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.