From our hotel room
I had read statistics about Tokyo – for example that metropolitan Tokyo has more people than California or Canada. That the City has a municipal budget equal to that of India. That one train station serves 3.5 million people a day.
But I wasn’t prepared. All our time in Tokyo I felt like a country mouse. In a cab we’d drive through a Times Square, then another, then another. A half-dozen high-rise financial districts. Trying to grasp the layout I’d unfold a big map, to find out it covered just one neighborhood. Our sense of scale was so off that we’d find a destination that looked near and head out to walk before realizing we were miles away.
Often I didn’t know where we were, or going, or coming from (and hardly cared.)
It’s hard to imagine how such an enormous city can “work”, but it does, and without the ad hoc, patched together feel of New York. It is famously spotless, everyone is polite, the trains run on time, there is very little graffiti, no smashed car windows, nobody high or drunk, bicycles unlocked, no honking or raised voices.
On our return I was reminded what an advanced civilization Japan is, compared to our primitive one – litter thrown everywhere, smashed car windows, people raving or lying on the sidewalks. Someone has even spray painted a graffiti tag on our street tree.
I was amazed that a big global capital city could have such a homogeneous population: just about everyone you see is Asian. San Francisco, New York, Paris, London are all diverse, with Asians, black, brown, and white people. Not Tokyo. The only other city I’ve visited with such homogeneity was Buenos Aires, where every one is white pretty much.
Right off its broad freeway streets, Tokyo everywhere has more intimate, alleys and streets, perfect for getting lost.
And on those streets, more restaurants per capita than any other city. Many of these seat only a handful of patrons and the economics of such small places consistently puzzled us.
Because there is so much competition and because of the Japanese pride in work and attention to detail it would be hard find a bad meal. Ours ranged from good to beyond great. And not just the Japanese cuisine. A Japanese friend told us how disappointed she was when she ate in French restaurants – in Paris.
I read that so many Japanese eat out because the price of restaurant meals isn’t much more than the cost of groceries. And we saw very few grocery stores.
The big shopping hot spot is 7-11, which is a Japanese corporation and sells everything.
Maybe it’s not all so sweet under the surface. There are special “women only”cars during rush hour for those who want to avoid groping.
If you are a Japanese college graduate and a man you are expected to become a salaryman and if you don’t it’s a shame on you- and your parents. You get a job in the April after you graduate (that’s when corporations hire) and you stay at that job until you retire. You don’t leave, you don’t get laid off or fired. After work you are expected to dine and drink with your colleagues. Everyone dresses the same: dark suit, white shirt, dark tie.
It sounds miserable and many salarymen commit suicide. The popular spot is the Chuo subway line, paralyzing the commute.
Now there are barriers that only open when the train has arrived
For such a dense city, Tokyo has a surprising number of single-family homes in the center of town:
I liked the humble buildings. Here, a park restroom:
I even like the ugly buildings:
You might not expect it, but Japanese buildings are not built to last. They are replaced every 30 years or so. As in Israel, buildings are either very, very old or young.
Nearly two million buildings occupy the central 23 wards of Tokyo. About a quarter of these were built since 1990. According to Botond Bognar,quoted in Zen Places and Neon Places by Vinayak Bharne, “In 1997 the annual degree of change within Tokyo’s densely built urban zones was about 30% (encompassing facade improvements to entirely new structures). The average life span of a building was around 26 years. Virtually any new building had a zero value after three years, even if built of reinforced concrete, the true value of the property lying in the ground below”.
In Hiroshima I saw the most lamentable, misbegotten building I’ve ever seen.
Hiroshima has a Peace Park with memorials to the atom bomb and a peace center where the G7 foreign ministers convened a couple of days after we left.
There is the famous ruin of the bombed out building and when we got there an opera singer was singing to a group of school kids who later turned out to be a chorus. It was very moving.
The Peace Park’s memorials are lined up toward this shell, with an eternal flame and an arched monument leading up to it, all on an axis. And then this office building:
What a blemish.
One more shot, with the G7 ministers
In any town you can’t get far without coming across a shrine (those are Shinto) or a temple (which are Buddhist).
And not just in town. Check out this unmarked shrine we stumbled across on an equally unmarked trail near Hakone:
Often there’s a garden that will change what you think a garden can do. To me, their beauty was a type of transcendental transportation.
This one, in Kyoto, was designed in the 14th century.
This one is in the heart of Tokyo.
Nature is a big deal. Especially cherry blossoms and we were there for the week or so that they are in full bloom. Japanese love to photograph the blossoms and I loved to photograph the photographers:
And they like to picnic under them.
Shinto is the state religion; you’ve got to be Japanese to get in, there’s no founder and no big book, and the Emperor is a deity. Deities also manifest in rocks and trees and animals and holiness is everywhere and worthy of respect. So the whole Japanese attitude is one of respect. It really comes through. There is a lot of bowing.
Shintoism and Buddhism are ambient, not just in the gardens and temples.
Hotel night table
Japan opened my eyes to another way of living. I’m not an expert and maybe I saw what I wanted to see. But everyone recognizes the sense of mutual respect, attention to details, non-competitiveness, regard for the environment and for oneself and others.
Rather than just tourist sites, it was the culture that we came to see. The gardens, the blossoms, the trains, the enormity of Tokyo, the meals, and the landscape: all worth the trip.
But the air of civilization, that’s my favorite memory of Japan.