ANYONE who has seen Lost in Translation will remember scenes of the main characters sitting around listlessly in their hotel, which are contrasted effectively with scenes of visual pandemonium when they escape and hit the town. It’s something the movie captures perfectly because in a metropolis as massive and futuristic as this one, the intense sensory experience is something that no one who undergoes it ever forgets.
The ride begins as soon as you leave the airport for central Tokyo on a rapid bullet train then subway tube, a journey that still takes almost two hours, which is testament to the city’s immense size. My first stop, Shinjuku, is Tokyo’s main commercial centre, housing the world’s busiest train station (with roughly 3.5m people passing through it daily) as well as my hotel — a capsule hotel. With living-space at a premium the cocoon-like capsules are a popular and cheaper choice of accommodation, but definitely not for the claustrophobic.
Once darkness falls Shinjuku and neighbouring Shibuya become a postmodern world of dazzling coloured neon, moving billboards and pounding loudspeakers, requiring only Star Wars-style mini spaceships whistling around the buildings to complete the effect. ‘Hyperreal’ is a term used to describe central Tokyo; also ‘The Big Japple’, in reference to its New York-style sky-scraping. Piccadilly Circus is like an average street corner here.
And like Piccadilly on a wider scale, there is motoring and human traffic everywhere you look but in far greater quantities; masses of humanity sweeping along the high streets and arterial side streets branching off in all directions. At major pedestrian intersections like Hachiko Square, the crowds coagulate at the crossroads waiting patiently for the green light, then flood out into the square in a 4-way cross-walk — if you want to switch direction halfway across you can forget it. There are 13m people, almost twice London’s entire population, in Tokyo’s core metropolitan area alone, which is the nucleus of the most densely-populated urban area in the world, Greater Tokyo (total population 35m).
The sheer size of the monster only became fully apparent in the stark daylight of morning when I went to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the city’s tallest building at 250m. Upon stepping into the top floor’s observation deck it hits home that Tokyo isn’t a city, it’s a colossal metropolis — several cities merged into one — sprawling outwards in an ocean of concrete as far as the eye can see. It’s an awesome sight to behold, and a daunting prospect to explore at ground level.
To avoid the conjested roads and subways I spent the next couple of days exploring the city by foot, heading wherever the roads took me without a guidebook checklist to follow. My marathon walk took me away from built-up high-tech hubs towards contrasting glimpses of old Japan in the form of ancient shrines and the imperial gardens of Chiyoda.
But the roads always eventually lead back to more skyscraper constellations, some even more futuristic than Shinjuku’s, like the lustrous steel edifices of Shiodome and the pioneering Asahi and Fuji buildings. The buildings are all so new and innovatively architectured because most of the older structures were destroyed by the great earthquake of 1923, then any remaining ones were finished off by Allied bombs in WWII. It’s doubly impressive to behold how such a gleaming megacity rose from the ashes of complete destruction within half a century.
One benefit of strolling around Tokyo independently at your own pace is that you observe and absorb more of its unique social vibe and protocol. Everyone’s etiquette is impeccable; maintaining respect and ‘face’ are paramount, the streets are clean, and anything that dirties the place up like littering, smoking and begging is cracked down upon (I saw a couple of homeless people shambling about but never daring to beg).
People customarily wear surgical-style face-masks, not because of pollution but because they have a cold or hay fever and don’t want to infect anyone — you don’t get more respectful than that. However some things that are socially unacceptable in the West are completely permissible here, eg. slurping loudly while eating. During lunch hour in noodle bars, diners slurp down their soups with the noise and urgency of speed-eating contestants – if you close your eyes it can sound like a roomful of sinks emptying simultaneously in a slurpy crescendo.
Then there are the vending machines, which due to sheer consumer demand are everywhere and sell everything, from eggs and live fish to batteries and umbrellas; and yes, schoolgirl knickers — I didn’t encounter any myself but saw a photo of one on a local’s camera. One good thing about the vending machines is that they don’t charge the unreasonable mark-up prices you’d expect and are very handy for when the local shops are closed and you fancy a can of beer or bowl of soup.
It may have become an overfamiliar sight on YouTube but Tokyo’s subway and trains during rush-hour are truly insane. Londoners may complain about crowded rush-hour trains, but here they squash you into the carriages so forcefully that you can sometimes only move your head and wiggle your toes for movement. It’s the way it has to be in a city of 13m people simultaneously commuting — the trains can’t arrive at any faster a rate than they do in any other city, so the ever-swelling crowds have to be stuffed into every spare inch of space, with uniformed carriage-crammers employed specifically for the purpose.
But despite its population, Tokyo has a pervading sense of discipline and one of the lowest crime rates in the world, meaning you feel safe wherever you are, even in the sleazier parts. The youth are mostly modest types and everyone dresses almost too stylishly, with strong Western influences.
Some visitors complain about expensiveness, but it really isn’t much different from other Western capital cities. Like anywhere, if you scratch beneath the surface and avoid tourist traps you’ll find restaurants, bars and cool places that don’t damage your budget.
One popular free attraction I visited is the world’s biggest fish market at Tsukiji, a chaotic squirmfest where forklift drivers speed around a massive warehouse filled to the rafters with busy stalls and crates of every kind of fish, dead and alive. I also attended an auction of giant tunas that looked strangely like small missiles. Later I explored gadget-lovers paradise at Akihabara aka Electric Town, got drunk at nightlife centre Roppongi, and satisfied my inner-geek at the famous 8-Bit Cafe, which celebrates the retro-gaming glory days of Sega and Nintendo.
And so concluded my week in the postmodern other-world of Tokyo, a technological titan that makes you feel almost insignificant, a tiny moving part in a giant finely-tuned machine of a billion components all functioning at the same time. And because everything within is so tightly packed, you see how everything is meticulously organised and disciplined to prevent malfunction and shutdown.
Tokyo offers not only a fascinating snapshot of the eccentric Japanese culture but a compelling glimpse into the future, of how megalopolises will all look one day. It’s a culture shock that no visitor ever forgets.
Words & photos by Kris Griffiths
Further info at www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp