Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XII: Tokyo! (1)

There is something special about Tokyo. It is something different. It have tried to pin it down but so far with little success. To me the city felt strangely light, not only in terms of glowing screens and ads and lamps because in that sense it is not very different from other cities like New York. Unlike New York, Tokyo seems to have a strange kind of weightlessness that was, to me at least, unexpected.

The city has roots that go back to the shogun era. It was established as the nation’s capital in 1603. Very little to nothing of that is visible in the streets although some traces of this history are still there. Ueno Park, for example, is the hill where the samurai made their last stand – and lost. The final battle is depicted in the film The Last Samurai although by all accounts the character portrayed by Tom Cruise in that film was in real life an old and obese man who had to be carried around in a sedan chair.

Mostly, however, Tokyo is very here and now. The streets are spacious and modern and are still lacking trashcans while soda machines are a little less present, at least in the city centre. Our friends’ apartment is in the hippest neighbourhood in Tokyo, close to many high-end shops like Gucci and Ralph Lauren. More interesting are the many smaller and infinitely more fashion-conscious and drop-dead hip shops just behind the main street. Average age on the street: 19? Ladies and gentleman, I was old down there! And criminally unhip, with my slacks and surf shoes, simple shirts and tank tops.

What I needed (at least!) was a hat. Or some leggings. Or at least something vintage-looking, apart from my elderly frame. Failing that I might have explored my goth side or go completely in the other direction and dress sticky-sweet with lace, fruit prints and parasol. In either case don’t forget the stockings (knee or overknee) and petticoat. I’m not a huge fashion shopper but I could have gone all-out because there were so many shops to cater every taste. Even mine. S bought a lovely sundress.

When walking further into town we suddenly found ourselves on the famous crossing at Shibuya station. At the green light hundreds of people will mix into the crossing, forming a veritable soup of human traffic until everyone has reached the other side (or at least a side) and the crossing is once again clear for traffic. It is an image everyone knows (it is in the film Koyaanisqatsi) and pretty much stands for the mechanical urban living, the hive animal that is Man.

Of course it is different when you are on the ground. It always is. There are magazine stands and drugstores. There are schoolchildren playing with their mobile phones and women busy looking fashionable. There are salary men and bums and general hangers-on, like us. All of us are different, all of us have a life, a heart and a mind. Standing there at the iconic crossing at Shibuya, one is again reminded that we are not a mechanism. Not a cog in the machine but each of us an entity in its own right. In Japan no more or less than elsewhere, even if society seems to emphasize conformity and adhering to the rules more than elsewhere. We are all just people.


  1. The sign in yellow and white on a blue background (at the top in the middle) advertises --guess what-- English conversation classes by a company called EON.
    The banner running from top to bottom says "Sayonara ROOKIES". It seems to be some anime series.