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On Travelling, Traffic, Tokyo and Starbucks

[Previously published in The Globe and Mail]

When first asked why the chicken crossed the road, did you picture it crossing in traffic? Was it walking with a friend? In a crowd? Having grown up on the spacious side of the world – namely Canada – my chicken always crossed solo. No cars either. It probably comes down to a lack of imagination. Still, I wonder what Tokyoites envision when you ask them the old joke.

My first full day in Tokyo I’d already walked a fair bit before taking a packed train to Shibuya, the busiest section of the city. Picture the kind of masses that only form in Canada’s biggest cities those first minutes after a sold-out game or after the U2-sized concert has let out: that was the area in front of Shibuya station, a concrete island seemingly designed for loitering and fake watch selling. With no watches to sell or places to sit, I stood amongst the crowd. As anyone who’s ever visited a foreign downtown knows, you spend most of your time walking or standing. Sitting is a privilege you usually have to pay for, which brings us to Starbucks (pronounced Sta-buck-sue in Japan), whose logo was first to catch my eye as I exited the station, followed by a McDonalds and then the big screen TVs on separate but tightly packed-in buildings directly across the street. Not to mention the endless signage for luxury cars and affordable cars and of course electronics.

I arrive somewhere new and instinctively move toward the familiar. I’m not the only one; this the genius of the franchise industry. Thus my sordid affair with Starbucks. I'm not a traveller in the true sense of the word. I'm a fake. Really I just go from Starbucks to Starbucks and occasionally (I admit) to McDonalds (macu-dona-ru-do). But for coffee and comfort at the busiest Starbucks in the world (so the barista told me) I would first need to cross Shibuya intersection.

Composed of five merging streets and four white-striped pedestrian crossings, it too holds a record, as the busiest intersection in the world with more than two million people passing over it each day.

As I approached, the lights had just turned red and wouldn’t be turning green for some time. Traffic lights in Japan are, apparently, as patient as its people. Hundreds of seconds would pass before the lights would change. People streaming out the station added to the population growing around me. Across the street two narrow avenues, lined on either side with short buildings, converged in a V at the Starbucks building. There our opposition gathered and expanded waiting for the light so they could cross to get to the train station behind me. And this was only one of the four pedestrian crossings. The others filled equally frantically.

When I was eight, about the time I was learning variations of the chicken joke, I was also big on Red Rover. You remember the game, where you split into two teams, each forming a horizontal line. You then spread out, but not too far so you can hold hands and face the other team’s row. Team A calls out an individual from team B who must then ran fast as they can across the field to try and break a weak link in team A’s handheld chain. They play this game in Shibuya too only instead of facing one long horizontal line you are facing twenty or forty horizontal lines of people packed in so tight there’s no need for handholding.


In this game, instead of hands you break through people. And instead of one person being called to cross over, all however many hundreds of you are called over at the same time as you call over the hundreds of them.

Red rover, red rover.

Like their New Yorker cousins, Tokyoites march poker-faced, always with purpose. When that light turned green the people at my sides effortlessly parted the hectic crowds charging toward them. I faired less well. The light changed, I took a deep breath. With a stampede behind me I stepped, like a wobbly toddler, out toward the oncoming herd. Instead of bulldozing a path, I tried to excuse-me-pardon-me my way out of everyone else’s. Judging by the looks on their faces, I was screwing the whole game up. A classic traveller error: to play too much defense and not enough offence – the overly polite instinct in the foreigner.

I won’t lie. It was a harrowing experience but I finally made it across. Got my latte and a second floor counter seat too. It faced a large bay window, the Shibuya intersection below. At one point I even tried counting heads. I gave up quickly and had to look away from the anthill commotion. Just looking was exhausting. Travel’s like that. It’s tiring. In fact, leisure is a Greek word meaning work. Why then do we travel? Why did this Canadian cross the ocean? To get to another Starbucks, of course.