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Downtown Tokyo

  • From the poetic to the prosaic - the Japanese capital is still one of the world’s most civilised cities

Boarding an underground train is rarely memorable, but if it is, it’s almost certainly for all the wrong reasons; a feeling of claustrophobia, chaotic pushing, a sensation of stress. Yet my first time on the Tokyo network felt like an almost poetically choreographed experience.

Few urban panoramas can match Tokyo’s skyline at night.

Few urban panoramas can match Tokyo’s skyline at night. / SUR

I walked past the uniformed staff, wearing pristine white gloves, and joined the waiting passengers patiently standing in parallel lines. As the train pulled up and came to a stop, the carriage doors perfectly aligned to the designated boarding area marked on the platform. Passengers disembarked, before we joined the train, boarding in the order in which we had arrived. An incongruously child-like jingle then rang out from loud speakers, and the carriage doors slid closed and we departed.

I know it’s probably a clichéd observation, but believe me, being part of urban life first-hand in Tokyo is far from the prosaic experience of most European capitals. Admittedly it wasn’t rush-hour and I had joined the train at one of Tokyo’s upscale central districts, so probably my experience wasn’t the norm; yet it felt that politeness, order and calm typically prevailed.

Hidden history

Together with my private guide Rie, I headed north on the metro from Tokyo’s urban heart to the Rikugien gardens, a historic green space dating back to the 1700s, when this was the city known as Edo.

I’m fascinated by Japanese gardens; not only a beautiful manifestation of the national pursuit of perfection, but also these manicured spaces offer a glimpse into Tokyo’s past, a sense of history that’s sometimes hard to find in this modern metropolis. Tokyo was all but flattened in the second world war, so much of what one experiences in the capital has been built from the 1950s onwards.

Rie is Japanese, one of the bi-lingual founders (together with foreign resident Owen) of ‘The Back Street Guides’. As we near our destination we chat about my first impressions of the city. When I arrived on my flight a few days earlier, I managed to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Tokyo, as the aircraft flew over the city, on its final approach to Haneda airport. The silvery grey of towers and buildings spread out as far as the horizon. It’s probably the most colossal urban area I’d ever seen - exciting, whilst also slightly awe-inspiring.

During your first day or so it’s good to have a local at your side; it accelerates one’s understanding of Tokyo, a city that can seem both overwhelming, yet also almost village-like thanks to the gentle politeness of the residents.

Rie tells me that Japan is well advanced with its programme to make the country more open for foreign visitors. This is predominantly reflected in English being the second language, and English being rolled-out across the transport network from signage to information screens. With the 2020 Olympic Games approaching, Japan is wanting to be more open, putting its history of being a closed nation very much in its past. Yet so far, from my limited perspective as a visitor, Tokyo still looked and felt very ‘Japanese’. Sitting on the metro train, I surveyed my fellow passengers; there were few signs that Tokyo is cosmopolitan, or a culturally diverse city.

Just Japanese

With a falling population, Japan has a ticking demographic time bomb. Faced with similar issues, European governments have sometimes embraced immigration as a quick-fix to labour shortages. Yet here the Japanese are turning to automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. Foreign-looking faces are still few and far between here, yet AI gadgets and cartoon-style pepper robots are an increasingly familiar sight.

Graceful gardens

Within a few minutes, we had arrived at the station for the gardens. Nature and her seasons play an integral part in the social and cultural life of Japan; from the renowned ‘hanami’ custom of relishing the beauty of the spring cherry blossom, to enjoying the radiance of the autumnal trees, particularly the iconic, warm tones and fiery reds of the delicate acer maples.

The iconic, warm tones and fiery reds of the delicate acer maples.

The iconic, warm tones and fiery reds of the delicate acer maples. / SUR

Surrounded by apartment blocks and busy streets, the Rikugien gardens are surprisingly tranquil. This noble park has survived through the centuries and is said to be an interpretation of the period’s revival of the Waka poetry style. Many elements of the garden have been manicured and groomed over generations to create a sense of harmony between nature and the social use of the garden. Like many of the formal gardens that lay almost hidden amongst Tokyo’s skyscrapers, this space was commissioned by an elite nobleman, either a daimyo, or a shogun.

Petite timber tea houses shelter under branches of ancient trees; small streams, crossed by diminutive stone and wooden bridges, feed a central lake punctuated by a picturesque island of clipped pine and maple trees.

As the afternoon light fades, the gardens become illuminated with coloured lighting, theatrically framing the garden scenes, each revealed as one strolls along the narrow winding paths. It’s a centuries-old fantasy world, where one can still find ancient engraved stone ‘sekichu’ posts describing the different poetic corners of this contrived yet still natural environment.

This notion of nature perfected is common across the capital. Japan is a mountainous, volcanic nation, so its urban areas are densely populated and city green spaces are venerated. Nature is understandably brought into the all-encompassing built environment in Tokyo too. It’s a common thread throughout city life, from the presentation of food, to the architecture and design of its skyscrapers.

After-work antics

The tranquillity of the city garden could not have been more different to the night before, an evening spent discovering some of the hidden ‘Yokocho’ alleyways of Tokyo’s city centre. Evocative of scenes from the movie Blade Runner, these narrow streets, typically lit either by the harsh, bright signage and colourful neon or from the subtle glow of oriental paper lanterns, offer places to eat well, authentically and cheaply.

A night out in Tokyo inevitably begins in restaurants found in the ‘Yokocho’ alleyways.

A night out in Tokyo inevitably begins in restaurants found in the ‘Yokocho’ alleyways. / SUR

My guide was Anne, founder of Arigato Japan, an independent company that offers Japanese food tours. Together with a small group of other visitors, I indulged in the street food and urban flavours of Tokyo’s nightlife, including succulent yakitori chicken skewers prepared over smoking charcoal grills.

In such a crowded city, no space is wasted, and these small, relaxed eateries and bars make use of all available space, between the gleaming office towers and under the archways and elevated tracks of the nation’s famous Shinkansen bullet trains.

As the office workers flood out of the towers into the streets below, they either head for the metro stations or into the myriad small restaurants for tasty kushiyaki skewers, or into the smoky bars for hoppys or highballs; and then on to gaming arcades where they play slot machines and pachinko; or lose themselves in their favourite songs in one of the multi-storey karaoke lounges. It’s a night out offering the chance to see a more relaxed, less self-controlled side of Tokyo life.

However, it doesn’t take long before one sees more examples of perfectionism here. We wondered through the upscale streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district, the chic and civilised shopping and leisure neighbourhood that is chock-full of fine-dining eateries, flagship designer stores and expensive boutiques. Here the illuminated street hoardings and digital billboards are alive with images from the world’s most luxurious brands, as well as the logos and slogans of leading Japanese technology and car manufacturers.

The wealth of Tokyo is far from hidden here. I stepped inside the famous Nihonbashi Sembikiya fruit parlour; a grocery shop that is said to offer the most perfect fruit in the city. Don’t be surprised to see a small tray of a handful of meticulously presented pieces of fruit for 75 euros. Or selected melons, each carefully wrapped in tissue paper, for between 150 and 250 euros each!

As night fell I returned to my hotel. The underground station was filling with office workers not looking to stay for more after-work drinks with their colleagues and bosses. The doors of the carriage once again slide open and I stepped onto the platform. Then a man quickly walked up to me, handing me my digital PASMO smart ticket which had dropped out of my pocket; his thoughtful, personal gesture was not lost in translation in this, one of the world’s biggest mega-cities.