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Tokyoites. Introduction, Pt.1
Organism: (noun) a whole with interdependent parts compared to a living being.
Orgasm: (noun) a sexual climax characterized by feelings of pleasure.
The red and green lights at Shibuya Crossing alternate every 60 seconds. It would seem a reasonably short wait for a quick-paced city like Tokyo. However in those short 60 seconds up to one thousand people gather around this world-famous scramble crossing. Then the lights turn green again (or blue, as they say in Japan), and everybody steps in, leaving the safety of the sidewalk and heading toward the surging human waves coming from every direction. You steel yourself for the drama ahead. You can almost foresee people bouncing off each other.
But nothing happens. No sound of swearing or broken bones. Miraculously, everybody silently glides through the human maelstrom, looking ahead past each other – through each other – toward their destination.
This is Tokyo: millions and millions of people who daily share this huge city’s cramped spaces but seldom interact in a meaningful way; don’t talk to strangers unless they have to; and never hug each other. They come from every part of Japan, attracted by the city’s bright lights. They are so blinded by them that they fail to see each other.
Then there are the foreigners; the increasing number of gaijin (aliens) who call Tokyo home and add strange new spices to the city’s social and cultural miso soup. The very first time I landed in Tokyo, after an epic 25-hour flight, I felt as drunk and helpless as David Murray in Lost in Translation. Surrounded by people who swarmed all around me and signs written in indecipherable characters, I was two years old again, tightly squeezing my Japanese girlfriend’s hand like I used to with my mother, afraid of being left behind.
Only later I realized that all those Japanese who move to Tokyo from other regions feel as lost and bewildered as I was back in 1989. Starry-eyed university freshmen; newly hired office workers; or housewives following their salaryman husband; all of them are so busy chasing their dreams that never bother to recreate here, in their adopted city, some sort of community.
In the meantime, the Edokko – the true Tokyoites whose families have lived here for generations – keep shrinking in number while clinging to their centuries-old traditions.
This is, according to people from Osaka (Tokyo’s alter ego in the south), this city’s inherent weakness: the lack of local pride, of a shared past. To them, this is a place without a heart. After all this is a city whose geographical center is a big hole; a huge, mostly deserted area entirely occupied by the Emperor’s properties under which not even the subway is allowed to pass. To me, on the contrary, this is one of Tokyo’s major attractions. This city never imposes itself on you. You are able to lose yourself in the crowds; to feel alone but not lonely, safe and secure in your cocoon.
For these and other reasons I’m not going to try to define the true Tokyoite. Or better yet, as far as I’m concerned everybody can become one. What really makes Tokyo such and endlessly fascinating city is that everybody is welcome. Kyoto keeps newcomers at arm’s length, mistaking its provincialism for elitism, while Osaka smothers you with the kind of “Italian” friendliness and in-your-face frankness from which I escaped many light-years ago. But Tokyo just lets you be. It leaves you free to wander its streets, get lost and find new unexpected wonders every day (without fear of being mugged or worse); to find your niche and get settled while you plan your next move.
But when and how do people come to feel they have become a part of this city? When do they start calling Tokyo their home? For me it happened in stages.
On my very first visit to Japan, I actually spent only a couple of days in Tokyo before being led to my girlfriend’s hometown where I spent two miserable months in the middle of nothing. By the time I returned, in the summer of 1992, I had decided I wanted to stay for the long run. The economic bubble had just burst putting an end to the heady years of uncontrolled credit, big spending and wild hedonism. But while the so-called Lost Decade had already begun, its negative effects weren’t being felt quite yet and life in Tokyo was going on as usual: for many people it was still a playground, a big party as symbolized by all the girls in body-con dresses who stomped on Juliana’s dance platforms.
Most importantly, for me it was the best time of my life. After spending my first 28 years in a town that I hated without knowing what to do with my life, I had finally found a sense of purpose. The first few months in Tokyo were overwhelming. Here I was, freely moving in the heart of this amazing, hyperactive, ever-pulsating metropolis, finally breathing, excited by all the new experiences that were waiting for me.
Instead of feeling lonely I enjoyed my newfound independence, looking forward to tackling all the big and small challenges that came with starting a new life abroad. One of the things that surprised me at first was that I never had problems adjusting to my new surroundings. Being a foreign language teacher, every day I met other gaijin who taught at my school, and they always had some complaint, something to say against this country, this city, and its people. Admittedly this is in many respects a very different place from the West, and the Japanese sometimes think and act in puzzling ways. It can be frustrating, that’s for sure. But I’ve never felt like I was an outsider here, even though I perfectly know that I am; that many people consider a foreigner “not one of us.”
When, after six months, I went back to Italy to spend the holidays with my family, I felt as if I had traveled not only through space but through time as well. In my hometown, nothing had changed. Nothing at all. Everybody was complaining about the bad economy and a new government that looked exactly like the old one. All my friends talked about the changes they wanted to make in their lives but nobody really dared to make, out of laziness or fear of the unknown. Even my room at home, the place where I still kept most of my things, felt cold and inhospitable, as if it was someone else’s room. Returning to Italy had been like stepping into quicksand: It grabbed my feet and slowly sucked me down. That December I realized that I couldn’t go back anymore.
Luckily the holidays were over soon, and I flew back to Tokyo. When I finally stepped out of the plane I rushed to the train station, eager to complete the last leg of my journey. When I boarded the train, I looked around me and saw all those almond-eyed faces, which to me looked so familiar. I was happy to see them again. Finally, I arrived at my station. I dragged my heavy suitcase a few hundred meters to my apartment. I took out the keys, unlocked the door, and when I stepped into that tiny, cramped, smelly space, I thought I’m HOME.
Home. Well, I guess that’s the only way I could define the eight-tatami (4x4 m) room I’d been sharing with a Japanese friend of a friend. It was a typical bachelor pad in the Tokyo suburbs: a tiny bathroom, a separate 1x2 m toilet, and a narrow corridor-cum-kitchen (if you can imagine that) which led to the eight-tatami room. This really was something to be seen. Due to the lack of space in the rest of the house, my partner had crammed most of the furniture in this one room: a small TV, a wardrobe, a sofa full of stuff (a radio-cassette-CD player, old magazines, dirty cloths, etc.) piled up on it, a bookshelf, a small fridge (another one was in the kitchen-corridor), a kerosene stove, and a small kotatsu (a low table with an electric stove under it) in the middle of this bazaar. That only left two open spaces in the room, on both sides of the kotatsu. We used to sit and sleep there – on the futons that we kept in the built-in cupboard during the day. Despite its appearance, I still enjoyed living there. My working schedule kept me away from home most of the day, and my roommate was a guy with a golden heart, and we quickly developed a strong bond.
After 18 months I moved east to the other side of the city – a 1DK (one room and a dining kitchen) in Morishita, just beyond the Sumida River. Now I was in Shitamachi, the low-lying lower-middle class area (Shitamachi literally means Low City) that was the original home of the proud Edokko merchants and artisans and where none of my Japanese students and friends had ever set foot. My new home was double the size of my old apartment but was cold and drafty in winter and unbelievably hot and humid in summer – and I had to remember to keep the window nets always closed to keep the flying cockroaches from raiding the house at night. But again, I couldn’t be happier. I was finally alone, the king of the house, and on top of the world.
I’ve moved two more times since, and each new house has become the base from which I leave to explore different neighborhoods in Tokyo. In 1992 a pale local version of the mythical London A-Z street atlas had just been created but it was much more fun to wander around without it, get lost and find new unexpected marvels and oddities behind every corner. Anyway, the atlas would have been of little use as most Japanese streets have no name and the Japanese address system has been devised to drive people crazy.
I quickly discovered that far from being a monolithic metropolis, Tokyo was actually an agglomeration of villages, each one with its own distinctive character. Coming from a small town where everybody knew everybody and frequented the same places, I was left wondering who these people were and why they gravitated toward a certain district instead of another.
After a few years, I began to play with the idea of writing a Tokyo guidebook. I needed a key, a slogan, something to both convince a publisher and give me a guiding idea around which to write the book. At the time Tokyo wasn’t as popular a destination as it is now, and I tried to find reasons why someone would be interested in such an idiosyncratic city in spite of the long flight one had to endure and the high prices.
To be sure, defining Tokyo is not that easy. Tokyo can hardly be judged or appreciated by applying some of the parameters we typically use when we look at a city. For example, think about Rome, Paris, London or New York and there are some images that immediately come to mind; places and monuments that have come to symbolize them and contribute to their myth.
Now think about Tokyo.
I bet you would be hard pressed to come up with a definite image. The stereotypical impression that people get by reading articles and books or watching TV programs is a jumble of buildings and signs and colors without a definite order or direction. For me it used to be the same. Many years ago, when I was still a university student, a Japanese pen pal (do you remember pen pals?) sent me a picture postcard of Tokyo. It just showed a sea of ferroconcrete with a weird red-and-white pylon in the middle.
And again, in the 1980s Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi was sent here to work as a foreign correspondent and upon arriving, he looked down from the window of his airplane and was reminded of a room in which a kid had just scattered on the floor several boxfuls of building blocks. It was a polite and imaginative way to say that Tokyo is, after all, an ugly city.
This is a short list of “famous” Tokyo spots:
- The Tokyo Tower. This is the strange thing I noticed on my friend’s postcard. Imagine the Eiffel Tower, but slightly different in shape. The Japanese version is 330 meters high, i.e. 30 meters higher than the French tower. Unfortunately, it’s been painted white and red (well, technically it’s called “international orange”). The overall effect is totally different: the ever-proud French have turned a mountain of iron bars into a national symbol. The Japanese have turned the same amount of iron into a giant pylon. It still attracts millions of visitors every year though, mostly from the countryside. As for the newer Tokyo Sky Tree, the less said the better…
- Tokyo Station. The city’s central station has two exits, respectively facing east and west. The latter one, called Marunouchi Exit (from the name of the business district nearby) was once thought to be the perfect copy of the central station in Amsterdam. It is not. Still, it is a fair example of post-Victorian red brick architecture. Built in 1914, it is the oldest remaining station in the city. Until recently, all that remained was one third shorter than the original building, the top floor having being destroyed during WWII.
- Odaiba. This waterfront area is a much more recent addition to the city’s landscape. It used to be just a landfill – Tokyo’s dump, to be precise – but it has now grown to be a major money-making attraction. I won’t go into too much detail. I’ll just mention that, among other things, you can admire 1) a shopping mall shaped like a small Italian village; 2) Little Hong Kong; and… 3) the Statue of Liberty. Well, a perfect copy.
I mean, even London’s Battersea Power Plant is more recognizable than these replicas of exotic places.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, in order to get the most out of this place you have to approach it differently. Here you won’t find any local versions of the Champs Elysees or examples or two-hundred-year-old urban architecture. After having been almost totally destroyed twice in the 20th century you will hardly find any significant remnants of the past. As for urban planning, it is simply non-existent. But this doesn’t mean Tokyo lacks beautiful, even breathtaking spots. You just have to find them, again, like in a treasure hunt. Tokyo’s beauty, after all, is in the small details.
(To be continued)
As promised, this is part one of the introduction to the book-sized project I would like to showcase in Tokyo Calling. So far, my proposal has been read by half of my readers, which is rather good. On the other hand, only four people have answered my survey, which is very disappointing. I hope more of you will express their opinion of Tokyoites.
In the meantime, tomorrow I’m going to post the second part of the introduction. As always, thank you for your time and interest.
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