Japan: Two Sides To Tokyo
They say nobody vacations in Tokyo. In order to prove them wrong, I’m spending my last few days here. My first stop was to be Yoyogi Park, but dengue fever has broken out there for the first time since 1945 – it’s not fatal and the numbers are small, but officials are being careful. But it’s a reminder that we’re in mosquito heat, a climate where rain and sun blur to create misted skies and extreme humidity.
If rural Japanese towns looked like Studio Ghibli films come to life, Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ owes its entire look to the city. It’s vertical – you have to keep checking upwards for shops, bars and restaurants (my hotel is between floors 41 and 50 of a building). But there are so many different districts, each with a separate atmosphere, that the casual tourist can’t possibly be bored. There are tranquil parks but you’re here for the buzz; like New York, once you’re in the streets there’s never a sense that you can sit somewhere quietly for a moment.
But despite the mad energy of youth areas and red-light areas, the rush of commuters through business districts and the delirious choice of department stores, politeness and respect for space keep it all flowing smoothly. Behind the neon, there are glimpses of another Japan. Alleyways of yakatori counters where it’s impossible not to make friends, ancient buildings and shrines wedges under modern shops.
I took these two photographs just two streets apart. It was raining, and the touts were lurking in alleys trying to stay dry. Noodle bars had no more than eight seats apiece, and were thick with cooking steam, air-conditioning vapour and cigarette smoke – yet you can’t smoke in the street.
A visit to the Robot Restaurant is a must if you want to experience Tokyo at its tackiest extreme. Cage-fighting robo-bikers fighting giant neon sharks ridden by rhinestone bikini-clad girls, anyone? The Japanese taste for gaudy colours seems to be fighting the tasteful beiges and chalks of the tatami mat and the zen garden.
Life in the megacity seems unstressful but can’t be. In the warren of tunnels that lie beneath Tokyo directing millions to different rail lines (daunting but not as impossible as it at first looks, especially if you’re used to the London or New York underground systems) you get in line behind swarming masses programmed to reach work within seconds of the right time.
Early in the mooring you can see company staff attentively gathered around managers for briefings, and I can see why it would be a matter of personal honour to do well in such companies. For a hilarious and dark girl’s-eye view of the salaryman lifestyle, read ‘Stupeur et tremblements’ by Amélie Nothomb.
I’m now exploring Roppongi, Ginzu and other districts. I won’t bore you with any more bulletins from Asia unless something really weird happens.