Japan operates on a time zone that is 14 hours ahead of New York City. But standing at Shibuya Crossing (the worlds busiest intersection) staring up at gargantuan glass structures, heart pulsing to the beat of whatever electro-pop is blaring from hidden mega speakers, I felt like it was 14 years ahead. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Haneda airport, where my body temperature was tested by some camera-like contraption as I headed to passport control, everything in Tokyo felt new. Almost futuristic. It’s as if the architects and designers of this 13-million-person metropolis take their creative cues from The Jetsons. (By the way, the music blaring that night happened to be K-Pop!)
I got to spend 2 days with my family while they were still in Tokyo, which was a very special experience since my younger sister has been obsessed with Japan since her days of 4th grade Karate lessons and 6am Dragon Ball Z marathons. For the second half, I used the online community Couch Surfers to find a local Tokyoite to stay with and learn from. I seriously lucked out. Yukari, my gracious, fantastic, host talked about how cities in Europe and the US are so “old,” and Tokyo is so “new,” since so much of the city has been ruined by natural disasters and war. She has a love affair with New York, hopes to move there some day, and even had photos of my favorite Upper West Side spots from her visit in 2008! Small world.
From moments in Akihabara, the anime center of Tokyo that is teeming with “pachinko” parlors (rooms filled with video games where you can sit and play for days), to strolls down Harajuku street, all the senses are constantly stimulated. I felt like there was no way I could ever be bored in these areas of the city: there is always something bright and blinking to look at or listen to.
And the architecture. I had neck cramps by the end of the trip. Definitely felt like a tourist, constantly gawking at the tall buildings, but it was so worth it.
Tokyo is bursting with creativity and innovation. My visit to the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art was also a reminder of how global this city is. It contains post-war art from all corners of the globe, and is itself a beautifully designed building.
I also loved the neighborhood surrounding the MOT, the Metropolitan Kiba Park area (East of the Sumida River), which reminded me of low-key areas of Brooklyn. It was also where I got to have my first sushi meal in Japan! Dreams do come true, people!
But then there were the Japanese gardens and Shinto shrines. Oh, the gardens. Stepping into these tranquil, aesthetically perfect habitats of refuge, I would completely forget that I was in the neon capital of the world. The Japanese have such a wonderful perception of space and how to maintain it in the most calm-inducing ways possible. I visited the Koishikawa Gardens in the Iidabashi area, and the impressive Imperial Gardens, which were each special in their own ways.
Another component of the trip that shed light on some Japanese history was the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum in the Kanagawa Prefecture (20 minute train ride from Shinjyuku station), a delightful exhibition of traditional Japanese houses, which Yukari brought me to. This was followed by one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had: a massive rose garden right next door. It was almost June, which means it’s rose season (obviously…) and these flowers were bursting with the excitement of spring. Some of the roses had taken on colors I’ve never seen exist in nature, and they were all in gorgeous full bloom. I also tasted some rose ice cream and rose juice! If you’ve ever drank perfume, it’s a similar taste.
Speaking of food. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
I also couldn’t help but constantly compare Tokyo with the city I’ve spent the past 9 months exploring. From afar, Seoul and Japan’s capital are practically indistinguishable, especially to the western eye. Massively populated Asian capital cities with innovation bursting at the seams, there were moments I really felt I could have been in Seoul. Or any global city for that matter. But there were a few, yet highly defining differences that reminded me of where I was in the world.
For one thing, Japanese people are much more individualistic. I noticed a much wider range of personal style, from subway rides to strolling in chic Shibuya to my jaunt down Harajuku’s pink-punk Takeshita Street, people here tend to stand out. They dress with a sense of creativity and defining characteristics, and there are also people who didn’t dress with any sense of style at all–but that was another defining quality. I rarely see people in Seoul or even Yeoju wearing sweat pants or shabby-looking outfits out in public. Not so in Tokyo! For this reason, Tokyo reminded me of New York more than Seoul. More crazies!
Another major difference was the subway system. When urban scholars and weird bloggers like myself think about the big, great subway systems, I think Tokyo’s probably pops up in nearly everyone’s mind. But I was constantly discouraged by its complexities, especially the fact that there are several different companies controlling the underground, so you have to pay for each transfer! Seoul’s system is also much easier to navigate, for English speakers and non-natives like myself. It was a surreal feeling to return to Seoul’s subway system and feel…at home…amongst all the Korean lettering and sounds.
There was also a much stronger bicycle presence in Tokyo than in Seoul. There are bike lanes and bike parking practically everywhere, which was so refreshing to see. Big cities CAN have bike cultures! On another “green” note, public smoking is basically prohibited in Tokyo and there are designated “smoking areas” throughout the city. People do not break the rules, and instead stand in clustered areas, getting their nicotine fixes, and then going about with their daily lives. While I could see this working in Seoul, where people also tend to follow rules vehemently, it’d be hard to successfully pull off public “smoking sections” on the streets of New York City.
My visit of four days was just too short. I plan to go back, one day!