Coming straight from Seoul, the first thing you notice about Tokyo is clean, straight streets and balconies. Real balconies, not the boxy, suicide-proof window closets you get in Korea. Gliding in to Asakusa on the metro I saw a continuous stream of neatly ordered apartment blocks, concrete river canals and bicycles everywhere. The city gives a great initial impression of carefully designed urbanity, and while that’s not always the case, it certainly is a defining feature of the city.
My accommodation in the old working class district of Asakusa – formerly the ‘low town’ of the old Edo era city – was a hostel based in a traditional wooden house called a ryokan. That meant creaking floorboards, lots of dark wood, thin paper-covered walls (but not made of paper) and sleeping on a tatami covered floor, all of which was very comfortable, with a decent air-conditioning system. The guy running the hostel, an energetic young Japanese man, kept speaking to me in Korean, since I came from Korea. A logical, yet flawed deduction. He later asked my slyly, ‘you weren’t born in Seoul, right?’
I put my bag down and set out in the hot summer afternoon – I had the better part of three days and nights to get inside Tokyo a little and jump around. I could feel every second whipping past me, taking opportunities with it. I did and saw a lot, and I’m satisfied that I managed to see a lot of Asakusa, central Tokyo/Ginza, and Ueno, plus more cursory glances into the bizarre worlds of Harajuku, Shinjuku, Odaiba, a few sun-washed hours in Yokohama, thirty minutes in wild evening Shibuya, plus catch ups with some old Japanese friends and former students, a former co-worker, Eiko-sensei, and of course, my sister. I need to thank all these people, especially Eiko, my lovely ex-students Jun, Nozomi and their friends, who gave me a wonderful first night welcome to Japan involving copious amounts of raw fish and some delicious sake (so much tastier than Korean soju).
Tokyo is probably the most visual city I have ever been in, and from start to finish the place bombards you with bright, bold colours, characters and text. It comes from very old traditions in the arts of printing, illustration and animation. Even the flyers hanging from the subway ceilings are a menagerie of design, and the streets of places like Shibuya crossing and Akihabara blaze with animated figures, screens and noise which rise vertically up the buildings. It feels nothing like Seoul’s bustling commercial neon or Hong Kong’s majestic, faded glory – Tokyo’s lights and colours are bold, clean and as new as the media and technologies they advertise.
I will break the trip down into a few interesting stories over the coming days, so for now I’ll finish up with a general impression of Tokyo and the people who live there. I hate travellers who blow through a massive town like Tokyo in three days and come back full of detailed assumptions and judgements about an ancient and complex people like the Japanese – so take my brief impressions with a grain of salt, a bowl of soy and a chunk of raw tuna.
Tokyo is packed to the glittering steel rafters with buildings and people, but densely and politely so in the most careful manner. In that regard it is unlike any Asian city I’ve ever been to. But Japan is less about rigid conformity than quiet uniformity. People can and do move to the beat of their own drum – witness the crazy young cats and their wild fashions, the radical architecture and the diverse art scene – but behind the drum beat is a deeper rhythm that keeps everyone, the young, the old, the rich and the crazy in tune. It’s a rhythm rich in harmony, manifesting itself in polite public behaviour, a deep respect for beauty and order, and a genuine desire to live freely and comfortably in a massive, rapidly moving metropolis. Every person I stopped in the street, young or old, went out of their way to help me, and often with decent English too. People criticise the Japanese for concealing their true emotions in a false display of two-faced politeness, but I encountered nothing but help and kindness from the whole damn populace.
Admittedly, the quietly observed rules that keep Japanese society flowing can grate on carefree skin sometimes, and I began to miss the rough, boisterous charm of Seoul, where Korean kindness is balanced with a blunt honesty and not a little rudeness. Nevertheless, Tokyo ranks up there as one of my favourite city experiences and I’m craving a few weeks to get out into the rest of the country, and sad that it may be a long time before I get to do so. Ah, travelling. You get the privilege of visiting another country, having a wonderful experience, and you come back complaining because you’re craving more. Typical.