going over your head. Most famously you can follow the Yamanote Line around the city. And if you’re in the south, look out for the monorail that can be seen as it leaves Hamamatsucho and heads west to Haneda.

monorail

Oddities

Our first thought when we saw these was ‘The Iron Man’. Who are these concrete soldiers guarding the road? Well, they’re special ventilation towers connected to Yamate Tunnel, which runs along underneath Yamate-dori. And we’re not the only ones who like them! They’ve even won awards.

yamate tunnel ventilation tower yamate tunnel ventilation tower

Here’s how it works underground.

yamate tunnel ventilation tower

What other examples of overhead infrastructure in Japan do you like?