In the largest urban area in the world, 38 million people run riot in a pop culture explosion, and everyone dresses absolutely, utterly, fantastic. With my backpack and jeans, I felt like I crashed a wedding, but instead, I had just arrived in Tokyo.
As the airport bus made its way over snaking bridge highways into the city, I peered into the square windows of endless office buildings. Every floor was full of desks, and every desk was full of people. Uniforms of black suits and ties looked mandatory. Even with its bizarre, techno-fantasy sub-cultures, with haircuts that ascend to works of art, the Japanese are distinctly homogenous. Everyone I met seemed to loved baseball, vending machines, gadgets, toilets with buttons, and soy sauce.
Instead of Bill Murray advertising Suntory Whiskey (as he did in the movie Lost in Translation) I saw billboards plastered with an airbrushed, distinguished Richard Gere peddling a hotel chain. Taxi drivers wore white gloves, opened the door for me, and turned off the meter if they got lost. People donned surgical masks because they have colds, and don’t want others to get their germs. For the bustling, busiest city on earth, it is bewildering to discover how considerate everyone is. No garbage, no horns, no rough-shouldering, low crime. Nobody makes eye contact, except for foreigners, who kept looking at me like I’d stumbled into a restaurant above my station. Politeness, calm, order, Tokyo offers every modern convenience you can think of, and all the ones you can’t.
After an earthquake practically destroyed the city in 1923, the rebuilt Tokyo was practically destroyed again by US bombers in WW2. Modern Tokyo spawned forth with little planning and direction, as buildings sprung up wherever there was space, although this time, most were equipped to deal with another earthquake. As such, the Tokyo skyline is full of random skyscrapers, and you’re just as likely to find a Vivian Westwood boutique in an alley as a garbage dump. This makes exploring the city so much fun; from the intensely crowded boulevards to the narrow streets that cut behind the buildings, you can stumble across anything. Galleries, restaurants, gadget shops, boutiques, hair-stylists, markets, “men’s clubs” – all carefully designed, well-lit, modern and addicted to neon signage.
Tokyo’s subway system is famously labyrinthine, and at rush hour it felt like all 26 million people were trying to get on the same train. Conductors physically cram people into the carriage before the train pulls off. I decided to visit the famous Harajuku girls, who come in from the suburbs dressed in their finest gothic-S&M-punkware. Unabashed creative expression was everywhere; leather-clad dancing Elvis’s, teenage bands at Yoyogi Park, pom-pom schoolgirls, not to mention the thousands of themed karaoke bars. Even the ubiquitous vending machines looked like colorful forms of public art. Tradition is still on display at beautiful temples around the city, the oldest being the Sensoji Temple, built in 628. The Emperor’s Palace meanwhile, is a green lung breathing zen tranquility into the urban mayhem that surrounds it.
Buildings have floors of bars, restaurants and private clubs, many off-limits to geijins, as foreigners are called. I discovered one linen closet called the Joker Bar, in which the bar staff performed magic tricks for a tiny rotating clientele. The cover charge was only slightly more than a ticket to see David Copperfield in Vegas. With space at a premium, Tokyo doesn’t come cheap. And good luck with asking for help in English. You would think the language barrier would be low in such a cosmopolitan city, but I found most signs, menus, and people, to be strictly Japanese.
While they have adopted many customs of the west and are clearly fascinated with American culture in particular, the Japanese have added their quirks and beliefs to create a modern, stylish world unlike any other. Next visit however, I’ll make sure to dress for the occasion.