Umi-hotaru (Postmodern Classic #26)

Umi-hotaru (海ほたる), or ‘sea firefly’, is a bizzare artificial island at the mindpoint of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line (東京湾アクアライン), a bridge-tunnel connecting the city of Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture with the city of Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture (with an overall length of 14 km, a 4.4 km bridge and 9.6 km tunnel underneath the bay – the longest underwater tunnel for cars in the world).

Air is supplied to the tunnel by a distinctive tower in the middle of the tunnel, called the Kaze no tō (風の塔), which uses the bay’s almost-constant winds as a power source.

The Aqualine was built to reduce traffic through the center of Tokyo, and to link the two important industrial regions of Chiba and Kanagawa. The road opened on December 18, 1997 after 31 years of construction at a cost of 1.44 trillion yen (11.2 billion USD at the time of opening). It is a very ‘modern’ project – all about mighty engineering, progress and efficiency. Where previously it had been necessary to drive 100km or so along the shores of Tokyo Bay and pass through the center of Tokyo, the bridge-tunnel takes just 15 minutes. Yet, arriving at its mid-way point, I felt as if I had reached one of the last decaying remnants of a postmodern age. It was like arriving at the disused theme park that is the opening for Miyazaki’s much lauded anime feature Spirited Away. Except, where the tunnel led Chihiro to a mysterious town, which comes to life in a very surreal fashion, the island of Umi-hotaru is listless and fascinatingly tacky and banal.


The island is essentially a car-park and rest area consistng of restaurants, shops and amusement facilities. It bleeps and sells fast-food and ice-creams like any other motorway services stopover. Looking out over the water there was nothing to see – just the mist of what I guess was the smog of Tokyo and its surrounds on a summer’s day. It was an eerie, quiet artificial space, with no sense of where you were or where you had come from (since the tunnel obviously keeps you from seeing anything at all until one arrives).

It is, to use Marc Augé’s term, a ‘non-place’; one of those interstitial places between the ‘significant and meaningful’ spaces he calls ‘place’. One can immediately get a sense of these ‘non-places’ from the descriptive prologue of his book, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995): A man is traveling from Paris by airplane. He draws money from the ATM, waits on the highway, enters the airport, then the airplane itself. His reality is made up entirely of advertising, the bright lights, digital displays, glass and polished walkways. All are places that are not quite places, but which acquire their identity from their being on the way to other places, near or far. Augé’s thesis is of three kinds of accelerated transformations: (1) of time, an ‘acceleration of history’ (p. 26) leading to an overabundance of events; (2) of space: ‘the excess of space is correlative with the shrinking of the planet’ (p. 31) leading to spatial overabundance; and (3) of the individual, ‘the figure of the ego’ (p. 36). All three would seem to exist at Umi-Hotaru. The accelerated journey time between Kawasaki and Kisarazu, cutting out all that you might see on route otherwise and turning the whole ‘crossing’ itself into an event. The creation of a whole new place (in the middle of a bay) and in the process shrinking a little corner of the planet and all that goes with re-engineering the environment. And the individual – the many individuals who arrive here with nothing but themselves to satisfy. Some even take the trip solely to visit the island, turning back into the tunnel instead of continuing on across the bridge as you would expect. The whole improbability of the place brought to mind The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘…run by an incredible arrangement of life forms from everywhere, and is the one place anywhere that serves a talking food. One of the restaurant’s major attractions is that diners can watch the entire universe end around them as they eat. The terminal moment is followed by dessert.’

Fredric Jameson, in his well-known essay, ‘Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’,  writes of the Westin Bonadventure Hotel (Los Angeles, California), describing it as a complete world, a mini city with no obvious entry. Its ‘glass skin’, he notes, ‘achieves a peculiar and placeless dissociation of the Bonaventure from its neighborhood: it is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when you seek to look at the hotel’s outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself but only the distorted images of everything that surrounds it.’ The building has become the ‘classic’ example of postmodern architecture (and largely because of Jameson’s essay), of which he writes: ‘…this latest mutation in space – postmodern hyperspace – has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world’.

After dessert, which happened to be a rather lavish ice-cream, it was time for me to leave Umi-Hotaru, to complete the crossing over the bridge and leave behind its strangely absent horizon. However, as the car left on its prescribed route I wondered if perhaps the human body has finally caught up with these so-called non-place or hyperspaces. As the paint begins to peel and the glamour of the entertainments rapidly fade, the capacities of the human body to map these spaces does not seem so difficult (we are too well versed in a network culture now), yet this fact still does not make them any less postmodern, for where else is there to go? (..even turning back into the tunnel, only takes you out into more of the same).


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