We wrapped up our 4 month journey to China, South Korea and Japan in Tokyo. Lucky us, we exchanged our home in Barcelona with a charming Japanese – British couple for 3 weeks. Our Tokyo apartment was quite unusual: big, especially for Japanese standards, and overlooking a park, one of the few in the entire city. We were located just a step off the main tourist spots so we got a glimpse into how locals live. We’ll never forget our super-long balcony, the views, the tatami room and the crazy strict recycling rules.
A photogenic city
Going through my Tokyo photos I realized how pretty the city looks. My memories of Tokyo are somewhat different. I remember I was shocked at how very few historical buildings remain. I knew Tokyo was heavily bombed during Second World War, but had no clue of how many buildings were torn down as a result of Investor Urbanism, the one that cares about short term profit only. But that wasn’t my main disappointment. It was rather the lack of parks. Most of them close early afternoon and even charge an entrance fee. It must be a nightmare to work in Tokyo: you finish work and all parks are closed!
Many things in Tokyo are quite bizarre. The first one that comes to my mind is smoking areas on the street. Smoking is allowed in many bars and restaurants, but paradoxically not on the street. Then there are the weird animal cafes, where you can cuddle cats or rabbits after paying an entrance fee. The poor creatures are stuck inside cages in basement cafés, desperate for some love and food. Many live performance bars include young Japanese women dressed up as school girls. Quite funny considering most women dress pretty much covered (except for the head). Finally, there are those strict recycling rules, but if you go to a supermarket they will wrap up a plastic bag inside another plastic bag covering another plastic bag.
The good side
One of my favorite things about Tokyo (and Japan as a whole) is the politeness of its citizens. Though shy they are always willing to help. People are extremely well mannered and those involved with tourism speak pretty good English. Food is good, even though I am not a big fan of crude fish (read: salmon!), and you can find delicious cakes in every Convenience Store! Transportation is very efficient, although confusing: two companies operate the Tokyo metro and the tariff system is illogical, but you get everywhere in no time. Modern architecture is interesting too, but you have to know where to search for it. Tokyo is an extremely entertaining city.
The other great thing about Tokyo is that there are plenty of interesting areas to visit. In fact, the city’s highlights are not architectural landmarks, but rather neighborhoods. Ginza, the central business district is famous for shopping and cool ultramodern architecture. Shinjuku and Shibuya are the main nightlife neighborhoods. Akihabara is great for anime and manga fans (not me), Asakusa is home to the city’s main temple Senso-ji and is great for shopping. Nearby Ueno houses one of the city’s largest parks and Harajuku is a fashion heaven; it is the best place for people watching. Some outfits are truly phenomenal!
Gay magazines praise Tokyo for its openness towards sexual minorities and its large LGBT scene. But coming from Barcelona it almost seems like a joke. Japanese are indeed well mannered, but you can feel strong sexual repression in the air. Tokyo’s main gay district Shinjuku Ni-chome, where most of the gay action happens, is actually pretty small. There you’ll find plenty of bars, discos, shops, saunas, massage parlous and even love hotels. One night we went for a drink to the Eagle Bar. On a weekend we went dancing to the Dragon Men Disco and had a blast: great music, drinks, atmosphere and a beautiful crowd. Our friends Milada and Guido had a great time too!
Take a boat at Asakusa to Hinode and then the monorail across the Rainbow Bridge to the Odaiba Island. Visit the Yoyogi Park, especially the area far from the Meiji Shrine. You’ll be practically on your own. Wonder about Ginza and discover the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple and the Tsukiji Market. Climb the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and enjoy one of the city’s best views (the restaurant is pretty good too). Visit the National Art Center in Roppongy and get lost in the surrounding area. Search for the best costume in Harajuku. Go out for a drink in the authentic Shinjuku Golden Gai district. Spend a day in Ueno Park and explore the fabulous – off the beaten track – Yanaka neighborhood. Discover the few remaining Imperial era buildings scattered all around the city. Have coffee and enjoy the views from the Asahi Sky Room.
Imperial era buildings
If you are interested in historical architecture, you’ll be rewarded with some really cool imperial era buildings. Most of them are located in and around Ginza being the Tokyo Station the most famous. North of the station you’ll find the Bank of Japan, the Mitsui Memorial Museum and the gorgeous Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi Department Store. Further south along the Chuo Dori Street Takashimaya Nihombashi and Wako Department Store break the steel and glass anatomy. On the other side of the station there are two interesting buildings: the Meiji Life Insurance Building and the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum. If you head westwards towards the National Diet Building, you’ll encounter the Ministry of Justice, but Hibiya Public Hall is not far from there either. Ueno Park is home to the Tokyo National Museum Hyokeikan and the National Museum of Nature and Science. The Asakusa Station is cool too with a great terrace offering fantastic views!
I guess I am harsh about Tokyo because I don’t like sushi or ramen and I am not a fan of Manga, Anime and Sumo. Besides, a shopper’s paradise like Tokyo is not for someone like me who never goes shopping while traveling. Remember, I travel with hand luggage! In Tokyo I felt like I was in a giant Hollywood studio: Shiny shopping and entertainment centers, impeccable public transport and extremely polite people. So where are the flaws? Where’s the spontaneity? After three full weeks there I began to understand where all of that comes from. The Greater Tokyo Area is the world’s most populous with 38 million people, and in order to function properly everything has to work to perfection. There is no place for standing out, disobeying, or simply improvising. And it all makes sense. Perhaps that’s why youngsters wear colorful outfits and cool hairstyles.
I left Tokyo thinking about everything I had witnessed. As much as we want to ignore it, this is an overpopulated planet. People are everywhere, and nature is slowly disappearing. And Japan is no isolated case. A great Serbian travel blogger who travels the world on a bicycle once said that Russia and Japan are two countries where people are best connected with nature. While Russia is all about nature, I felt that in Japan nature is subordinated to us humans. All those beautiful gardens supposedly emphasizing the natural landscape are visually impressive, but often out of reach. Why would they make parks if they are not going to use them? Perhaps the answer to that question is once again overpopulation, or maybe three weeks aren’t enough to understand a city as complex as Tokyo.