I lived in Tokyo for six years. It was the city where I did all the things that being in your 20s is supposed to be about: getting my first "real" job, moving to my own apartment, falling in love and having my heart broken. Its where I saw my first snowfall, and experienced my first earthquake and met the man who became my husband.
And every day for six years, I saw something new, that I had never seen before. Every day for six years, even as I grew to know her and love her more, the city surprised me.
And in the end that is what I love most about Tokyo. It is never predictable. Its too big, and too odd, and too other. There are no limits .
Before I left Japan, I did a last trip around Tokyo to savor the offbeat, irrepressible nature of the city, visiting obscure shrines to toilets, octopuses and insects, amazing structures around the city and shops selling snakes and robots. The results of my trip around the "other Tokyo" are here:
Whooo-boy and hooray for this! As luck would have it, I finally watched "Lost in Translation" last night for the first time. What an amazing thrill to find this thread and the link to your true insider's blog.
As I looked at the thread, combined with the images still in my head from the movie, the word that flashed like neon in my brain was appetite. And indeed, in your wonderfully worded intro to City of the Imagination, you end by referring to the city's hunger.
I will have to go back and linger over your blog posts. I have a hunger to know more, and you provide a beautifully written and exceptionally-photographed buffet.
You have not been gone from Japan for very long. Did you return to Australia to live, and if so, how was the transition back to the western-world for you?
I came back to Australia last year and it was really scary. I had been in Japan so long - which i hadn't planned at all. I thought I'd be there for a few years but I enjoyed it so much, and I kept on thinking "oh, one more year", "one more year" and before I knew it six had passed.
But I knew I had to go back to Australia and "establish" myself sometime, so when I was about to hit thirty I thought "if I don't leave now I never will". I had gone to Japan to have an adventure, but now I found the tables oddly turned; Tokyo had become so comfortable and safe and it was returning to Australia that seemed risky.
Now Im living in a small town of six thousand people. Every morning I get woken up by cockatoos outside my balcony and sometimes I see flocks of wild kangaroos bouncing around the edges of town. It could hardly be more different from Tokyo - but I found in the end, that actually i was glad to be home
And in some ways I don't think I can ever leave Tokyo; those experiences were so formative, it will always feel like a second home. I have a Japanese husband and a Japanese sister-in-law and a bunch of Tokyo friends, its hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn't lived there. In fact, I can't.
For all its neon skyscrapers and giant robots, much of Tokyo’s charm comes from the ramshackle old neighborhoods. These are some of my favorite Tokyo scenes, the little winding streets of shophouses with paper lanterns and noren curtains, and pot plants galore.
The shitamachi or “lower town” neighborhood of Iriya is typical of this side of the city, with its local family businesses and little shrines and even canals.
I went to visit a local shrine, the temple of the King of Hell, where a 3 metre statue of the deity is placated by throwing coins into buckets, each one labelled with something the worshipper wishes for eg luck in love, passing exams, good health etc.
Another unusual nearby temple is the Kappa-dera, or “kappa temple” (kappas are a kind of aquatic goblin in Japanese folklore). The temple was built in a riverside neighborhood formerly plagued by the creatures and is said to contain a dried and withered kappa’s arm – sadly not on display when we visited, and most probably belonging to a monkey. But we did see the altar to the creatures stocked with their favorite treat, cucumbers, as well as statues of the beasts all around the neighborhood.
The thing that Iriya is most famous for, however, is its annual Morning Glory Market, held over three days in July when hundreds of thousands of morning glory plants are sold to visitors to celebrate the beginning of Summer. I was a little disappointed by the market itself – the shrubs weren’t yet in bloom so it wasn’t as colorful as I had expected, but the hokey Summer festival atmosphere more than made up for it, with old-time snacks and kiddie attractions like the goldfish scoop, or beetles in a cage.
(Caramelised fish spines, mmmmmm)
The surrounding neighborhood streets were colourfully decorated with paper lanterns and streamers for Tanabata, sometimes called “the Star Festival” which is celebrated on July 7th to remember an ancient Chinese story about two lovers in the sky.
A princess and a shepherd fell in love and became so besotted with each other that they spent all their hours together, neglecting their work. The enraged gods punished them by placing them in the sky, separated by a "river of stars" (The Milky Way), only to meet once a year, on July 7th , if the night sky is clear. Touchingly, for a nation sometimes considered bereft of romance, people pray for fine weather so the two lovers can meet and embrace in the heavens, tie their own wishes on colorful slips of paper to bamboo trees.
One of the things that I really wanted to achieve before I left Tokyo was to see the little-known G-Cans Project – a huge network of drainage tunnels that lie underneath the city (or more accurately its far Northern Saitama suburbs). The network of tunnels includes this spectacular, cathedral-like drainage chamber and a 6km long tunnel that is ten metres high, plus five storage tanks, each of them large enough to contain the Statue of Liberty or Leaning Tower of Pisa.
So when I went back, I set out into the tunnels; you have to sit through a boring high-schoolish lecture at the visitors centre and then you descend into a cool, gloomy bunker. The first sight of the columns – wreathed in chilly mist ina huge echoing chamber – is truly spine tingling. Unfortunately though the “tour” doesnt go anywhere else. We didnt get to see this, for instance:
After the tunnels we hopped on a train to Kawagoe, once a farming town but now far-flung Tokyo sattelite suburb, but still known as “Little Edo” for its quaint street of craft shops and traditional Japanese sweets.
Ha ha, Ilbonito ~~ you find the alien creatures wherever you go! Giant robot spiders to celebrate a 19th century trade agreement? Sure, why not.
Thank you for the darling goldfish, my favorite finned creatures. The neighborhood and small commercial district pictures are wonderful. That's the kind of thing that helps form a true picture of an unknown place.
The G-Cans Project -- is it for draining rainwater away from the city? And are the storage tanks for irrigation? I see the final three photos of it are shot through glass. I'm assuming that's a special area for visitors. Those columns are truly a spectacular example of sci-fi beauty.
You say you're glad to be home, but what was the transition like for your husband? Even though I'm a westerner, I imagine that Australia would present lots of culture shocks for me. Is your sister-in-law there as well? (just ignore me if I'm being too nosy -- I'm fascinated by your plunging into such a different world and coming to feel so at home there)
The video is wonderful and somehow explains how people don't just cope with living in such a vast city that continually bounds into the future, but embrace and celebrate it.
Of the G-Cans pictures; only the first is shot through glass, or rather a picture of a picture, which was behind glass. We weren't allowed to see that tunnel, sadly.
The other two pictures have a slightly eery grey mist effect but we were there, in that room. They weren't shot through glass. The whole project is allegedly to drain water in the case of flash floods - they do happen in Japan - but then, so does a lot of expensive and completely unneccessary capital works building. A great book was written called "Dogs and Demons" about how Japan is destroying itself through large scale unnecessary construction. Its basically a way for the government to pump up the economy, by spending billions of dams, roads, airports..that nobody really needs. I have a sneaking suspicion that is the case here.
My husband is in Switzerland (we are doing long distance for another six months) and then I'll move to wherever he is - maybe back to Tokyo?
Ah -- I see it was the reflection of the floor and the mistiness (from condensation?) that fooled me. Tell me, did you have a great desire to make loud mwouuuwww wowuw wow noises in those big spaces?
Somehow that wasteful construction seems even more appalling in a country with such limited land area.
I love all the contrasts between serene "typical" Japanese scenes, the non-crowded streets and shopping mall out in the 'burbs and the absolute throngs you show in Tokyo proper. So many young people -- what's going to happen when they all start propagating?
In my Sao Paulo thread I mentioned the fact of a big Japanese-Brazilian population in the city. They make themselves known in Tokyo too, as many of the grandchildren of the emigrants who left Japan returned to their ancestral homeland to work during the labour shortage of the 1980s boom years, when Brazil was mired in inflation. In fact, Brazilians make up the 3rd largest minority group in the country. And here, at the Asakusa Street Carnaval, they make their presence felt with the biggest samba festival outside of Brazil.
Held on the last weekend of August in Asakusa, Tokyo`s temple district, the parade is a simply unmissable spectacle of thousands of feather trimmed, brightly colored, skimpily dressed dancers- both Japanese and Brazilian - shaking to a samba beat. Its an explosion of color and excitement. Literally hundreds of thousands people come to watch.
Rather than standing on the main parade route with swarms of other camera-clicking Tokoites, make your way to the backstage waiting areas located in the sidestreets that branch off into local neighborhoods (anyone is allowed). Here you can walk right through the maelstrom of samba schools rehearsing, dancing, getting costumes ready and mixing, purely for their own enjoyment. The sidestreets become a kind of surreal safari, as around every corner you see a flash of colour, or hear a distant drum beat and follow it to find a street full of spacemen, or surreally costumed dancing girls.
The samba festival is one of the most amazing sights Tokyo has to offer, and offers an intriguing look into the "new Japan" of the 21st century, in the globalized age.
I saw little black kids speaking Japanese as a native language, Asian faces babbling excitedly in Portuguese and dancers proudly waving the flags of both Japan and Brazil , (the "Hinomaru" and "Ordem e Progresso"). You can see a feather topped showgirl in a sequined bikini shimmying to samba, with a Buddhist pagoda in the background - truly where worlds collide.
the non-crowded streets and shopping mall out in the 'burbs and the absolute throngs you show in Tokyo proper. So many young people -- what's going to happen when they all start propagating?
Its interesting that as Japan rapidly ages Tokyo is getting demographically younger and younger - 20 and 30 yearolds are streaming into the city like refugees, leaving vast "rustbelt"-like swathes of rural Japan where only children and old people are left. This is already happening; the islands of the Seto sea and the Northern provinces like Aomori are especially affected.
We sort of posted simultaneously, plus my electricity went out twice since you replied. (stoopid internet connection is still acting stoopid)
Anyway ........ wow to those great pics I didn't see before. When did you get into the habit of carrying your camera around with you? From what you've posted here and what I've seen of your blog, you obviously don't want to have to bemoan "the one that got away".
I can well imagine that a samba festival in Tokyo is indeed an amazing sight. As to what you say about the new Japan -- that may well apply to the whole world fairly soon. Tokyo just feels like the future.
Have you seen Rikita's Carnival of Cultures (<--click) yet? She's enormously talented as a photographer, and you should enjoy the sight of all that exoticism in Berlin.
Better and better! I would tend to speculate that one of the reasons that "anything is possible" in Japan is that it is not a monotheistic society. With such a multitude of gods, divinities and demons, there is no desire to organize everything around one 'guiding light' (other than the emperor, who I suspect is just an additional 'divinity').
In the West, there has always been 'the Church' and/or the government it inspired to keep things serious and within well-defined limits of what is proper or not.
Gertie: don't worry, even walking down the street is an experience in Tokyo. It will come to you!
Kerouac: It could well be. Few cultures in the world are as (wilfully) misunderstood as the Japanese, I think. People have these preconceived notions (and the Japanese, generally, are more than happy for them to keep them).
I read an interesting article once claiming that, in direct contradiction of common held views, the Japanese were among the freest and most hedonistic people on earth. I wouldn't go that far but I think there is something to it.
It is such a sterotype to think of the Japanese as "repressed" - and in many ways that was my experience of them. But what does it mean, really? Repressed about WHAT? It is such a generalization. There are some instances in which they are much freer than Anglo-Saxons. They are much more broadminded about food, and willing to try new things (thus- pepper/milk/seafood soups and chocolate/squid or icecream/horse combos). They don't have an of the puritanical hang-ups about colour that AngloSaxons have; that being "gaudy" is somehow a bad thing and this nebulous, straightjacket of a concept of "good taste" means you can't wear, say, gold,pink and zebra skin in the one outfit. I found that very liberating.
They are not nearly so self-conscious about singing in public (hence, karaoke) as Westerners, or (oddly) talking to themselves as they hover around the office or walk down the street - it verges on the socially acceptable and is surprisingly common.
And of course they don't come from a Biblical background where sex and nudity are bad. Japanese people, still, are very at ease with being naked and in many ways quite liberal about sex (public consumption of porn magazines on trains, for example). It is interesting to consider the vast cultural leap in Japan where lust is replaced by laziness as the greatest sin (see the "Star Festival" story above). And their view on that does seem to make more sense to me (although I wish they would learn to relax their famously stringent work ethic and live a little - they deserve it!)
This is an interesting, journal like piece I put in my blog some years ago, on a trip to a place called Yumenoshima, truly an only-in-Tokyo experience in its extravagant, artificial sense of fantasy and its tragic history:
Yumenoshima is one of those places you could live in Tokyo for ten years and never hear about. Nobody ever talks about it, its not in the guidebooks. I first glimpsed it out of a train window, on the way to Chiba. Just before the gleaming spires and faux volcano of Disneyland pop into view on the right, there is a stretch of green. Just trees, broken only by the strange distant glint of a glass dome beside a pyramid-like structure and an extraordinarily tall chimney. This is where you get off for Yumenoshima.
In the 1980s, Tokyo was booming. The bubble economy had peaked into an orgy of multi-billion yen real estate deals, until there was no land left to sell. The city authorities, flush with cash and never dreaming that the good times were about to come crashing to an end , embarked on a series of grandiose land reclamation projects, like this one.
All the detritus, the waste from those heady, happy days was heaping up. As the city consumed, it was spewing out: from the myriads of building sites, the packaging from snack foods and endless, inummerable trips to the mall, the junk mail promising 20% off this or that, the electrical appliances that had been superceded by newer models. The pile grew and grew, with nowhere to put it. All the soiled byproducts of this new, long dreamt-for affluence, like bitter reminders best pushed aside, burned, or buried under the ground.
The answer was here, the city authorities decided.
Here, on the shore of Tokyo Bay by the Keiyo line, rubbish was pumped onto the sea floor, then covered with soil, and grass and trees, and a bunch of sports complexes were erected and a garbage treatment facility, and a pool and a huge tropical greenhouse . Yumenoshima - "Dream Island" - was the answer.
Fifteen year after this unnatural experiment, I stepped off at the station at Shin-Kiba and wandered into this brave new world. It was empty, with the feeling of a place that often is. A perfect Autumn day, the sun was shining, but no-one was there. A strange stillness hung over the park. There were no birds singing, no children playing. Just fields of shrubby orange flowers rustling in the wind, and scraggy palm trees, and yachts bobbing up and down on the harbor, and the smell of eucalyptus -(a plantation here feeds the koalas captive in Tokyo`s zoos). I felt like I was all alone, in a world that was scarcely breathing.
And above it all, a huge candy-striped industrial chimney silently and invisibly pumped out its emissions into the air.
I headed in, down a pebbly path, looking for the thing that had drawn me here in the first place. It wasn't hard to find. The shining glass dome stood by the sea. This was what I had seen from the train, and it was a greenhouse. The scale of the thing was surprising, 30 metres tall I later learned. It looked like something that had just touched down from Mars.
I was also surprised to see that it was tacked onto the side of another vast building - the garbage incinerator. As the trash burns in the incinerator, its heat is conveyed to the greenhouse next door. All that burning refuse, the leftover breakfasts , the mountains of tea bags and the furtively discarded porno magazines, turning into pure hot energy, rushing through pipes under my feet and powering into that huge space-dome, to become a nurturing force of life . Through the misted panes I could see palm trees (much lusher-looking than their forlorn cousins outside) and ferns and orchids, with waterfalls splashing and strange-looking tropical plants. It was quite something.
And on the outside there was nothing. Not a sound, just the sun shining. So I went in. A woman at a ticket window smiled as I paid the modest entry fee. She seemed surprised to see me and there were no other visitors.
In the lobby was a large, dusty painting sitting over a table of orchids. It was by Henri Rousseau, a French naive painter . This painting followed one of his favorite themes: the jungle. Two monkeys nestled in the grass of a tropical forest, once lushly green but now faded and grey. How appropriate, I thought. Despite his paintings, Rousseau had never seen the jungle. He had never left France. He painted from his imagination, after visits to the greenhouse in the Paris Botanical Gardens greenhouse like this one. What he painted was a fantasy, a copy of something that didn't quite exist. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it seemed to remind me of something that had been hanging over me ever since I got here.
Inside, a path had been artfully carved through the undergrowth, behind a liana-decked waterfall, past little ponds of water lilies and clumps of colorful flowers with weird shiny leaves. They looked like something a dinosaur might eat. Soon I came to where a native hut with straw roof and wooden carvings sat in a clearing, startling in its in inauthenticity. And then I came out again on the other side.
Leaving the greenhouse, I walked down by the water. Yumenoshima had other surprises. I came to another building, a kind of concrete bunker, with nothing to announce it except a sign in unreadable kanji. What was this? Venturing in, I found the weathered remains of a fishing boat " Number 5 Daigo Fukuryu-maru" and a plaque telling its story.
In the early hours of March 1, 1954 The 5 Daigo Fukuryo-Maru, (or ironically "Lucky Dragon Number 5" was out fishing in the Pacific Ocean, near the Marshall Islands. Twenty three men were onboard. Shortly before dawn the men heard an immense sound and were startled to see the sun rising brilliantly, in the West. Suddenly, they told reporters later, it was as bright as day. A few hours later a strange white snow started to fall over the ocean and the men started to fall sick.
The snow, of course, had been ash from an American nuclear test taking place on a tiny nearby island. The men had not been warned. They all became sick, and the ship's radio operator later died, the first ever casualty of a hydrogen bomb.
A rock in the park, near the boat memorial, tells another part of the same sad, strange story. It is inscribed as the "Atomic Tuna Memorial", marking the burial of the boat's catch of radioactive tuna, to prevent it being auctioned off. I thought of all those fish, swimming dumbly through the warm Pacific seas that day, sixty years ago, and now dumped here under the soil in this strange place in a faraway country, their bodies contaminated by a force beyond their reckoning or responsibility. It seemed pathetic. Nuclear bombs were exploding, and people were busy burying a bunch of old fish?
I walked by the water. On my left was the park, and its buried garbage and radioactive tuna and trash-powered greenhouse, and on the right was the sea, and across it were freeways and huge commercial buildings and millions of people going about their everyday lives, blissfully unconcerned with any of these things.
Walking back I heard a rustle in the bushes and saw a man sunbathing in his Speedos, with another one quickly walking away. I had the definite feeling I'd interrupted something.
Sure enough, a quick online search of Yumenoshima revealed an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Tokyo's daily papers, about the park being a gay cruising ground. Somehow, it seemed to fit. This seemed like the kind of place where Tokyo put things it didn't want or couldn't deal with - it buried them here, or burned them. Gay lust or nuclear fish or household waste, it was sent here to be forgotten about or redeemed or turned into something better- water into land, garbage into flowers. Was that why there was such a weird vibration in the air? All these suppressed feelings and memories, stirring under the ground, fighting to escape, belching out through that chimney?
I also read that if Tokyo is successful in its bid for the 2016 Olympics, the park at Yumenoshima will be the site for the city`s new Olympic Complex . Another huge gleaming building, right next to the sea, in the middle of a big green park. It was a nice dream. Yumenoshima had been a nice dream. And it is nice. But it is not real. Nothing in this place was. So I got on the train and went into Shinjuku for a cup of coffee.
Thanks. I wrote that piece on my blog and then polished it up a bit to submit to a writing website (who didn't want it) and haven't thought of it for years. Then I thought this might be a chance to give it another airing (appropriately enough, since recycling was one of its themes..)
Meanwhile, over in Roppongi this weekend, an alien ship landed amid a crowd giant humanoids with glowing heads, apparently:
Seeing modern Japanese films, I have always felt that I could probably easily adapt to life in Tokyo or one of the other big cities. Not so much so in the small towns, even though Shôhei Imamura's The Eel absolutely enthralled me. I wasn't a bit surprised when it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes festival (Imamura's second Palme d'Or after the tragic Ballad of Naramaya). It was such a nice collection of quirky characters living around the UFO welcome site.
I have to admit I don't know any of these films! I haven't even seen "tokyo story". But I shall youtube them. I recently watched this one which also won at Cannes, in the late 60s. Its slow, and stunning; like kabuki on film: