Deep and meaningful

Take a ride on Tokyo's new art underground

by Rob Gilhooly

Dull, bleak, gray and cheerless are a few of the words that could describe Tokyo’s architectural landscape. Glaring neon aside, it is a city seriously lacking in color.

It’s ironic, then, that one of the most imaginative and colorful public art projects in the metropolis can be found in the bowels of the city, along the length of the Oedo Subway Line.

As soon as you descend into any one of its 26 stations, it becomes obvious that this is no run-of-the-mill railway line. Not only does each station feature unique designs that reflect the historical and/or cultural characteristics of the area it serves, but they also host a diverse array of fascinating art installations. Located at depths of between 30 and 40 meters, the Oedo Line must count as one of the world’s deepest public art spaces — at least geologically. Makoto Ishimura of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway Construction Co., which oversaw the 10-year-long Oedo project, describes it as “a kind of giant theme park, inside of which is an underground art gallery.”

In short, it’s not a bad way to pass a Sunday afternoon.

Operated by the metropolitan government, the Oedo Line was opened last December with much fanfare — and for good reason. In a departure from the usual procedure of large-scale, government-appointed construction companies throwing up bare walls and characterless passageways, 15 small design firms were selected by TMSC through proposal screenings and given virtually free reign to design one or, in some cases, two stations each. Their only brief was to create an atmosphere reflecting the character of the station’s respective area.

Then came the fine-art touch: 29 art installations, chosen by TMSC and a jury of art experts from some 350 entries in a similar competition, were spread among the stations, mostly just inside the ticket gates.

“The placement of the art pieces was important,” Ishimura stated. “Public art is art that is placed in a public space so that it can be viewed by anyone free of charge.”

It is an inspired project that has produced inspirational results. Artworks range from thought-provoking pieces to light, visual puns. Since Hongo was once a popular gathering spot for Tokyo’s writers, for example, “Crossing Hearts” at Hongo 3-Chome Station displays lines from 48 poems running in a stream along the station wall. At Tsukishima (literally “Moon Island”) Station, the phases of the moon are depicted in a playful, low-tech mural.

Materials including wood, glass, sand and tiles have been used to create paintings, sculptures, mosaics and murals that attempt to strike a balance between being provocative — yet not too controversial — and unobtrusive — yet not too bland. That’s the aim, but as you would expect, public opinions on the Oedo Line’s finer points are varied.

“I’ve been using the line for the past few weeks and I didn’t even notice it,” said one middle-aged passenger after exiting Ryogoku Station, where a giant tile mosaic of two sumo wrestlers at battle graces the entranceway.

At Kuramae Station, one young passenger commented: “I like the sense of identity that is given to each station. Some areas of Tokyo can often seem like a lump of concrete with no obvious cultural identity linking them to the past.”

However, an elderly passenger at Tsukishima was not amused: “I’m sure there are a number of more productive ways of using taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Indeed, the total cost of the project came to a staggering 1 trillion yen. But Ishimura is quick to point out that the per-square-meter construction costs actually worked out some 30 to 40 percent cheaper than any previous subway project.

What’s more, since private and major corporate sponsors footed the bill for the installations, Oedo’s massive art gallery didn’t cost the general public a single yen.