December 9, 2013
TravelSunday, September 1, 2013
Tokyo — I’ve seen the future and it works
The Japanese capital has almost Argentina’s population but is different in so many ways
If its Governor Naoki Imose told the Herald in an interview published earlier this month: “Tokyo is just too big for the soul of a politician or a bureaucrat,” how much more is this true for a tabloid page!
Where do we start? Well, perhaps 634 metres atop the Tokyo Skytree where the entire sweep of Greater Tokyo (with up to 35 million people spread over five prefectures) and a panorama of the Kanto Plain beyond stretch out below your eyes. Just 15 months old, the Skytree is among the most splendid of endless specimens of ultra-modern architecture.
Yet not everything in Tokyo is brand-new or steel and concrete — the Imperial Palace with its gardens are a different world, as are lushly green parks and elaborately crafted Japanese garden landscapes elsewhere. Indeed the more downtown you go in Tokyo, the greener it seems to become.
If you want another contrast between the old and the new, you might want to go to Tokyo Station (the beautifully restored Marunouchi Building from the early 20th century housing the heart of the rail network) and then take, or at least see, the latest models of the long-nosed Shinkansen “bullet trains.”
Tokyo is larger than life but sometimes it is the little things you notice — things you could never see from the Skytree. Which would especially apply to the incredibly clean restrooms (spotless not only in the sensor-operated wash-basins dedicated to water conservation but even in the flush toilets with their unique built-in bidets).
If even water-closets are clean, so much more water as a whole — that such a densely populated and economically active metropolis should have water safe to drink from the tap is a not so minor miracle of Japanese technology.
The little things perhaps explain the secret of how the world’s biggest metropolis manages to be such a human and livable place. An impression which abides even on the world-famous subways with the famous pushers (whom the Herald never saw, although admittedly never travelling during rush hours — and always in comfort).
Before we start running out of space, let us try to encapsulate all the various charms of Tokyo into a single list — true to an underlying passion for the compact in Japanese culture as typified by such iconic elements as haiku poems and bonsai plants.
Alongside the ultra-modern architecture (with the Skytree as almost the newest example) and the surprisingly frequent green areas to which we have already alluded, we would add the creature comforts (the hotels but also simpler accommodation and, of course, the food), the technology (including robots and modern design), the more traditional craftsmanship (the glasswork and lacquer boxes especially refined), the culture (including museums and festivals throughout the year), the transport and the waterfront and (last but not least for most people) the shopping. A special feature on Japanese food will be published tomorrow but we will try to explore the other items a little further within space limits.
The Skytree (with its delicate almost filigree steelwork which nevertheless resists earthquakes) does not exhaust the wonders of modern architecture in the Japanese capital — the Tokyo Gate Bridge, another masterpiece in steel constructed only last year, is also spectacular with its 2,618-metre span (especially stunning at night). That, in turn, is not the only bridge in town — thus 33 bridges of different styles and ages span the Sumidagawa River alone.
Obviously green Tokyo has a longer history than the Skytree or the Tokyo Gate Bridge — indeed soon after Edo (as Tokyo was then called) became Japan’s capital just over 400 years ago, daimyo aristocrats were already turning their estates into the gardens which have made Japan famous worldwide almost a century before “Capability” Brown pioneered landscape architecture in England.
These gardens blend stone, wood and water in unexpected but soothing combinations — cascades and ponds with exotic fish and water-lilies traversed by a yatsuhashi boardwalk and a red bridge (Tsutenkyo) as the only splash of artificial colour with pines and bamboo in the background.
Jindai Botanical Gardens and three zoos should also be added to the list of green areas. This journalist was in Tokyo in early July but anybody travelling in spring will be rewarded by not only more moderate temperatures but also cherry blossoms.
“Getting there is half the fun” runs the famous cliché but this writer would describe Tokyo transport differently — so brisk is the efficiency by which you are whisked from one place to the other by public transport (or the ubiquitous taxis with their automatically opening doors) in what statistically should be an impossibly overcrowded city that you almost do not notice.
The Arakawa Line tram (with its wood-panelled interiors like the “A” line subway here used to have until this year) is a picturesque relic. Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation might leave many tourists mildly terrified at the thought of travelling in Tokyo but signs in English crop up at regular enough intervals — even the illiterate could cope with the frequent colour-coding.
Hotel accommodation is plentiful (87,000 rooms within a 10-kilometre radius of the city centre) — they provide all the modern comforts without making you completely forget you are in Japan.
As for shopping, this journalist is allergic almost to the point of phobia but the retail outlets displaying the wares of the world’s third-largest economy (both the industrial powerhouse and the newer designs of “Cool Japan”) looked impressive enough.
On the subject of robot technology, previous articles on my visit to Japan have already referred to the most famous example, Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO (short for “Advanced Step in Innovative MObility” and dating back to 1986 with new tricks every year) — the Herald caught one of his shows at the National Miraikan (Emerging Science and Innovation) Museum (the company also parades his feats at its Aoyama showrooms in the capital). But there is also OriHime, the robot designed to fight loneliness and other social needs.
Let us save the bottom line for the bottom lines. Tokyo has long had the reputation of being the most expensive city in the world (currently ranked third by The Economist).
Prices are indeed high but the Japanese economy has been standing still for two decades until very recently while the rest of the world has been catching up — you will not be shocked. And in a free-market economy you can count on competition lowering prices and even producing the odd bargain.
With Tokyo, getting there is not half the fun — being there is all of it.