Ueno Station, Platform 18, Platform 13.5

The meaning of Ueno Station’s new phantom platform

How much distance separates platform 18 from platform 13.5? This question crossed my mind when I read an article about JR East’s announcement yesterday that it would construct a new “platform 13.5” at Ueno Station in Tokyo for the exclusive use of a luxury tourist train, beginning next spring. The arrival of the platform and train tell us much as about how global economic forces are reshaping modern Tokyo, but the story grows even more interesting when we consider the place of Ueno in 20th century Tokyo’s symbolic geography.

As spaces of transit and gathering, monumentality and quotidian metropolitan rhythms, train stations occupy a special place in the urban imagination. Certain stations come to symbolize different facets of a city’s identity or image: in Tokyo, Shibuya has become synonymous with the non-stop cacophony of digital media and youth consumption; insanely overcrowded Shinjuku is a reminder that the city’s profits are sustained through the daily corporal punishment endured by millions of suburban commuters; and regal Tokyo Station, facing the Imperial Palace and surrounded by the towering headquarters of Japan’s biggest corporations, has for a century reflected the centralization of political and economic power.

Print depicting Ueno Station, 1885 (Wikipedia)

During the 20th century, Ueno Station, nestled at the foot of the hills in the city’s northeast, occupied an outsized place in this pantheon of urban iconography as a signifier of connection to the ancestral home.
Since it opened in 1883 as the Tokyo terminus for a train line connecting to Kumagaya on the north Kanto Plain, Ueno was the main link between the capital and the rural hinterland of the northeastern Tohoku region. By the 1890s, numerous railroads radiated out from Ueno to Sendai, Niigata, Aomori, and the frontier of Hokkaido beyond, making the station the “gateway to the north.”

The current Ueno Station, 1932 (Wikipedia)

From its beginnings, Ueno was a station of ordinary people — the unglamorous workhorse that fed Tokyo the constant stream of labor power necessary to keep the machinery of the industrial city humming. In the early 20th century, migrants poured into Tokyo from the impoverished villages of Tohoku, especially during the explosive growth after the Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Each day laborers stepped bleary-eyed off night trains from Akita and Ichinoseki, Naoetsu and Hachinohe, and melted into the dense latticework of slums in Shitaya, Sanya, and Senju that stretched into the lowlands to the north and east of the station.

After the end of WWII, the station became a refuge for the masses left homeless by the firebombing of the working class districts of eastern Tokyo. Refugees passed the winter in passageways outside the entrance, children scrounged for cigarettes, and the sprawling black market of Ameyoko unfurled in the alleyways and under the tracks to the south of the station.

Postwar black market, refugees, homeless children in Ueno

As Japan’s postwar recovery took off in the mid-1950s, Tokyo once again became a destination for millions of aspiring migrants. Ueno’s platform 18 was the arrival point for state-sponsored “group employment trains” that carried hundreds of thousands of young people to the capital between 1954 and 1975. 15- and 16-year-old middle school graduates packed trains in towns and cities across Tohoku and headed south to the big city. They came to be known popularly as the “golden eggs,” the blue-collar labor that staffed small factories and shops and fueled the incredible economic growth of the 1960s.

Middle school graduates leave home for Tokyo

In this era, Ueno Station was the threshold between rural home and metropolitan anonymity, simultaneously connecting and dividing these contrasting social worlds. To disembark on platform 18 entailed a process of psychic dislocation and initiation into being an urban subject.

“Ah, Ueno, that’s the station of our hearts!” goes the chorus to a classic popular song of the era. Ueno became a symbol of attachments left behind, worlds that could no longer be returned to, and hearts that never felt truly at home in the city.

In 1999, JR announced that it would remove platform 18. For many, this seemed to symbolize the severing of the umbilical cord that tied Tokyo to its origins and people to their roots, even if by the 1990s this connection only remained as nostalgia. To commemorate the platform’s closure, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper ran a series on the station during the postwar era, and received so many stories from readers that the paper extended the series to more than 30 articles. After the platform was removed, a bronze monument to the memory of the postwar laborer trains was erected in the plaza outside the station’s east entrance. Half a century ago the space would have echoed with the varied pitches of local dialects, but today feels strangely cold and cut off from the surrounding city by elevated highways — structures that many of the migrants undoubtedly helped to build.

Ueno’s prominence began to decline in the 1980s as the expansion of the Shinkansen network replaced many long-distance express trains, and the extension of northern Shinkansen routes to Tokyo Station in 1991 meant that most travelers today bypass Ueno altogether. When JR opened a new connector in 2015 between its northern rapid services and the Tokaido line to the south, Ueno lost its final claim to its former status as “gateway to the north.” For many younger residents of Tokyo, Ueno is just another intermediate point on the city’s Yamanote loop line, and not a particularly exceptional one. In 2015 it only saw about 600,000 passengers — as many as Penn Station, the busiest station in the western hemisphere, but only one sixth of the number at Shinjuku and not enough to earn it a spot in the top 20 stations in Japan. Platform 18 and the role that Ueno played in the industrial city’s expansion is now a distant memory.

Yet when platform 13.5 opens next spring, Ueno’s status as “gateway to the north” will be resurrected, although this time the flow of people will be outward, not inward, and its significance rooted in exoticism rather than nostalgia. The distinction tells much about the shifting geography connecting the capital and its disappearing hinterland.

Beginning next May, the 3.2-meter wide, 120-meter long space of platform 13.5 will be concealed from the concourse behind a pair of elegantly decorated sliding doors, and will function as the exclusive departure point for JR East’s new ultra-luxury Shiki-shima “cruise-train” that will ferry a select few travelers on excursions through Tohoku and Hokkaido.

The video and images on the train’s website offer a glimpse at the luxurious comforts in store for travel connoisseurs on this modern Orient Express: chauffeured to the front door of Ueno Station, guests will relax in a private “prologue lounge” before being guided onto platform 13.5 and whisked away into a storybook journey. Ensconced within the polished golden body of the 10-car train for four days and three nights, travelers will watch the sunset from panoramic windows under gold-embossed chandeliers in the dining room, sip wine and listen to the live piano in the chic lounge car, and relax while drinking tea in the tatami sitting area or soaking in the hinoki bathtub in one of the private suites. Along the way, the train makes stops to experience exquisite Japanese crafts and cultural treasures.

It looks like a lovely way to see the country, if you can afford the ticket price of ¥950,000 per person, or about $10,000.

Between the demise of platform 18 and the birth of platform 13.5, we can measure just how far we have traveled from the postwar industrial city to the glimmering global city of today. Emptied of its reserve of labor, the depopulating countryside is no longer the fuel for the urban engine of economic growth that it was in the 1960s. Today it is reshaped for the purposes of flexible accumulation under neoliberalism, in which cities compete to attract international capital flows and leisure consumption. After the national railway was privatized into the JR companies in 1987, branding and packaging exotic tourist experiences has become an essential means of turning underutilized rural railways into sources of profit, and as a shrinking population drags down the economy, Japan is increasingly turning to the bottomless pockets of rich foreign tourists, especially the massive Chinese upper class, to pick up the slack. Following on the sensational success of JR Kyushu’s Seven Stars cruise train, this year JR West will launch the Mizukaze, in addition to JR East’s Shiki-shima. There seems to be no shortage of demand — JR received 6.6 times more applications than available spots for the Shiki-shima’s first two months of operation.

It is fitting that the new train’s platform would earn a name in between whole numbers: no longer occupying the liminal space between rural homeland and urban mass society, the station platform has become a site of differentiation according to class and privilege into parallel and mutually invisible social worlds. 13.5 connotes not so much a position in Cartesian space as a space outside of space, a passageway into an exclusive society where Tokyo is but one station in a global city.

The global super-rich, and Japan’s own upper crust, move through the same space as everyone else, but live in a different world full of chauffeured cars, first-class cabins, luxury trains, and places like the 50th-floor bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo that was made famous by Lost in Translation. The dreamy images of Tokyo that unfolded in that film mesmerized me as a 13-year-old, and I finally made the pilgrimage to the bar this summer. As I sipped my $40 glass of whiskey and stared out the window at the blinking red lights of the vast city below, I tried to imagine what the world looks like to the people who spend most of their time up here, in the rarefied spaces suspended somewhere between Tokyo and Geneva, New York and Shanghai (of course, I’m not as different as I like to think).

In Ueno, like wizards at King’s Cross slipping out of muggle land onto platform 9 3/4, the lucky few will depart the world of haggard commuters, Christmas-shopping families, and cardboard box-dwelling homeless. Whisked away on a dream train, they will glide through the same landscape from which people once clambered for the city, a space brilliantly re-written into an endless tapestry of cultural authenticity, flickering past the window like images on a movie screen. What they will see, I can only imagine.

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