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.

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Photo credit: Shibuya246/Flickr

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.”

The Shibuya crossing is said to be the busiest intersection in the world. At peak times, as many as 2,500 people cross the streets with a single change of a traffic signal, and over 2 million in a single day.

Shibuya’s unusual crossing is also known as a scramble intersection, as 'X' Crossing in the UK, and as diagonal crossing in the US. It’s also called the Barnes Dance, named after traffic engineer Henry Barnes, who popularized it in the 1940s, when he was serving as street commissioner in Denver. The dance got its name when reporter wrote that the crossings made the people so happy that they danced their way across the streets.

The scramble intersection came to Japan in 1969, and while the US and Canada slowly got rid of the system for being inefficient, it grew steadily in numbers in Japan. Today, there are more than 300 scramble crossing in the country.

It is said that a visit to Tokyo is incomplete without experiencing the Shibuya crossing. But if fighting your way through the havoc in the center of the intersection is not your cup of tea, you can watch it from a distance. The hypnotic view can be best observed from the second-story window of Starbucks on the building across the street, on the crossing's north side.

Related Reading: Magic Roundabout: The Most Confusing Traffic Junction

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Photo credit: Michael McDonough/Flickr

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Photo credit: Aldas Kirvaitis/Flickr

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Photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr

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Photo credit: Matthew Kenwrick/Flickr

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Photo credit: Candida.Performa/Flickr

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Photo credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA/Flickr

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Photo credit: Thomas/Flickr

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Photo credit: inefekt69/Flickr

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Photo credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA/Flickr

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Photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr

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Photo credit: Meow _ Bibi/Flickr

Sources: LA Times / Time.com / Japan Travel / Wikipedia

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