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Culture and Education

Taking the Tokyo Stairs

Yasuo Matsumoto,
Visiting Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Tokyo, the city of stairs

I have been taking the stairs in metropolitan Tokyo for some fifteen years now. Although I originally set out to examine as research for my writing the spatial quality of the slopes between the plateaus and the lower ground around Yamanote in the city center, I was taken with the curious stairways and their surrounding scenery along the way, and I began to walk around admiring and taking the stairs instead. That is why the stairways that I refer to here are not the ones that you find in structures such as buildings or pedestrian overpasses, but rather the stairways that are in some way connected with the terrain, by ascending or descending between plateaus and the lower ground.

Snake Stairway, Sendagi Itchome, Bunkyo-ku

With its history as a city since the Edo Period, the Tokyo metropolitan Yamanote area on the eastern edge of the Musashino Plateau comprises terrain with plateaus, valleys, and an intricate network of streams and rivers, such as the Kanda River, that erode the plateau. Between the stately residential areas on the plateaus and the old town quarters on the lower ground, there are hills with names such as Fujimizaka and Shiomizaka, but there are also many unnamed stairways of all sizes. If you consult a residential map you will find that there are over 650 stairways just in the area within the Yamanote line in metropolitan Tokyo. I have not determined the total number of stairways yet, but I estimate that there are about 1,500 in all 23 wards. I have heard that there are about 1,000 hills that have names in Tokyo-to, and they say that Tokyo is known as the city of hills, I would add that in the same vein, it is the city of stairs as well.

Enjoying the Tokyo scenery between stairways

Sanemorizaka, in Yushima, Bunkyo Ward

I am referring generally to stairways here, but there is an infinite variety among them, each with its own characteristics, and it is actually interesting just to look at the various forms. Stairways at the approaches to temples and shrines are formidable, beautiful, and historic. Depicted in renderings of notable sights since the Edo Period, these stairways are sights to see, transcending the ages from Edo Tokyo. On the other hand, there are many rickety stairways above private roads and the like which were built independently by local citizens in forms that were dictated by circumstances, and which have a quaint character that is compelling and well worn. The stairways, which snake through and ascend as if weaving between the dense residential clusters, have natural forms that seem to transcend any designer’s fixed plans—complex and distinctive forms that often surprise me.

In Tokyo, with its rows and rows of high rise buildings, distant scenic views are becoming rarer every year, but it is still possible to enjoy the view from stairways and hills here. Although there is nearly no chance to see vistas such as mountains off in the distance, you can get a bit of a special feeling simply by climbing the stairs and looking back over the view of buildings and things several hundred meters away. These staircases offer vantage points where you can enjoy scenic panoramas.

Another appeal of stairways in Tokyo is the sensation of having traveled to an entirely different urban space that you get simply by going up and down the stairs. You can step out of the old town atmosphere of an alley and climb the stairs to find a peaceful residential area as you reach the top. In this way, stairways spatially connect two different areas and allow for traffic between them. By having stairways there, on the other hand, distinctions are made between the plateau and lower ground, making the topographical variations of the locations distinct. While the stairways function to connect spaces as bridges and gates do, they also serve as points of demarcation, landmarks in an urban space that tends to drift.

Stairways and city planning

One characteristic unrelated to scenery is that streets which have stairways are not through streets. In Tokyo, with so many cars running through residential areas, there are surprisingly few areas other than parks where you can have a leisurely chat or play catch. These spaces have the same element of humanity as a narrow alley, and a character that I would like not only to preserve out of nostalgia, but if possible, to actively and fully tap.

A winding stairway in Yotsuya Yonchome, Shinjuku-ku

These are some of the appealing points of stairways and their surrounding spaces, but there are problems from a city planning perspective. First of all, there are emergency issues. Stairways in the city are located in areas densely populated with wooden structures, many of them located in alley spaces known as capillary streets. Such streets are dangerous in the event of an earthquake or fire, so they are gradually being widened and graded. Consequently, they are open to through traffic and the human element of the small-scale space is lost. It is important that we think not only of functionality and convenience, the situation calls for creative solutions to these contrary problems as well.

The aging population in Japan presents another challenge. Stairways present a significant barrier to the elderly. Elevators have been installed in some places in recent years in order to overcome topographical variances in elevation, but they cannot be installed everywhere. It is likewise impossible to flatten out physical spaces, and we must consider topographical variances in elevation separately from issues with stairways in buildings and train stations. Many elderly people are healthy these days. Of course we must continue to consider those with disabilities, but it occurs to me recently that another worthwhile plan is to enable the elderly to enjoy the urban spaces, walk the streets, and take the stairs in the Yamanote area in order to keep fit.

By walking the streets, taking the stairs, experiencing the terrain, and enjoying the scenic urban views, a new aspect of Tokyo appears, presenting the opportunity to consider the possibilities for Tokyo going forward.

Yasuo Matsumoto, Visiting Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

1966 Born in Shizuoka Prefecture
1991 Graduated with an undergraduate degree in Architecture from the School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University
1998 Completed work in the Doctoral Program in Architecture in the Graduate School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University
1998 Worked as a Teaching Assistant in the department of Architecture in the School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University
2004 Graduated with a PhD in Engineering from Waseda University
2004 Worked as a Visiting Professor at the Engineering Research Institute at Waseda University
2007 Worked as a Visiting Professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University (Present)
Primary Works: The Tokyo Stairway, Nihonbungeisha (2007); Landscaping and Urban Landscape Development, Architectural Institute of Japan, Eds., Gakugei Shuppansha (2005)

Author's homepage:http://yma2.hp.infoseek.co.jp/