Monday, February 4, 2013

A Brave New World - Exploring the Streets of Tokyo

Tokyo. For many, the mere name evokes images of the city of the future. Sleek, streamlined and bustling with tall towers, soaring overpasses and, crucially, people. Lots of people. In many ways, as the world's most populous metropolitan area and one of the most important economic centres, Tokyo is just that. But it's also a lot more. For me, it's also less.

Certainly one of the most colourful areas of Tokyo (and one which I quite enjoyed), Akihabara is famous for being the 'Electric Town' where one can purchase new or used electronics (surprise!) as well as anything related to manga (Japanese comic books), anime (Japanese cartoons), cosplay, computer games  or other such nerdy obsessions. It is also home to the first 'Maid Cafe' - the number one place to go to interact with cosplayers (those dressed in costume).

Oddly, I never had an issue with the number of people. In fact, I barely noticed that the supposed overabundance of them (something about having previously braved the Hong Kong subway with all of my luggage at rush hour perhaps?).  

Locals roaming the busy Shibuya area at night. Filled with many of the trendiest stores and cheap little restaurants, the area around Shibuya station is considered one of the centres of the city (along with Shinjuku and, I'm told, Ikebukuro) by young Tokyo-ites looking to shop, be seen and hang out. Alongside being famous as the location at which Hachiko the akita dog faithfully waited for his master, Professor Ueno to return home everyday after work - even after his sudden passing, this area is also home to one of the biggest - and definitely most used - scramble-style cross-walks. One could probably spend hours safely ensconced in the second-floor Starbucks across from the station simply watching the 100,000 people who reputedly cross there every hour.

Early morning tourists and Buddhist adherents at Senso-ji Temple in the 'old-style' Asakusa area. 

While I have a deep love for natural scenery and being out in nature (as evidenced by my many hiking-related blog posts), I also have quite a fondness for many of the world's biggest cities - New York, Rome and Istanbul rank pretty high up there for me, as do Cairo, Beijing and (much smaller) Toronto. Tokyo? Not so much. While there are many pockets of Tokyo that I really liked, and I definitely enjoyed being able to meet up with my friends that live there, the city just didn't do it for me overall. Perhaps it was just my mood, maybe I need to go back and try again, but for me, Tokyo was definitely my least favourite part of the trip. That having been said, I still had fun!

A woman selling traditional sticky rice-ball desserts in the quaint shopping street leading up to Senso-ji in Asakusa.
As a natural product of being both so large and so populous, Tokyo isn't in possession of one single 'down town' or 'city centre'. Rather, it is more like a collection of several mini-cities, each with their own core. Sadly, sometimes the more generic cityscape holding these centres together seemed rather lifeless (Oddly, I found this to be particularly true of 'western' night district and mini-centre of a sort, Roppongi). These mini-cities often form pockets with their own unique feels. Many of these were delightful and quite fun to explore. Fortunately, Tokyo's public transit system (somewhat confusingly made up of train, bus and subway lines owned by several different companies) is quite well signed and very extensive, allowing travellers to get nearly everywhere given enough time (the city is huge!).

Possibly one of my favourite bits of Tokyo, the warren of narrow streets (this one is wide) under the tracks at the ever-busy Ueno Station turn have been turned into a delightful night market at which it seems possible to buy nearly anything from huge pickled octopus legs to size of your arm to the latest shoes in fashion. (Why yes, that is a donner kebab stand to your left.)
My first impression upon flying in was that Tokyo was relentlessly flat (it is, after all, built largely on reclaimed land) - maybe it's just that I'm used to Korea and all of the mountains here, but it's even flat when compared to somewhere such as Toronto (we have lots of valleys running through the city). Because of this flatness, even the rivers and banks along the bay area are impossible to spot until you are upon them (or, in some cases, nearly in them).

Looking toward the Tokyo Skytree (and delectable yet affordable internation food market underneath it) from accross the river in Asakusa.
The only real variance in height seems to come from the buildings - and there are a lot of those - as well as from the overpasses, whether for people, trains, subways or cars. Rather than cluttering up the city scape as one might expect, I actually found that I quite liked the overpasses as they give the city much of it's futuristic feel (one of my friends disagrees with me on that point, labelling the feel as 'retro').

The very much Victorian era-style Tokyo Station, located just east of the Imperial Palace and surrounded on all sides by brand new tall gleaming office towers. The station supposedly sold off it's upward building space to it's neighbours so that they might get even taller.

These two things in combination - the overwhelming flatness and unceasing array of buildings in every possible direction - that had me feeling claustrophobic after only my second day there (at which point I dashed off to get some skiing in before returning to see more).

The lights of Tokyo stretching endlessly outward from the observation floors in the twin towers of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices in Shinjuku. (Open 9:30 am to 11:30pm and free to get up to.)

Another contributing factor to my lack of love may have been that Tokyo feels too new and the archaeologist in me loves old things too much (after all, nearly all of the old-world cities I listed above have tended to combine both old and new, ancient and modern). This having been said, Tokyo is home to some wonderful museums (the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno is definitely worth a visit, and all my friends who have been rave about the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in the Odaiba/Bay Area - they have working robots!) and it does still have one or two important 'cultural' sites - namely the Imperial Palace, which remains the formal residence of the Imperial Family even today, the old pleasure district in the Asakusa area and Meiji-jingu, or Meiji Shrine out in Harajuku (a district definitely worth visiting if only to check out the extraordinarily out-of-this-world outfits worn by many of the pre-teens parading through the ares). But none of these is truly old.

The outer walls and moat of the Imperial Palace (also called Edo-jo). While the East Garden is free and open to the public, entry into the palace requires the permission of the Imperial Household Agency which is responsible for governing all of the affairs of the Imperial family. Reservations can be made on there website, but need to be done well in advance.

Although established in the Edo Era by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the current castle dates only to 1968; the shrine at Meiji-jingu, originally built in 1920, dates only to 1958; and the oldest of these sites, Senso-ji in Asakusa to the ancient date of 1950. All of this of course, is due to the bombings suffered by the area during WWII, which demolished much of the capital and ultimately allowed for the rise of the glinting metropolis as it is today. While, I might complain about the lack of 'old', the requirement to rebuild from scratch does seem to have lent Tokyo architects the room to build structures with some pretty funky architectural designs - and nowhere is this more evident than in the Odaiba-Tokyo Bay area, home to nerd paradise and one of the few places (apart from Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market) that remind you that Tokyo really is a port city (there is even a beach!).

Some of the wackiet architecture on display in Odaiba. No, you are not going crazy. That is, in fact, a mini statue of liberty sitting there. Odaiba is also famous for being home to Sega Joyopolis, Sega's indoor adventure park, legoland, a number of malls, the National Museum of Emerging Technology and Innovation and, most importantly - for me at least - a giant gundam statue. 
While one of the things that I loved about Odaiba was the architecture (and - okay, I will admit - the unabashed nerdiness of the area), the other was that I felt like, once there, I finally had space to breathe - not only were there buildings, there was blue and green! For me, Tokyo held an unpardonably small amount of green space. Maybe it was just the season (it was, after all, the middle of January) or that I was there such a short time that I didn't manage to stumble across many places, but even Tokyo's 'Central Park' at Ueno seemed more of a collection of (admittedly great) museums and monuments (and a zoo) with a bit of green in between. 

The giant gundam in Odaiba. I cannot express how happy seeing this made me.
Regardless of my feelings, Tokyo can't really be dismissed as a 'must see' in Japan, there is just too much there. I also have a suspicion that, much like London (which I also disliked on first glance but gradually grew to appreciate), Tokyo is a place that grows on you as you discover more and more about it. After all, in a place that big, there must be something for everyone (well... maybe not hikers ;) ).

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