2.5 days in Tokyo

[This is the last of a series of three posts on Japan. An introductory one can be found here. A second one on Kyoto and Takayama is here.]

He who has the lucky chance of travelling around the world, knows how much major cities may differ from the “average” country. But I never found so much difference between a city and the rest of a nation as between Tokyo and the remainder of Japan. With 13 million inhabitants just in the city itself distributed in an area as big as 200 Manhattan (or 10 Rome), Tokyo is a massive cluster where skyscrapers and huge malls replace two-level houses and regular shops you see all around Japan. Widespread tunnels run below the street level, connecting adjacent underground stations or just conquering more room for shops. The only trace of tradition is represented by the few wooden temples and shrines, whose size, gardens and colors clash with the cement, glass, and grey of the buildings ten times taller and hundreds years younger that surround them.

Tokyo is crazy as only massive, larger-than-life cities can be, but in a very special way I never saw outside Japan. First of all, the importance given to exteriority – especially to clothes – is astonishing. In central areas, fashion boutiques are everywhere and huge, and you see a lot of people really suited up1. Others, who maybe cannot afford expensive clothes, go buy themselves costumes of their manga heroes in (again, huge!) shops that sell everything related to comics, from 250$ fake plastic swords to 50cm hand painted dolls (like those you find in this video). And they do go around dressed like that on weekends. Second, the amount of people you see everywhere downtown: go at 6 pm in a working day in the “busiest crossing” on Earth, just in front of the Shibuya Station. A huge number of people will be walking around in every direction. This may not be so peculiar – you may have seen so many somewhere else. But then choose any direction, and keep walking for 20 minutes. Throughout your walk, you will see the same incredible amount of people coming and going2. Third, the widespread passion for lights, neon signs, and over the top continuous noises: try entering a Pachinko (sort of gambling pinball) parlor.

Hence, after the first walks, I was disappointed with Tokyo. I thought: is this all ? The largest metropolitan area of the world, producing a GDP of $1.5 trillion (almost as much as that of the whole Italy!), host to 51 of the top 500 word companies, heir to an empire and a culture thousands of years old, just to have 6-floors Prada stores and a bunch of guys going around dressed like their favourite superheros3? Then, I understood that was my approach to the city to be wrong. And my approach is usually the following: I decide where I want to go beforehand, but then wander around, getting to know the city as I got lost in it. From time to time I peek at the map to be sure I am more or less going where I’m willing to. You just can’t do that in Tokyo. First of all, it is too big, and many areas are quite, sort to say, focused: if you end up, say, in Akihabara, you’ll keep seeing manga-related shops and nothing else. Moreover, most street names are in Japanese, and you may well be completely lost before you find a map with english names on it.

But Tokyo is not just a big cultural shock, there are in fact things to see there. Some of this you may find by chance: many peculiar, old-style labyrinthic small areas, which survived gentrification, between yet another huge mall and the train rails. Others are everywhere: Tokyo is exceptional for those who love skyscrapers and technology: a marvellous, free of charge view of the city from above can be enjoyed from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices. Most places worth a visit, you have to know in advance. Let me mention a couple. As a side effect of their interest in exteriority, Japanese are really into visual arts. The Tokyo metropolitan Museum of photography has excellent exhibitions: among others, I really enjoyed the Diorama maps by Sohei Nishino, that takes pictures of the people and building from different parts of a city, and then glues them together as to form a highly personal map of the city. I also liked another exhibition on the role of images in science (which, much to my surprise, included a collection of pictures from books related to the Copernican Revolution). Again related to visual arts, special mentions are due to the Mori Art Museum (multimedial arts) and the Leica Ginza Salon (photography). Tokyo also has a big Fish Market. As lively as a market can be, its informal and relaxed atmosphere clashes with the aloof attitude of the rest of the city. You could get high quality sushi at a good price, and spend some time walking around, looking at trading going on.

Also, nightlife is really crowded. Despite the big city-attitude of people, there are so many clubs, and restaurant, and events you just can’t get bored. Some areas are too flashy and noisy to be enjoyable, while others are lively and pleasant. Roppongi is especially famous for having a relaxed international evening atmosphere.

Hence, the bad name Tokyo has among travellers often comes from the fact that it is a city where people live, more than a city for tourists. Because of that, its beauty is not everywhere: it is often overshadowed by attractions built for a frantic lifestyle most people (including me) do not appreciate. Nevertheless search well, and you will be rewarded.


1. I believe that this importance is somehow the outcome of the mixture of traditional japanese values, where wealth was extremely important, and the sudden discovery of western culture soon after World War II. In fact, immediately after the war ended, the US army settled in Tokyo and basically called the shots for 7 years. Japan, that had never been occupied before by any foreign army, abruptly absorbed American culture, where image was becoming more and more important (this is clearly explained in several Yukio Mishima‘s essays).
2. While doing this in Shibuya, I tried an experiment: I counted how many seconds I had to wait before seeing another foreigner. (But you can’t do it in a foreigners-friendly area like Roppongi, else it is too easy.) It took me 4 minutes, and I was literally looking at a dozen people per sec. This proves you that despite the Armani clothes people wear, the neon signs advertising the latest Hollywood movie or the Nirvana cover bands strumming in pubs, Japan is still a country almost 100% lived by, and hence tought for, Japanese people.
3. After visiting the Manga Museum in Kyoto (see this post) I became much more tolerant with manga- and anime-related culture. But I still find no point in being 30 years old and regularly going around dressed up like Doraemon or Kenshiro.

Traditional Japan: Kyoto and Takayama

edited on Feb 10th, 2012


[This is the second of a series of three posts on Japan. An introductory one can be found here. A third one on Tokyo is here.]

A Shinto shrine in Takayama

Beware, reader: 70% of a traveller’s tale tells what’s inside the speaker, and just 30% accounts for what he really saw outside. Also, for a gaijin (foreigner) is quite hard to get a neat idea of Japan in a handful of days, lost as he is between jet lag, neon signs, monks, awesome nature, tempura, and bullet trains. But I’ll try my best, starting from the first two cities I saw there.

When you arrive in Kyoto, you hardly believe it is the cradle of Japan’s religion. The huge brand new train station is the one you would expect to find in Tokyo, and the clumsy suburbs around it makes you think of some Yakuza movie settled in Osaka. 

But in fact, it is: Kyoto is for Japanese religion what Rome is for Catholicism. To a Western, it is the greatest possible encounter with classical Japan: it is the former capital of a country that holds tradition and formality in the highest esteem, and rituals are far more preserved and relevant in here than in Tokyo. And still, the first things you see of it are its modern sides: as you move away from the station, you will meet a downtown bustling with life and surrounded by skyscrapers, then the tiny roads and flashy neon signs of the night district of Gion, till you end right in front of the wide open spaces of the sacred area of Higashiyama. Here you can find uncountable Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines (for most Japanese are both Buddhist and Shintoists). Monks and believers come and go, paying no attention to tourists, and you will find yourself trying to decode their rituals and absorb the peacefulness and sacredness of the place. Often those religious buildings are gathered in big complexes, together with Zen gardens. Now, Zen gardens are better explained through pictures (never seen one ? try this), but if one is required to define them, I would say they are gardens where empty spaces and objects exchange their usual role – the former are more important than the latter, and really shape the garden (if you find this definition obscure and meaningless, try some Zen quotation, such as “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”). Even though a huge number of those temples and gardens are located all around the city, even in the most modern areas, Higashiyama has some quite impressive ones, together with paved roads between stone-made private houses, parks, and a relaxed atmosphere. This is something one cannot miss in Kyoto.

I also enjoyed the Manga museum – which is actually more of a library than a real museum: I am not into Manga at all, but it was interesting to understand the huge influence they have on Japanese culture. Everywhere in the city you will find people of all ages and social status lost in their comics, which mostly deal with love or fantasy story. At first, I was surprised by the deep attention their readers pay to them, compared to the seemingly childish style of the drawings – with overemphasized expressions and kitsch pictures. But now I think this exaggeration is part of Japan culture, and it takes a while for a Western to get used to that.  For instance, I found a similar exaggerated style in Japanese tv shows.

Takayama is a medium size city (< 100.000 inhabitants) in central Honsu, which is the area between Kyoto and Tokyo. It lies up in the mountains, surrounded by higher mountains, and covered with snow. I came here because I wanted to see some not-so-big and not-so-touristic town in Japan (and I succeeded only partly, for I was told that quite some western come here and it is a touristic place in fact) and nature. The downtown is a bunch of small roads, with traditional wooden houses and shops selling ceramics handmade in the countryside. It is touristic in a good way, meaning that you find goods tourists buy (pottery, souvenir, etc.) but no plastic crap and “I love Takayama” shirt. All around those shops, life is quiet but present: children going to school in shorts (despite the cold!) , fish market crowded with old ladies, and nobody paying attention to the new gaijin that came to town. I especially enjoyed climbing up the hills which surround the city, and enjoy the view of the snow-covered valley from there. Also, the road from Takayama to Tokyo passes between gorges and peeks, next to woods and half-frozen lakes, and if you happen to get stuck in a snowstorm (as I was) but comfortably sitting in a warm bus (as I was), you really enjoy the trip.

Let me conclude this post with a couple of tips for a traveller in Japan: experience the Onsen (traditional baths), better if in the countryside, in a very cold, snowy day, and with a nice view. Japanese food is awesome. I only knew sushi and sashimi, while it is much more various: noodles, many kinds of meat, vegetables, etc. You get never bored, and rarely disappointed. Try as much of it as you can: prices are quite good when compared to Europe.

Learn some basic food words and at least once get out of the tourist paths: go to some restaurant that has no English menu or plastic food sample (yes, they use them, a lot!) in the window. If you’re unlucky, you will make yourself understood somehow, and have dinner as always. But if you are lucky, some other customer will help you out with the menu, even if in a broken english. He won’t miss the chance to chat with a gaijin and you will spend a nice dinner (this happened to me more than once). In fact, I found Japanese people particularly nice. As heritage of a rigid social system, they are very formal and (even too) helpful at work, and restrained by a deep shyness which seems to be as common as sake there. But once the ice is broken, they become quite informal and reveal all their genuine curiosity for western culture and habits, making the conversation quite enjoyable. To us, Japan is a remote land, whose tradition and culture charm us, partly because we do not fully understand them. To many of the people I met there, the rest of the world is what Japan is to us.

Japan for beginners

edited on Feb 10th, 2012.

[This is the first of a series of three posts on Japan. A second one about Kyoto and Takayama can be found here. A third one on Tokyo is here.]

As I will be travelling around Japan for 11 days starting from tomorrow (I’ll try to post from Japan in this blog, stay tuned), in the last month and half I felt like I needed to know more about this country. Being born in Italy in the early ’80s, I grew up knowing everything about US (sub)culture, while my understanding of Japan was limited to this and this. Hence I browsed through the net looking for something to look at and read. Here come the highlights of my search.

I read a collection of essays by Yukio Mishima, a deeply nationalist and conservative novelist. He committed a ritual suicide in 1970 after his coup attempt failed – his purpose was to fight against modernization of Japan and what he claimed to be its humiliating situation after World War II. Reading them was a good way to get to know Japan classical values, and the most prominent effects american cultural influence had on them. I can suggest especially Spiritual lectures for a young samurai (I translated the title from the Italian, hence the official English one may be different).

I wanted to read something by Haruki Murakami, who is rocking modern Japanese literature. By mistake, I borrowed from the library In the miso sup, a pulp, post-modern novel by Ryu Murakami about the encounter of a young Japanese with an american serial killer who also turns out to be a psychic (this is a spoiler, but you’re not going to read it, are you ?). The background is the Tokyo sex industry, where people bring together their loneliness and alienation. Mishima’s hate for modern lifestyle and its consequences on Japanese society echos everywhere in this novel. I’m not too much into this kind of books, but it was an easy read so I devoured it and, all in all, it was ok.

I flickered through other books, most notably The road to Sata, the account of a 3,500 km long tour of rural Japan the late Englishman Alan Booth did (by feet) some 35 years ago. It describes a Japan that I won’t visit and may not exist anymore; still, it provides a nice glimpse at the lifestyle of Japaneses, as well as at their attitude towards foreigners. Witty descriptions and observations are often coupled with surreal dialogues, like the following between the author and the host of a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn:

– Are there any free rooms ?
– Well, yes, there are, but we haven’t got any beds. We sleep on mattresses on the floor.
– Yes, I know. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years.
– And you won’t be able to eat the food.
– Why, what’s the matter with it ?
– It’s fish.
– I like fish.
– But it’s raw fish.
– Look, I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. My wife is Japanese. I like raw fish.
– But I don’t think we have any knives and forks.
– Look…
– And you can’t use chopsticks.
– Of course I can. I’ve lived in Japan for…
– But it’s a tatami-mat room and there aren’t any armchairs.
– Look…
– And there is no shower in the bathroom, it’s a o-furo.
– I use chopsticks at home. I sit on tatami. I eat raw fish. I use an o-furo. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. That’s nearly a quarter of my life. My wife…
– Yes, but we can’t speak English.
– I don’t suppose that will bother us. We’ve been speaking Japanese for the last five minutes.

It seems that Japanese modern movies are either action-packed, manga style films, or quite sophisticated ones. From the second category I watched Maborosi, the story of a young bride dealing with a sudden loss. It has some poetry: the photography and the direction are extremely accurate, especially in the exterior shots. Also, the characters are charming and intense. But sometimes it gets too slow. A funny documentary about Japan and Tokyo are those shot by OLN [edit: I found out this documentary is part of the Globe trekker series, produced by Pilot Productions and broadcasted, among others, by OLN], that follows the discovery of Japanese culture by a British journalist.

Also, it seems the gathering a decent amount of practical information before landing into Japan is very important, as few people speak English there, especially out of big cities. The tourist guides Eyewitness travel and Lonely Planet (and the website listed therein) are very good sources of travelling tips, also providing a brief introduction to Japanese culture and habits.

[Edit: Another book I liked is Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting. It is an account of the development of Western mafia in Japan: it arrived right after World War II and had a key role in boosting economic and industrial growth in the subsequent years. The leading character is Nick Zappetti, a former Italian-American marine, which came to Tokyo at the end of the war and went on to be a beer and checks smuggler, a wrestler, a jewel robber, a chef, the owner of the biggest chain of Pizzerias in Tokyo, a pig breeder, and much more – always with a close connection with Japanese and foreigners “that really count”. Entertaining and informative (the book, not Zappetti).]