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You don’t really notice it unless you go looking for it. Mostly, it’s hidden away underground, catching the eye at street level only in places where its irrational exuberance breaks through: as a funky glass-tiled box at Akabanebashi, say, or huge, alien-looking metal leaf shapes at Iidabashi. Even the lucky commuters who descend into its depths every day often give the impression of thinking they are merely on a train — nodding off or reading the paper or staring blankly at their shoes.

Wake up, sleepyheads! Tokyo’s Oedo Line, brand-new in December, isn’t just a way to get to and from work. Mind you, it’s not surprising that people mistake it for an ordinary subway line. It has all the trappings: trains, tracks, ticket machines, entrance gates, signs, maps, toilets and uniformed men waving lanterns. But it is so many other things besides: the city’s best-kept entertainment secret, a magical mystery tour, a string of surprises, a mood enhancer, a giant underground loop of hands-on art galleries that cost next to nothing to visit.

It all depends on how you look at it — or even if you look at it, which admittedly is hard to do when you’re in a bleary-eyed rush. Form and function blend so seamlessly on the Oedo Line that it’s easy to overlook the one while you’re busy counting on the other to get you to work on time. (Though you would think even a blind man might notice the difference transferring from boring, grimy Hamamatsucho Station to the Oedo Line’s Daimon Station next door, as glamorous as a “Star Trek” set with its severe gray tiles, silver pillars and clever, recessed red lighting. There’s a zing in the very air at Daimon.)

The best idea is to ride around the whole loop on a Sunday or a holiday, going nowhere in particular, just getting on and off the train as the fancy takes you to inspect each station’s individual treasures. Some of these are overwhelming: the already famous green-steel-and-fluorescent “web frame” at Iidabashi, for example, which makes you think you’ve temporarily changed planets rather than subway lines, or the otherworldly lunar atmosphere that pervades Tsukishima (“Moon Island”). But others are small, like private jokes by the designers. Two favorites: the broken yellow line on Iidabashi’s asphalt walkway, which turns a pedestrian (in both senses) passage into a miniature indoor road; and Roppongi’s gold-studded, shiny black pillars, naughtily suggesting the outfits of the ladies toiling in the bars above. At every station, at every turn, there is something witty or pretty enough to make you smile.

The Oedo Line, which cost 1 trillion yen and was almost 10 years in the building, is not the first instance of designers and artists bringing their talents to bear on train stations. New York, Washington, Paris and Seoul all have stations that are architectural monuments to their times. Tokyo Station itself is another. And London’s recently completed Jubilee Line boasts six stations designed by six different superstar architects.

But the Oedo Line’s planners took a less individualist approach. Fifteen small design firms were given responsibility for the 26 stations on the new loop; some got one, others more than one. Although they were free “to do their own thing,” all were required to design a station that would in some way reflect the character of its surrounding neighborhood. At the same time, 26 art works were chosen from among several hundred submitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway Construction Co. Most of these take the form of murals mounted near the ticket gates, though there are freestanding sculptures too, and Kiyosumi-shirakawa’s spectacular metalwork wall runs the full length of the platform on both sides. Many pick up on a station’s special “theme,” as in Tsukishima’s mural showing the phases of the moon by means of lights ingeniously angled onto concave circles. One thing is clear at the end of the ride round the loop: Diversity may have been the means, but a remarkable unity of effect has been the happy result.

The fact is that these two planning choices — the collaborative, decentralized approach to station design and the conscious matching of each station with its locale — are a big part of what make the Oedo Line special, particularly in post-bubble Tokyo. We are used to dramatic architecture, but the city’s great showcase buildings, like the Budokan or Tokyo International Forum or Century Tower, stand ostentatiously apart from their surroundings; they are celebrities’ signatures as much as they are functional spaces. The Oedo Line project, by contrast, revives older traditions — of relatively anonymous workmanship and the pre-eminence of community. The result is supremely refreshing.

It is also worth supporting. Ridership is at lower-than-expected levels at present; so why not take a tour of the new line before the crowds find out what they’re missing?

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