This is my fourth trip to Tokyo and I still find the size, the crush, the kinetic assault – overwhelming!
“From underground to mainstream, Tokyo is a radical jumble of contrasting elements where the new and nostalgic, the most elegant luxury and everyday kitsch, the domestic and exotic, the famous and anonymous all exist side by side.
So sayeth the souvenir mug and plastic folder I buy at the National Art Centre Museum shop in Tokyo.
How do I order the myriad of impressions and experiences offered by this city of 13 million people? Let alone the greater Tokyo metro with its estimated population of 35 million! Even chronologically doesn’t work as other impressions cut into the narrative.
Savouring rare time alone, I sit in one of the many cafes on the 6th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie building bewildered again by the interminable aisles and arcades of restaurants and cafes that can be found in department stores, in connecting corridors and railway stations.
It is fashion week in Shibuya. This is a place on trend. “The Devil Wore Prada” with Japanese sub-titles is playing on a big screen. The scene is peopled with smart super-groomed 20 somethings eating pastas, salads and French pastries; drinking cappuccinos (@ about $7.50 a cup) and cocktails.
I was reading a novel about four generations of a Japanese family which described the starvation after two thirds of Tokyo was bombed in WW2. What a contrast/miracle is this super sophisticated internationalised scene I am witnessing. How did this town move from the depths of occupation to what the local Time Out headlines as the greatest city in the world?
One day we are at the famed Tsukiji fish markets and to gain access to the inner markets, we have a guide. I asked about the economic miracle. She suggested hard work, the need to save face after the WW2 defeat and strong common national goals had achieved this powerhouse. I am sure there are hundreds of books that I will never read written about it.
I asked her too about what I had observed as a strong French influence (food, wine, fashion). She ascribed it to the craving for luxury during “the bubble period” when people were “turning away from English curry”.
The Art Triangle
Rappongi Hills is a mammoth urban development housing the Mori Art Museum inter multi alia. It is a holiday weekend and the crowd is significant. I visit the Andy Warhol retrospective and learn his painterly progress for the first time. The Flowers I saw in Naoshima make sense now. There was also a crowded second-rate pre-Raphaelite exhibition from the Tate. The others visit an exhibition of elctronic media.
Then it is off to the stunning National Arts Centre with its undulating glass façade and inverted cone restaurant on the top floor. I was informed by Cass that the Kazumi Nakamura exhibition was one of the best ever. I was content to wander the architecture – some of the best ever.
Too much to see; this city would take a busy year; we miss the Suntory Museum of Art but as a compensation a few streets away, found the flower shop in the U GOTO building.
The Tsukiji fish markets and the Ueno zoo – two different days gazing at other creatures dead and alive.
The old fish markets near fashionable Ginza will move soon to make way for the Olympic site so we were lucky to visit this cobble-stoned hive, jumping out of the right of way of the motorised carts that criss-cross the narrow aisles with deliveries.
The wholesale buying is done early before visitors are let in so it was mostly watching the business end of the day- the cutting, packaging etc. The range of exotic fish was less than I had expected.
We are told that the markets are getting smaller as the population increases its meat intake but the queues outside the small cafes and stalls in the outer market indicated popularity long into the future.
All zoos are problematic but hey, we had two littlies with us and needed to do more for them. The crush was as bad in the shopping streets. There was a lot of concrete and some dubiously contented animals. The lone polar bear seemed to be making the best of a bad thing while the panda looked even more forlorn. At the end of an hour, our two year old, Gulliver, wisely decided to sleep through the rest of this part of his travels
Yep. Until you drop. That’s Tokyo. Where better than Harajuku once famed for the parade of the zanily dressed unconventional fashion sub-culture? There are the High Street shops near the station and the luxury brands along Omote-Sando, said to be the Champs Elysees of Tokyo. As if a memento to the Goth and other sub-cultures of yore, a narrow side street is home to retro shops, the best single origin coffee we found and the odd counter culture victim.
Showing the fashion victim side, different queues of up to half a kilometre long stretched outside the new cronut shop, Max Brenner’s chocolate bar and what appeared to be a traditional restaurant.
On the street
The scale is huge but it is the people on the street who give a city its tone, its vibrancy or lack of. Tokyo centres are all vibrancy – busy, sometimes colourful and always something to see. There are too many photos to choose from!
You can’t go past the basement level of the big department stores. Choice upon beautifully presented choice – sushi that might have come out of a French kitchen; pastries from master chefs; salads; noodles; seaweeds.
There was a small restaurant where the cook had trained in Lyon and we were able to order the yakatori in French; there was sushi in a restaurant said to have invented the California roll (though obviously not called that). None of the eating in Tokyo was high end but that’s one of the things about Tokyo. The small places, the ramen bars, the basement take-away are all of a satisfying quality.
As the other side of the souvenir mug says:
The cutting edge image mix we present is a product of our ability to see beyond existing attitudes and create a new editorial process that reflects the imagination, energy and chaotic beauty that make up today’s Tokyo and its attitude to art and design
THAT’S TOKYO – IMAGINATION, ENERGY AND CHAOTIC BEAUTY