Tokyo is a paradox. On the surface, it is the calmest and most ordered of all the world’s megacities. Everything works. The streets are meticulously clean. Its population is dutifully reserved. No fuss, no chaos. Then you consider its history.
In 1923, a huge earthquake leveled the city, claiming the lives of 140,000 people and leaving barely a building standing. In World War II, American planes firebombed the city; the resulting inferno was as devastating as the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
And then, in 2011, another major earthquake shook the city to its core, followed by a tsunami that engulfed much of the coastline to the north. In the subsequent weeks, Tokyoites endured the insidious threat of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
These are nightmares on a scale that few cities have experienced. Yet each time, Tokyo has emerged stronger than before. Today the city’s physical fabric is protected by some of the most advanced disaster-proofing in the world, which finds its human equivalent in the stoic resilience of its inhabitants.
On first encounter, the city presents another paradox. New arrivals are confronted with what appears to be a vast, homogenous metropolis. Japan has never opened its doors to mass immigration, and Tokyo’s demographics reflect that.
And so, initially, you view the city as being a unified whole. Each street seems indistinguishable from the last. It is difficult to get a handle on the place.
But gradually you discover that Tokyo is, in fact, a varied patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Rather than reflecting different ethnicities, these neighborhoods are the manifestation of social undercurrents, some of which are universal, others peculiarly Japanese. Once you start thinking of the city in these terms, it becomes much more manageable, and you can begin to explore it neighborhood by neighborhood.
Shinjuku, centered on the world’s busiest train station, has the city’s highest concentration of skyscrapers and after dark morphs into a neon-lit wonderland of bars and nightclubs frequented by businessmen.
Shibuya, south of Shinjuku, tends to attract a more youthful nocturnal crowd with its abundance of video game arcades and pachinko parlors. (Pachinko is an addictive version of pinball.)
Akihabara is “Geek Central” and is the place to find cheap electronic components or to browse the latest manga comic books; you’ll often find yourself rubbing shoulders with seemingly incongruous middle-aged businessmen.
Ueno provides a leafy respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Veer off the busy sidewalk and you can meander beside tranquil ponds, stroll through wooded parkland (which shimmers with cherry blossoms each spring) and visit the city’s 35-acre zoo.
Asakusa, on the west bank of the Sumida River, affords a glimpse through the centuries to the historic period when Tokyo, then known as Edo, was ruled by ruthless shoguns and daily life revolved around the Buddhist temples. A scattering of temples and shrines has survived, set within formal gardens.
Roppongi is saddled with a seedy reputation, having long been a favorite nighttime haunt of pleasure-seeking U.S. servicemen and foreign tourists. In the past few years, however, the district has made a determined move upmarket with the opening of two multibillion-dollar mixed-use developments, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown.
Odaiba, situated on a manmade island linked to downtown by the Rainbow Bridge (the name makes sense at night, when the bridge is bathed in multicolored light), has been transformed in the past 20 years into a popular leisure district with a wide range of attractions, including a 377-foot Ferris wheel.
If there is one neighborhood in which foreign visitors feel instantly at ease, it is probably Ginza. The smart streets of this world-class shopping district are lined with boutiques and department stores selling designer brands. Strip away the Japanese street signs and you could be in any major international city.
But if you stray southeast of Ginza, everything changes. Men in rubber boots pushing trolleys loaded with polystyrene boxes replace the shoppers carrying designer bags. You have entered the streets around the world’s biggest fish market, Tsukiji. And you are immersed, once more, in a uniquely Japanese environment.
Tsukiji Central Fish Market’s days appear to be numbered. The metropolitan government is pushing through plans to relocate the entire market to the Toyosu district by 2014, though the move is highly controversial and the expensive multiuse redevelopment of the existing market site remains on hold.
However, there is one prestigious metropolitan project that is nearing completion, having already changed the skyline and provided Tokyo with a new architectural icon. At 2,080 feet tall, the Tokyo Sky Tree in the Sumida district is the tallest communications tower in the world and will open to the public in May 2012. The Tokyo Sky Tree’s observation deck will provide an unrivaled view of the city, but from that height the subtle paradoxes will be concealed.
Why, for instance, has a nation known for its minimalist architectural traditions produced a city intersection like Shibuya Crossing with its gaudy jumble of billboards, neon signs and giant TV screens? How do the meditative strictures of Zen Buddhism tie in with half a million pedestrians funneling across the famous junction each day?
In a plaza to one side of the crossing, there is a bronze statue of a dog, Hachiko, who greeted his owner every evening outside Shibuya Station. When his owner, Professor Ueno, died suddenly in 1925, Hachiko maintained a lonely vigil in the same spot until his own death in 1935.
As you watch the tides of humanity teem over the crossing, the poignant statue hints at Tokyo’s ultimate paradox. On the surface it appears to be a single metropolis with a disciplined population of 13 million people. But when you get to know it, you find that it is a conglomerate of parochial neighborhoods inhabited by individuals with their own passions, their own hopes and fears and their own stories.
Jet lag has its advantages. When you inevitably wake in the early hours, you could idly flick through the TV channels while you wait for daybreak, or you can take a cab to Tsukiji on the banks of the Sumida River to witness one of the city’s top attractions, Tsukiji Central Fish Market (http://www.tsukiji-market.or.jp). Brace your senses. From 3 a.m. on, fishing boats arrive at the docks behind the market and an incredible array of seafood — some of it still alive — is pushed on trolleys through the market to the stalls and auction hall. The tuna auctions, which take place after 5 a.m., are unforgettable; you’ll need to queue to get into the small visitor viewing area. There you’ll witness individual fish being traded for thousands of dollars. In the main market hall, the frenetic activity remains in full swing until about 8 a.m. you’ll see octopuses writhing in boxes and frozen tuna being sawed into segments. You’ll be buffeted by men shuttling fish to and fro, by noise and by odor. When the action finally winds down, and if you’re not completely sick of the sight of fish, you can enjoy some of the freshest sushi imaginable in one of the many backstreet restaurants close to the market.
After all that, you’re probably ready for bed. But the day is only just beginning. To get your bearings, it’s worth visiting the observation decks of the Tokyo Tower (http://www.tokyotower.co.jp), the city’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. You can walk the outdoor stairway up to the main observation deck, which provides a 360-degree panorama of downtown. You can then take the elevator up to the Special Observatory, 750 feet above street level, which on a clear day provides views of Tokyo Bay and Mount Fuji. Tokyo Sky Tree (http://www.tokyo-skytree.jp) will soon eclipse The Tokyo Tower; when it opens in 2012, it will be the world’s second-tallest structure after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Having oriented yourself geographically, it’s time to put the city into historical perspective. The
Edo-Tokyo Museum (http://www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp) provides an excellent introduction to 500 years of history, including full-size reconstructions of buildings from different eras of the city’s past as well as extensive scale models. The Tokyo National Museum (http://www.tnm.jp) boasts the world’s finest collection of Japanese art, with priceless exhibits that include samurai armor, ceramics and paintings.
At the very heart of the city is the Imperial Palace (http://www.kunaicho.go.jp), which was rebuilt in contemporary style in 1968, having been destroyed during World War II. The palace itself is closed to the public, but you can gain picturesque views during a free 75-minute guided tour of the grounds, which can be booked in advance through the palace’s website.
Sensoji Temple (http://www.senso-ji.jp), in the downtown district of Asakusa, was also rebuilt after the war, though it looks impressively authentic. The ideal approach is along Nakamise Dori, a pedestrian street lined with stalls selling a glittering array of trinkets. This is one of the few places in the city that directly echoes the street scenes depicted in old woodblock prints.
Although fragments of the past remain, Tokyo has never been overly sentimental about its history. Since 1945, this city has relentlessly reinvented itself, eagerly embracing the latest technology and gadgets. This passion for all things new is encapsulated in the island district of Odaiba, where there are several futuristic museums and visitor centers.
Miraikan, The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
(http://www.miraikan.jst.go.jp), is a hands-on science museum full of state-of-the-art
interactive exhibits, most of which are in English as well as Japanese. The
Panasonic Center Tokyo (http://panasonic.net/center/tokyo/)
is primarily devoted to the latest consumer electronics products of the Panasonic
Corporation, though it also includes a full-size mock-up of a green family home,
the Eco Ideas House; and RiSuPia (http://www.risupia.panasonic.co.jp),
a museum devoted to science and mathematics. Japan’s auto industry is celebrated
at Megaweb (http://www.megaweb.gr.jp), an indoor theme park centered
on all things Toyota. Car buffs will especially enjoy the History Garage, where
models from the past are displayed against nostalgic backdrops.
CHECKING IN WITH MING LEONG
International consultant and frequent visitor to Tokyo
YOU WERE IN TOKYO JUST TWO WEEKS AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI IN MARCH. WHAT WAS THE CITY LIKE?
I toured the city with my Japanese wife, and we found that everyone was calm and went about their daily tasks as normal. All of the transportation was operational. The only restriction we came across in Tokyo was that the convenience shops imposed a limit on the number of mineral water bottles that could be bought by each individual. Due to the scare caused by radioactive leaks from the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, everybody was trying to stock up on drinking water. During the weekend, the people of Tokyo were out in great numbers shopping and enjoying the spring blossoms in the parks as if nothing had happened. I guess they are used to living in a danger zone.
HOW HAS TOKYO CHANGED IN THE TIME YOU HAVE KNOWN IT?
Over the 15 years I have been coming here, I haven’t seen any major changes, though there have been many individual developments around the city. Perhaps the biggest is Odaiba, the entertainment and shopping complex on an island in Tokyo Bay.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN CULTURAL CHALLENGES FOR FOREIGN VISITORS IN TOKYO?
First-time visitors can be overwhelmed by the vibrant dynamism of Tokyo. But I think these days, because many of us are exposed to Japanese food and culture in our home countries, culture shock is not as dramatic as it once was. There are some crucial differences in business etiquette. for information on doing business in Japan, I recommend visiting http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2195.html
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLACES IN TOKYO? WHEN IS THE BEST TIME To VISIT?
Tsukiji Fish Market is my favorite place to visit and to eat. I especially enjoy
fresh sashimi there; my wife likes the barbecued tuna cheeks. We also enjoy
visiting the Shibuya and Shinjuku shopping areas at night when they are full
of color and life. I particularly enjoy being in Tokyo the first week of April,
when the sakuras (cherry trees) bloom all over the city. It is a beautiful
sight. For an excursion outside of Tokyo, we like to visit the hot spring resorts
at Hakone, where there are great views of Mount Fuji.
Info To Go
International flights arrive at Narita International Airport (NRT), 36
Just The Facts
Time Zone: GMT +9
PARK HYATT TOKYO
SUKEROKU NO YADO SADACHIYO
THE WESTIN TOKYO
DAIWA SUSHI BAR
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