Up to this point, it may have escaped your notice that Tokyo is quite big.
Depending on how you count, the city has anything from thirteen million to thirty-eight million people, which means that the hair-splitting of urban geographers can add or subtract the entire population of Australia. When Tokugawa Ieyasu chose the site as the headquarters of his new eastern lands, Edo (now Tokyo) was a small fishing village, but it ballooned quickly; a hundred years later it was probably the biggest city on Earth, a title it’s held on and off since then.
It starts soon after Narita Airport and stretches across an area bigger than North Yorkshire, incorporating four prefectures and sprawling over the largest flatland in Japan. The high-speed Yamanote Loop line connects twenty-nine stops1 at high speed in an hour, but it only connects the city centre with the innermost suburbs. The scale of Tokyo is basically impossible to grasp, and that’s why it’s livable, I reckon. Too close to the ground and you can only see your own quarters, a little walled-off piece of the city you call home. Too much of a bird’s eye view and the city becomes something abstract, grid-lines and zoning.
But enough statistics and pleasantries: I was in Tokyo for two major reasons. Firstly, as a casual tourist in the biggest city. Secondly, to touch base with some old friends. But there was a third idea rattling around in my brain; was this infini-city somewhere I could, someday, live? Call it testing the waters, market research, gonzo relocation, whatever you will. I’ll fill you in on my findings in two instalments2.
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The Fires of Tokyo
I tumbled off the Keisei Express at Asakusa, into a clammy, busy street with no room to swing a tanuki. The shopping street at Asakusa holds little of interest, to be honest, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in places like these. However, it leads to Sensō-ji, the oldest temple site in Tokyo. I say temple site, because both the Kaminari-mon (Thunder gate) and the main hall of the temple… burnt down. This is becoming something of a theme in my writing. Strong winds, drought, earthquake, bombing raid, each disaster conspiring to send the city up in flames.
It’s surprisingly hard to find good figures, but it’s plausible that each of history’s three deadliest fires happened in Tokyo. The Great Meireki Fire of 1657, which killed a hundred thousand people and supposedly started when a priest tried to burn a cursed kimono. The conflagration which followed the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which turned the city and its neighbours to rubble. And worst of all, the devastating fire of March 9th-10th, 1945, when American bombers basically demolished Tokyo in a single night. Anyway, the steps of the rebuilt Sensō-ji great hall are a good place to take stock of the swarming crowds, but investing in electric lanterns might be a good idea.
There are some older buildings at Sensō-ji, and I enjoyed watching the afternoon sun flicker lazily across panelled, crimson wood. There’s also some magnificent Edo-era bronze castings, including a hōkyōin-tō (a cast bronze pagoda) and a 1720 statue of Buddha which radiates peace. But this isn’t a guidebook, and you don’t need me drooling over relics of the past until the cows come home. I hopped on a train to Ōtsuka, and met my friends to prepare for a night out.
We settled on Nakano, a tumbledown sort of place with good izakaya and bars, sitch west of Shinjuku where the city shades slowly into suburbs. We tried some cheap cocktails (I recommend sake sours) and then got out of our depth in an 80s bar. It hit me that it’s disconcerting diving into someone else’s nostalgia, because you can’t make sense of the sticky web of associations and feelings that each song brings with it. In that bar, I was acutely aware of being an outsider. This outfit is my new fashion pole star, though.
The next stop was Shinjuku, where everything is neon and light. Yasukuni-dori leading out from Shinjuku station is Japan distilled into a cliché, but I defy anyone to tell me it isn’t kind of impressive in its own right. Ducking into a side street, we came across Hanazono Shrine, all lit up against the cool night air, with a couple of drunk dudes with outrageous hair slouched across its steps. A few paces up the road is Golden Gai, where a medley of tiny bars spill out of every floor of worse-for-wear buildings. Once again, I marvel at these micro-businesses; fuck knows how they survive with a capacity of ten slammed souls, plus or minus a stray cat or two.
Having said that, Martin was doing his part to keep the district open for business. We met Martin in Square Bar, and he all but demanded a picture with us, before telling us all about his job as a Risk Manager at a major bank. “It’s all about the five whys. First, you ask them why. Then, you ask them why again. Then….”
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Idiot, Slow Down
The next morning, we started our whirlwind tour of the city at Yoyogi Park, which is a stupid place to start a whirlwind tour because it’s so damn peaceful. The eye of the storm, perhaps. Tokyo desperately needs places like Yoyogi to be its lungs, and it got me thinking about how much green spaces give to cities: sanctuary for wildlife, stretching space for athletes, inspiration for artists, oxygen for the blood and stillness for the soul. Yoyogi also surrounds Meiji Shrine, but I wouldn’t greatly recommend visiting- it’s a rather uninspired, cautious sort of building with nationalist overtones, built for the veneration of an emperor3. Not my sort of place, as you may have guessed by now.
I barely got to see Harajuku on my momentary pitstop, but to be honest, I didn’t much like what I saw. It reminded me of an unholy blend of Camden and Oxford Street, incorporating the worst bits of both. It’s a tedious truism that tourists destroy the places they love, but I can imagine that Harajuku was different once, before the flood. I felt uncomfortably like I was part of the destructive tide, eating cotton candy and crushing houses at my feet. Anyhow, sweeping on across the city, we landed at Shibuya, next to the famous crossing, and burrowed into the maze that is the Tokyo subway system.
I’m telling you, that map could have used the services of Harry Beck. Anyway, two subway rides, two sweaty walks and some swearing later, TeamLab Planets stood before us. We were here not to see, but to experience, a digital art exhibition.
A Feast for the Senses and Land’s End
Leaving shoes and bags behind at the door, you wander through a series of immersive artworks, with little guidance on what to expect. The artworks change and reconfigure as people step into them. The background lighting is low, and I kept coming back to the phrase ‘sensory deprivation’- quite wrongly, of course. What you experience in this place is nothing like deprivation, but instead a kind of sensory rebalancing. In daily life it’s natural for some senses to dominate at the expense of others, but throughout the exhibits you become more cognisant of all your senses and the give or take between them. Temperature, lighting and pulsating music are used to heighten different senses in turn before letting them recede into the background. The urge to capture yourself on camera, lost in a sea of mirrors, also made me think more about selfies and social media. In particular, maybe we’re too hard on ourselves? We see the curated narratives of social media as mere narcissism, but perhaps they’re also about making sense of our own lives in a chaotic world, creating a narrative because humans inherently need one.
I won’t describe each of the exhibits, partly because I don’t feel like I would do them justice, and partly because I think it would spoil the fun. But I can’t resist one more foray- the glimmering carp that scatter in the ripples of the water are the very fabric of dreams. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, you really should visit. I left feeling the kind of deep relaxation that doesn’t come easy in Tokyo, and it stayed with me all day.
Still heading east, we came to Odaiba, an odd gun-shaped wedge of reclaimed land containing a ferris wheel, a Toyota showroom and a range of stately pleasure domes with retro-futuristic designs. I read about this place in Hideo Furukawa’s Slow Boat, and felt a deep urge to wash up there someday. Out here, on Tokyo’s frontier, the Olympics is being built to specification, ready for 2020. Of all the strange places I saw in the metropolis, it was perhaps the most unreal, and oddly I really liked it.
Then, pressing on through a narrow strip of trees, we found ourselves on an unexpected beach. Did you know there were beaches in Tokyo? Because I didn’t. At this land’s end, you can see the famous Rainbow Bridge (not yet lit up) stretching across the bay, and the heart of the city on the opposite shore. Here, in the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate, artificial island fortresses were built out at sea to protect Tokyo in case of a war against European powers. We took off our shoes and paddled out into the sea, and watched the skies gradually deepen as night fell. And I thought to myself, I could live in this city. I really could.
Then we went back to Ōtsuka and had some top-notch yakiniku.
(Next time: the second half of my Tokyo trip.)
1- a thirtieth is currently being built, but I don’t think it’s opened yet.
2- yep, that’s right, another double album. I can even feel my record label having second thoughts about this one.
3- to be fair, it’s more complicated than that. Emperor Meiji had some liberal instincts, and the shrine was built after he died, in 1920. He wasn’t the main architect of the cult of emperor worship that grew after his death. Still, the whole thing doesn’t sit right with me.