The Shuto Expressway – a pioneering road project from back in the day.

Hi everyone, from… ->

Having delved into my archives, I discovered that this trip to Japan is my 31st! Yes, I love Japan – with all its… uniqueness, about which I’ve written plenty. But it was only on this visit that I realized I haven’t touched upon Tokyo’s road transportation system – particularly its special highway network. And it really does deserve touching upon since it’s one of the most striking features of the Japanese capital…

// Disclaimer: I’ll be describing here my own observations and feelings. The information herein hasn’t been verified for veracity. There therefore may be some inaccuracies or out-of-dateness. Any Nippon-experts out there who may detect any such imprecisions are welcome to mention them in the comments. Arigato!

Now, where was I? Ah yes: Tokyo’s highways…

The whole of the Japanese capital is crisscrossed by a web of highways. But there’s a nuance: they’re not the regular high-speed highways you’re probably used to: the speeds on these roads tend to be somewhere between 60 and 80km/h; however, they’re fast-moving – as in, there’s not much to hold up traffic (besides itself): no traffic lights or crosswalks. All such roads are elevated – one or two stories up; that is, they don’t intersect directly with surface traffic. And they’re all collectively referred to as the Shuto Expressway ->

These elevated highways are all over the city – including downtown. They bypass the buildings which didn’t yield to the Expressway’s construction, and fill practically any unoccupied space in the capital. For example:

The views of these highways are sometimes fantastic. Here for example is a typically dense built-up central district of Tokyo, and, of course: there’s an inevitable stretch of Shuto snaking its way through it ->

Since it wasn’t always possible to cut a road through residential areas, in some places they were built over the streams/rivers that run through the capital. They simply installed columns to the sides of the riverbeds and laid the road on top ->

Shuto at night:

Practically all of the Shuto Expressway roads are toll roads. We pay, we drive up onto a second-story road ->

No junctions, just roads going over and under each other:

Sometimes, space-permitting, Shuto roads are on the “ground floor”:

…Or underground ->

But, “what’s the big deal?”, some of you, dear readers, may be asking. After all, there are similar multistory highways in many modern metropolises across the developed world. I think the big deal comes from just how old the Shuto Expressway is. The project kicked off in 1959! And most of it was constructed in 1962! What? I wasn’t even born then! And 1962 was just 17 years after (the ruinous for the capital) World War II! Wow. Talk about forward-thinking… They must have realized back then that traffic was getting silly and only going to get sillier, so planned ahead and came up with Shuto (however, I couldn’t find documented reasons for the initial idea), which I think was the first city in the world to go full-on elevated inner-city highways. Way to go…

Of course, I’ve known about Shuto ever since I first watched the Tarkovsky-directed classic sci-fi movie Solaris. There’s an inexplicably long – silent – scene lasting nearly five minutes of one of the characters in a driverless car deep in contemplation. The futuristic road the car’s on (clearly chosen for its pioneering look-and-feel)? Shuto! You even catch glimpses if the Japanese hieroglyphics occasionally on the road! Check the scene out (31:50-36:32) (check the whole film out too, if you haven’t already!).

Curiously, Tokyo – and Japan in general – seems to have given up its leadership in the futurism race. Why? I don’t know. There was the crazy-rapid progress of the post-war period, but then things stalled. I wonder if it’s just another Japanese mystery?…

Our guides (Russian, but fully “gone-native” – with Japanese spouses) shared with us the following observation: “It’s as if, in the 1960-1980s, Tokyo was the city of the year 2000. While today, in 2024… it still is!”

But it’s not all so dismal. There’s plenty of construction of buildings, roads and bridges going on. Here, for example, is Tokyo out the window of a flight to Seoul in May 2016 ->

Meanwhile, we’re back on Shuto heading out of the city:

The further we go – the greener it gets:

Mountains on the horizon…

But more about that later…

The rest of the photos from Japan are here.

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