Tokyo Teleport Station: The Shinjuku Subway Boiler Room

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As a change of pace, this week I’ll be telling you about something that has absolutely nothing to do with 2D culture. At all.
Well, admittedly, if it weren’t for 2D culture I would never have witnessed this event, but that’s about it. My otaku guidebook (which I would gladly link if were not now both out of print and hopelessly out of date) indicated that there was a good-sized Mandarake in downtown Shinjuku, and so when Antony said he had to go to Shinjuku to pick up a new prepaid card for his phone I decided to tag along and do some shopping.
Well, it turns out the Mandarake in question was long gone, and as much as Shinjuku is a wonderfully bright and happening kind of place it can be intensely difficult to navigate compared to Akiba or even Shibuya. At least that’s my excuse. One way or another we wandered around for several hours in an essentially fruitless attempt to track down other otaku hotspots that were indicated in my guidebook. Much running back and forth occurred, giving rise to little more than the occasional sign saying “Oh, very sorry, but we’re only open every third Tuesday of months that don’t end in ‘Y’ unless there’s a full moon on the following Wednesday” or just “Please excuse the inconvenience, we have moved our location to INDECIPHERABLE GIBBERISH”.

Neo Tokyo Fooding Bar Mysterious
This place lived up to
its name all too well.
As the day wore on, I decided to cut my losses and settle for a handful of manga and a copy of the latest Newtype at the local bookshop. As I did this, Antony finally found a good place to get his phone card, then the two of us sat on a street corner and ate some döner kebab from a street vendor. We were basically ready to call the day a wash and head home, but decided it might be best to get some drinking in while we were still in Shinjuku. We spotted an oddly-decorated (theme?) bar titled “Neo Tokyo Fooding Bar Mysterious”, but got turned away when it became apparent that they lived up to their title and flat-out refused to give us a drink unless we also ordered food. Snubbed and painfully sober, we trudged homewards.
Now, if you’ve never actually been inside the Shinjuku subway station, it can be difficult to properly explain the scale of the thing. For contrast, there are many stations in Tokyo’s fine public transportation system where you can just tell someone to meet you at such and such station and you will have no trouble finding each other. Generally this works well in Harajuku, the station in Uguisudani is about the right size for this, and two people would have to be blind, deaf, and very very drunk to not find each other in Kami-Igusa, the station Antony and I called home. Sure, maybe someone would go out the wrong exit or sit on the wrong platform, but generally any given part of the station can see any other given part, so you’d find each other eventually.
Not so in Shinjuku. In Shinjuku, unless you have plotted out in advance a GPS-defined square foot of real estate well in advance, you will never find each other. Ever. In fact, there’s a good chance that one of you may not make it out alive. It is, on paper, the second largest subway station in the world, but this fact alone does not convey the full horror of the thing. Functioning as a perfect microcosm of the vast and chaotic sprawl that is central Shinjuku, the Shinjuku subway station is a veritable labyrinthine monstrosity of irrational design. The station stretches on endlessly underground, containing within its walls at least half a dozen full size department stores and countless little stalls and plazas. If you were so inclined, you could walk to a handful of totally unrelated subway stations without ever coming above ground. It’s just that big.
So as we wandered, defeated and exhausted, back towards what appeared to be the nearest entrance, we passed by something that would have been completely shocking to see anywhere else in the world. But not there. It was a pair of twin stone cylinders, each one the size of a small house, jutting forth out of the earth like monuments to ridiculous size. They were sequestered away on an island in the middle of a circular bus and taxi hangout, sitting there overgrown with moss and ivy and serving no obvious purpose besides being huge as an end in itself. I was prepared to just go around it without a second thought, but Antony…well, as I had discovered, Antony sees things a bit differently than I do.As he explained it, he was “into infiltration”. This generally meant that he was almost obsessively excited about the possibility of going anywhere he wasn’t supposed to and/or taking something of little to no real value that he wasn’t supposed to have. Along with a firm belief in the fun of messing with people just because he could, these ideas became something of a religion or a credo for him, even more so than his otakuism. Because he was so much braver, more shameless, and considerably more physically fit than myself, this attitude made hanging out with him something of a thrilling spectator sport. He would find some new and interesting way to get into trouble by risking life and limb and I would hang back and pretend not to know him.
This was how most of our time together was spent, so it was nothing major for me to just chill for a few minute while Antony charged forward and attempted to scale the nearer of the two pillars simply, as the saying goes, because it was there. I nodded my agreement, and he jogged across the street to tackle the climb. With a running leap, he grabbed hold of the ivy and began to climb. He pulled himself up, hand and foot, but after he got to about the 10 foot mark, the ivy just wouldn’t hold him any longer and he came sliding down. He took one last wistful look upwards, then came back across the street to rejoin me on the sidewalk. Satisfied that he had gotten it out of his system, I told him he had made a good effort and we headed around the bus loop to the subway entrance on the other side.
I should have known that it wouldn’t end so easily. It never does. No sooner had we made it to the other side of the bus bay than I noticed Antony looking back at the pillars of mystery with an all-too-familiar expression. I followed his gaze, but failed to notice any difference between this side and the other. This is normal, though. I hardly ever saw things quite the way Antony did, and I take a certain measure of pride in that fact. Setting my bag down on the guardrail in front of us, I asked the inevitable question.
“What is it?”, I asked, sighing quietly.
“You know, the vines on this side look a lot thicker.” he said, after a bit of a pause. He sounded like he might have been about to say it anyway, so it wasn’t entirely clear if he had actually heard me or not.

Antony Tower 2 Big
Still not quite sure
what these are for
“Ok, go on. I’ll wait here.” I said. There was no point in trying to dissuade him anyway, we’d only end up going back there the next day. He took off across the road, narrowly avoiding a passing taxi. He took his time for this attempt, carefully tugging and testing the vines in a few different places before attempting his initial ascent. As he was doing this, I noticed that a cop had started directing traffic a few yards to the left of the pillar that Antony was facing off with. Sensing that trouble might be looming, I made an effort to distance myself from Antony and tried not to be so obvious about watching him. I glanced away for a moment and pretended to take a keen interest in a window display on the station wall. When I looked back, Antony had already started climbing furiously. After he passed his original high water mark I pretty much forgot about the traffic cop and decided it was more important to document this, regardless of the outcome.
Antony, who was an experienced impromptu climber, slowed to a cautious crawl as he approached the top. All told, the climb probably dragged on for nearly 3 minutes, but in the end he made it to his goal. Once he was in range, he carefully pulled himself up to a sitting position at the top and peeked over the edge.
I half expected him to start screaming and recoiling in fear at whatever eldritch horror lay inside, or possibly just fall off altogether for no particular reason. When neither of these things actually happened, I was a bit disappointed. What did happen was that he took a long look down into the pit of despair ventilation system and then began to do this curious reverse-leapfrogging motion, backing himself slowly around the circumference of the pillar. When he arrived at the point he was aiming for, he held up five finger outstretched and looked like he was saying something. Next thing I knew, he crawled over the edge and vanished.

Antony Tower 2 Small
Although he was too far away for me to hear what he said, I interpreted his gesture as meaning that he would be back in five minutes, and I was content to wait patiently for the time being. So I waited five minutes. And then I waited another five minutes. And then I waited another ten minutes after that. Somewhere in this extended wait, a bemusedly shocked bystander came over to me, pointing at the pillars.
“<You know that guy? He climbed inside!>” he said, apparently expecting me to be as surprised as he was.
“<Yeah>” I said “<I know that guy.>”. When you’ve been hanging out with Antony for more than a day or two, nothing can surprise you anymore.
After waiting what felt like far more than long enough, I gave up and just headed home. At the time, I didn’t know if I was ever going to see him again. For all I knew, he had gotten crushed in a trash compactor, or eaten by the station’s malevolent spirit. Or, somewhat more likely, just arrested. I had had enough, though. I went down the stairs into the station proper, hopped a train and headed home. When I arrived back at the guest house, I found Mario (our charming friend and occasional reluctant co-conspirator) watching One Piece in the kitchen. He asked me where Antony was and I told him, quite truthfully, that I didn’t know.

Mario, the “normal” one.
“I just tried calling him!” he said. This was something of a shock, since it hadn’t occurred to me yet that Antony’s phone was working again. “He sounded really fuzzy. He said ‘I DON’T KNOW WHERE I AM, I HAVE LOST SEIYA FROM ONE HOUR AGO!'”. I kind of doubt it sounded like that when Antony said it, since Mario’s English, although great, was not quite 100%. Also, he didn’t actually call me “Seiya”. Nonetheless, you get the idea.
This was the point at which the situation crossed back over from being potentially worrying to just being funny. I was genuinely concerned that something horrible might have happened to Antony for a while, but the knowledge that he had made it this whole time without dying was enough to convince me that he would make it back safe and sound.Taking comfort in the knowledge that the reason he never came back was that he was a jerk and not that he was dead, I explained to Mario what had happened. After we both had a good laugh about it and finished watching the evening’s worthwhile TV block, I went to get some dinner. While I was at the local 7/11 (where else would a roaming otaku get dinner?) I grabbed some impulse purchase anpan. Antony was as addicted to anpan as I have ever seen anyone be addicted to anything, and I suspected that just having it in the guest house would be enough to magically motivate him to come back as soon as he could. Turns out I was pretty much right.
Before I could even finish my meager dinner, Mario and I heard the front door creak open and slam shut. Mario and I tried to stifle our snickering as the footsteps came slowly down the hallway and the kitchen door slid open. Antony was standing there, looking off into the distance with a thousand-yard stare.
“What happened?” asked Mario. It seemed like a reasonable question to me. After a long pause, Antony replied.
“What happened?” he repeated, like he had just now realized we were talking to him. “I’m screwed! That’s what happened!”
I offered him the anpan. After another long pause, he looked down, and his eyes finally focused on something that was actually in the room. He took it, ate it in two bites, and then sat down. The color seemed to return to his face and he gave me a hearty “Cheers!” as he tossed the wrapper in the trash. Then he began to explain exactly what it was he had been doing all this time.
Apparently once he was on top of the great pillar of mystery, he could see that not only was it hollow inside, but there was a ladder leading down into the areas beneath. Being who he was, he saw it as his moral imperative to climb down inside, no matter what the costs. For at least an hour, he had wandered nigh-blind through an elaborate maze of plumbing and cables, eventually finding his way to a dimly lit room full of tables and storage lockers. In a fit of (not entirely uncharacteristic) kleptomania, he had grabbed some technical diagrams off of a table, and attempted to nab the hat from a security uniform. Deciding that the hat was too awkward to carry, he satisfied himself with yanking the insignia off the hat.
After some more exploring, it became clear that most of the area he was in was infrastructure directly above the normal station. Knowing this, he decided the best (and coincidentally, cheapest) way to get home was to drop into the station directly and bypass the gates. After pulling out a ceiling panel, he tried to slip down into the crowd inconspicuously. Or at least as inconspicuously as a tall caucasian man falling out of the sky into a Tokyo subway station possibly could be.
Sadly, he couldn’t quite manage to squeeze his shoulders throught the opening and got stuck at chest level. Someone in the station, having spotted an unexpected pair of legs dangling from the ceiling, started shouting loud enough to alert security. A guard grabbed Antony by the feet and tried to apprehend him. Never one to be deterred by an authority figure, Antony proceeded to kick him in the face and climb back into the upper part of the station. Realizing it was impossible to bypass the gate without causing trouble, he found his way back to the pillars and climbed out. In a stunning display of shamelesness, he then turned around and walked right back into the station to catch a train home.
As he told me this, he he pulled both the security insignia and the diagrams out of his pockets. The insignia was cool enough, but the diagrams were near-mystical in quality. He appeared to have ganked two legitimate blueprints for some unknown part of the station.

Small Trophy Room
Our secret lair
These items became the foundation for what was to become our “trophy room”. In the back of our guesthouse was a room that was not occupied and, according to our landlord, was not going to be occupied. The reason given was that it was needed for storage, but we soon discovered that it was possible to fit all the items stashed in there within the closet, so it quickly evolved into an unofficial party room.
This was definitely not the strangest thing that Antony ever did, nor was it the closest he came to getting all of us in serious trouble. But those times, like the other items in the Trophy Room, are stories for another day.
Seiya is an anime fan from Boston who recommends against urban spelunking without a comrade who is certifiably insane.


0 Responses to Tokyo Teleport Station: The Shinjuku Subway Boiler Room

  1. Jeff Lawson October 6, 2006 at 7:22 am #

    I always wondered what was up with those pillars.
    That station drove me batty. Once, I arrived at a platform on the JR side, and made a beeline for the nearest exit which, unfortunately, turned out to be an entrance for the Keio Line. The gates were busted or something, and a railway employee was checking tickets by hand, yet I somehow managed to slip past unnoticed. I had already walked awhile on the Keio side before I noticed my mistake, so I made my way to the exits on the south side… except, not having a Keio ticket in hand, I was trapped. So, I just whipped out my Suica card, pretended to pass it over the sensor, squeezed my skinny ass through the gate, and vanished into the crowd as the alarm went off.
    I felt pretty cool for having done it so smoothly… until it was time to return home, that is. Since I hadn’t actually closed out my previous trip on my Suica card (after all, I didn’t exit the station through a JR gate), I couldn’t get back in and had to sheepishly explain myself to the stationmaster.
    The funny thing is, when he closed out the previous trip on my card, I expected him to charge me the maximum fare. Instead, he charged me the minimum 130 yen fare. Since I had started that trip way out in freakin’ Makuhari, I ended up saving 490 yen.
    Still, from then on, I always made a point of SLOWING DOWN when walking through Shinjuku Station.

  2. fet October 6, 2006 at 7:56 am #


  3. dogtato October 6, 2006 at 10:04 am #

    I wish I knew someone like that. Odds are, though, I’d have to be that guy, and I don’t think I have it in me.

  4. tj han October 6, 2006 at 6:51 pm #

    Now that is a funny story. Daft as it may sound. How many of us actually have that gungho sense of adventure?

  5. InsaneLampshade October 6, 2006 at 7:13 pm #

    Funnies thing i’ve read in ages!! ^_^

  6. Insectice October 7, 2006 at 2:12 am #

    Antony is my hero. :) God, he sounds like one of my aussie friends.
    And if they didn’t want people snoopin’ around, they wouldn’t have put two pillars of mystery there in the first place.

  7. TP October 7, 2006 at 6:34 pm #

    Labyrinthine Shinjuku + gaijin + some odd sense of adventure = WIN!
    Seriously, I could report you guys to the Tokyo Police were it not the fact that 1.) Anthony is future Sam Fisher/Solid Snake, and 2.) nothing valuable is stolen.

  8. Sydney2K October 8, 2006 at 1:46 pm #

    This needs to be doujinshi’d, or mini-comic’d, or web-strip’d, OR SOMETHING in pictorial form!

  9. Richard "Pocky" Kim October 10, 2006 at 3:15 am #

    When I lived in Japan, my friends and I had settled on the ‘New South Exit’ as our meeting place, because it was/is sort of out of the way of the main South Exit (which is Hell).
    I wonder if they’re still using it these days.

  10. SDS October 18, 2006 at 6:30 am #

    I know full well the pain of the Shinjuku subway station, as it was a necessary transfer for me to go to Akihabara.


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