Tokyo’s Iconic Shibuya Crossing

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It’s hard to believe that in a mega metropolis like Tokyo, one of the biggest attraction is not a tower or a statue or a museum or a park, but a pedestrian crossing. You might have already seen it in news broadcasts, in movies and in television shows. It appeared in Lost in Translation, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Resident Evil: Afterlife and Resident Evil: Retribution. The traffic intersection in itself is nothing spectacular —a ten-lane crossing in the middle of Tokyo’s fashionable shopping district surrounded by neon signs and giant billboards screaming with advertisements. But what happens here at the massive Shibuya crossing —located just outside the Shibuya station’s Hachikō exit —once the traffic light turns red, is worth seeing.

Like many crossings throughout Japan, when the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Car traffic stops completely and the mass of pedestrians waiting on the four corners surge into the intersection from all sides, “like marbles spilling out of a box,” as one writer puts it. They all meet in the middle in a frantic mess, but instead of bumping into each other, they skillfully weave and dart around each other’s bodies avoiding collision, the same way cards slide seamlessly past each other during shuffle in the hands of an expert Las Vegas dealer. This strange courtesy, the politeness, the organized chaos, fascinates everybody who isn’t Japanese.

“When you watch footage of The Scramble, you can’t help but wonder what holds this system together. How do people remain so well-behaved?” wonders writer Aaron Gilbreath.

The intersection stays open for pedestrians for nearly a minute, and then it stops. The traffic light changes and once again vehicles get the right of way. While the vehicles are moving, each corner of the intersection steadily fills up with people. There are shoppers, commuters, school girls, teenagers, and punks with died blue hair, all waiting for their turn. Then the crosswalk lights turn green, and “the mayhem starts all over again.”

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