People by nature become somewhat excited or nervous when they cross a border. It's like the feeling we get when we do something as simple as deviating from some norm or rule. For example, the uneasy feeling we have when we trespass on another person's property or premises, the anticipation we feel when we pass through a gate, or the feeling we get when we cross a river. While facilities for crossing the street, such as pedestrian walkways, traffic signals and footbridges, are becoming more elaborate, railroad crossings are still handled in a classic, almost anachronistic way. Our fortune is determined by a marvelous combination of a clanging signal and a gate that descends gradually, shortly after the clanging begins, as if to deliberately irritate us. It all depends on luck: we never know when we'll have to wait, and we can never be sure when a railroad crossing signal will break into song. It usually seems to happen when we’re only about 10 meters away, causing us to murmur in dejection in spite of ourselves. It wasn't like that when we were young. The disappointment we then felt when the gate came down just as we approached was not as strong as the joy we felt watching the train pass.
There may be some strange sort of attraction hidden in railroad crossings. In some cities there are even crossings that open so infrequently they're treated like archaeological ruins and have become local landmarks. A dozen years or so ago, people gossiped humorously about an elderly woman in a country town where a new railroad had just been built. The woman, according to the anecdote, walked across a railroad crossing with one hand held high, just as if she were making her way across the street at a pedestrian crossing. What this tells us is that the manners and etiquette of crossing or passing things are a matter of concern, and without realizing it, people are acting according to certain fixed behavioral patterns.
People are unconsciously being pushed to walk at a brisk pace in these transitional zones - crossings. But railroad crossings are not intersections. When crossing them, people are onesidedly influenced by a stronger and dominant force. One has to look quick1y to the right and then to the left. There's no time to Stop and enjoy the scenery. We have to get out of this space as fast as our legs will carry us. I don't know why, but I feel almost penned up whenever I make the passage.
Regardless of the changes that have been made in their shape or form, we approach railroad crossings in the same old-fashioned way. Look at this one on the Yamagata Shinkansen. You can see that, rather than updating it in keeping with the times, the main objective seems to bring out boldly its latent value and function. It has the characteristics of both a boundary - a functional barrier - and of a symbolic bridge. Of course we can easily dismiss it as merely one more zone to negotiate, but it can also be conceived of as the threshold of a city.
The other side of this railroad crossing looks refreshed each time a bullet train passes by creating a stream that seems to pierce the air and wash the scenery. It is by nature impossible to know another person’s true feelings or read his or her mind, but those lingering on the other side of the crossing are all likely sharing more or less the same thought.
Text by Hiroshi Innami 1994/6