Tokyo has been an important destination for travelers since before it was even called Tokyo- people were heading to see it when it was still called Estuary. It’s currently one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, an international city that serves as the cultural and political capital of Japan, the financial capital of Asia, and an all around amazing hub of human enterprise. It’s a great place to see.
I lived in Japan for years, but never Tokyo. I came to Japan for something quite different than Tokyo, and I never had any desire for the pop culture aspect of Japan that I saw as Tokyo. I didn’t like manga, I didn’t really like much anime… Tokyo didn’t seem like it would appeal to someone who wasn’t in Japan for pop culture.
The person who changed my mind was the fantastic writer Haruki Murakami, a critic of exactly that aspect of Tokyo himself. He was a Japanese person who somehow personified everything Japanese while being an almost perfectly atypical representative of Japan and his generation of Japanese writers. And while I was searching for some imagined “real” Japan in Kyoto temples and Osaka waterfront dives, I was reading his works. I carried tattered paperback copies of Norwegian Wood (parts I and II… for some reason they divided the Japanese editions into micro-paperbacks that were adorably tiny) to Udon-Ya to read over scalding hot noodles at 3am. I scrambled on and off buses carrying nothing but a small pack and a notebook and these books- these books that somehow captured Japan perfectly without seeming to be the least Japanese.
And I slowly got Tokyo. A few days there, staying in a cheap ryokan, reading and rereading Murakami… it made sense. Tokyo is a lot of fun- it’s huge, busy, exciting… but it’s kind of depressing too. You get lost in the crowd, even as a foreign visitor. The anonymity is strangely appealing, but triggers an odd existential dread. Murakami perfectly captures that feeling in his books, and there is nothing like wandering around Tokyo to get a huge dose of it all at once. It’s similar to how I imagine Parisians felt in the latter half of the twentieth century, torn between the history of the place and the modern world crashing imperiously down on you. It’s exhilarating and awful, all at once. And once I understood it, I couldn’t get enough. Sitting in an all night cafe you can imagine being lit like a Hopper painting. The neon convenience stores glare at you everywhere, and light up a mix of architecture that evokes old Japan without ever really being old. (That old Japan was firebombed to oblivion, another aspect of the pervasive anonymity of the place.)
Despite how all of this sounds, I came to love Tokyo. Because in addition to that Ozu movie darkness, there are bustling shops, bright little cafes, animated mascots… the Japan that everyone comes to see. Tokyo is that too, just like everyone needs it to be. Spending time in Japan, you can find corners that seem untouched by the pop culture I initially feared; but Tokyo is a city that somehow evokes every aspect of Japan while feeling completely isolated. It’s challenging, disconcerting… and wonderous.