Cities, Trains, And Culture In A Pandemic

by Patrick M. Lydon

Urban Systems Lab
Nov 5, 2020 · 13 min read

It’s been nearly a decade now since I’ve lived in America. A decade since I traded a car for a used bicycle, and a seat on a train. When the pandemic hit, I thought I’d certainly be worse off here, in the compact, public-transit-obsessed cities of East Asia. Some months into the pandemic however, I started to vastly rethink that judgment.

Today I’m on the Nankai Line train heading toward the airport, and Osaka feels as it always has. Somewhat fewer passengers are seated on the train, but then again it’s late morning. Rush hour is finished. One difference about train travel in Japan that has captured my attention since the onset of this pandemic, is that the windows are always open now. Fresh air circulation to dispel the virus. It’s noisier, but somehow, I enjoy the sound and the breeze.

My wife Suhee and I are beginning our journey from our home in Osaka, to the suburbs north of Busan, the large port city at the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula. We’re visiting her family, and not sure how long we’ll be there. With all of the changes in border security and visas between countries, our return to Japan might not be possible until next year.

I try not to think about it though. None of that can be controlled by me, and in truth I’d rather savor the view from the train. Though most Japanese probably think little of the view along the Nankai Airport Line, it has become one of my favorites. Every arrival to Japan, every departure to somewhere else has, for the past several years, been on this train. As the carriage glides away from the busy Namba shopping district, the sounds of the city center are taken over by varied tempos and rhythms of click-clack and thump-thwak through the window.

We cross the Yamato River.

The Yamato River is one of a hundred or so “Class A” rivers in Japan. This means the water and surrounding land is considered an important asset to the economy, nation, the well being of the natural environment, and a key to the resilience of all the above. Nice gesture to make for a river. It’s one of the many acknowledgments in this country — formal and informal — of the inherent value of nature.

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The Yamato River in Japan, with Osaka’s Tennoji District in the distance

As the train crosses to the other side of the river, the ancient tombs of Sakai city mingle with typical small suburban dwellings next to equally small rice farms. Though most of the buildings and farms occupy similarly tiny footprints, their style, color, orientation, and vertical posture change often. These hundreds of small, unique shapes come to a crescendo at the major stations.

Americans sometimes think of design in Japan as homogeneous. This depends on what you pay attention to. In one sense, there is a somewhat united aesthetic truth to building here; in another, large tracts of housing designed and built by a single developer are highly uncommon. As a result, some of the most visually diverse neighborhoods — and suburbs — I have ever seen are here in Japan.

Further along toward the airport, we pass Izumiōtsu Station, and while the urban crescendo and decrescendo continues its variations, the horizon begins to rise behind it, as mountains become visible.

These mountains have defined the borders between Osaka, Wakayama, and Nara prefectures since the Meiji era. As their ridges peek in and out of the typical light mist, I suddenly feel like I’d rather be sitting out there, than in here.

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View of Izumiōtsu (泉大津駅) in the southern edge of Osaka Prefecture, with mist-covered mountains in the distance.

We get off the train at Kansai Airport, and the first people to greet us are the police. Smiling, they ask us to present our passports. Never one to resist the demands of a smiling Japanese police officer, I comply, while they record our information and allow us to pass through.

Besides Suhee and myself, we see only three other people checking in for the flight: one man, one woman, and a child, all together.

Inside the terminal, the duty free shops are still open. Workers are in full plastic face shields, yet sadly there are no shoppers to be shielded from. I contemplate changing that by purchasing a bottle of whiskey, but the contemplation stays there as an idea. We already have too much luggage, and it seems we’re in for a long and uncertain trip once we arrive in Korea.

On the airplane, a hand-full of passengers are spaced apart from each other. Most of the seats are empty. The plane lifts off, and we proceed, uneventfully, to Korea’s Incheon Airport. Though quiet, everything about this trip so far seems strangely fluid and easy.

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Inside a Jeju Air flight between Osaka and Incheon during the COVID-19 pandemic

Then, we arrive in Incheon.

Here, an entourage of police, military, airport workers, and medical staff greet arriving passengers. There is a slight tinge of chaos. This is to be expected, I think. Jobs like “COVID Border Control Disease Assessment Squadron” and “Immigrant Tracking & Isolation Management” are new occupations in this world.

In other words, everyone here is new at their job.

Given the circumstances, folks seem very patient and kind, as we move from checkpoint to checkpoint within the arrival area. One person takes our temperature, another hands us a bunch of forms, and a young man from the Army checks to make sure we have a smartphone with Korea’s COVID-19 monitoring, tracking, and diagnosis application installed.

This could be a problem.

Suhee has a smartphone. I don’t. I read some of the signs posted around the checkpoint: Foreign nationals who refuse to install the COVID-19 application on their smartphone will be deported immediately.

My palms become sweaty. Suhee explains to the kind Army man that I don’t own a smartphone, but we can share hers. The man seems confused. He leaves his post and talks to others with more stripes on their shoulders. He returns and, somehow, I don’t get deported.

A few temperature checks and many pages of paperwork later, we grab our luggage and look for how, exactly, we are going to get to the apartment where we’ll be for two weeks of isolation. But that apartment is on the other side of the country. Without a car — and with a mandate to avoid public transit — I can’t see how we’ll get there. Suhee tells me the government has it all figured out.

Indeed, they do.

Over the next eight hours as we cross the country, we are directed by various government officials — all of whom already know who we are and where we are going — to take a specially chartered bus, a reserved bullet train, and personal escort vehicle to the apartment where we’ll be staying during our mandatory isolation.

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(Suhee Kang): A chartered bus between Incheon Airport and Gwangmyeong Station, the specified rail hub for all international arrivals during the pandemic.

Everyone who comes off an international flight these days in Korea gets the same service, regardless of where they are traveling in the country. All arrivals must be tracked and isolated.

Public transit here is quick, well-connected, reasonably priced, and seems to be operating as it normally does. Well, there are some differences. There are specially reserved quarantine train cars, police escorts, dedicated platform areas for international arrivals — staffed by station workers and army personnel — and an exacting coordination of where we will be, and when we will be there.

Okay. It’s pretty radically different than normal. But the trains are running as they usually do.

The station where our bus from the airport arrives is called Gwangmyeong. This is where all international arrivals — at least those traveling by the KTX bullet train — are taken, registered, and ticketed. International arrivals are escorted to designated areas, away from other passengers.

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View of the main platform area at Gwangmyeong Station from the isolation area.

At each station platform along the train line, gatherings of hazmat-clad officers wait with a list of arriving quarantine passengers. Those coming out of a quarantined train car are thoroughly sprayed by the hazmat team with disinfectant as they step off the train. It’s a bit comical, like something out of a surreal science fiction movie. Then again, aren’t we are all kind of living in the middle of a surreal science fiction movie?

Other than the sci-fi station platforms, the scenery from the train is gorgeous this time of year. We zoom past bright green rice fields and thickly-forested mountains, some of them occasionally succumbing to new high-rise developments.

The way of development in Korea tends to be large, abrupt, and uniform when compared to Japan. Yet just as I find myself missing something about the diverse rise and fall, the delicate crescendo and decrescendo alongside Osaka’s Nankai Line, we enter and emerge from a tunnel, and a new landscape appears. Small rice fields. Forests. A small cluster of apartments in the distance.

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A view of the Korean countryside along the KTX bullet train

Further along, the valley opens up to reveal a wide river. Brown water surrounds an island of trees that appears nearly submerged. The monsoon rains have been unpredictable and torrential this year. I make a short prayer for the farmers, and the trees.

As we arrive near the southern end of the line and step from the train, an official checks our names off a list, and guides us through the darker back passageways of the station, under and behind the main building, away from the crowds. When we emerge, there is a silver Hyundai van with the Yangsan City logo on the side. It is waiting for us. Inside the van, a sheet of plastic is hastily screwed to the ceiling, walls, and floor, separating us from the driver.

Though a national framework for handling COVID exists, each city has a certain autonomy to act within that framework based on their own circumstances. The city of Yangsan, where we are staying, offers transportation from the train station to your isolation space as a free service. It seems the vehicles are piloted by workers from city hall. Suhee says the same service will be taking us to the clinic tomorrow for testing. I ask her if they will deliver a free box of shin ramen to us — I had heard rumors of free ramen for arrivals. Suhee doesn’t have the energy to roll her eyes, but shakes her head silently and turns to look out the window.

We arrive at an apartment an hour later, just as night has taken hold of the sky, and the moon shines with clarity, a day after the height of its brightness. Its light lands gently, along rows of forested hills, and dimly-lit apartment towers; our view for the next two weeks.

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The moon rising after nightfall at a typical Korean apartment development

The next morning, as the sun’s rays struggle to show themselves through the season’s continued clouds and downpours, Suhee tells me how amazed she is, by the massive amount of care and coordination between people here. “Even if we are strangers to them. They work so hard, and really care about each other.”

Sitting here now, after having just made a record of my health on a smartphone — loaned to me by the local government for this purpose — I too can’t help but marvel at how such a response has manifested here in such a short time. I think about how next week, on the start of the new moon, we’ll likely be out there, in the middle of a too-hot and too-wet summer, filled with people going about their lives, going to school, visiting markets, holding community events, mostly as they always have. It’s a stark contrast to what I hear from friends in the United States.

Suhee’s words stay close to mind, about the way in which Korea — as well as Japan, Taiwan, and many other countries in this part of the world — come together in such times.

There seem to be two big pieces in the successful COVID puzzle in these countries. The first piece relates to the political response, and the second piece to embedded social habits.

The political response you can see clearly in the immensely effective coordination of complex transport and quarantine measures for arriving visitors in Korea. In Japan, small attention to details like opening windows on the trains is simple and not costly, but given what we know about the virus, the effect of millions of open windows circulating a rush of air through public transport is definitely not small.

Although there is extraordinary effort and attention at play here, there is also something I believe to be far more relevant to resilience than this. This piece of the puzzle is social.

You might say that the social part is not just the ‘mindset’ or the way human beings perceive and act toward each other, but also the physical ‘structural’ elements of the city. Structures after all, are the result of a particular social mindset, accumulated over time, in physical form.

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Shops, plants, and bicycles along the alley where the author lives in the ‘Kitakagaya’ neighborhood of Osaka, Japan

I think back to the Osaka that we just left last week, and to the diversity and smallness of buildings and shops within Japanese cities — the urban crescendo and decrescendo. Our old neighborhood in Osaka is considered a suburb in Japanese terms, yet it is not what Westerners might typically think of when we think of a suburb. There are seven coffee shops, eighteen restaurants, two guest houses, five bars, three karaoke bars, a dance studio, a dentist, a barber, a printing press, a green tea roasting factory, a tool shop, a furniture maker, and a handmade glasses shop — and all are within a one minute walk (60 seconds) from our home. It’s no wonder that upwards of 80-percent of trips in our neighborhood are done by walking or bicycle. That’s a Japanese suburb. Necessarily, all of these businesses are very small, owner-operated, and serve specific customer needs. It’s the kind of neighborhood that would make Jane Jacobs proud.

But what do seven small coffee shops and eighteen little restaurants have to do with COVID? Firstly, they mean that the limitation of gathering sizes is built-in to such neighborhoods, helping make the spread of the virus here much more difficult, and contact tracing far easier. More broadly, they signal a neighborhood with a strong sense of ownership, of community, and of belonging to a place.

In the city, as in nature, smallness and diversity breed resilience.

In terms of social habits, mask-wearing and not shaking hands or embracing others physically has of course, been commonplace for decades. Yet there is also a vast difference in the way a virus is perceived by leaders in many East Asian countries.

As President Trump calls for America to “fight the invisible enemy,” President Tsai Ing-wen is asking the people of Taiwan to rise up in the spirit of “civic virtues and solidarity” because she knows that “resilience stems from our willingness to unite.”

Markedly different attitudes to solving a problem.

Very different outcomes, too. Taiwan, an island of 24 million people where an astounding 79-percent live in cities, was projected to be hit hard by COVID. Yet Taiwan has seen a total of only 521 COVID cases, and 7 deaths as of October 2020. Nearly unfathomable.

There is a mentality floating around these parts based not primarily on fighting a war, but instead on caring for the world and people around oneself — whoever they are, wherever they are from. Woven into this mentality is a way of doing not to win the prize, or to hoist oneself above the losers, but simply to do the best job one can do given your position and role as a unique human being. Some will point to Eastern culture and religion here, and certainly Buddhist, Confucian, Shinto, and Taoism all have their influences in various ways. Perhaps it is not one of these in particular though, but in something they share, in a way of perceiving the relationships between ourselves and the living world around us, and approaching this relationship with gratitude and compassion. If this holds true, then it must also be said that strikingly similar roots of gratitude and compassion are shared by the major Western religions and cultural traditions, too.

Is there something to learn from this? One would think it is certainly worth investigating.

Sitting here now in Korea, in a friend’s small coffee shop, windows open, a trickle of customers, everyone with masks on — except while sipping their coffee — all I can say with relative certainty, is that there are hints at a way of life here that it seems we still haven’t quite figured out, that we’ve habitually written off for centuries. Or at least, that we’ve not given proper, honest attention to.

There is no magic bullet, yet based on how amazingly resilient these countries have been in the face of this pandemic — absent a vaccine, with dense urban cores, busy public transit, and without widespread lockdowns — perhaps a little compassion, awareness, small thinking, and the acknowledgment of ‘solidarity’ are a few of the missing “Factor Xs” we could all use a bit more of.

This is an edited version of an experimental, media-rich photo essay. The original essay can be found at: https://cityasnature.org/post/2020/cities-trains-cultures-pandemic/

Patrick M. Lydon is an American ecological writer and media artist living in Japan. He co-directed the film Food, Earth, Happiness, and is founder of City as Nature, and arts editor for The Nature of Cities.

Resilience

A forum for research, design, writing, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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