Stories in Tokyo, and How to Really Begin Describing a City

There’s a certain sound a Japanese city makes. It scrapes along the roads, pulling up the great arms of freeways that rope over each other. It echoes across the miles of concrete towers. It’s in the sirens, it’s in the cars, it’s in the endless rain and the wind launching from the Ocean. After four months living here, those sounds become unmistakable. The Japanese city.

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Edge of the world

I start this post on a mountain overlooking Yonago, a tiny city that, perched on a narrow pier on the northwest coast of the sea of Japan, feels like it could be on the edge of the world. But there’s still that sound here, that sound I started picking up after spending time in the larger cities—it’s even here, like a sea shell carrying echoes of other places when you listen close enough.

Maybe I’m not making sense any more, gone too deep into things, lost my grip on this comparison business. I mean sure, some Japanese guy might come to Canada and write all about ‘the sounds of the Canadian city’ too, right? And I’m just full of shit. But maybe there is something to these ramblings, because at the end of it all, maybe Japan has incorporated its own unmistakable city sound, if only because Japan has the city to end all cities. If only because Japan has Tokyo.

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Describing the Gargantuan

I’ve been back to Tokyo twice now since my first 48 hours in the country, on two weekends which were both so bombastic they’ve managed to change the way I view Japan and maybe the rest of the world. So I have to say something about the city I fall in love with more every time I go there. And yet the words didn’t come for the longest time—they’re still being forced out because, “well damnit Liam, if you don’t say something now, when the hell will you?”

Well brain, you should know that the more I go to Tokyo, the harder it is to say anything at all: it’s so fluid, that meaning finds its shadow in everything I’m writing (I feel like I should have footnotes).

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It’s not a city that can be simplified. There are just too many people for that: talk about the suit-shackled salary man lifestyle and their soul-consuming companies, and Harajuku, where every day is Halloween in their candied streets, refutes them; talk about the Otaku (hyper nerd) subculture with its anime stores and maid cafes, or talk about the fast-talkers hard-drinkers Shinjuku’s party scene and south Shibuya’s art scene, or talk about the workers in factories down the city’s eastern banks for whom Tokyo is still very much a working city. These contrasts are the guiding characteristic of your typical North American city, but I’ll often hear people talk about Japanese cities like this is not the case here, that Asian cities are far more defined by their similarity, their factory-floor normativity, than by their difference.Tokyo proves exactly how wrong this viewpoint really is.

Tokyo is both the most ‘Japanese city’ city in the country, and also is almost nothing like the rest of Japan. I think this is true of most cultural-economic capitals of countries (New York, Paris, London), where on the one hand, cultural images are incorporated and broadcast to the rest of the world that give people the image of ‘this is France’ and ‘this is England,’ while at the same time barely resembling the rest of the country. This is definitely the case with Tokyo, which has essentially single-handedly created the Western idea of Japan being a ‘weird’ country (maid or robot cafes, anime avenues, massive gaming conventions), or for Japan being the glitzy ultra-modern. Outside of Tokyo, Japan is neither weird nor modern in just about any sense of the world; it’s a remarkably conservative, quiet place, with freeways and shopping malls and maybe the occasional Shinto shrine. So does that make Tokyo the most, or least Japanese city?

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Those sounds of the Japanese city I was talking about? They’re here, for sure, but they’re heightened, building and reflecting, collecting as screeches off into the sprawling distance. And yet the amazing thing about Tokyo is that even in its loudest places, you can still find silence. Dramatic silence. I didn’t think you could call silence ‘dramatic’ until I first came here, when while wandering Shinjuku, getting pulled apart by the pachinko bells and electronic bleeping from every store train or vending machine, I stepped off the main road and suddenly wondered if I’d fallen into Tottori. Another time, I wandered into a graveyard that had been around for a thousand years—the sun was filtering through the trees, couples and families walking arm-in-arm, and the only way you even knew this was a city were the towers, just peeping over the trees, leaning in as if in reminder of the setting.

And even in the midst of new developments, or on the banks factory-poisoned rivers, Tokyo still makes a point of protecting its Shinto shrines from the twenty-first century. Tiny wooden shrines just waiting there anachronistically. That sight is still one of the most arresting in the city, no matter how many times I see one. It’s an even more fitting symbol for the country than Mount Fuji.

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When it comes down to it, all this difficulty with talking about Tokyo is because it’s a living, breathing place. It’s the home for 35 million people after all.

And it’s a vital city. When you’re in Osaka, looking out across a concrete desert, a deadening trails the city like a ball and chain. I can’t spend two days in Osaka without feeling burned out. Tokyo, meanwhile, is far louder and far bigger, but then I’ve spent four sleepless nights bouncing through that city and come out the other side more wired, more ready to go than ever. Sure, it’s the lights: it’s Shinjuku writing its name across the night sky in neon. Sure it’s all those clubs and restaurants and theme-park shopping malls. It’s more than that, though. There’s a restlessness here, pushing the city forward, a can-do make-do vibe.

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Take the city’s use of space: the space under just about every raised train tracks has been repurposed, sometimes used for tiny stalls selling fried goods (Yakitori Alley), sometimes clothing stalls or used I-phone markets, and sometimes completely refurbished into an inner art space. That restless creativity probably stems, in part, from the fact that most artists flock to some portion of Tokyo. There’s never an art gallery or show or piece of performance art too far away—all this plus, of course, those wonderful denizens of Harajuku who turn their life into a work of art. That’s one of those aspects of ‘weird’ Japan I’ll joyfully defend.

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Tokyo is about the only city that hasn’t been completely crippled by Japan’s continued, twenty year slump, and that prominence is written across the city. Where Osaka stopped most of its building by the early 90’s, leaving mostly just those concrete towers of a city that built just a little-too-quickly, in Tokyo new buildings are being erected in increasingly interesting ways, whether in the hyper-modern Roppongi hills (that, honestly, could be the Jetsons), or the Skytree which, designed like Japan’s greatest Pagodas to be earthquake resistant, might not look like much at first, but gets more alluring every time you come across it in the far distance. As the tallest free standing building in the world, after all, it’s kind of difficult to ignore.

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The Stories Told, My Story Finished

It’s that energy that got to me in the end.

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And you know what, screw these generalizations—these simplified, so-called ‘objectified’ statements that make me sound like a travel guide. This is about as far as I can get in a breakdown of Tokyo, and it comes away sounding dry, clinical. Like all my best blog posts, I’ve gotta make it personal.

Because I feel in love with the city over a four day weekend at the beginning of October—a mad cyclone of a weekend which featured such unforgettable moments as:

  • getting invited into an unopened art show of feminist reexaminations of kanji characters because you happen to be wandering by a temple at the right time, then proceeding to talk to the artists about what life means around a kettle of green tea
  • shuttling out to a 6-room club on the edge of the city, having fun until one friend has way too much fun, scattering all of you to the point that you almost miss your bus
  • losing your friend you were supposed to stay in their house with, then sleeping on the train station, and then later Manga Café, floor
  • going to see a classical concert of someone you had a one-night-stand with in another city, but have just enough of a hunch to wonder if this might be crazy enough to be worth it
  •  spend the rest of the weekend falling for that person in a way you’ve never had with anyone before
  • more art galleries, more drinks, more all nighters to paint across the city with an electric paintbrush
  •  barely getting sleep, getting sucked into the city with every new discovery, and realizing that, at the end of it all, you never even went to the house of the friend you’d originally planned to stay with the entire weekend
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(Oh, and our totally botched Thanksgiving dinner we were never able to find in the end, forcing us to consume our entire pack of soggy Inari by ourselves)

It threw me onto a totally different train of thought—the Saturday night (the eye of the cyclone) finding me on one hour of sleep and feeling I’d been consumed by the city—and I walked out of that weekend a different person than when I walked into it. The city, like all great cities I’ve come across, changed me.

Because I fell for someone, and I fell hard. When this process of infatuation happens at the same time that you’re discovering a new city, that city becomes more than the setting, instead playing a main role in the story. We discovered the city together. And all the elements that went into the beginning of that relationship along with everything that made up its eventual end—all that happened in Tokyo, in the art galleries tucked behind Harajuku, the intricate network of market stalls and restaurants of Setagaya, the clubs in Roppongi, and the museum on the sunny day in Ueno. That narrow dormitory nestled just behind the train lines.

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How can you separate yourself from something like that? You can’t, and you probably shouldn’t try to either. Cities are created by the stories made within them, by the dreams and their endings. Objectively cities are just large machines for living and working in, and if I try to describe Tokyo from above I’ll end up sounding like the most dry and tasteless travel writer around. Because the city means so much more to me than a good restaurant or a fun club I found myself in; I could tell you to go there, but it’d never be the same. Up on the Tokyo Metropolitan Observatory after saying goodbye to him for the last time, I scanned the ceaseless skyline, and instead of towers, I saw all the memories we’d shared together in that short time. I can’t disassociate my own life from the life of the city.

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And there are 35 million people here grappling with the same concept every day. Everyone, in their own way, is either dreaming or dying in Tokyo. As much as I recognize the inherent brutality of a modern city like this one, what I’ve always loved about them is still that unshakable capacity to dream in a city—see anything, be anyone, whether in Paris or San Fran or Tokyo. Of course, you can’t actually be anything you want, and the belief that you could be is very much is very much mediated by my status as a wealthy-ish white man. Maybe the myth is created by the stories knitted across, above, and under the city, told by everyone who’s ever moved through Tokyo—everything is possible because everything has, at a certain point, happened to someone. At least, that’s what I see every time I step onto a subway, every time I walk into a steaming Ramen shop, every corner there’s that buzzing, that energy. That difference.

And an explanation like that stems from how Tokyo finally ended for me. Weekend 2 wasn’t the adventure number 1 had been. The person who’d made Tokyo the first time was currently in the process of moving their whole life back to Italy, and the time-pressed, packing-frenzied reality of the situation took over. Where I’d wanted another round of casting the boat to sea and seeing where the currents pull, I was instead spending most of it either stuffing shirts into that’s-definitely-gonna-be-overweight-man suitcases or trying to be as inconspicuous as possible to not distracting too much. All of this combined with having to actually say goodbye to him, feeling that the big adventure in Japan was coming to a close—everything we’d shared together, all that had made Japan so beautiful the past two months—all of that ending.

The bus leaving the station, and I was alone in Tokyo. Sunday evening, I felt exhausted even though I’d done very little for most of the weekend, I had a 15 hour busride back to Tottori next morning to look forward to, and was lying on the bed of my friend’s place in Tokyo’s far suburbs just about ready to call it a weekend and pass out. All that added to thinking about how much money I’d spent to get myself here. Things had gotten pretty real all of a sudden.

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But I just couldn’t call it an end just there. It just didn’t make sense. This was my story, wasn’t it? I could end it however I damn liked. Armed with a red bull and a whole lot of misguided self-confidence, I trained back into the city to have my first all nigther by myself. I landed in Shinjuku and let the lights, the energy, the people, do the rest. I’ve often said, as a former lifeguard, that water’s my natural element, and that night I swam through the city, diving into commercialized dreams across the neon tides. I made new friends to explore new places (new versions of Tokyo, new people new ways), and by the end of the night it felt like I’d known these guys for years. The trains turned on, we said goodbye, and I’d finished the first adventure that was all me.

And the sun rose on Meiji Jingu, Tokyo’s main shrine and also the site of my first adventure in Japan. It was only me and the Shinto priests, in their white, sweeping the steps: only the swish of their brooms against the stones, so quiet it’s like you can hear the statues breathing. For minutes the city was removed from the equation. Then I wandered out of the temple forest through the same winding path I’d followed inward on my second day in Japan. In and out, the four months circling each other. The bookends.

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And that was the ending this story, this leg of my ramblings through Japan, needed. I wandered towards the bus station in a complete daze, a haze of exhaustion excitement disappointment and happiness. I was grateful, overwhelmingly grateful, that I’d had a story like this in and around one of the coolest cities in the world. And as I walked, the sounds of the city returned. The city revved up for another day.

And I was here in Tokyo.

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