From first peering out of a train window whilst speeding smoothly towards late-night Tokyo, to wandering the side-alleys of the impossibly bustling Shinjuku and Shibuya, I have time and again been struck by ultra-modern Japan’s great capacity to hint at its rich cultural heritage.
Despite the ubiquitousness of the vending machine (I was told before leaving for Tokyo that I needn’t worry about safety as I would supposedly be always in sight of a police box, no matter my location. I’m not so sure about the police, but I am forever protected against thirst and nicotine cravings by the machine-on-every-corner approach to the cheap dispensation of beverages and cigarettes), Tokyo’s tiny back-street eateries and specialty stores still lean heavily on the past with their cluttered facades and decorative noren (small curtains hanging over doors) and laterns. The interiors of such places will generally continue this assertion of their cultural roots. This tendency (admittedly not visible everywhere but particularly so in the older area where we are staying, Asakusa) is made all the more remarkable when one recalls that nearly the entire city was razed during World War II.
The utilisation of space in Tokyo is also startling at times, particularly to an Australian (even more so, Canberran) like myself who is used to sprawling nature strips and wide walkways. On some street corners, one can trace the encroachment of buildings onto what might have been small green spaces or just larger pedestrian areas. A large department store will peer over a corner building maybe five metres wide but seven storeys tall. Sometimes another similar building will stand beside that one, taking a further bite of the street block. I have also been delighted by the establishment of 24-hour outdoor parking areas, replete with automated ticket machine and carefully marked spaces, that are designed to hold no more than two or three vehicles. An absurdity to an Australian, this seems to be both commonplace and presumably profitable in Japan.
There is an intricate nexus in Tokyo between space, order, functionality and the inevitable disarray of having 13 million people live in one city. The Japanese appear to have basically nailed it, at least on the level of efficiency and services if not on the holistic-quality-of-life axis. This is in no small part due to the existence of a mind-bogglingly complex rail system with over a dozen lines; apparently 3.5 million people course through Shinjuku Station alone in a single day. When riding the Yamanote Line, a circular route that encompasses some 30-odd stations, I observed that we encountered a train travelling in the opposite direction to us on the same line at every single station. In other words, you could climb the steps to a Yamanote Line platform at any of those 30 stations and expect that you would be on the train within one minute.
Next instalment: ancient art, manga shops, maid cafes and when it all becomes porn…