Wednesday, January 19, 2011

東京 (Tokyo)

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit my Colby friend Yuki at his home in the Japanese capital, Tokyo. The city has served as the country's capital since 1869, when it replaced Kyoto as part of the very successful attempt to "modernize" Japan. Today, with its 32-39 million people (depending on definition and source), Tokyo constitutes by far the biggest metropolitan area in the world in terms of population; Seoul and Mexico City hold the second place with a lousy 20 million people each. To give you a couple of comparisons, Tokyo has three and a half times as many inhabitants as the Czech Republic, about the same amount of people as Canada, and half of that of France. Moreover, all of those people are packed on roughly 2200 square km, an area smaller than Luxembourg or Rhode Island. In other words, to get an idea of how daily life in the city of Tokyo feels, imagine stuffing all Canadians into Luxembourg. Packed would not be a strong enough word to describe it.

Yes, when Tokyo's crowds decide to walk the city's streets during the busiest hours, the sidewalks get so packed that all you can see in front of yourself is the back of someone else, and the same works for the person behind you. The craziest thing, though, are not the packed streets themselves but the pedestrian crossings. Many crossings in Tokyo, such as the famous Shibuya crossing, work in the following way. All traffic is stopped, and people can cross the road in any direction; left, right, and diagonally. Thus when twelve different rivers of people start crossing the same road in eight opposite directions, the result looks looks very much like the diagram below.

Diagram of an 8-way crossing. Black = blocks of buildings, gray = sidewalks, red arrows = streams of people.
© Yours Truly. 

But not only are there many people in Tokyo. There are countless skyscrapers, multinational company headquarters, famous universities, galleries, museums, statues, karaoke bars, restaurants, shops, malls, Don Quijotes, trains, sky trains, train stations, buses, cars, bridges, policemen, dealers, parks, a 333m tall tower, and so on. In other words, the reason why so many people live in Tokyo is that it has so much to offer.

It will therefore not surprise you that I took advantage of being in this amazing if crowded city and enjoyed my time to the fullest by exploring its various perks. I had one major advantage: having Yuki, a Tokyo native, on my side as a guide. Thus not only did I get to see all the major tourist attractions where throngs of white tourists make you feel like you are no longer in Japan, but I also experienced the Japanese side of Tokyo, the places where natives actually live in and go to. 

Among the touristy places I saw are the following. The famous Tokyo Tower, a 333m tall, red and white, Eiffel Tower-shaped reminder that Tokyo is cooler than Paris (by 9 if meters are your measuring units). However, given that the line for getting to the top was probably longer than the tower itself, and the price of it in Yen five times that, we decided to save this beauty for another time. Interestingly enough, just like the Eiffel Tower is not the tallest building in France, the Tokyo Tower is no longer the tallest building in Japan. Just this year it was overgrown by another building in Tokyo, the soon to be finished, 634m tall Tokyo Sky Tree.

The second touristy place I visited was the Shinjuku district, probably the most well known part of Tokyo among foreigners for its night life. Similarly well known for their rich night life are the Shibuya and Roppongi districts, both of which we also visited. Right adjacent to Shinjuku is the Meiji Shrine, the place where the soul of the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912), is enshrined. During Meiji's rule, Japan transformed into a modern nation capable of defeating countries like Russia and China in war, and eventually colonizing much of East Asia. Interestingly enough, Meiji's body is not buried at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, but rather in the ancient capital of Kyoto, close to where I live. I wrote a whole essay on the matter, which you can download from the link bar on the right side if you are interested. The last famous place we went to was was Odaiba, a large man-made island just off the coast of Toyko. Originally built in the 1850s to defend the city from a potential attack by the western powers, it now serves as a recreation area for Tokyo's inhabitants. Among other things, it hosts the architecturally interesting headquarters of Fuji TV, and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The island is served by a driverless monorail sky train, similar to the one in Vancouver, the ride on which provides you with beautiful views of Tokyo from the seaside.

The Tokyo Tower. You can see it from virtually any place in the city.

The Fuji TV Building. Notice the huge sphere on top of it.

Tokyo's Statue of Liberty.

Four Japanese people taking a video of the ride on the Sky Train. Three of them used an iPhone - Steve Jobs would be proud.

Nightlife in Shibuya.

The Japanese side of Tokyo I experienced was at least as interesting as the touristy side of it. I got to stay with a Japanese family in their home, and I got invited by them for a delicious Tonkatsu dinner (Japanese version of Wiener Schnitzel). I went shopping to one of Tokyo's Don Quijotes, a store where you can buy literally everything that you would think of, from socks through humidifiers to artificial vaginae (before you ask, I bought neither). I also walked through Tokyo's various parks where virtually no foreigners set their foot. These are filled with couples, young families, kids, drunk teenagers, junkies, performers, homeless people, and other members of the Japanese society other than salarymen in suits. 

Two comedians practicing in a park.

As you may well imagine, my two days and two nights in Tokyo passed way quicker than I would have liked. On the way back to Kyoto, unlike on the way there where I went by night bus, I took the Shinkansen, Japan's symbolic bullet train. As a result, I had the opportunity to see the beautiful Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest and most famous mountain. Unlike the bus which takes eight hours, the Shinkansen conquers the 500km of distance between Tokyo and Kyoto in mere two hours and seventeen minutes. Moreover, the ride is so quiet and smooth that you really don't even feel like you are on a train but rather on a mild massage chair with a view. In fact, the Shinkansen is the fastest and most efficient way to travel between Japanese cities, much faster and much more convenient than planes. There are no security checks, the stations are located right in the middle of the city, and the trains leave about every ten minutes - more often than those I take on my way to school! Given this frequency and efficiency, however, taking the Shinkansen is actually about as expensive as flying.

The Shinkansen I took back to Kyoto. Excuse the blurriness, it's not the train's speed but my old camera which caused it.

The Fuji-san as seen from the Shinkansen.

Overall, my time in Tokyo as well as the way back were amazing. Though I would not choose to live in such an enormous city, it is a great if expensive place to visit for the weekend. I wonder, when I read this post in a decade or three, how much Tokyo will have changed. Will the Sky Tree be conquered by the planned Sky City 1000, a kilometer tall building with 8 square kilometers of floor space? Will Tokyo still be the biggest metropolitan area in the world, or will some other city take the prime? Will the Shinkansen be replaced by a MagLev train? Will an earthquake level the city to earth like it did in 1923 and many times before then? Or will Kim Jong Il or Un decide to speed the process? Sometimes it is better not to know.


  1. Brilliant stuff, Martin--how much did you spend during your weekend?

  2. It cost me about 4,500 Yen to get to Tokyo, 11,100 to get back, and I probably spent another 10,000 along the way. However, that was only because of the generosity of Yuki's family!

  3. Thank you for reading and commenting Katie! :)