Snowmageddon in Tokyo

Near blizzard conditions outside our apartment window.

Remember “Snowmageddon 2014” — the winter storm that blew through Atlanta and paralyzed the city for a week? A few inches of snow and a glazing of ice during the middle of the day, and everyone trying to get home at the same time, caused an unprecedented gridlock on the city’s roadways. Thousands of cars were stranded, people abandoned their vehicles, workers were stuck at work, children spent the night at schools — or worse — they slept on school buses stuck in the traffic. My husband spent the night at his office.

Part of the problem with that storm was that it ended up being worse than expected, and that everyone waited too long to finally decide to cancel school and work, resulting in too many people trying to get home at the same time. But also… because this kind of weather occurs so rarely in the South, they just are not set up to deal with it.

Tokyo had their own version of “Snowmageddon” this week. Snowy weather is a rarity here in Tokyo, just as it is in Atlanta. The mountains to the west tend to stop most of the storms, and temperatures don’t often stay below freezing for very long, even in the winter. Sometimes, though, everything comes together just right, and we do get a big snowstorm.

As in Atlanta, Tokyo isn’t equipped to handle snow removal and road treatment. The biggest advantage that Tokyo has, however, is that there are far fewer cars on the roadways because of their mass transit system. Yes — some people do choose to drive cars to work, but parking is hard to find, and expensive. Trains and buses can take you anywhere in the city, and the cost is much less than driving and maintaining a vehicle.

The snow started here early in the day, but with temperatures hovering just above freezing, it took quite awhile for the snow to begin to accumulate. If the temperatures had been a few degrees colder, the snow would have piled up quickly. Officially, our part of Tokyo got 23 centimeters of snow — just over 9 inches. By mid afternoon, offices were closing and workers were heading home, hoping to get home before the trains got overly crowded. My husband walked home from work through 3 inches of slushy snow.

The snow can certainly wreak havoc with the transit systems too. Roads were slick and buses were affected. Trains were more crowded, and snow on the tracks can cause delays and cancellations. Heavy snow in other areas outside of Tokyo, caused some cancellations of Shinkansen and regional trains. Slick runways caused delays and cancellations at both of the Tokyo airports.

All in all, though, it wasn’t really much of a “snowmageddon.” I can see one of the highways from our apartment window, and there was never any gridlock. The cars that were on the highway — not many at all — were traveling slow, but not stopped or stuck in traffic. The snow ended around midnight, and overnight the temperature edged up a degree or two above freezing, so that things were beginning to melt again by morning. The sidewalks were still slick and slushy for my husband’s “morning commute” to his nearby office. And now — two days later — almost all of the snow is gone.

Maybe it isn’t fair to compare the two cities on this kind of event. The conditions were not quite the same, and — yes — some workers here didn’t make it home that night because their trains were cancelled. (I saw a news story that showed the restaurant/bars — Izakaya — and capsule hotels in the Shinjuku  and Shibuya areas of Tokyo were very busy that evening!)

It would be impossible to “retrofit” Atlanta with a mass transit system comparable to the one here. Tokyo has the most extensive urban rail network in the world, and rail is the primary mode of transport throughout the metro area. This system has been around for a very long time, and the Tokyo of today couldn’t exist without it. But, though I miss a lot of things about living in Atlanta, the traffic/gridlock is not one of them. And… when we finally return to the ATL, we will certainly miss the convenience and efficiency of the transit system here.

Gridlock in Atlanta during Snowmageddon 2014

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My husband and I were both born and raised in Kansas, but for the past 20+ years we have been living in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, with our children grown and out of the house, we have the opportunity to spend two years living in Tokyo. My husband will be working with the Japanese counterpart to his American company. UPDATE 2023... After 4-1/2 years in Tokyo, we returned to Atlanta. Now we are heading to London for a three year job assignment!

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