Updated: Aug 4, 2022
If I had to sum up Tokyo in one word, I would describe it as integrative. Tokyo functions like a well-oiled machine or better yet, as an orchestra of mellifluous sound. The city is well-proportioned (not too congested or claustrophobic), symphonic, and spiritual. Its terrain feels flat while traversing it is an elliptical, wiry, and at times frustrating experience. The Japanese people stream harmoniously through the surrounding networks of subways, nature walks, bike paths, alleyways, highways and skyways like instruments synchronized by a conductor. However, unlike other massive cities, in tantalizing Tokyo one must pause to muse because the spirits call to you, if you divine to listen.
What struck me the most about Tokyo in particular and the Japanese in general was their spirituality. Spirituality and religion are not the same thing as we all know. Fortunately, for the Japanese they have managed to combine them in Shintoism, a form of civic religion that operates like a self-driving car. As a result, the streets of Tokyo are aseptic. Earthy color from plants, flower gardens, and trees is strewn across the eastern capital (Tō – east, kyō – capital) as if it had broken ground from the root of a great Cherry Blossom tree itself. There is little to no litter and virtually no trash cans either since people are expected to dispose of waste at home. Train cars are clean and muted because no one talks, and the subways run on time, near perfect precision to the second, I timed it.
Tokyo’s denizens are equally polished. It is discourteous to talk on the phone in the subway, so they don’t. Remarkably, the Japanese refer to silent mode on their phones as “Manner Mode.” Imagine selling that in the West! The street performers are vanilla, sort of like the local caroling group from your neighborhood during Christmas. Charming to some – if you like lackluster and unmoving, too bland for my taste. Even street hecklers are rather subdued in their presentation, this nuance I very much endorse. Without exception everyone is considerate and self-controlled in Tokyo.
The city centers are Shinjuku and Shibuya. If you want the Times Square experience done Japanese style this is where you want to go. It is also where most tourists begin their Tokyo experience. Waves upon waves of people roll in and out of the shopping centers, restaurants, and night clubs in these hubs. I prefer Shinjuku to Shibuya myself, less corporate and more character. Harajuku is another popular spot that I highly recommend. Here you will see the flare of Japanese fashion in a fun, trendy, more local kind of experience. If you have the time and the budget, I suggest brunch at the Trunk Hotel.
Speaking of food, the Tokyo food scene is top notch. Infinite choices, the most Michelin star restaurants in the world, and first-class service to boot (a step up from Hong Kong I might add). It goes without saying that the Sushi is first class. What is surprising however, is how well the Japanese cook Western food. Their Italian pasta, French croissants, and American burgers are delicious. What makes Japanese food unique is the staging. A dish I really enjoyed is Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients in a wheat-flour-based batter. (Mind you, some restaurants expect you to cook it yourself hibachi-style.) The food is almost too pretty to eat, almost!
Another fantastic thing about Tokyo is how varied the city is. Sure, you get the run-of-the-mill tourist attractions, financial districts, and consumer goods, all of which are great. You also get amazing parks – Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is worth a visit, Asakusa houses the famous Sensō-ji Buddhist temple, and I strongly recommend the Meiji Shrine, a memorial to Emperor Meiji who is responsible for reopening Japan and transforming it into the advanced, modern society it is today. All the Japanese bow upon exiting the space, it is quite a moving experience.
My favorite stop on the trip was to a site outside of Tokyo called Kamakura. The town reminded me a little of a rustic Italian cittadina. While it is an hour from Tokyo and less well known than Kyoto, add it to your itinerary. The town is quaint, the countryside is serene, and the temples are glorious. I enjoyed the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) the most. The bronze statue of Amida Buddha dates back to 1252 and was originally gold plated. The photo below does not do justice to how imposing it is in person, believe me.
There are some frustrations that come as part of the packaged deal when traveling to Tokyo. Japan, like most of Asia, is still an overwhelmingly cash based society. Make sure you bring lots of cash because most places do not accept credit. Very few people speak English, which would be less of a problem if deciphering their mass transit system was easier than reading hieroglyphs. It is the most confusing subway system I have ever tried to navigate. Even their toilets can be confusing to use. Sounds funny until you need to flush.
Ikebana is the Japanese concept of flower display, or “making flowers alive” as the literal translation tells us. Sometimes called Kado, Ikebana is one of three major mystical disciplines practiced every day in Japan: Kodo (mastery of incense) and Chado (ritualistic tea) are the other two. You might add a fourth core competency to the list, city building. One thing is clear, once you visit Tokyo, you will never experience a city quite like it again.
Without question, the Japanese are a friendly bunch, but building relationships is hard as a Gaijin (outsider). One always feels as an outsider in Tokyo, which is far less the case in other parts of Asia. As follow ups to this essay I will discuss Japanese culture in more detail, both its pros and cons. I will also explore some of the underlying repressions that foil Japanese society, especially in terms of sexuality and masculinity. Stay tuned for more after my next trip to Japan!