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Sunday, 01 March 2015

10 days in Tokyo

Written by Ben Gould
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Swooping down over Narita Airport, I conjure the Vangelis score from the opening of Blade Runner (1982), daydreaming of my first Suntory on the rocks in a sprawling futuristic enclave. Jet lag and my beyond-haggared physiognomy don't come into it as the adrenaline rush of a new adventure takes over.


I proceed to the city via the Limited Airport Express and then the Asakusa subway line to the homely Anne Hostel in Asakusabashi in Tokyo's Taito ward, also home to the Asakusa neighborhood. Here lies the breathtaking Sensoji Temple, founded in 645, and just adjacent the Asakusa Shrine, atavistic structures I'd only ever seen in films. Nakamise-dori, the street approaching the temple from Thunder Gate, is lined with shops and heaving with tourists, and as trivial as it sounds, I'm as equally shocked by just how very clean my surroundings are. It's a rarity to walk around a neighborhood back home and find not a single item of litter. I'm mightily impressed. 

  Sensoji Temple

                                Sensoji Temple


That evening I take in a light meal in the restaurant Tokiwa Shokudobeside, followed by a stroll along the serene Sumida River. I stumble upon a colossal, golden parsnip-shaped object atop a black building. Perplexed, I am only later informed that this is the Asahi Beer Hall, the parsnip in fact a golden flame. Many of Tokyo's residents mockingly refer to it as the 'golden turd'. It's certainly memorable. 

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             Asahi Beer Hall



Long have the days passed since real executive power was wielded by Japan's head of state, the post-1945 Showa period (1945–1989) reducing the monarchy's role to a mere ceremonial one. The residence of the royal family was, and still is, the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda. An imposing series of private residences, gardens, halls, offices, and a museum and archive, they're surrounded by moats and gargantuan stone walls. It's unnervingly quiet, a serene hideaway a mere ten-minute walk from the perpetual cacophony of sound at Tokyo Station, a major transport hub. 

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                 Inside the Imperial Palace


The subway system itself is an exhaustively complex series of interconnecting lines touching every facet of the city, a marvel of technological innovation. A train is seldom, if ever, late, and staff are on hand to aid commuters – particularly tourists – in any travelling endeavor. English is omniscient in every station, and announcements are made on the trains as to the arrival and the next station stop.


There's even the monorail-like Yurikamome train. Elevated and driverless, it's a streamlined cruise through the sky, weaving in and out of the city's glistening high-rise steel structures. It takes you over the Rainbow Bridge onto Odaiba Island, an artificially constructed micro-city of shopping malls, bars, restaurants, and exhibitions. The trance event Ultra Music Festival (UMF) is held here -- thousands of revelers descending upon the island for two days of music. 

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                Dark clouds forming over Odaiba


The most breathtaking spectacle was Shibuya, with its world-famous crossing. It's a sight to behold, a shimmying neon grid of hustle and bustle, a near 24/7 artwork of commute. A moment's silence suddenly segues to shuffling chaos as pedestrians make their way over the intersection in a Koyaanisqatsiesque slice of life out of balance. I spend two hours there taking photographs, landscapes, candid street snaps, and yes, the occasional selfie.


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                            Shibuya Crossing


The surrounding bars and restaurants are pricey as one would expect from a central tourist attraction and transport hub. A beer in a local bar will set you back ¥1000 whilst a standing bar just behind Asakusabashi, for example, will charge you ¥300 for a pint. Food prices also mirror this change, dropping down substantially the further away from the crowds you proceed.



Panoramic views of the city are afforded free of charge by visiting the Government Metropolitan Building, easily accessible on foot from Shinjuku Station.  The two observation decks on floor 45 are 663 feet high, the sights truly sublime, with Mount Fuji to the southwest visible on a clear day. Tokyo Skytree is even more impressive. A 2,080 foot high steel icon of neofuturistic architecture beside Oshiage Station, it's the world's tallest tower. My dusk visit, enjoying a pint of Asahi in the restaurant halfway up the tower as the sun departed for the day, is a memory I'll always cherish.

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            View from Government Metropolitan Building


Tokyo is light-years ahead, a glimpse of the future, from the trains to the smart phones. A trip to 'Electric Town' in Akihabara unearths gadget heaven, an esoteric Toys 'R' Us. Even the street vending machines beguile me. There's not a dent in them, no hint of an act of vandalism. As a case in point, toilets warm your backside and an elite few provide conversation. An assault on the senses Tokyo may be, with cramped spaces and a sometimes overwhelming blitz of activity to absorb, but solitude can be found if you look for it – in its parks and shrines, side streets and river walkways. This sense of a city operating in the upper echelons runs parallel with one steeped deep in the past. The Muromachi period appears still extant, still breathing through the Shofuku-ji Jizo Hall, a living remnant of another age. It's a seamless melding of two civilizations.


I immersed myself in 20th century Japan before jetting off. Most beguiling was the transition from a militarily expansionist but socially inward and repressive society to a seemingly peaceful post-war paradigm (albeit under US occupation) of economic miracles and cultural innovations. The barren wastelands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombed districts of Tokyo somehow ushered in a new epoch of universal suffrage, open discourse, and a nation with an increasingly pivotal role in the globalized economy. I struggled to reconcile these apparent opposites – only a partly realized 'Year Zero' solution presented itself; some of the old customs were kept under MacArthur's viceroyship, others discarded.


The tumultuous events of the war's end in 1945 – its veterans fading in number every year – now appear to have an increasingly superfluous impact on present-day affairs. Civic duty and a close-knit contract between representative and represented has helped ensure that Japan operates in the upper echelons of business, culture, and technology. 


Japanese people are the politest, most mannered and introverted I've ever met. On subways they're engrossed in their iPads and mobiles, in bars and restaurants they calmly pass the time waiting for their order by reading a book or engaging in quiet table chat – all of this is in huge contrast to our 'people-watching', often grimacing denizens back home, It may be empty-headed to surmise this, but they are as alien to me as anyone I've encountered. A person practicing yoga by the river would produce a group staring session in Edinburgh; over here I'm the only one gawking. 

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               Tokyo Skytree


On many a holiday I've been guilty of descending into a lazy, sometimes alcohol-aided stupor after three or four days in, electing to spend an extended period of time lying in bed on my netbook or hanging around the hostel watching TV. Tokyo, too charming to be insipid, never has me lukewarm or exhausted. It doesn't seem to sleep all that much, and I see no reason to, either.


I increasingly marvel at how a city a mere 14-hours' journey time from my doorstep appears – not even haughtily so – as the comic book becometh. My Virgin Atlantic plane is a veritable time machine. Not since I was a young child on his first foray into Manhattan's FAO Schwarz have I been so enamored with shop interiors, their peculiarities and (for me) comedies. I have no interest in fashion but still drift into clothes stores, seduced by dazzling lights and alien sounds.


I've never before encountered beer in a vending machine; I'm flabbergasted, an accidental discovery, I tell myself, emotionally akin to Fleming's unearthing of penicillin. I'm almost disappointed in the Sky Tower when I don't have an in-depth chat about death and taxes with a verbose robot in the restroom or experience an android serve me noodles and a coke at the restaurant bar. 


I'm thrilled by innocuous tasks, a trip to a 7-Eleven, for example, made cinematic through the use of my camera. I begin photographing an array of water bottles in a refrigerator like they're an assortment of Katsushika Hokusai paintings. It's clear that I'm undoubtedly enamored with the place, in the throes of an all-encompassing elation that I've experienced before on exotic sojourns. Of course, this has sometimes segued to ennui and disillusionment after staying for too long or rushing my itinerary. Tokyo, however, I suspect incapable of being boring. The city simply … mesmerizes.

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          Evening Rush Hour


What are the Japanese doing that we aren't? I try and study their ways, discern their whims. The city is a conundrum to me, and I (attempt to) approach it as the proverbial scraped tablet, without prejudice or presumption. I eventually deduce their grandiose achievements to work ethic. This is certainly a lazy explanation, but they always appear to be doing something – perpetually 'plugged in', up at dawn and impeccably attired, utilizing the morning train ride as a temporary office, constantly thinking, moving forward, and, dare I use cliché, grinding away, driven on by the possibilities that lay ahead. The future never built itself through excessive theorizing.


During my ten-day stay I spend such an inordinate amount of time wandering the streets, gazing up at buildings apropos of nothing, and exploring peculiar cafes and bars, that I neglect to visit some of the much-trumpeted must-see attractions. I missed out on Tsukiji fish market, Meiji Shrine, and a sumo match at Ryogoku Kokugikan (National Sumo Hall), amongst other would-be highlights. I'd like to think I did this unconsciously, providing yet more reasons to return.


Downcast, I set out from the hostel to Narita Airport in what I think are the very early hours, but soon find myself stacked like a tinned sardine on the Limited Airport Express train from Aoto station for 45 minutes during rush hour. Sake and sushi purchased in the airport, I prepare myself for the lengthy journey back to London Heathrow, and plot my return.



©Ben Gould





Last modified on Sunday, 01 March 2015