Tokyo left me a little out of breath. It is too vast for a few days of wandering about to fully grasp. But I think like any city, it’s possible to cop a feel of its general personality in that amount of time. After visiting Beijing last year I was sort of expecting Tokyo to be the same (yes i’m all sorts of stereotypical aren’t I?). Full of modern amenities but with a harsh, grimy edge; the people coarse but friendly. That was stupid of me. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Tokyo is like the refined, polite and reticent aristocratic brother to Beijing’s boozy, belligerent business magnate. It’s a city in which you feel completely safe. So long as you don’t do something criminal. People mind their own business and hardly look you in the eye. In the midst of thousands, you can feel alone and isolated. This is not generally a good thing for me and a little strange since I like company (In Colombo, at least two people are in your business and your face at any given time. Which is probably the other extreme).
But after while I got used to it. And felt liberated to be able to just wander around the city taking pictures of weird things and not having to explain myself with complacent smiles or forgive-me-please shrugs of the shoulder. Tokyoites are not overly friendly, but they are very courteous and insanely polite. for example, once i was taking pictures of a rare rusty poster board by the side of a street, trying to frame the profiles of passing salarymen against it. And people would literally stop and walk around me on the street, or duck, or run along really fast ostensibly to avoid getting in the way of my picture, defeating my purpose. On no occasion did any of them so much as glance at me with annoyance. Maybe they were being considerate, or maybe they thought i was some foreign, uncouth creep.
Tokyoites will stop at the don’t walk sign even if there are no vehicles on the six feet of street separating them from the other side. They will always stick to the left side of public escalators and leave the right side free for people in a hurry, sort of a ‘fast lane’ to run through. They will literally wait until everyone gets off the train before proceeding to board in an orderly manner, standing politely in pre-drawn lines on the platform in front of which the train doors always stop with remarkable precision. Their good behavior had me fairly gaping. What, nobody shoves you and accidentally tries to kill you when boarding the train at rush hour? What sorcery is this?
In the trains I used to travel in when going to school there’d be at least one impromptu ‘band’ singing moany Sinhala love songs near the toilet and at least five gangsies of state sector workers struggling to have their gossip heard above the hubbub. But inside the Tokyo metro there is pindrop silence. Here most people will either read, text, play games on their smart phones or sleep; even if they are standing up. They are nearly always immaculately dressed, well groomed and stoic. Always going somewhere, always purposeful, always subtly ignoring me as I not-so-subtly stare at their faces in deep anthropological curiosity.
Getting around is a cinch if you take the subway. It’s a layered and complicated looking multi-tentacled beast, but organized to the nth degree. So with a map and a good sense of direction I easily got around. Most Tokyoites don’t speak English, so I got to practice my sign language a little. Couple of times I accidentally bought the wrong ticket and found myself on the wrong line, but the guards I approached gave me a refund right away and went to great pains to point me in the right direction. Not like Sri Lankan railway workers at all, or any public servant I’ve ever met here actually. Public servants who actually serve the public? A few years ago I would have laughed at your face.
They say that even Tokyoites get lost in Tokyo at least once. And it happened to me at the worst time possible. The SWY program is very strict about punctuality, as the Japanese famously are. It was a Friday and I had gotten special permission to attend prayers. And dallied a little longer than I should have talking to people and enjoying the architecture of a beautiful pre-WW2 Turkish mosque. By the time I was in the subway, I had no time to spare, and obviously this was a perfect time for me to realize that the station I thought I was supposed to get off at, was in fact not my station. I walked out and after panicking a bit decided to take a cab. I spent the next 20 minutes on the edge of my seat literally asking the driver if I was there yet. His patient smile had turned into a tight grimace by the time he dropped me off.
There are quite a few places to see, a Lonely Planet will sort you out nicely. It probably knows much more about the city’s attractions than most of its inhabitants. Most of Tokyo is new, rebuilt after the thrashing it received in the Second World War, a real pity. But some ancient relics still remain. The history is still strong in the people though and Japanese are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage. Even if they do wear business suits, work themselves half to death and drink themselves silly when they’re not.
In the night the city comes alive. I went up to Shibuya and it was literally like a scene from Lost in Translation. In other areas like Rippongi things can get a little dodge, with shady looking characters leaning against street corners. I’m thinking Yakuza, and was wise enough not to look them in the eye. Over in Akihabara, the area famous for Cosplay, the shops are full of anime figures, AKB48 merchandise and electronics. Here the geeks or otaku gather in full force. And the streets are lined with maids trying to entice you with all sorts of merch, all legal, ostensibly.
Tokyo is not a cheap city. A simple meal with set you back about 600 yen, around 1800 rupees, lodging is way beyond. It’s cosmopolitan, but not in an obvious way. You only notice the gaijin if you look carefully. Tokyo seems to absorb everything that comes its way, and even Asians become a part of the background, slinking along in their own little worlds, self absorbed and purposeful. That’s not to say it is a lonely city. On the contrary it felt like a place you could be at peace with the whole world at your fingertips. No one bothers you so long as you bother no one else.
But even to me its obvious that the glory days are maturing. Japan’s economic growth hasn’t been that great lately. The cars on the streets aren’t as shiny as you’d expect. Most people drive practical cars, whereas in China the nouveau riche are out in force with their luxury European sedans. Creative destruction and innovation, once its primary drivers, has slowed down in the recent past along with its declining manufacturing industry. But Japan is still a force to be reckoned with, and still the world’s third largest economy.
More pictures of Tokyo can be found here pics of the SWY program can be found here, here and here not forgetting here. I’ve also got thousands more, i have no idea when i’ll get about processing them. Also some on Flickr.